Whataroa, NZ to Franz Josef Glacier, NZ

19.7 mi / 11.0 mph / 751 ft. climbing
Home: Chateau Backpackers and Motel

A combination of luck, 21st-century weather forecasting, and our ability to go slow, means we haven’t ridden through rain in an unbelievably long time. So long that I can’t even remember the last time. We certainly haven’t gotten wet in New Zealand (despite the frequent rain!), and I don’t think it happened last summer in the US, so it’s been at least a year. But finally our luck ran out, and a forecasting error negated our ability to go slow, so today we would be remembering how to ride wet.

The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island gets prodigious amounts of rain, similar to the west coast of Washington, where the mountains puncture the water-balloons rolling in off the sea and dump their contents. Low-elevation areas get around 100 inches of rain a year, while spots up in the mountains get 36 feet (compared to 36 inches/year in Chicago). And unlike the Pacific Northwest of the US, there is no summer “dry season”; the rains come year-round. So the fact that we started our West Coast travel with three days of unambiguously clear skies was an appreciated bit of luck, but now the opposite was coming.

We knew it was coming, so we had booked a four-night stay in Franz Josef, one of the few places in this direction where we could actually hole up for four nights and be able to supply ourselves. Unfortunately the heavy rain that was supposed to start mid-Friday and go through Sunday was now starting more than a day earlier, before dawn this morning.

Our lack-of-experience with rain-riding means that fear-of-the-unknown could spiral us into more stress than the rain itself would, so I was actually pretty proud of how relaxed we both stayed. There was a slim chance that if we got up super-early, we could dodge the start of it, but we decided to just get up at a normal time and see what was what; in either case we’d arrive to Franz Josef well before official motel check-in time and then figure out what to do with our wet selves.

There was solid rain from before we even woke, but not yet the heavy stuff; I could still see hillsides a mile or more away. So we wrapped everything up on the bikes as best we could (including ourselves, donning both rain jackets and rain pants after some internal debate), and rolled out into it.

We had a slight tailwind, and only 20 miles to go (with no giant hills), so the idea was to just press through it. Our timing was so lucky that we even had a few moments when the rain nearly stopped, and while we were thoroughly wetted down within the first mile, it never felt dangerous to be riding the shoulderless highway. We didn’t get soaked by any passing trucks (there thankfully were zero of them over the 20 miles), and only 22 cars passed us from behind over the first 12 miles, and about 50 until we got into town. There was at least three or four times the amount of traffic coming the other way though, so whether it was a time-of-day factor (tourists making morning departures from the towns behind us would take a lot longer to get to us than those leaving the town ahead of us), or a time-of-year factor (tourists leaving Glacier Country as school holidays near their end, or as the rain makes them pointless), the town of Franz Josef was emptying out.

A break where the rain was light enough for a photo.

We decided to just go straight to the Chateau Backpackers & Motel that we had booked, even though we were still three hours before the 2pm check-in; while we were in a motel room, I figured they might take pity on us and let us use the common areas until our room was ready. And yes, the manager Chris was immediately understanding and welcoming. He said on rainy days like this, everyone shows up at 11am, and everyone leaving stays until 11am, so we’d definitely have to wait for our room (no problem!), but in the meantime we could store our bikes in the shed, dry off, change (I took a full shower), and relax in the lounge spaces. In the middle we walked out a couple blocks to a restaurant for lunch, and picked up groceries. Given how crowded the small but fully-stocked Four Square was, it’s surprising that the town can’t support a larger store, especially since the tourist traffic can theoretically stay high all year, since there is very little year-round weather variation here.

Then we settled into our room while the rain picked up.

Day 2

Throughout the night I was regularly awoken by waves of rain pounding heavily on the roof, but could then immediately fall asleep again when I remembered it had no effect on us. They offer a free breakfast here, and it’s quite good, with make-your-own waffles in addition to cereal and toast, and even better, we could walk from our room to the dining room all under the shelter of covered porches that ring the buildings here.

