Enjoying the Glaciers while we Can

April 8, 2023
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FOR more than a hundred years, tourists have travelled to the Aoraki/Mount Cook area, known in more colonial times purely as Mount Cook, to view a great mass of mountain glaciers, some descending through forest to within sight of the Hermitage Hotel.

Here’s a 1946 map showing the great abundance of glaciers in the area. Near the top, it shows the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers descending north-westwards from the South Island's main divide. Others, in the vicinity of the Hermitage, ultimately drain southeastward.

Map of the Aoraki/Mount Cook Region dated 1946, a detail from a larger ‘Tourist Map of New Zealand’ drawn for the NZ Government Tourist Board, on display at the Auckland Public Library in April 2018. Crown copyright reserved.

View of Aoraki/Mount Cook through the window of the Hermitage lounge, taken between 1960 and 1968 by Gladys Mary Goodall, 1908–2015: Collection, Goodall, Gladys M: Scenic photographs of New Zealand. Ref: GG-11–0638. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/32196165

Well, just this week, the longtime activist John Minto published a blog post, ‘1973 to 2023 in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park — what’s changed?,’ contrasting a 1973 tourism map of Aoraki / Mt Cook’s glacial wonderland with the “muddy puddles” of the present.

Detail from ‘Mt Cook and Westland National Parks’, NZMS180, 1973, via Mapspast. Map data by the Department of Lands and Survey, now LINZ, and licenced for reuse under the CC BY 4.0 licence. North at top.

Hopefully, nobody is still using the old maps and brochures, as they would be disappointed today.

A slightly wider view of the same area on the current interactive NZ Topo Map (April 2023), sourced from the LINZ Data Service and licensed for reuse under the CC BY 4.0 licence. North at top.

To the east of the main divide, the touristy glaciers are almost gone. On a fine day, the pools Minto describes as “muddy puddles” are a pretty shade of blue. Still, it’s not a glacier experience anymore.

Aerial or satellite imagery of the Aoraki/Mt Cook area, with the location of the Hermitage Hotel indicated by an orange pin. Imagery ©CNES/Airbus, Maxar Technologies, TerraMetrics. Map data ©2023 Google. North at top.

In the same week, there was a story in the international press about this country’s retreating glaciers, called ‘Slipping Through Our Fingers.’ But I must say that comparing the old maps to the latest maps and aerials brings it home.

On the other side of the main divide, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers are nourished by more snow and shielded by more clouds. Still, it would pay to check them out while they are still there.

Each of those glaciers is also a tourist destination in its own right. A tourist village serves each on State Highway 6, a highway mainly on the coast but which veers inland toward the foot of each glacier. Or at least, toward where the foot of each glacier was in the days when the highway was surveyed.

The area between Fox Glacier and Franz Josef/Waiau, from NZ Topo Map (April 2023), sourced from the LINZ Data Service and licensed for reuse under the CC BY 4.0 licence. North at top.

The next photograph shows Franz Josef/Waiau township, in a comparatively rare spell of beaming weather. The weather on the West Coast is often cloudy. But from the point of view of a mountain glacier, that is a good thing, just as it is from the point of view of a duck.

The cafes weren’t open on Sunday when I was there, as tourism had still not quite come back from Covid. They might be by the time you read this.

Sign on the way to the Franz Josef Glacier

I went for a hike to the Franz Josef Glacier, named by European mountaineers after the Austrian emperor Franz Josef I, who reigned from 1848 until 1916. It is overlooked by the Fritz Range and its twin peaks Roon and Moltke, named after a couple of German generals who bested the French in the war of 1870–71.

Like the Bismarck Archipelago northeast of New Guinea and Kaiser Wilhelm II Land in the Australian Antarctic Territory, these names survived the world wars. I suppose that our forebears, who replaced many placenames deemed unpatriotic in those days, never got around to it in the remoter spots.

But the glacier otherwise known as Franz has a traditional and very romantic Māori name as well, Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, meaning ‘tears of the avalanche girl’. According to a webpage operated by the Ngai Tahu iwi, or tribe,

The legend describes how Hine Hukatere took her lover Wawe into the mountains. Traversing the ranges where the glacier now lies, Wawe hurried to keep up with her, he slipped, tumbling to his death. Hine Hukatere watched him fall but could not prevent his death. “Her grief was so pronounced and her tears so excessive that the gods froze them as a perpetual memorial of her regret and sorrow.”

That page also includes some old photos which show the glacier at a much lower level than it is today.

There was a beautiful pool on the way to the glacier, called Peters Pool. A Russian tourist asked about Peters Pool, so it must be popular.

The author at Peters Pool

Signage by Peters Pool

The Waiau River, on the way to Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere

The glacier, at last! But seriously, folks, it used to descend through the forest, well within living memory. Now it is peeping at us over a rock sill in a Kilroy-was-here fashion, like some animal that all the tourists have frightened away.

The Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, peeping over a rock sill into the now-empty valley below

Here is a video I made of some scenes along the way.

Heading northward from Franz Josef/Waiau on State Highway 6, you pass the beautiful Lake Mapourika and the smaller Lake Wahapo.

