Day 8: CLOUDS OBSCURA
We awoke at 5am in anticipation of leaving for the West Coast early. I knew a long drive was ahead of us so I figured we mind as well get the early start and perhaps have some time to do stuff at Fox Glacier throughout the afternoon. We didn’t do Fox Glacier five years ago and only Franz Josef was covered in the book. So everything we do in Fox would be new.
After trying to make minimal noise finishing up or packing and having breakfast, we eventually left Queenstown at 6:30am. The sun hadn’t quite yet risen over the Remarkables Mountain Range, but we could tell straight away that the weather was going to be much better today than it had been yesterday. Too bad we wouldn’t be sticking around for that gondola ride for the classic panorama of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and the Remarkables.
The trip started off in fair weather, but when our Nuvi told us to take the Crown Range Road, we switchbacked our way up into the low hanging clouds and experienced some drizzle before rising above them clouds and getting fair weather again. We didn’t take this road last time, and apparently taking this road shaved off quite a few minutes from sticking with Hwy 6 through Cromwell. For we arrived in Wanaka at 7:28am and took a quick photo break of ducks swimming before the attractive lake. The clouds still were low hanging in the distance so this lake wasn’t backed by the snowy mountains that would’ve really made the panorama something special.
Anyways, Wanaka (which was referenced in the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report) seemed like a happening recreational town. But we were merely passing through as the town still had yet to wake up. And it was only a few minutes drive further east before we rejoined Hwy 6.
We progressed further north rather quickly. Before we knew it, we pulled over at the car park for Fantail Falls at 8:30am, where a two-minute walk put us right on the boulders flanking the river passing before the falls itself. The car park already had three cars when we arrived so we knew this was a pretty popular spot.
As I brought my tripod along and tried to take some decent long exposure shots of the falls as well as Julie, the sandflies were quite the nuissance and were the main reason why we really couldn’t enjoy the falls in a relaxed state of mind.
The sun popping in and out of the low clouds also wreaked havoc on the long exposure photo aspirations here. The opening in front of the falls was a tad misty with some fog hovering above us, but the falls remained easily visible. Nonetheless, the falls was pretty much as we had remembered it, and the book remained spot on in terms of descriptions and directions.
By 8:50am, we were back at the car and continued our drive towards Haast Pass and beyond.
At 9am, we arrived at the car park for Thunder Creek Falls. I actually noticed some fairly substantial waterfall from the road as we had just passed the Gates of Haast Bridge and continued driving for a minute or two. We were the only ones at this car park (really more of a pullout).
Insted of two minutes, this walk was five minutes. The sandflies hadn’t found us yet so we quickly got to the end of the trail with tripod in hand and took photos of the tall waterfall. Unlike five years ago, we had to contend with a mix of sun and shadows so the photographing here was more difficult than last time when it was either raining or threatening rain.
Eventually, a couple of other couples stopped by while Julie and I were taking photos, but we’d ultimately leave the car park as the only ones left after having our fill of the falls (and consequently making haste to minimize sandfly bites).
After leaving the falls at 9:20am, the drive continued to edge closer to the West Coast (though we did hear some strange grinding sounds at 9:30am which made us worry about a car breakdown in the middle of nowhere). But unlike the promising start to the day, we were driving through a mix of drizzle, pockets of rain, and sun. The clouds were laying low so we couldn’t get to see some of the Wall of Tears-like effects of multiple cascades coming down the mountains simultaneously. That was kind of disappointing because I hoped to get some photos I wish I had taken five years ago. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be this time.
Once we got to Haast and the Haast Junction, the weather continued to deteriorate into outright rain and drizzle. It was still foggy and we just didn’t bother to stop at Haast Beach or Knights Point given the lack of views. However, we did stop at around 10:55am at some bouldery beach full of rocks with writing on them (some stacked, some in other interesting configurations). Quite a few other cars were parked here to check out the scene as well so I didn’t mind getting out of the car and stave off another onset of road fatigue.
Even though the clouds were low still, I did manage to take photos of the rough seas and the pounding surf all the while some of the vegetation showing signs of being severely windswept and deformed.
The drive eventually concluded as we entered Fox Glacier vicinity and eventually the Mt Cook View Motel on the Cook Flat Road at 11:30am. Unfortunately, the rooms weren’t ready yet so Julie and I decided to go to the Matheson Cafe near the trailhead for Lake Matheson and indulge in a lunch while trying to wait out the clouds as well as our ability to check into our motel.
At 11:50am, we arrived at the cafe, and we had ourselves some venison pie as well as a delicious prime rib steak sandwich served medium rare. The sandwich was delicious, and it was way better than the overhyped and overcrowded Fergburgers in Queenstown. In fact, this was up there with some of the steak sandwiches and burgers we had in the outback of Western Australia as well as a cafe in Coral Bay (perhaps the best burger we ever had), respectively.