While rain, and even heavy rain, is “normal” on the West Coast, this event had triggered a “Red” Warning, and as far as I could tell it’s been at least a year since the last Red Warning was issued. By late afternoon the Civil Defence service declared the SH6 highway (the only road) along the entire West Coast was closed, and would remain so until at least morning. The whole region got emergency alert warnings pushed to their phones (impressive that they came simultaneously to our foreign-ish phones as well). Anyone camping was required to move and find accommodation in a town (I’m not sure what they were doing for anyone on bicycles!) The biggest risk was on the whole West Coast was the Waiho River which runs a couple blocks away on the edge of town. So this was all some serious shit even for native West Coasters.

Day 3

By morning on the third day, some 50 hours after the atmospheric river began flowing onto this land, its flow was finally reducing. The volumes overnight weren’t quite as bad as predicted, so luckily there was no major damage, flooding, or road washouts. Franz Josef got a total of 9.5 inches of rain, and a measuring station up the mountains got 27 inches!

During a dry period, I walked out for a morning sightseeing/fact-finding trip to the river. The river was definitely draining enormous volumes of water back to the sea, but the bridge was undamaged, and there were no other visible signs of the rain’s effects (wind wasn’t a factor at all in this event).

A pile of unused sandbags across the street from our motel. Despite the relative rarity of this rain event, I never saw more than a minor puddles anywhere in town. Time and experience (and maybe even rebuilding) has clearly shaped the infrastructure to handle these events well.
The raging Waiho River, which brought a significant local cooling to its channel filled with glacier-chilled water.
I doubt anyone actually found shelter from the storm in this Catholic Church, but it stands strong here near the river (and right across the road is an Anglican version hidden in the forest).
The Waiho River piling high as it slams into one of the SH6 bridge supports. The mountains here are so close to the sea, and the river beds are so wide, that their peak flows come with very little delay from the peak rain. So this flow was supposedly already down at least 50% from the 2am peak.

Later in the afternoon, once the rain had fully cleared out and taken many of the clouds with it, I rode out a few miles on my bike to the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint trail to see if it would be visible.

This is the same support as the previous photo, taken from the opposite side of the river, and ~6 hours later, where the flow (and water-pile-height) has reduced by half again. Though by now the sediments flowing down have made the water look like gray latex paint, more opaque than the morning. On my ride back downstream, I was going 18mph, and the river was essentially keeping pace with me, maybe just a touch slower.
Walking up the valley, waterfalls were everywhere on the steep walls. It would be interesting to see how many of them existed only due to this rain event.
Three waterfalls (or maybe four) in one shot.
Franz Josef glacier has receded over time, so now is barely visible from this viewpoint even under clear conditions. Here in this super zoomed-in photo you can see a hint of the blue ice under the clouds, but much more arresting were the absolute mountainsides worth of water crashing down in front of it.
I spent long enough looking at the waterfalls that the clouds eventually relented and rose a bit, allowing a clearer view of the blue ice of Franz Josef Glacier.
The widest view of the valley, with various braids of the latex-paint Waiho filling the floor, and some of the left-side waterfalls visible as white spots on the green walls.
Waiho Valley waterfall closeup.
A slightly different angle up the valley from the Sentinel Rock viewpoint trail. On the mile of gravel bike/walking trail I rode + mile of gravel I walked, I didn’t see a single puddle, patch of mud, or any hint at all that this area had just been deluged. Incredible trail design and engineering!
Franz Josef Glacier.

After dinner, the skies had cleared even more, to the point where we learned (three days in) that snow-covered mountains are visible from our motel room! I pointed them out to Rett, which led her out into the motel driveway to get a better angle, and then we just kept going, back to the river crossing. For me it was the third time today I had been to the same spot, and once again I saw a completely different scene.

The view from our Chateau Backpackers & Motel room.
Some of the “Lighting of the Beacons” scenes from “The Lord of the Rings” were shot round Franz Josef. I’m not sure if these particular crags were in any of the shots, but they certainly could (or should!) have been.
Rett down on the Waiho River.
New Zealand, man.
Rett didn’t exactly dress for this impromptu walk, though the temperature gradient at the river bank wasn’t quite as steep as it had been in the morning.
The Ered Nimrais (White Mountains) of Middle Earth, with a mountain from Jurassic Park dropped in front of them. New Zealand!
A mountain that still isn’t Mount Cook.


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