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Glaciers & Heritage

The glaciers have always held interest for people from the first Maori inhabitants on the West Coast; to the European explorers, surveyors and geologists; to the gold seekers who stayed on when the gold ran out, to the first tourists and their guides.

The fascination continues today with the many travellers both from New Zealand and overseas that seek a glacier experience.

Early Maori
Archaeological evidence shows early Maori lived in South Westland many hundreds of years before European settlers arrived. They lived mostly along the coast in places where food gathering was good but travelled up and down the coast searching the mountains for pounamu (jade or greenstone). In their travels they became familiar with the glaciers, peaks and forests of Glacier Country. After Europeans arrived Maori were guides valued for their local knowledge.

Early European Explorers
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman encountered Westland in 1642 but it was not until 1859 that any ship’s log recorded sight of the great glaciers.

In 1857 Maori guides led the first Europeans, Leonard Harper and Edwin Fox, across a traditional east–west pathway (ara hikoi) that Europeans later named Harper Pass. Young Harper then named the two glaciers—‘Victoria’ (now Franz Josef) and ‘Albert’ (now Fox Glacier), after the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland at the time and her consort. But Harper did not register these names.

Historical Shot horses and river In 1865 German geologist / explorer / museum founder Julius Von Haast decided to name the glacier after the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Josef I. The local village later took its name from the glacier. This was only the first of a number of landmarks that Haast did not actually ‘discover’ as a European explorer but took the liberty of naming. Haast also registered the name Fox Glacier, in honour of Sir William Fox, the New Zealand Premier. Sir William Fox visited in 1872 and painted a famous watercolour of ‘his’ glacier.

Emperor Franz Josef ‘gifted’ what has become one of Westland Tai Poutini National Park’s greatest pests. The two males and six female chamois were shipped to Wellington, then taken to the Hermitage in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and released in 1907. Chamois can be hunted. To hunt chamois on public conservation land you must get a hunting permit from Department of Conservation (DOC). You can apply online or at a DOC office nearest the hunting area.

Gold Seekers
Gold discovery in 1864 brought huge changes. The gold towns Ōkārito, Five Mile and Gillespies boomed with around 16,000 hopeful diggers. Some vast fortunes were made but a mere 18 months later most miners had left, disillusioned, leaving a hardy few to continue to work the beaches and gorges. Those who stayed eventually looked beyond the gold to seek a living from the land. These early settlers turned to farming, saw milling and offering accommodation and guidance to tourists.

Early Tourists
The earliest travellers stayed in guestrooms in local farmers’ houses. Eventually hotels were built, but the warm and friendly atmosphere remained. Enterprising young men saw a future in operating excursions up on the ice and by the 1900s tracks and bridges were built to provide access onto the glaciers.

Formal clothing and inadequate equipment did not deter the early visitors. With a few temporary nails in the soles of their shoes, ladies in long dresses and gentlemen in bow ties were soon regularly exploring the glaciers, carefully assisted by their mountain guides.

See also:
Ōkārito and Whataroa history




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