There are only a few passes in the Southern Alps, so we drove inland and north a bit in the rain on Thursday, spending a night in Wanaka, before crossing the Alps at Haast and arriving on the West Coast on Friday.
The most notable thing about our drive out of Fiordland to Wanaka was the bread we picked up at the grocery in Te Anau to eat with cheese on the road. Best bread ever. We may never have a baguette again without fond memories of this one.
Anyway... on Friday our first stop was the Franz Josef glacier. We decided on Friday morning that maybe we wanted to go helihiking on the glacier--where a helicopter takes you to the top of the glacier and you get to hike in the crevasses and blue ice for a while before coming back down. Hiking TO the glacier from the bottom wasn't something we thought Hamish would be up for (it's a very steep hike for nearly an hour) but being dropped off on the top sounded great.
Sadly, we came to this conclusion too late. On Friday morning we zipped through the gorgeous Mount Aspiring National Park at Haast Pass on our way to Franz Josef, just to miss the last helihike. Hmph.
Franz Josef and Fox are two glaciers on the West side of the Alps. Franz Josef is bigger. It gets 52.5 FEET of precipitation annually at the neve (or top) of the glacier and about 20.5 feet in the valley. It flows 5 to 23 feet per day, which is really fast for a glacier. Like the glaciers that formed Milford, it cuts a U-shaped valley in the mountain and a river runs from the base of the glacier to the sea.
We hiked to the base of the glacier (well as close as you can get without a guide) across a rock field where the glacier used to extend, and then had a picnic on a bench. It drizzled a bit on our walk out, but by the time we had our picnic, it was lovely again. Even if we didn't get to hike on it, it was still pretty beautiful.
Since I was sad about missing the actual ice-hiking, Kyle found some broken off glacier in the river and brought it to me to stand on. Look, we're standing on a glacier!
After our picnic lunch, we headed further up the coast to Greymouth for the night.
Have I mentioned that there were no people in New Zealand? It was weird. When we got into Greymouth Friday evening (in daylight!) it felt like we were driving into a ghost town.
Thankfully, we found a local place with live music for dinner to reassure us that the country is inhabited. The music was, um, interesting. But the people were friendly, the food was really good, and we got some advice for our next day's drive.
Saturday was our last day with a car on the South Island so we had to make our way from Greymouth on the West Coast back to Christchurch in the East. We started by driving North again along State Highway 6 to Punakaiki, site of the pancake rocks and blowholes.
This was our second rock-based site visit, but Kyle thought the pancake rocks far outshone the Moeraki Boulders.
The rocks are limestone layers made by a combination of erosion and high-pressure deposits, but the exact reason for their formation is not clear. There's a lot of them, and they form all kinds of nooks and crannies and caves and holes for the sea to get caught in and explode out of (hence the blowholes).
After deciding not to have pancakes at the Pancake Rocks (you know that's an option!) we drove back down to Greymouth to take Arthur's Pass over the Alps (740 m above sea level) and back into Canterbury.
At the pass we finally got up close and personal with the kea, the world's only Alpine parrot. There are supposedly lots of kea around the tunnel to Milford Sound, but we only saw one on our way out. But at the pass, there were plenty!
They say the kea is the monkey of the parrot world. They are very smart and mischievous--people sited studies! We heard tales of the birds unlacing hiking boots left outside and shredding the laces. And we heard a LOT of stories of the damage they can do to rental cars. Kyle parked far away from the other cars in an attempt to hide.
Doesn't he look intelligent? We saw several cars stopped at the pass covered in kea. They completely ignored attempts to wave them off and some hung on even as the cars drove away. Those feet plus those beaks are not good for rental car returns.
We enjoyed the view and the birds for a while, but as I was taking this picture of the pass:
I heard Kyle take off at full tilt. The birds had found our car, so we decided to head out.
We spent the rest of the day enjoying our last look at the South Island. It had been drizzling off and on ever since we entered Fiordland, and it was amazing the change in weather as soon as we were on the east side of the Alps.
On our last afternoon drive, we got to enjoy some of our favorite New Zealand things... the hydrangeas. Stunning arrays from white to wine red to purple everywhere we went:
The signage. How cute (and detailed) is this railroad sign. It has steam!
The tree-fences. We learned later that these are planted and pruned to protect the animals from the wind and blowing rain and snow. Some of them are so tall and so narrow and so precise and we saw a few planted with multiple kinds of trees to be extremely dense. They seemed like a lot of work to maintain.
And of course the sheep. There were a LOT of sheep. But sheep are not big on portraiture, apparently. They took off whenever we slowed down.
Thankfully, I found this guy willing to sit for me.
We stopped for ice cream and pictures on the way back, but that was it. We needed to return our rental car (hopefully kea-damage-free) by 5:00 on Saturday.