Lake Mapourika

After about 30 km, you arrive at the village of Whataroa in the Whataroa Valley, a broad valley that used to be full of kahikatea or ‘white pine’ till the settlers turned up.

The Ōkārito and Whataroa areas, from NZ Topo Map (April 2023), sourced from the LINZ Data Service and licensed for reuse under the CC BY 4.0 licence. North at top.

My friend was staying in a camper van at a pub there. It was only $25 or $30 a night to stay in the hotel. Powered and unpowered campsites were $15.

Whataroa is an interesting town. I wanted to go back there because there was some hiking in the mountains, which I wanted to look at.

It had one café that was open until 3 pm. It was a dairying community. A golf club was open one night a week, and there was a freedom camping area on the Whataroa River.

The Whataroa River was just beautiful to walk along. I walked along the Whataroa River for about two hours, looking for the walkway that was supposed to run alongside the river.

You were meant to ask the local farmer for permission to cross his land. He was friendly enough. But the walkway signs were hard to find, as they were overgrown and not well maintained.

There were several day walks that you could do. Not challenging, but you have to take a tent.

You must be careful driving, as cattle get onto the local road. They also get onto the main highway. This is quite common. The local farmers are not prosecuted, even though three people have had their cars written off recently.

Crossing onto the farmer’s land at Whataroa

A closer view of the signboard

The many walks in the area

The idea of freeing areas of Aotearoa New Zealand from introduced predators is catching on

A further view of the Whataroa Valley

The lovely blue Whataroa River

The valley is not mountainous or anything, just pretty.

Another view of the banks of the Whataroa River with stumps of dead trees, probably kahikatea, in the middle of the stream. Kahikatea grows in swampy areas. These trees were probably logged a hundred years ago, only to have their stumps exposed by the river's meandering.

The next photograph shows some notes on the area's early history, including an explanation of the meaning of the name Whataroa and a photograph of the old railway bridge over the Whataroa River. I imagine that the bridge was built to help extract the kahikatea.

Although it is a conifer, the kahikatea has no resinous odour. So, it was prized for butter boxes. Today, there is just a vast, open space with a good view of the mountains.

Another information panel about the Whataroa Valley

Like many of the more habitable parts of the West Coast, the Whataroa Valley has a colourful human history, dominated by boom-and-bust industries like logging the kahikatea.

Here are the remains of the old railway bridge.

I came across a church called Our Lady of the Woods, with a priest, Father Michael Mahoney, who has been a mountaineer and worked with the poor in Brazil.

Our Lady of the Woods, at Whataroa

The next photo shows a 2022 article about Fr Mahoney, who has also been interviewed on Radio New Zealand by Kim Hill.

Inside Our Lady of the Woods

Here is a video I made of scenes on the Whataroa River.

Toward the northern end of the valley, at Ōkārito, there are freshwater lagoons where the kōtuku, known in New Zealand English as white herons, breed. There is also a larger saltwater lagoon where the kōtuku often feed and where you can go canoeing. The name Ōkārito means place of the young bulrush shoots, a reference to its lagoons.

A further detail from the historical information panel at Whataroa includes a photograph of a pair of kōtuku.

Known scientifically as Ardea alba, kōtuku are widespread in other countries, where the most familiar English term for them is great egrets. But for unknown reasons, they have long been scarce in Aotearoa New Zealand even when they were not being hunted for their plumes, a colonial practice which for a time made them rarer still.

Earlier Māori tradition held that you would most likely see one just once in a lifetime and that it was a stroke of good fortune to do so. Traditionally, a distinguished visitor from afar would be honoured with the title ‘kōtuku of a single flight.’

Nowadays, with organised white heron tours, you can see kōtuku as often as you like. Other interventions have also changed their behaviour. When my editor was at a salmon farm at Paringa, further south along the same coast some years ago, a kōtuku landed on his table to try and bludge a piece of fish. That would have been incredibly auspicious by old-time standards, but they didn’t have salmon farms back then.

The Ōkārito area opens out to the west. So, you can see sunsets over the Tasman Sea and get down to the coast.

Sunset clouds near Ōkārito

Now, Ōkārito really is a special place.

Sunset over the beach at Ōkārito

Another view of the beach at sunset

Looking inland from Ōkārito Beach at sunset, toward some of the houses of the coastal village

A couple of days after photographing the sunset, a friend and I got ready at the crack of dawn to canoe the saltwater lagoon.

The author getting ready to go canoeing on the Ōkārito saltwater lagoon

Canoeing the Ōkārito saltwater lagoon

There is also a lookout nearby.

A view inland from the Ōkārito saltwater lagoon lookout

I made a video of Ōkārito scenes, including the gorgeous sunset and the kōtuku flying when I canoed on the saltwater lagoon a couple of days later.

I have earlier posts about Ōkārito and the Franz Josef area, here and here.

See, further, my new book The Sensational South Island: New Zealand’s Mountain Land, available from this website,

(To aid searchability, here is the word Okarito in alternate spelling.)


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