Tuesday 17th October: Franz Josef Glacier to Wanaka - GRAHAM COXON "Freakin' Out"
The morning was cold, as befits somewhere located in the shadow of a glacier. We were in a hurry, as we had to get up, clear out and get to Franz Josef Glacier Guides headquarters to start a half day guided glacier trek.
It seemed to take a while to assemble and kit out our group of approximately 30 people. Eventually though, we were all prepared and slowly shuffled onto the waiting coach. A fairly short drive later, the coach arrived at the Glacier car park. Our guide, Richard, informed us that the walk to the terminal face of the glacier would take around 45 minutes to complete. Along the way, we had a very fetching bright red bum-bag to carry that contained our TaloNZ - spikes which fit to the bottom of your boots for glacier walking. Whilst not heavy, these represented a cumbersome, awkward load to carry about your waist.
The walk started on a fairly flat level through regenerating bush and rain forest. When we passed through, the bush was just over head height. It had been regenerating since around 1900. Back in about 1850-odd, the glacier had stretched all the way down to the car park we'd just left. Back then; you could just walk straight on to the terminal face from the village. Since then, the glacier started receding and had receded by about 3km by the late 1990s. Thanks in part to global warming causing more extreme weather on the West Coast; the glacier has been advancing slowly since then. Some days, the glacier advances quickly, such as in February 1999 when it advanced by eight metres in one day. Usually, it only advances by a few centimetres a day on a 'fits-and-starts' basis, sliding down the alpine valley and across the moraine like a caterpillar.
We stopped walking for a short while, pretty soon after emerging from the young forest, about 15 minutes into the walk. From this point onwards, the dirty white majesty of the glacier could easily be seen; almost close enough to touch. The glacier, however, was still a good couple of kilometres away and only looked to be so close due to an optical illusion created by its sheer scale. At this point, there was a pause for photographs and for Richard to impart some Glacier-lore. The remainder of the walk up to the terminal face followed a similar patter - a brisk walk across barren, glacier stripped moraine alongside a river of glacier melt punctuated by photograph opportunities and Richard telling us some science or glacier facts. Such facts included that the glacier had been discovered by Joseph Haast who had named if after the Austrian Emperor. This obviously gained him some favour as he was 'knighted' soon after to become Joseph von Haast. Also, it tuned out that the glacier stretched back significantly further than we could see - up to the horizon and far beyond - where a lake of ice containing hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of ice sits, being added to with each snow fall.
As we approached the terminal face, the sound of helicopters flying up the valley became more frequent. Apart from the voices of our little group, the loud chuddering of the helicopters was about the only sound to be heard in the valley.
After climbing up a ladder and rope and wading through a couple of streams we were up close, face to face with the glacier. In the near distance, a group of people from a rival tour company were starting their ascent of the terminal face. Up ahead, some stairs had been cut in to the ice face using an ice pick. We made our way up these to a rock platform where we attached (with some difficulty) our TaloNZ. We then split into two groups of 13 - the 'slow group' would be led by Richard, whilst our faster paced group would be led by Dave Gorman (with sideburns) look-alike, Ryan. Ryan came hurtling down off the higher ice to meet us. He'd been working all morning to help cut steps and place ropes in the ice for us to help our ascent, before guiding us. He came bounding off the ice with a spring in his step and an ice axe over one shoulder.
Our group was soon clambering up the ice. Jen and I were towards the rear of the group, followed only by a couple from Clapham (I wonder if the man ever thinks, "I never thought it would happen with me and a girl from Clapham"?)
Despite walking amongst ice, the temperature was fairly warm. The sun shone down upon our party, glinting off the ice. Occasionally, either a crack and crash from a piece of falling ice, or the whirring blades of a helicopter could be heard. We walked onwards, up ice staircases, gripping firmly to hand ropes whilst walking alongside deep crevasses or slipping down slopes of ice fragments, giving way slightly beneath our laden feet.
more pictures from the glacier.
Top left: A close up of the glacier.
Top right: A crevasse; easy to get through without a backpack.
Left: A view back down the valley from the glacier.
Once during our trip up the ice, we were stopped by muttering and pointing from the front of the group. As we rose over a hump in the ice, we could see a Kea posing on the other side of a large crevasse; walking precisely on the edge of the ice. As we looked on, the Kea launched into flight, displaying its scarlet under wings to us before flying over the top of our group and out of sight.
