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Southern comfort: self-drive tour of New Zealand's west coast

Michael Gebicki
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Southern Alps

Saddle up for adventure! This three- or four-day drive from Christchurch to Queenstown weaves together some of New Zealand's most spectacular scenery.

Glaciers, braided rivers, the highest mountains of the Southern Alps, rainforests of 1000-year-old trees and one of the world's great train rides... You could drive it in the other direction, starting from Queenstown, but don't. The TranzAlpine rail leg of this journey is much better taken from Christchurch to Greymouth, as the train leaves from Greymouth just after 1pm and in winter the last part of the journey is in the dark.

Day 1

Train from Christchurch to Greymouth, drive to Franz Josef Glacier

Book your seat on the TranzAlpine website — and check for specials. You'll get an allocated seat, and what you want is a window seat on the right-hand side of the train. Request this when you book.

The train leaves Christchurch around 8.15am and the 223km-journey takes about 4.5 hours. For the first hour or so the train idles across the sheep-strewn pastures of the Canterbury Plains before it charges up into the ramparts of the Southern Alps. For the next three hours the landscape looks like it's taken performance enhancing drugs as the train snakes through the mountains, riding high above glacier-stoked rivers into beech forests and grey peaks that are covered with snow for all but the summer months.

It's not just the staggering scenery out the window but also the transition from the trim, prim pastures of Canterbury to the wet and shaggy wilderness of Westland. Average annual rainfall is 300cm on this coast, 470cm at Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, and up to 1500cm in the mountains — and yup, that's 15 metres.

Train buffs: stand by for a thrilling moment when the train passes through the Otira Tunnel, at 8.5km it is the longest of the 19 tunnels on the line.

The food on board is nothing special, but get your hands on one of the scones that are delivered on board at Singleton while they're still warm.

The journey ends at Greymouth, where you slip behind the wheel of your hire car (all the major players have offices right in the station) and drive south along the Glacier Highway (State Highway 6) toward Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. Both these glaciers have townships associated. Franz Josef is marginally preferable for overnight accommodation.

Day 2

Explore the glaciers, drive from Franz Josef to Lake Moeraki

Great reason to get out of bed…

Five clicks west of Fox Glacier township, Lake Matheson achieves its Kodak moment shortly after sunrise, when its still waters mirror the frosted peaks of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook, the country's highest. It's gorgeous beyond words, and there's always a crowd of camera-clicking worshippers on hand to record the moment. The spongy, one-hour walking trail that circles the lake through forests of ferns and kamahi trees is a treat at any time of the day.

There are more than 60 glaciers in Westland National Park and the most famous and accessible are Fox and Franz Josef, about 25km apart. It's possible to drive to within a half-hour walk of the terminal faces of these glaciers. You're not allowed to walk on them unless you're wearing crampons and part of a guided tour, and there are plenty of tours that leave every day. Too many in fact, and it gets so crowded on the glacier that you'll often find yourself standing on the narrow ice staircases while another group files past.

Better still is a helicopter flight which whisks you up for a stroll on the middle level of the glacier, where the ice is colder, prettier and uncrowded. The Helicopter Line operates a three-hour trip with a landing on Franz Josef Glacier and a couple of hours on pristine ice. Cost is around $360 for the three-hour heli hike, as opposed to $90 for the half-day glacier experience hike, but dig deep — you'll remember the experience long after the pain in the wallet has faded.

The forests of the south-west are awesome — wild, windy and spectacularly wet. This is part of a World Heritage-listed area, and the window on this world is Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, just a short drive south of the glaciers. The lodge was started by a passionate conservationist, Dr Gerry McSweeney who wanted to prove to the locals that tourism made more economic sense than chopping down all the trees.

In 1989, Dr McSweeney took over a run-down motel in the back of beyond, and the result of his gamble is a handsome but unobtrusive scattering of green timber buildings on the riverbank at the seaward end of Lake Moeraki.

There are trout in the lake, cod in the sea and in March, Pacific salmon swim upstream to breed. The lodge has resident naturalists who can introduce you to the local vegetation and wildlife, which includes seals, Fiordland crested penguins and orcas. Loveliest of all are the forest walks, along trails edged with green pillows of moss. One night is essential, an extra night would be better still.

Day 3

Drive Lake Moeraki to Queenstown

Just a short drive south, the Glacier Highway wanders into Haast before it begins the long climb into the mountains. Fill your tank — fuel is scarce on the road ahead. If it's a fine day you'll probably find yourself stopping every couple of kilometres, as a fresh and even more provocative view of mountains and braided rivers appears in your windscreen. There are lots of walking trails that snake off into the undergrowth. The Blue Pools Walk, which sashays into Mt Aspiring National Park, is a standout.

After a gobsmacking journey along the edge of lakes Wanaka and Hawea, the highway reaches Wanaka, which knows how to dish up a decent espresso. If time is still on your side, take the Crown Range route through Cardrona to Queenstown, the highest paved road in the whole country.

Wildlife you can do without

Keas are mountain parrots and they specialise in destroying the rubber moulding around car windows when you're off admiring the scenery. There is nothing you can do to stop them but maybe park somewhere else if you see the winged green varmints shredding rubber.

Drive times and distances:

  • Greymouth–Franz Josef: 180km, 2.5 hours
  • Franz Josef–Lake Moeraki: 120km, 1.5 hours
  • Lake Moeraki–Queenstown: 300km, 4.5 hours

Have you travelled through some of New Zealand's most spectacular scenery from Christchurch to Queenstown? Share your experiences with us.

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