New Zealand’s South Island is the land of incredible contrasts. From the lush rainforests of the Fiordland National Park, we headed to the snow-covered mountain tops of Fox Glacier in Westland National Park – another World Heritage area 329 km away.
As I have quickly come to realize, practically any road in New Zealand is a scenic drive. The trip from Queenstown to Fox Glacier was no exception.
Queenstown to Wanaka
Our first stop on the way out of town was completely unscheduled – it was a veterinarian’s paddock that attracted our attention. More to the point it was the eclectic mix of patients in the paddock – a strikingly coloured pig, a couple of goats and a deer foal – not your usual pet hospital.
Next, we drove through Arrowtown – a quaint little gold mining town just 45 minutes out of Queenstown. We planned to be back in Arrowtown later in the trip so this time we drove straight through and only stopped at the Crown Terrace lookout to watch the morning fog lifting off the valley.
Crown Range Road
Our next destination was Wanaka – a small town at the southern end of Lake Wanaka. It is conventional in modern time to travel from one city to another, but in New Zealand, it feels like travelling from one lake to another.
The shortest route to Wanaka is over the Crown Range Road, which at 1076 meters above sea level is the highest paved road in New Zealand. It is also considered to be one of the most challenging drives in New Zealand. There were a few straight stretches, but mainly it was a very winding road going up and down with hairpin turns. It was a challenging drive, but the views of tussock-covered rolling rangers were amazing.
Driving time from Queenstown to Wanaka via Crown Range Road: 1 hour 10 min. Distance: 68 km
If you don’t fancy the challenge, you could take the easier way along SH6 following the Shotover River and Lake Dunstan. At the end of the day, whichever road you take it will be an incredibly scenic drive.
One thing I should mention about taking a road trip in New Zealand is that it is not going to be a cheap trip. Not only the car hire was pricey, but also the costs of petrol, especially in Wanaka. Here is a great summary of practical considerations for road tripping in New Zealand.
We stopped at Wanaka for some lunch and to gawk at the stunning lake. Lake Wanaka is the fourth largest lake in New Zealand. It covers 192 square kilometers at 278 meters above sea level. And is more than 300 m deep. Like most alpine lakes on the South Island, the lake is surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges and big nature.
The town of Wanaka is a little bigger than most of the towns we visited so far, though not as large as Queenstown. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops where you can stock up for the long drive.
If you have more time in Wanaka
If you have more time at Wanaka, consider hiking the iconic Roy’s Peak Track. It’s a relatively easy 16km hike that takes 5 to 6 hours to complete. While the first section of the track is quite steep, once you get to the conservation area, it’s an easy walk through tussock grasslands to the summit.
The track begins by zigzagging along a steep 4WD track from the car park to the conservation area. From there, continue on through wild tussock grasslands until you reach Roy’s Peak summit. Needless to say, the views from the top of the ridgeline are incredible. Note, the track is closed from 1 October to 10 November each year.
Here are some suggestions for more things to do in Wanaka, if you are staying in town for longer, including a visit to a lavender farm.
Wanaka to Fox Glacier
I know I say this about every road trip on New Zealand’s South Island, but the drive from Wanaka to Fox Glacier is absolutely spectacular. It starts off travelling between Wanaka and Hawea lakes then heads across Mt Aspiring National Park, emerging on South Island’s west coast before climbing up to Fox Glacier.
The first scenic highlight of this part of the journey was Lake Hawea. Even after seeing a fair share of glacial lakes, Lake Hawea looked impressive with its deep blue water set against the background of a clear blue sky.
At 141 square kilometres, it is a little smaller than Lake Wanaka, not that you can tell it with a naked eye. But what it may lack in size, Lake Hawea compensates in depth. Parts of the lake are almost 400 meters deep!
Mt. Aspiring National Park
Once we left the lakes behind, the road entered the virtually untouched beech forests of Mt. Aspiring National Park crossing to the West Coast region via the Haast Pass, which at 562 meters above sea level is the lowest of the three passes traversing the Southern Alps.
We travelled through a dramatic combination of twists and turns across the rainforest country, past red tussock meadows, alpine rivers and waterfalls. From the pass, the road followed the Haast river through the region of towering peaks and steep slopes covered in thick forest.
The Haast township itself didn’t offer much apart from a roadside diner. The most incredible thing about the diner was the German accent of the young waiter. He was backpacking his way across New Zealand, picking up jobs here and there. And here we were feeling like the true explores having traveled to such a remote spot.
We later learned that Haast is actually comprised of a number of settlements including Haast township, Haast Junction, Haast Beach Okuru and others. The combined are of Haast is one of New Zealand’s hidden gems.
As if to prove my point, just out of town we came across some unusual-looking stunted forest and shortly after drove across Haast River Bridge – the longest single lane bridge in New Zealand.
