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Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrTucked away in the west of the South Island, Westland Tai Poutini National Park is home to New Zealand's spectacular glacier country.
The park shares a boundary with fellow national park Aoraki/Mount Cook, along the main divide of the Southern Alps. Boasting an expanse of 1316 square km, it reaches to the Tasman Sea in the west, to the steep northwestern face of the Southern Alps in the east. The park is home to more than 60 named glaciers, although only the two largest, Franz Josef glacier and Fox Glacier, are readily accessible to tourists.
HistoryThe indigenous Maori people established early settlements on the shores of Westland's lakes and lagoons, where food was plentiful. Through their journeys up and down the coast in search of Pounamu (greenstone/New Zealand jade), the Ngai Tahu tribe became familiar with the glaciers, peaks and forests of this area. The mountains of the Southern Alps remain revered by the local Maori people (the Ngai Tahu tribe) as their ancestors. The whole coastal environment is also of considerable importance to these people, both spiritually and for the food and resources it provides.
Gold brought thousands to the region over just one year in 1864-1865, when at least 16,000 miners came to the rain-soaked wilderness to line their pockets with glittering gold. The first prospectors to venture into the region of the park followed the rivers close to the inland ranges, but in the spring of 1865 they discovered a new gold rush on the previously unexploited black beach sands. Townships sprung up from the wilderness, but the heights of the gold rush didn't last long. Just 18 months after their incredibly rapid emergence, Okarito, Five Mile and Gillespies were virtual ghost towns.
The park was established in 1960, the centenary of the European settlement of Westland District. In 1982, its boundaries were extended to cover the former state forest areas of South Okarito and Waikukupa, and additional lands in the upper Karangarua River valley were added in 1983. With the nearby Fiordland National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park, and Aoraki/Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini National Park constitutes Te Wahipounamu (South West New Zealand), a collective World Heritage site designated in 1990.
In 2010 over 4400 hectares were added to the park, consisting of a number of areas scattered throughout the park - the majority being to the east of Okarito Lagoon .
GeographyThe park is a place of stark contrast: from tussock land to the coast, lakes to rivers and wetlands. The park's highest point is Mount Tasman , 3498m in the Southern Alps. The park is well dissected by rivers and streams fed by both heavy rain and snow. Three main rivers rise in the park and empty into the Tasman Sea: the Waiho, Cook and Karangarua.
VegetationDense rainforest covers the lowlands west of the alps. The park features beautiful splashes of color, with native trees such as beech, manuka, rimu and rata, as well as pines and cypress. Nearer the coast, there are scenic lakes, wetlands and wide river mouths.
WildlifeAs with most of New Zealand's national parks, Westland Tai Poutini showcases a stunning array of birdlife. Hikers can see species of teal, grebe, duck, kingfisher, thrush, skylark and falcon. Other avian residents of the park include the endangered kakariki and kaka, as well as kea, the curious parrot native to the South Island. In the heart of lowland forest lives the only population of the endangered rowi - New Zealand's rarest kiwi. In the rainforest and wetland areas, you may also spy the Southern Crested Grebe (kamana) and White Heron (kotuku). During the nesting season, local guides can take you to see the beautiful kotuku in the Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve. Kayaking on lakes, or the Okarito lagoon, is another way to spy on the bird life.
On the coast, Gillespies Beach is a home for the only species of fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) breeding on the New Zealand mainland. Other wildlife also includes chamois, red deer, stoat, and Himalayan tahr.
Visiting the GlaciersThe two largest attractions of the park are Franz Josef glacier and Fox glacier. Nowhere else at this latitude do glaciers reach so close to the coast, and these are some of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, shifting up to four meters each day. The glaciers grow due to the region's plentiful rain, and snow falling in the glaciers' broad accumulation zones fuses into clear ice at 20m depth, then makes its way down through the steep valleys. At the foot of each glacier, you can hear the grinding, crushing sounds of ancient ice forcing itself down the time-worn valleys. Franz Josef glacier is the more visually stunning of the two, however the walk to Fox glacier is more interesting, and you get closer access to the ice.
