Rivers of ice

Trip Start Sep 23, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

The day dawned sunny, and I was highly excited! We were off to do a heli-hike on the Franz Josef glacier. A helicopter was going to carry us high up onto the glacier, where we would explore the crevasses and ice caves. At the heliport we were given boots suitable for crampons. They were uncomfy and I knew that within half an hour my feet would be covered in blisters but- it would be worth it. I pulled borrowed socks on over my own in the hope that a little extra padding would help. We were put into groups and made our way to where the helicopters were waiting. We climbed in and I was given the front seat, with a fantastic view. With a lurch we were off, and with the huge glass windscreen in front there was little between me and the ground! We whizzed along and soon the glacier was in sight- a river of white ice tumbling through the verdant forest. Then the fatal message came through- the guides had not yet finished re-cutting the paths around the landing site, and we would have to turn around. We were told it would be a 15 minute delay, but after hanging about the pilots decided that conditions were no longer safe enough to fly, and the trip had to be abandoned. Off came the boots, away went the crampons and we found ourselves once again trooping off to get refunds. What they don't tell you when you book is that 50% of helicopter flights over the glaciers get cancelled due to the weather. Be warned!

We decided that there was very little point hanging around in Franz Josef for another day, and rearranged our accomodation for the evening. We talked to a very helpful lady in the Department of Conservation, who recommended taking a walk to the terminal face of Fox Glacier. I was not disappointed. We walked up the steep sided valley carved by the glacier. Through the valley rushed a turbulent river, swollen with rain and glacial melt water. The glacier soon became visible, a powerful and brooding presence at the end of the valley. We walked up to meet it, crossing streams formed by waterfalls cascading down the valley walls. Close up, the glacier was an impressive sight. It was an imposing wall of ice, scored with crevasses and, like a fortress, topped with needle-sharp peaks of ice. The blues and whites of the ice shone through the small scattering of morraine. It was truly awesome.

We left the glaciers behind and drove towards the Haast pass, through rainforests dripping with moss. We stopped at Jackson's Bay to watch the pounding surf before heading inland. We were soon in the heart of the Alps, surrounded by towering mountain peaks. The place names gave a glimpse of the lives of the early European settlers- Mount Difficulty, Gout Creek, Solitude Creek No. 2. We stopped at the Roaring Billy Falls, which were in full voice due to the recent heavy rains. Although the weather was a pain when it came to arranging activities, the rain brought the West Coast to life. We heard the falls before we saw them, at the end of a trail which woulnd pleasantly through a forest full of ferns, ponga trees and fungi. The water fell picturesquely into a stream which flowed along a wide valley floor lined with large smooth pebbles- the remnant, presumably, of a much larger river. A few kilometres on were the Thunder Creek Falls, dropping 28 metres vertically through the rainforest. We then made our way through the Gates of Haast, a steep gorge with a thundering river, before the countryside opened up to grassy mountainsides, livestock and the blue waters of Lake Wanaka.
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