Bruce Bay and West Coast
From the bridge, the road headed for the west coast. Flanked by the towering pines of the Rimu forest and rows of flax the beaches of Bruce Bay are littered with driftwood from the surrounding forests.
We parked and got out of the car to stroll along the driftwood-littered beach and even spotted a pair of Sooty oyster-catchers.
Fox Glacier township
From Bruce bay, the road headed back inland to Jacobs Creek through the coastal flats before eventually reaching Fox Glacier. Tucked into the forested foothills of the Southern Alps and framed by the towering peaks, the township of Fox Glacier is a cozy and charming place. It has an atmosphere of a remote and a very relaxed village and its entire existence seems to be dedicated to serving as a base for exploring the Fox glacier.
We spent most of the day slowly making our way from Queenstown to Fox Glacier stopping seemingly every 15 minutes to explore the stunning landscape that we were driving through. But the distance is not that great, not by Australian standards, in any case. If you were in a hurry, you could drive the 327km between Queenstown and Fox Glacier in 4.5 hours.
Shortly after arriving I was treated to an unexpected wildlife sighting. A brilliantly-coloured New Zealand Pigeon has landed on a tree right in front of me and was later joined by another. I watched them for about 15 minutes all the while thinking that even pigeons in New Zealand are spectacular!
Fox Glacier is a one-street town with a couple of restaurants, a bakery, a general store and a plethora of tour agencies offering different ways of experiencing the glacier. We pre-booked a helicopter tour for the following morning, so we had dinner in town and had an early night.
The glaciers of New Zealand’s West Coast form part of the South Westland World Heritage Area. Fox Glacier is the longest of West Coast glaciers. This river of ice flows for 13 kilometres from the top where it is framed by the summits of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman down to the valley and the town terminating above temperate rainforest just 250m above the sea level.
The unique combination of climate and shape also makes Fox Glacier one of the fastest moving glaciers, enabling it to move at approximately 10 times the speed of other valley glaciers around the world. This is due to the funnel-like shape of the glacial valley and the huge snow accumulation area, at the top of the glacier.
In the era of impending climate change seeing our planet’s dwindling glaciers is becoming a priceless experience. According to The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “almost all glaciers worldwide are continuing to shrink. Over the last decade, most ice was lost from glaciers in Alaska, Canadian Arctic, Greenland Ice Sheet periphery, Southern Andes, and Asian Mountains. Current glacier extents are out of balance with the current climate, and glaciers will continue to shrink even without further warming.”
Helicopter flight to the Top of Fox Glacier
One of the most dramatic ways to experience a glacier is to see it in its entirety from the air. We took a helicopter flight ($275 for 20-min flight) to the head of Fox glacier and it was by far the most amazing experience we had on our New Zealand journey.
The helicopter was just big enough to take the four of us and the pilot. This meant that with a seat swap on the return journey, each of us had a window seat at least once. This was my first helicopter flight and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction!
Once we boarded, the helicopter gently lifted off and took us over the town and the glacial river snaking its way down the side of the mountain, past the terminal face of the glacier and into the spectacular rugged beauty of the surrounding mountains. First, we flew past the tree-covered mountains with the morning mist still hugging their tops.
As we gained altitudes, the moutans became more rugged, devoid of vegetation and covered in snow. Flying between the towering mountain peaks above the immense landscape of the snowfield atop Fox Glacier was an experience I will not forget any time soon. It was one of the coolest experiences of our entire New Zealand trip. It felt like if you reached out from the heli, you could’ve touched the jagged mountain tops.
It only took us a few minutes to get to the top of the glacier where the helicopter set us down in front of the twin summits of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. Mount Cook reaches 3,724 meters at its summit, so we were somewhere above 3,500 of altitude. The world around us was completely still. There seemed to be no life, no movement at the top of the mountain.
We spent a few minutes walking around the snowfield and taking photos before taking off again for the return journey. Now with the sun shining over our shoulders, the landscape seemed even more spectacular.
Fox Glacier to Lake Pukaki
Once back down on the ground and much closer to the sea level, we had a quick lunch in town and headed for a long drive from Fox Glacier to Lake Pukaki. We re-traced our steps through Mt. Aspiring National park, making a quick stop at the Pleasant Flat and in a patch of mossy beech forest, down past Hawea and Wanaka lakes and onto the planes of Canterbury region.
The scenery approaching the town of Twizel reminded us of scenes from Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, the scenes of The Battle Of Pelennor Fields were filmed around here. The actual filming location is located on a private sheep station, that can be visited on a dedicated LOTR tour. But even without visiting the precise filming location, the surrounding landscape makes you feel like you have returned to Middle-earth again.
We finished our Fox Glacier to Lake Pukaki drive in Twizel. There didn’t seem to be too many things to do in town after dar apart from the local pub, so we had an early night still riding high on the excitement from the helicopter flight.