Travel: Glacier country home to spectacular scenery

By Mike Yardley

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New Zealand enjoys the distinction of being the only place on the planet where glaciers slope down to within 20km of the coast. Head to South Westland and immerse yourself in Glacier Country.

In the family of glaciers, the little sister is Fox, in a steep-sided glacial valley, at the southern end of West Coast Highway. Thirty minutes up the road, Franz Josef Glacier is the bigger crowd-pleaser, because its serpentine shape is more photogenic.

Both glaciers have been in the grip of the stretch and squeeze machine, advancing and then retreating in size, quite dramatically in recent years. Up until 2008, the glaciers were extending their length by as much as 70cm a day, but now remain in rapid retreat mode.

Recent tragedies that claimed the lives of young tourists have illustrated how extremely unstable the glaciers' ice shelves are. The safety barriers and warning signs are there for a reason.

Whether the cyclic nature of glacier sizing is being aggravated by global warming or not, climate change scientists anticipate our southern glaciers will continue to retreat for most of this century. So, surrender to the glacial spectacle now, not later.

For the extra-intrepid, a wealth of guided glacier walks and climbing experiences are available, tailored to suit all ages and abilities. If you have cash to splash, the mother of all glacier encounters is a heli-hike, complete with snow landing at the top of these slithering tongues of ice.

When you've had your fill, hop across to New Zealand's most spectacular natural mirror. The dark, inky waters of bush-ringed Lake Matheson deliver reflections of the soaring Southern Alps, with Mt Cook and Mt Tasman stealing the show. Try to time your visit for sunrise or sunset, when the light is softer, and nature's paintbrush is accentuated.

In Franz Josef township, the West Coast Wildlife Centre is where you can admire the world's rarest kiwi, the Rowi. The wildlife centre is home to the official breeding programme for this highly endangered national treasure, which is indigenous to the region.

The centre is particularly popular with very young children, and it also features interactive glacier displays and wildlife films.

Franz Josef is threaded with enchanting walking tracks. My favourite is Callery Gorge track, which crosses pristine rainforest to Callery Gorge Bridge, and takesan hour to complete.

Top off your day with a soothing soak in the Glacier Hot Pools, snugly secluded in native bush.

- Hamilton News

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