The rest of our trip up the glacier was punctuated only by tales from Ryan, pauses for photographs or slower points were we had to work our bodies through narrow cuttings in the ice. Before long though, we had reached our furthest point. We stopped shortly for lunch and listened to Ryan tell us the Maori legend of the glacier's formation. Then it was time to edge back down to earth, stopping only to let a group on the full day walk past us.
By the time we reached the bottom of the ice, we'd caught up with Richard's group. Ryan and Richard left us at the bottom of the ice to make the walk back to the car park by ourselves. Jen and I led the way back to the bus, and despite leaving the main track at one point, a few others in the group followed our lead. We occasionally looked back to photograph what we'd climbed, but we were soon at the car park. A short wait for the bus and the last stragglings of walkers and we were away.
It was not long before we were back in the campervan, having gone back to the Glacier Centre and handed in our TaloNZ. A petrol stop later and we'd left Franz Josef behind.
This leg of driving was set to be the most difficult so far, staring off on the winding coast road South, we were due to turn inland at the village of Haast, over the Haast Pass before turning back South towards Wanaka. It sounds simple on paper, but driving such a long distance in a campervan is a slow, tiring process.
The first part of the journey - 20km to Fox Glacier - was probably the toughest part of the driver, circumnavigating tall peaks, secluded coves and rocky outcrops. However, we traversed the terrain with little problem. The next section to Haast was much longer at about 130km, with very little between Fox and Haast. The road continued down past the coastline, occasionally cutting inland but mainly threading down the coast. It was along this section that we were held up for a while by some West Coast farmers driving a herd of cows down the road. Unlikely on the A6 in the UK. After overtaking the herd by ingeniously using the grass verge, we stopped a good while later at Knight's Point, not far from Haast. After the obligatory photographs and a sandwich it was time to leave. The view from the point was superb, allowing you to see a large distance to the North, although only a restricted view to the South.
|A view from Knight's Point. Looking North back up to West Coast. A view that can be seen from many vantage points up the coast.|
A short while later, we arrived in the small village of Haast - the staging post between the rocky and sparsely populated West Coast and the plains of Otago and Southland to the South and East. We stopped for a short time at the local DoC centre, a large building considering the size of Haast. We stopped only to ask about local walks and things to see between Haast and Wanaka. The answer seemed to be "Not Much!"
The road continued on alongside the Haast River (Joseph Haast named a lot of things after himself, eh?), the river starting off wide and flat but gradually getting more rugged and fast flowing. The road ascended slowly up the Haast Pass, getting windier and narrower, much like the river. Once the Haast Pass was traversed, we descended much more gradually towards Lake Wanaka.
About halfway between the pass and the lake, we stopped for a short walk to the Blue Pools. This was a short walk, first through native bush, then across a 50ft long Indiana Jones style rope bridge. The Blue Pools were actually part of the nearby River Makarora. They consisted of a still area of water in a side eddy of the river that was a deep blue colour. Under the water, there were a few large fish - probably trout. Unfortunately, the Blue Pools seemed to be the residence of a swarm of sand flies - so we didn't hang around for very long. Back to the car, we were soon heading South.
The road continued downhill towards Lake Wanaka. After a short time, the lake came into view - a great piece of scenery with hills and the mountains on the other side of the lake reflecting off the still waters to give a perfect reversed image. The road clung for dear life to the lakeside before turning a sharp corner towards Lake Hawea.
Lake Hawea was just as pleasant as Lake Wanaka and stretched for miles to both North and South whilst the Eastern shore seemed almost close enough to swim to. To the North, there was a small patch of grassland being grazed by cows that shone green like an emerald. For some reason, it made me think that it would be a great place to open an ecologically friendly hotel.
Daydreaming over, we followed the lake all the way to the village of Lake Hawea. We ploughed on few and drove the final few kilometres back across to Lake Wanaka and its eponymous town; the picture postcard beauty of Wanaka. Snow capped mountains fought with the glittering pristine shimmer of the lake's water for our attention. Gleefully, we drove up to our campervan site and walked back into town. Once again, we underestimated the distance into the town, but we survived. After a quiet promenade along the lake's edge and a less quiet walk around town, we enjoyed a set meal collection of curries at the delicious Bombay Palace. Sampling the local Wanaka lager proved to be a mistake, with an earwax type aftertaste. Soon back onto Kingfisher!
Then it was a very slow walk back to the campsite with full bellies bulging. The walk wasn't quite so pleasant in the dark and proved a lot more difficult with a curry inside! We did make it back though and were soon tucked up in bed.