Inside a glacier

Trip Start Feb 12, 2011
Trip End Jul 09, 2011

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hello all,

We took the rather long jump on a bus up to Franz Josef on monday, not too far in miles but suddenly it was like we were up in the coromandel again, after the vast dramatic and often barren landscape on the east of the south island hitting the west side we were suddenly in rainforest, mountains everywhere and roads winding up through the passes and round the edges of the mountains, huge drops on one side or another, some down to the valley floor, others right down into the sea when you look out the window, I guess you just have to put your trust in these bus drivers! we did see some rather hair raising overtaking on blind corners on these high roads though...seems to be rather characteristic of the driving over here...i bury my head in my book at these times and hope for the best!

We stopped in lovely little places on the way, some tiny villages, others just because the scenary was too beautiful to drive by without appreciating so the driver stopped to let us breathe it all in.  We pulled into Franz josef mid afternoon, at the foot of the mountains covered in forests and only having two paralel main streets the mini atmosphere is endearing little shops, booking offices and resturants line the front one with the hostels hotels and motels on the back street.  We checked into our hostel, all set out in a square with all the rooms french doors opening into the middle, palm trees all around and a bamboo and wooden hut in the middle holding a spa pool, we were staying with two other people, a guy from england (nice to have a fellow pommy out here!) and a girl from germany, we all got on really well and went out together to take advantage of a cheap backpacker offer meal and get to know eachother.

Tuesday morning we breakfasted and dressed in warm clothes before heading out to the glacier guides office.  We had booked on their half day tour, we were kitted out with heavy duty boots, trousers, overcoats, crampon bum bags, hat, gloves and an identification tag number (just in case they said!).  We signed disclaimers saying we knew what we were doing was a high risk activity and it wasnt there fault if something went wrong - eek! Before being loaded into a shuttle bus and heading up the road towards the glacier.  At the carpark it was a several kilometers walk to the foot of the glacier, we were taken through rainforest tracks slowly climbing up and up before appearing out on what looked like a vast riverbed, really rocky and full of slate like pieces of rock to clamber over, the oddest shapes on the mountains on each side, it was here that the guides split us into ability groups and explained that the glacier used to be as far down as here, it moves back at about a rate of a meter a week (!!!!) depending on weather conditions, but for the last few decades its moving at a rate thats never been documented before.  The shapes on the sides of the mountains have been carved out by the glacier itself.  Because of the constant shifting and moving of the glacier, it melts back and also slides down the mountains they said they treat it like a living thing, every day the tracks are explored and due to one footfall being safe while one next to it falling to an under ice river we were to walk single file in the exact places the guide had walked so he could vouch for the strength of the ice there...

Even once on the glacier bed it was a 2km walk to the foot of the ice scrambling over the crushed rocks it had left in its path before we reached the yellow ropes, the start of the danger area, rock falls and avalanches are common and only guides are supposed to take people beyond here.  However because it is a national park they cannot refuse entry to the public, so instead attached to the ropes are newspaper clippings of stories of tourists who have died up there with the words "its not worth it", our guide explains there is no mountain rescue up here, only the guides, so if people get themselves into trouble its the guides that have to risk their lives saving them and get their helicopter out to them.  A little bit daunted we continued across the ropes and started the hike up the HUGE rockfall that blocked our view of the glacier whilst on it, a real hike up it jumping from rock to rock and then we reached the top and their was the glacier in all its glory.  All the rocks and dust had come from avalanches, comforting! We stopped in our group and were instructed how to put our crampons on, all spiked up we continued down the other side of the rockfall and suddenly the steps down were on ice.  It was weird to be walking on it, im always hesitant on ice anyway but you really have to learn to put trust into the crampons, which if you walk right stick right into it, there werent any footprints up there, just mini holes which we followed!

We had gone from being surrounded by rocks dust and grit to suddenly walls of ice, you could see the layers of them, sometimes you could see into it, literally clear ice, other points it was more white, it was incredible.  We climbed through tracks made through the maze of ice, up steps they hacked into it everyday, and over or around crevaces. Stopping at one point over what looked like a bit of icy water about 10cm from where we were standing, the guide says how deep do you reckon this is, she shoved his massive ice axe down into it, it swallowed it all and most of his arm in icy cold water and he still hadnt touched the bottom!!! we followed exactly in his footsteps after that!!! He explained that every day bits of the ice melt and there are water systems throughout the glacier draining it, every day they check all their routes banging down hard on them incase the bit under the track has melted and its actually now over a huge hole (a false bottom) they hit down till they find the true bottom every day! pretty scary cool and an awe inspiring place, nature can do crazy things!! we hiked all up and around on it, slowly trusting the crampons more as we went down big icy slopes, up through tunnels, steep steps cut out in the rock, it was exhausting (you have to make sure each step is pretty heavy to make the crampons grip) but amazing, definitely a highlight of the trip!

That evening we hungrily ate dinner before heading out to the towns hot pools (FREE with the glacier walk tickets!) woop! beautiful, steamy pools surrounded by palm trees, ferns and lots of other trees, all disguising the other pools and at night it had very soft lighting, it was outside and you could just see the steam rising as you tried to look through to the other pools, we relaxed and lazily floated around in the different temperatures.  Each pool had lots of inlets and corners, stones in it to lift you out for a bit and spa areas, all fed by pure glacier water, idylic =) super relaxed, very warm and sleepy we all slept well that night.

The next morning we had to catch a bus but managed to pop into the little cinema first and catch a glimpse of flowing west, footage of the glaciers mountains, sunsets and sunrises over mountains and sea, rainforests and creatures, incredible with powerful music, enough to induce vertigo at several times throughout with the speeding over the edges and massive twists over on a huge panoramic screen! beautiful to see the places you just cannot reach by walking.

Lots of love to everyone,
P xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

PS franz josef and the nearby fox glacier are the only places in the world outside of Argentina where the ice meets the rainforest.
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Hzel Genner on

Hi Pip & Steve, Amazing to read of all your incredible experiences! You're cerainly testing yourselves to the limit - especially with the bungy junp Steve! & your hang-gliding Pip! Had GSue, Geoff & family here Wed-Friday, & we all spoke to Mum Pip. Hope you have a Happy Easter Day, & that all continues to go well. We're both fine & so is weather! Luv, Kiwi Granny & Poppa xxxx

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