Hokitika to Franz Josef road trip

By: Tim Warrington, Photography by: Tim Warrington and Getty images


NZMCD writer Tim Warrington travels from Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier, marvelling at the spectacular scenery

Every road trip deserves an anthem, but as I pulled away from Hokitika Airport, the car radio played, ‘Road to Nowhere’. And while travel is as much about the journey as the arrival, this time, ‘nowhere’ was somewhere—Franz Josef village, down in glacier country. 

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The West Coast of the South Island is a motorhome-friendly destination that yearns to be explored. There are scores of campgrounds, freedom camping spots, and DOC sites.

Discover lookouts to pull up, stretch out, and soak up the scenery, whether it’s one hour, 24, or a little more. NZMCA Motorhome Friendly Towns are dotted up and down the coast, including Hokitika, since March 2018.  

Hokitika

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I quickly shed the preconception of a ‘fairly ordinary town’ I’d read in a guidebook. Sandwiched between the snow-covered Southern Alps and the wild Tasman Sea, ‘Hoki’ is compact and orderly with everything you might need to stay and play, as well as being a great jumping off point for adventures further afield.  

The town caters well to the overnight traveller with top-notch food and shelter while offering plenty for daytime visitors, too. Not only old-time gold-rush country, Hoki is also famous for pounamu (greenstone). Watch it being carved or learn yourself; grab a coffee; gear up; shop for supplies, or browse the local craft stores.  

I’d have lingered longer in Hoki, but Franz was calling and I had to give the Whitebaiter’s Walk a miss—two-dozen signs with whitebait facts and figures, information and illustrations of the diminutive delicacy known as ‘white gold’.  

Lake Mahinapua

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 It’s a fairly straight run along the first stretch of State Highway 6 out of Hoki, hugging the West Coast along the Tasman Sea. The road carried me inland half-a-dozen kilometres, so I had no idea how close I was to the windswept, remote beaches, and ocean beyond.  

But a body of water I didn’t miss was Lake Mahinapua, 10km south of Hokitika. Its campsite provides an ideal rest stop. No bookings required; it’s first come, first served.

Turn off State Highway 6 into Lake Mahinapua Access Road, opposite the hotel. There are 100 non-powered tent sites, a boat ramp, jetty, and toilet facilities. Both campsite pass for rental campervans and DOC/NZMCA campsite passes are valid currency here.   

Ross

The town of Ross lies 27km south-west of Hokitika. It was once a bustling gold-rush hub of several thousand, but these days, the population is less than 300. I stopped for refreshment and a leg stretch but was pleasantly surprised to discover the heritage centre.  

The small community-owned and operated Ross Goldfields Information and Heritage Centre has gold panning, historical relics, including a miner’s cottage and 1800’s pioneer cemetery, and a one-hour historic gold trail walk. Some of New Zealand’s best trout fishing is nearby, and at low tide, you can collect mussels on the beach. 

Franz Josef

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Franz welcomed this weary traveller with a smorgasbord of accommodation and dining options. On a coin flip, I plumped for the Scenic Hotel, reminiscent of an alpine chalet with pitched pine-panelled ceilings.  

Then it was off for a short, secular pilgrimage to St James’ Anglican Church, built in 1931. Parishioners once gazed at the great snaking glacier from the panoramic altar window to take advantage of its location. But Franz has been in a constant cycle of advance and retreat and by 1954, the glacier had disappeared from view from the mock-Tudor church. 

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I drove on to the glacier-viewing car park, which was neatly flanked by two rows of motorhomes, garnished with the occasional car. I braved the sleet and rain and hit the trail for the 20-minute walk to the terminal face of the glacier.  

The view from ground level is difficult to describe. I didn’t realise I was looking at Franz until a passing tourist said, "yes that’s it"—a wall of dirty ice and rocks stretching across a valley.  

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And then the sleet fell hard, stinging my cheeks and I turned tail and dashed back to the car, fingers firmly crossed my heli-tour onto the glacier would take flight the next day. But the forecast was bleak, so I turned in early and drifted off, my mind heavy with doubt.

The next morning I discovered a foot of snow fell overnight, which turned an incredible experience into pretty much, once in a lifetime.

I mustered at Franz Josef Glacier Guide headquarters for the safety briefing, which was swift but thorough. Before I knew it, I was kitted up and dashing across the helipad, and then we were airborne for the three-minute flight and deposited on the ice, all before I realised I was actually standing on New Zealand’s steepest glacier. Franz is also the fastest moving, at up to 50cm a day.

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The snowfall meant no crampons, so what could have been a challenging hike become more of a leisurely stroll. There was glacier cricket and snowball fights and a meander up and around the designated track, all under the watchful gaze of our guide. And to top it all off—the most amazing blue ice.

As I paused to soak up the soaring snowscape, with wide eyes and a grin I just couldn’t shake, I realised Franz had broken my first rule of travel: to go forward with a clear mind and reign in all expectations. But I simply couldn’t contain my excitement as we crunched our way through the fine powdered snow.

Far too soon, we were heading back to the base camp and as the chopper whisked us down—"I’ve never seen Franz so amazing," the pilot’s voice crackled excitedly over the headphones—as we gazed down on the snaking expanse of snow-covered ice. And although it was my first time on a glacier at that moment in time, I couldn’t imagine anywhere more beautiful.

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Distance

  • Hokitika to Franz Josef: 134km. Allow at least two hours.

Road

  • State Highway 6—straight runs along valley floors with sections of winding, hilly, narrow passes. There are a number of one-lane bridges. Relatively few passing lanes.

Visit 

Stay 

  • Franz Josef Rainforest Retreat: Provides powered and non-powered drive-up sites in a rainforest setting, with access to on-site facilities, including Monsoon Bar and Restaurant, spa pools, a sauna, a BBQ area and playground, a TV lounge, a well-equipped facilities block with kitchen and guest laundry facilities, 24-hour internet access, and a dumping station. 
  • Hokitika Motorhome and Campervan Park: There are two entrances to the park, which can accommodate larges buses, fifth wheelers, campervans, and small unpowered vehicles. Make use of the BBQ, full cooking facilities, laundry, drying room, hot showers, swimming pool, Sky TV, and dump station. Wireless internet and a one-minute walk from the beach. 

Shop 

  • The Gold Room in Hokitika: Watch as in-house artisans craft beautiful gold nugget jewellery from the locally found natural gold, preserving the unique raw forms from the earth.  
  • Glacier Souvenir Shop in Franz Josef: Their buying philosophy is to stock items that cater to a wide range of tastes, which means not everything is emblazoned with 'New Zealand’. 

Eat  

  • Hokitika: Aurora Restaurant 
  • Franz Josef: Kingtiger Eastern Eating House and bar

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