West Coast of South island, Fox glacier, another Alpine crossing to Lake Wanaka

SV Jenny
Alan Franklin/Lynne Gane
Sun 17 Apr 2016 09:41
Dear Family and Friends,

9-10th April 2016

With so much rain here on the west coast, they have over 200 days of it and depending where you are, anywhere between 2m and 50-60m of rainfall, it is hard to see the true beauty of this coast, but we did manage some good spells! Leaving Hokitika in it's grey shroud, we paused at Ross, an old alluvial gold panning or fossicking area. This is one of several along the west coast, resulting from a combination of the Alpine fault which is the border between the Pacific and the Australasian tectonic plates and glacial action. Minerals formed some 30m deep in the earth's crust have been thrust up, just as the ruby rock has, 94-96% pure gold, often within quartz crystals has been found, uncovered by the power of 200m of glacial ice and driven into the alluvial deposits along the numerous river beds. We learnt that gold is 30% heavier than the surrounding rock and 6% heavier than water and once found by early settlers from the mid 1850-1860's onwards, sparked an international gold rush. Extraordinary efforts were made by these early prospectors, whole hillsides of loose sand, mud and stones, sluiced away. Water the vital means of separating the precious metal, piped via viaducts of wood across large valleys, rocks tunneled, towns sprang up, young lives were lost and perhaps one or two fortunes improved. It is said that those that owned and sold the water rights made more money than the gold diggers. Later, a mechanized river dredger recovered 307,000 ounces of gold from just one river but it took an industrial approach to net this amount. You can still pan for gold in designated fossicking areas and there is a chance you will find some gold flakes but for the accumulated deposits of thousands of years, you are a little late or perhaps not, you could be the lucky one! You can see how such dreams took hold of the minds, a kind of madness descended, indeed stories of the older prospectors panning for gold in their hats gave rise to the _expression_ as mad as a hatter!

But we couldn't leave the area without trying our hand at the technique so we got our instruction, pans and rocks at the visitor centre. Now they do guarantee you will find something, only because they put it there! But for a few minutes work with a special panner, a shallow dish with ridges to one side, we made believe and separated a few tiny flakes of gold and a couple of pieces of jade for our trouble. The idea is that you hold the shallow dish with the ridged side away from you, wet the stones and gently swish the water around the dish. You dont want to put your hands into the water, but gently pick out the largest stones and discard. Now with a gentle wave motion, the lip of the dish tilted away from you and just under the water surface, you wash the larger stones out of the dish. This action should retain the flakes of gold behind the ridges but remove the stones until only the gold is left. The jade was easy to spot because it was machine cut and something of a cheat, but I also found some natural jade as well. It was fun and something you can do for real in the rivers if you have all day!

No visit to the west coast could possibly miss the glaciers of Frans Joseph and Fox. There impressive remnants of the ice age are fed by 50-60m of snowfall per annum, flowing an impressive 5 m per day in the upper reaches and just 0.5m at the terminal face. Ice features like tunnels, arches, melt water holes and crevices open in days and disappear in a few weeks, an ever changing landscape, depositing vast amounts of stones carved from the bed rock along the valley floor. We walked up the Frans Joseph valley to within 50m of the face. frequent ice falls mean this is the nearest you can go over the ground. To walk on the glacier you must fly in by helicopter, a short flight of maybe 8 minutes, through amazing rock cliffs and mountains to land on the ice itself. Swallowing yet another eye watering cost, you only do this once, we had an amazing time, being led by our guide, crampons on our boots, through the ice field and its features, slithering through ice tunnels, pulling yourself along by the guide rope, descending into a crevice and looking into many melt water holes that traveled down and down into the bluest ice.

11th April 2016

Back on the road, the scenery is much the same along the coast, a narrow flatish coastal plain, some pasture, some scrubland, low lakes and lagoons, with abruptly ascending, steep mountains clothed in lush mostly evergreen forests. These are cut through by many large valleys, glacial and river eroded, Huge deposits of stones lie on the valley floors, sometimes covering the whole valley floor. As the rivers mature slow down and widen, the waters meander, cut new paths through the gravels until they reach the sea. 

After a few hours we reached the town of Haast before the road turned inland. Like many places here it is a sometime tourist spot I guess for the coast line itself, there's not much here and it is the last place for petrol for over 100km. The scenery crossing the Alps again is well worth the trip even if you are tied from all the traveling. Stunning and wild mountains and gorges, the land brown tussock grass again as we crossed the westerly watershed and the rainfall reduced dramatically.  We finally arrived at Wanaka lake, in the evening sun and with the vibrant autumn colours, the journey was lovely.

All our best,

Lynne, Alan and Josh