Even though the weather remained drizzly and foggy (and this didn’t stop many of the tourists who still went on the walk regardless), the lunch was a great time killer. So sated was I that while Julie was using the internet at one of the terminals there, I treated my food coma with a bit of a nap on one of the cafe’s couches.
Eventually at 1:40pm, we returned to the Mt Cook View Motel and finally were able to check in. Thus, we lightened the load on our rental car and got settled before heading back out on the road at 2pm. We didn’t linger long because by this time, the sun had already broken through the clouds and the temperature quickly soared into the mid 20s (in Celsius).
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the car park for the walk to the terminus of the glacier. Even though the weather seemed like it was improving in the Fox Glacier town, the valley of the glacier itself was still dominated by low hanging clouds that were beginning to lift as well as some drizzle and sprinkles.
The walk to the end of the unguided part only took 30 minutes each way, which was significantly shorter than the one-hour-each-way required for the Franz Josef Glacier. However, it seemed like there were fewer significant waterfalls to notice on this walk (not to say there weren’t any).
On the way to the glacier, both of us were pretty preoccupied with taking photos of the glacier itself. We shared the walkway with both guided walks as well as throngs of tourists on unguided walks or on tour buses. They ended up being nice subjects for some of my photos showing the immense scale of the glacier itself.
At the end of the walkway, it was still sprinkling and the glacier-generated winds seemed to blow those droplets directly into my camera lens. Meanwhile, the clouds appeared to still move in the opposite direction. Some of the more impressive waterfalls were mostly obscured by the low hanging clouds, and it didn’t matter how long I waited. For the clouds seemed to get lower and lower with each passing minute.
During our photo taking at the end of the official track, we heard some loud cracking, and then eventually a thunderous roar as a large chunk of ice fell into the river. I think Julie managed to catch a little bit of the aftermath in her movie, but that was an excellent illustration of why you don’t want to be near those things, especially as Global Warming continues to accelerate the melting of glaciers such as this.
After giving up on getting better photos of the waterfall closest to the glacier terminus, Julie and I retreated back to the car park, arriving at 4pm. I spent the next ten minutes walking to get a better view of one of the waterfalls north of the car park. And after getting our fill of that, we drove back into the Fox Glacier township. There, we walked around looking for suitable places to have dinner and getting some information regarding the Glowworm Dell that I remembered was here five years ago.
Unfortunately, the info person told me that it used to be there, but now they put motels before them and thus access may not be possible anymore. He did say the Terrace Walk has glowworms at night, but we’d have to wait until well after 10pm for the skies to be sufficiently dark enough to allow the glowworm sightings. Julie was less than impressed with this option and was giving me the guilt trip for not doing the Te Anau Caves a few days ago.
At 4:50pm, we ate at a cafe next to the info center. There, we had some delicious groper and rack of lamb. It wasn’t cheap (seemed like any sit down place in the country wasn’t cheap anymore and started to feel more like we were back in Iceland though in hindsight it wasn’t quite that bad), but we did leave quite satisfied.
At 5:50pm, we returned back to the motel. Even though the sun was intense by now, there were still clouds stubbornly clinging to the Southern Alps. We weren’t sure if we’d be able to do the Lake Matheson walk later on this afternoon near sunset, but we decided to take a brief nap and unwind for a bit before making that call later on. At least the mechanical mozzies (i.e. helicopters) were out and about buzzing loudly so we knew the weather must be at least somewhat acceptable enough for those tours to be taking off.
After a couple hours of resting and doing some organization and labeling of photos, I went back on the road alone at 8pm. I first drove towards the nearby Lake Matheson car park, but one look out towards the south made me realize that neither Mt Tasman nor Mt Cook woould show themselves except for a hint of other snowy peaks here and there between the moving clouds. At least I knew where to look the next time we’d show up assuming the weather improves tomorrow morning or late afternoon.
So given this circumstance, I headed straight over to the Fox Glacier considering I didn’t think I’d come back here tomorrow. So within a few minutes, I was back at the trailhead, and I could immediately see that the clouds have lifted much higher than earlier this afternoon. In fact, I could even see the top of the glacier and the pocket of blue sky above it!
I quickly walked all the way to the end of the trail again, taking more photos and finally getting photos of what I thought was Flute Falls (which it turned out it wasn’t as that one should’ve been visible along the road to get to the car park; which we didn’t notice) near the terminus of the glacier. But I also saw more substantial cascades further up the glacier. In any case, this experience was far quieter and more pleasant, and I was glad I did it.
But it wasn’t much longer before I quickly made my way back to the car and returned to the Mt Cook View Motel at 8:55pm. At that time, the low clouds seemed to have returned. I’m not sure whether we’d get the fine conditions we’re hoping for tomorrow, but we’ll have to keep our fingers crossed…