Thursday, May 26, 2011

Great Drives: Racing the Sun for Ice

About The Route
Best time to Go: Weekdays from April to October
Places To Stop: Two magnificent glaciers at either end of the route, other than this, just enjoy the epic journey between the two.
Total Distance:  31 km
Route: Starting point is the Fox Glacier, 43°29′21S 170°0219E, where highway 6 winds drivers north through thick lush rain forests, over a mountain range that separates the two glaciers, to finishing at the foot of Franz Josef Glacier, 43°2613S 170°1032E.
Road Type: Smooth narrow tarmac road.
Warnings: Highly traveled road in January and February with an onslaught of oncoming tour buses. Watch for suicidal Possums, epic rainfall and great masses of hungry sand fly's. (like mosquitoes, but twice as itchy)

For our last drive in New Zealand, we found ourselves rushing to the west coast of the south island to catch a glimpse of one of two large glaciers, the Fox Glacier or the Franz Josef Glacier just to the north. We spent a little more time than we had hoped on the run over the Southern Alps to get to the coast, so daylight hours were running thin.

With the sun low on the water, we pulled into the small village of Fox Glacier. A short run up the valley, and we came upon the open parking lot for the trailhead that leads to the glacier. To our dismay, the trail was blocked with a sign proclaiming, "trail closed by washout." A week before our arrival, the south island had taken an epic beating, as storm fronts hit the coast for nearly three straight weeks. The resulting run-off of rainwater flooded several valleys in the region, and in this case, destroyed the trail leading to the glacier. All I could see was a small out cropping several kilometre’s away. A snap decision, I chose to push for Franz Josef, hopeful we could get there before darkness.

Back into our trusty BaseJumper 2 Campervan, I shot back to the #6 and turned north, aiming straight for the mountainous range that was nestled between Fox and Franz Josef. Of course in New Zealand, if you see hills, the road is going to get good, and good it got; really good.

With the small village of Fox Glacier right up against the base of this range, we ran smack into steep winding roads right off the bat. Now most of the Great Drives have consisted of great mountain pass crossings with impressive altitude changes that are accounted in thousands of metres. This range however, was only an outcropping of the Alps, with peaks only 800-metres tall. The road itself only reached a maximum of 400-metres above sea level. That didn’t mater however, as the road rollercoastered between 300 and 400 metres three times, climbing and plunging into two river valleys mid range. The rugged nature of the terrain greeted me with an extravagant collection of tight narrow curves, that when matched to the undulations, created a magnificently challenging bit of road. It just kept hitting me with corner after corner of winding glory. It seemed like the steering wheel was in perpetual motion, never getting a break, along with my forearms.

However the cherry on top was the lushness of the Kiwi rain forest that crept right to the roadside. Doing its best to hide the rocky ridges and gorges under a canopy of deep green fern trees, Palm trees and moss; the rainforest provided a majestic atmosphere. Driving this road was like going on a hike up into the coastal BC mountains with the Nurburgring acting as the trail. Despite wheeling around a big campervan with pots and cutlery rattling around in the back, I was in driving bliss. One day I will have to return to this road, armed with something much smaller and sportier.

Unfortunately, I did not get to properly soak in the joys of driving this road, as I was on a mission, and the sun was now creeping level with ocean, as I soon found out as I rounded a couple sharp hairpins, breaking out onto the flood plain of the Franz Josef. Wheeling right at the park turnoff, I rush up an equally impressive park road lining the river leading to the glacier. With tourists filing out of the hiking trails leading to the glacier, we throw the big campervan into a parking spot, grab our camping headlights and leap from the van in a sprint into the forest, like the touristy fools we were, eager for a close up glimpse of the Franz Josef.
With the sun down and only just enough light to see the gleaming blue and white ice of the Franz Josef, we arrived to the lookout-point exhausted and sweaty. However, for the five minutes we had to take in the beauty of the glacier before all went black, the sight was well worth the battle I fought against the sun and this magnificent road. The glacier and the road connecting it to its sister Fox Glacier proved an epic experience in an already impressive part of the world.