Sunday, January 31, 2016

New Zealand 2016 Day 17. Franz Josef glacier

The rain did not ease off! In fact, it was raining pretty hard as we woke up and had breakfast. What to do? We could spend the day immersed in the hot pools, but it seemed a pity to waste a whole day doing nothing. Fortunately around 10 am it stopped raining, so we quickly took off to see the glacier, hoping the lull in the rain would last for at least a couple of hours.

In this part of the South Island, the Alpine fault runs pretty close to the coast. Thus, to the west of the fault you have a very narrow coastal plain, whereas to the east of the fault you have 9,000-ft mountains that support valley glaciers. The mountains are rising at a fast rate of 10 to 20 mm per year, and by now what is exposed in them are their high grade metamorphic cores (which would have originally been at depths of 20 km).

The Franz Josef glacier is named after the Austrian emperor, which would seem an odd choice for a mountain in a British colony. It turns out that the surveyor who mapped this part of the island was Austrian, and one way or other managed to slip in the homage to his emperor. Nowadays you drive four kilometers in a gentle mountain road to get to the valley, walk maybe a couple of kilometers over the flat alluvial deposits, and finally climb for another kilometer to a vista point on the top of the last terminal moraine. The glacier is in retreat, like most glaciers around the world, but way up there we could see the dirty terminus of the glacier, and behind it the crevasses that cut across it exposing deep blue ice. By then the rain had started again, so we turned around intent on escaping the bad weather. In the parking lot we saw a couple of kea. This wild parrot is really a raptor bird, with a mean looking beak, which likes to rummage through anything left unattended: backpacks, open hatches on camper vans, the rubber seals on windows, or hanging clothes.

We continued our way north along the coast to the Okarito coastal lagoon. This part of the coast was the locus of the 1847 gold fever, which attracted any able body to the black beaches around Okarito, to exploit the placer gold found in the beach sands. From here they moved steadily north along the coast, but the lagoon remained the “best port” available to them. It is actually a rather miserable tiny harbor, because the entry to the lagoon is often clogged by sand moving north by longshore transport. Today it has the honor of being the largest estuary in the north coast, although the little community is pretty much dead as it is about 20 km from the highway.

Farther north we found good weather! The sun felt so good that Anna, who was driving, had to stop at the cemetery of a small town to sunbathe for 20 minutes among the tombs (did I mention that she is a bit strange?). We finally made it to Greymouth, a nice small city by the coast where we found the Top 10 campground right away, right at the beach. Anna lost no time getting into her bathing suit and heading for the beach, while I took my leisure putting clothes to wash and going town to shop for our dinner. It is so nice here that we have decided to spend two nights.

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