2 weeks in NZ: Heading South, Okatipo to Gillespies Beach

I’d enquired the previous night at the kayak hire place in Okatipo: They were open at 8am, and I could take a boat out on a half-day tour for 60 bucks. This would enable me to get quite far into the lagoon. I’d resolved to see what time I woke up in the morning: Another 0530 natural wake-up and I’d just hit the road, a bit later and I’d think about it. I wanted to see the glaciers too, and didn’t imagine I would be up to a hike after 4 hours of kayaking, half of which against the tide.                                                 

As it happened, I did wake up several times around 0430-0530 through the simple expedient of being bloody freezing, it was a very cold night and un-insulated vans are like freezers in the cold. So, once I finally deemed it halfway warm enough to exit my cocoon, it was just before 8, and I needed breakfast. No kayaking, on to the glaciers then!

Beautiful clear lake en route

First glimpse of the mountains from the Highway

Hitting the road, it wasn’t far until I reached the tourist mecca/ghetto of Franz Josef. I headed straight to the tourist information place and found out about walking routes up to the glacier- As ever, this being New Zealand, there was a clearly marked route which was very easy to get to. Bonus.

Starting on the trail around 10.30, I first reached Peter’s Pool. This almost seemed like it had been put there by a pro photographer to work on his reflection shots. Thankfully light and luck were with me.

Moving on up the trail, we hit the first of several suspension bridges, ranging from the fairly sturdy to the frankly terrifying one with a capacity of 1 person and clearly pretty shonky construction which moved alarmingly as one crossed. The Department of Conservation seems to have replaced and upgraded loads of these backcountry bridges recently so maybe this one will be next?


Most of the walking trails I’ve done so far in NZ have been fairly well-surfaced and tame. This was a definite exception, with at least two thirds of the trail being a scramble up and over slippy rocks and the occasional paddle in the river crossings. Good fun, and a good workout though!

River crossing- Beautiful clear water but scramble-tastic to get over!

I filled my water bottle from one of the waterfalls. Beautiful, completely clear meltwater direct from the mountain, a real treat. The pools looked very inviting for swimming in, however having tested the water in one and found its temperature to be barely above freezing I declined.

More suspension bridge fun ensued… Some sturdier than the others. We also passed a basic corrugated iron mountain shelter, containing graffiti from many of its previous visitors, including this incredible blast from the past- Over 100 years of use!

Nice new bridge!

Wobble-o-rama big span

I made it to the top in 3hours ish. A viewing platform provided a spectacular view of the glacier above. Sadly though, it was very apparent how much it had shrunk over the years, possibly another casualty of global warming. It was incredible to think that the raging, wide river below was entirely filled by melt from these few mountains. 

Franz Josef Glacier as seen from Roberts’ Point- The end of the track

Making my way back down, I met the 70-80yr old guy I had passed on the way up, still plodding along with his walking poles- I gave him a time estimate to the top which seemed to cheer him up somewhat. It’s nice to see people of all ages being active and enjoying the NZ countryside.

Returning to the van at 4pm, I decided against my planned afternoon coffee (See, see how campervans make you OLD!) and carried on to the next stop near Fox Glacier. The tourist office in Franz Josef recommended the campsite at Gillespie’s Beach as somewhere where ‘non-self sufficient’ campers would be welcome (and actually she said that she just tended to park up anywhere in her camper!) so I headed there.

The road to Gillespie’s Beach Beach and its dire warnings.

The road to Gillespie’s Beach was all on pretty good dirt track and good fun, especially when you get a bit drifty in the corners and imagine yourself as a new van-based Colin McRae character. I made good time on that 12km. The mighty Hiace laughs in the face of off-roading.

What an amazing location the campsite is. Sandwiched between the peaks of the mountains and a pristine, rugged coastline. The campsite boasted toilets and rainwater, and was completely free. Double result. Unfortunately the only ‘fly in the ointment’ was actually…sandflies. By far the most vicious insects I’ve ever come across- They look like normal fruit flies but bite. Vigorously… also love ankles, and are not remotely fazed by DEET. I felt a pain on one ankle so flicked my trousers away, dislodging a swarm of flies and dozens of pinpricks of blood. What are these monsters!?! Hence, I’ve typed half this blog in the van as it’s the only place I can escape the insect menace. Even as I update this blog a week on, my ankle is covered in welts. Little bastards.

Sunset at Gillespie’s Beach

Whilst the local wildlife was voracious, the coast was truly beautiful, and I decided to go for a dip wash in the absence of showers after a very hot climb of the glacier earlier. This proved to be somewhat hazardous due to the immensely powerful surf. I got my wash, and got very refreshed, however also came out with 2 badly bruised and cut feet after an unexpected wave knocked me flying into the pebbles! You can guess this by the size of the driftwood on the beach- Big, telephone box-sized lumps of wood… There’s not much if anything between here and the other side of the Pacific hence the waves build up tremendous force.

Clean but battered!

At least all was well on the food front. Having learnt from my previous day’s famine in Okarito I had stocked up well at the Franz Josef supermarket including 6 beers. Hoorah! Pumpkin soup, steak and salad. Who says you can’t eat well on the move?

A nice peaceful night, apart from the carload of European backpackers all bizarrely dressed as Noel Gallagher and just as obnoxious, who turned up and decided that it would be a good idea to park literally touching my camping chair outside, and about 2 foot from my sliding door until I got out and gave the driver an intense Paddington Bear stare. Noel retreated.

Onwards, and downwards. Gillespie’s Beach will take some beating.


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