Check out the articles on Franz Josef glacier and Fox glacier for more details.
Lake MathesonLake Matheson, the famous 'mirror lake' can be found about 6km down Cook Flat Road. Wandering slowly, it will take about 1.5 hours to complete the walking track loop.
HikingIn addition to seeing the glaciers, there are plenty of other short and long walks in the Park. Below are just a few, check out www.doc.govt.nz for more options.
Moraine WalkMoraines are the piles of debris - rocks and stones - left behind when a glacier retreats. This short 1.4km trail is an easy hike taking you over old moraine surfaces and dramatically reveals how quickly plants establish in the park, and how the age of the bush reflects the various ages of the glacial moraines which it has colonized. To get there, drive south for 2km from Fox Glacier township, and turn left immediately after crossing the Fox River Bridge.
Te Weheka Walkway CyclewayThis dual use track covers 8.4m return, making it an approximately 2hr 20min hike, or a 1 hour mountain bike ride. The track enters the forest off State Highway 6, before turning east and heading into the Fox Glacier Valley. The track climbs steadily but easily up the valley, and is a perfect little snapshot of the park.
Alex Knob TrackThis track takes you on a 4 hour climb to the top of Alex Knob (8 hours return). The trail zigzags up to Rata Lookout for a view of the Franz Josef Glacier, and from there you can follow the marked track to the summit. The track is for experienced and well-equipped hikers only. To get there, drive or walk south from the Franz Josef township across the Waiho River Bridge and turn left onto the Glacier Access Road for 2km where the Alex Knob Track begins, signposted on the right side of the road.
Copland Track to Welcome Flat HutThis trail makes its way up the Copland Valley to Welcome Flat Hut, and is a popular overnight return trip for visitors to the Glacier Region. The track affords spectacular forest, river and mountain scenery, and the natural hot pools at Welcome Flat are the perfect reward for weary hikers. Access to Welcome Flat is possible year round, although snow and ice can cause difficulties in winter. Beyond Welcome Flat is best explored in summer and autumn. Mountaineering experience is essential.
Access is off State Highway 6, 26km south of Fox Glacier. The turn off to the car park is well sign-posted on the northern side of the Karangara River bridge. Drive approximately 150m down the gravel road to the car park. Intercity and Atomic Shuttle buses pass the road end each morning and afternoon and will drop off and pick up pre-booked passengers.
AccommodationFor climbers and ski-tourers, the Department of Conservation (DOC) offers a series of alpine huts high in the park. Hikers walking to the hot pools at Welcome Flat can book overnight accommodation in a 'serviced alpine' DOC hikers' hut.
The towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef provide a full range of accommodation, from backpacker lodges to luxury hotels. You'll also find a good range of restaurants, cafes and tour companies specializing in guided glacier walks and other forms of adventure. Okarito is also on the edge of the park and has several accommodation options.
Getting thereWestland Tai Poutini National Park is located about halfway down the rugged West Coast of the South Island. Road access is only via State Highway Six, from Hokitika to the north (around 1.5 hours drive) or from Haast in the south (around 2 hours drive).
The closest commercial airport is in Hokitika, which has daily flights from Christchurch. There are also regular bus services along the coast.
Further InfoWestland is famous for its rainfall, so always be prepared for wet weather. There are, however, many clear, sunny days, with an average of 1860 sunshine hours annually. Summer days range from 10 to 21 degrees Celsius, while winter days range from 2 to 12 degrees Celsius.
If you are going to hike on an overnight trip, be sure you are properly equipped and well prepared. Make sure your group has a capable leader and that everyone is carrying a sleeping bag, cooking utensils, sufficient high energy (with some extra for emergencies), a waterproof raincoat and overtrousers, gloves, a hat, and several layers of warm (wool or fleece) clothing.
The DOC Westland Tai Poutini National Park Visitor Centre will help you to understand the local environment. Located on 13 State Highway 6 in Franz Josef, be sure to stop in before any hiking trip to check up to date track and weather conditions.
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Author: Amanda. Last updated: Oct 02, 2015