Wednesday 18th November
The West Coast Glaciers
Today started pretty well, hit a low spot mid morning but then got better and better.
The camper mate app had waxed lyrical about the beautiful sunrise over the lake - it did look nice when I peeped out from under the blind, and behind our Yukka tree, but not nice enough to get out of bed before six. By 7am the forest orchestra had started up and the sun was really warm so we got up to go running and explore the woods around Lake Mahinapua. Once again the trees were full of invisible bellbirds, blackbirds and Tui.
Helpful signboards labelled the various trees, their names in English, Latin and Maori, described their characteristics and traditional uses. It was a there and back run - we read all the signs on the way out and tested ourselves on the way back - we were rubbish but did remember the Supplejack vine for lashing cargo on boats, Marble leaf and Whitey - both of the latter being self explanatory.
The geology and history of the lake was quite interesting. The glaciers from the southern Alps deposited moraine where they terminated, and the Tasman Sea pushed sand dunes onto the land. The end result was a bar of sand and gravel along the coast, and behind this the meltwater from the glaciers formed the lake. It was a very popular place for boating in the 1860s as the gold rush moved south from Hokitika, and the signboards showed old photographs of scores of people in Victorian dress on steamers and sailing boats on the lake.
After breakfast we set off south. We stopped in Ross, which offered a 'heritage trail' about the gold prospectors and an opportunity to pan for gold. It was a ghastly tourist trap and we moved swiftly on. Things reached a low spot as we drove steadily along the main highway, then suddenly heard a loud crash as the crockery drawer once again hurled itself out of its cabinet, off its runners and threw the cups and glasses all over the floor. We hadn't even been cornering or going over a bump. The new cafetière survived the leap this time, but the mugs and wine glasses were in bits. Bill collected it all up and swept up the broken glass whilst I phoned Maui HQ and offered them a brief critique of the quality of their fixtures and fittings. Repairs were arranged for when we reach Queenstown.
We set off again, hardly daring to turn even the slightest corner without me having to leap up to close the kitchen cupboards which were starting to behave like the library books in the poltergeist scene in Ghostbusters....
From that point on the day improved in leaps and bounds...
I must admit I was not particularly looking forward to visiting the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. I had a mental picture of a crowded ski resort full of grey slushy snow, tourists and queues. Every guidebook and advert we had come across simply seemed to list expensive ways to view or get onto the glaciers.
We knew that the unstable nature of a glacier meant that it was not safe just to climb up the middle of it, but the whole area seemed to be off limits unless you were willing to pay a few hundred dollars to take a helicopter ride and/or go on a guided tour. The costs ranged from $300 to $700+.
We decided to stop to make coffee and study our guides and maps next to the Whataroa river - beautiful blue meltwater, with particles of fine white rock that reflect the sunlight.
We struck it lucky as this scenic spot was also the base for Glacier Country Scenic Flights - a brilliant well run and friendly father and sons organisation offering helicopter flights over the glaciers for $165. We were impressed with them and were also impressed with the number of people going up with them and coming back grinning from ear to ear. We said 'yes please' and before we had finished our coffee we were on the heli pad. Lucky for us we got a discount, as we filled our three passenger helicopter by taking a nice lady called Leena along with us.
The trip was absolutely magical. I had never been in a helicopter before, and was astonished by the weightless sensation and the speed at which we rose into the air. The headphones made it all seemed a bit unreal and muffled as they masked the rhythmic clatter of the rotors and enabled us to hear Josh the pilot's commentary.
We flew out and along the blue Whataroa river valley and then up and over the mountains to the glaciers of the Southern Alps. The views were simply stunning. Bright white snow, brilliant blue skies, angular mountain peaks in all shades of grey and black. Far down below us was the improbable turquoise of a frozen lake. We flew over a 'dirty glacier' made grey by gravel and rocks falling down as it moved down its valley. Then we passed over the Shackleton glacier, by contrast a clean bluish white with its surface covered in cracks and deeper blue crevasses. Our return journey was just as spectacular and we returned to the base just 18 minutes after take off, as promised. It was perfect.
Feeling quite euphoric we continued our drive on, down to the information centre at Franz Josef Glacier.
We picked up a map from the helpful lady, who made no mention of guides or flights, and set off to walk the Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk.
It was lovely, and nothing at all like we had imagined. Although it was a well tramped path, the scenery was so spectacular and awe inspiring that we didn't really notice the other tourists except for being amused and bemused by the increasingly bizarre antics of the selfie stick brigade. They took pictures with rabbit ears/ V signs etc and through heart shaped apertures created with their hands. They also tried to do synchronised star jumps and posed in a such a way that perspective made it look as if distant objects were balanced in the palms of their hands. Some of the couples must surely have been involved in a fashion magazine photographic session, so elaborately arranged were their postures and facial expressions.
By comparison, we simply climbed up to the top of the path, took some photos and walked down again.
The route takes you to within 200 metres of the from wall of the glacier. The barrier here is effectively reinforced by a life-sized laminated photograph of a warden with his palm held up. There are newspaper reports of tourists igniting the signs and climbing on, then bring crushed to death under a falling slab of ice.
There are also tales of how a year or two ago the visitors car park was destroyed in an overnight rock fall, a few hours after boulders the size of motor homes fell into the car park. It made us realise the sheer power and scale of the wild place around us and our relative vulnerability within it.
The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are famous got bring fine of the fastest moving glaciers. The mountains from which they arise are getting taller by 10-15 mm a year a the overlapping plated that form them continue to move. The rainfall over these glaciers is very substantially higher than over any other glacier, so that this forms more snow which in turn forms more ice to push down the glacier valley. Despite this, the glaciers continue to melt and are gradually retreating up the valley.
The day rounded off beautifully with a walk and dinner at Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier. This lake is famous for the reflection it makes of the snow covered peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in its still waters. The scene must have been reproduced on millions of postcards and calendars.
When we arrived the scenery was beautiful but the snowy peaks were covered with cloud. We walked the 90 minute walk anticlockwise around the lake, in the warm sunshine stopping at the various view points, and especially at 'The view of views' and 'The Boat Jetty' to take photographs. The clouds became paler and wispier as evening fell.
We returned to the Matheson Cafe for dinner st 7.30.
Having booked ahead we had a window seat directly looking up at Mount Cook and as we ordered dinner, the clouds cleared completely and slowed perfect views and great photographs of the entire range as the fun flory faded from the peaks leaving a pink glow and then a lovely blue and gold dusk.
Dinner was every bit as good as the the view. Bill had beef fillet with beetroot, spinach and Kumara potatoes, and I had pulled lamb shoulder and roast leg fillet with butternut squash purer and asparagus. Two lattes to follow and then we were back to Madge for our drive south to the DOC campsite at Paringa Lake, near Haast.
It was a lovely drive in the dusk, the sky still glowing gold, the Fox glacier and snowy white mountain peaks still visible, and the road following a series of bridges to follow the west coast down to the south. The mountains formed dark silhouettes against the fading silvery sky. As night fell, the stars came out and the moon reflected on the waves creating flashes of white light as we drove past.