We woke up early and peaked out from under the curtains to see ... brilliant blue sky! We were up faster than you could say "Where did the rain go??" and quickly got ready and had breakfast before heading back up the road to Arthur's Pass. Now that we could see where we were going we were quite awestruck by the huge mountains, half covered in snow and the other half with tropical vegetation. The valley with the blue river was beautiful and it was a much more pleasant drive. In the higher ground it had snowed over night so all the trees had a dusting of snow, making it look like winter wonderland.
We were on our first walk before 10am and we were heading to Bridal Veil Waterfall. We have learnt that the DOC (Department of Conservation) like to take the estimated time it takes to complete a walk and add a third to it (i.e. a walk takes an hour so they add half an hour and say it will take 90 minutes to complete) so we knew it wouldn't take 1.5 hours to walk just over 3 km. The gradient was fairly gentle with a couple of steep climbs either side of the creek. The lookout was quite a way from the waterfall but it was still incredible because it was the first waterfall we had seen with snow on the mountains above. We continued along the track, enjoying being out in the sunshine, although occasionally we got a soaking when the snow on the branches above melted whilst we were walking underneath.
We arrived back at the car park after an hour and after a quick drink and a banana we headed along a different track to another waterfall. This was a bit closer and after a fairly intense climb we came to the base of a jaw dropping waterfall called Devil's Punchbowl (never heard of that name before!) A huge volume of water crashed over the lip plunging down approximately 80 metres into a pool beyond our gaze and came rushing towards us before dropping again over another rock lip beneath us. We imagined this is what the waterfalls we saw in Yosemite would look like during Spring. There was no snow above this one as the spray from the waterfall had melted it but it was still amazing.
After a while we headed back down towards the car park, where we passed a European family who stayed in the same campsite as us last night. They commented on how different the weather was as they too had driven up the road yesterday and decided to wait until today hoping the weather forecast was correct. We had a little chat to them and then carried on back to our campervan.
The drive back West towards the coast was beautiful. This country is blessed with such incredible views of a wonderful landscape. It's not as varied as America but you can be sure that you will not be disappointed and the green mountains and forests, the blue seas and the golden and black sandy beaches just keep coming, but you don't get tired of looking at them. Once we reached the coast we pulled into a picnic spot and ate some lunch and then carried on.
We came to a sweet little town called Hokitika, which is the home of Jade. There were rows upon rows of shops selling this mineral, and workshops making jewellery from it. We bought some food for the next couple of days and then entered the Jade Factory and had a look round. They had some gorgeous pieces but I resisted and we left empty handed.
Onwards we drove stopping a couple of times to take photographs of the snowy mountains until we came to Glacier Country and a little place called Franz Josef. We had already booked a full day's guided walk for tomorrow online so we stopped at the centre to make sure everything was as it should be and to recap on what we needed for the trip. Once we were happy, we found somewhere to camp up for the next couple of days and settled down for the evening.
Day 107 - Franz Josef Glacier
We had gone to bed listening to the rain hammering against the van and trying to convince ourselves that the walk would be great, even in the rain. Luckily we woke up to the most amazing blue sky and sunshine. We quickly dressed and made our packed lunch and met the shuttle bus outside our holiday park at 8am.
We were met by quite a large group of cheery guides, all giving us waterproof boots, jackets and over trousers, crampons and gloves and hats. There were a few people booked on to the walk but because it was such a nice day plenty more guides than necessary joined us, leaving a ratio of one guide for two people! Nice work if you can get it!
Elles had a bit of trouble with her boots and tried on four pairs before she was happy (lets not forget the last time she wasn't happy with her ski boots 18 months ago!) and off we went on the coach four kilometres up the road to the Franz Josef Glacier car park. We walked for ten minutes to the edge of the valley before being given a quick introduction, safety talk and then choosing our guide. We were torn between AJ (the fast team and likely to spend more time on the ice) and Cliff (talker, would be educating as well as spectacular) but then we noticed Cliff only had four other people join him and AJ had the largest group so we felt sorry for Cliff and joined him. We were happy with this because we were in a small intimate group and we would both refresh what we learned in Geography lessons all those years ago.
Off we set for three quarters of an hour to the terminal face, walking across the valley filled with glacier debris, which caused the valley to rise steadily. We were the second group to arrive at the edge of the glacier and began climbing over what looked like a large hill but was actually terminal moraine and was part of the glacier. After a further 15 minutes we came to the edge of this mound and stopped for a lesson on how to put on our crampons correctly, which indeed we did so.
After a quick discard of clothes we set off onto the ice. It felt very weird walking, and took us a while to really trust the crampons and walk normally. We were about a kilometre away from the Glacier lip and we began a steady climb up some already formed ice steps and stopped to collect an ice axe to help us with stability when climbing or descending steep sections.
It was truly beautiful and not as cold as we imagined it to be, in fact we spent most of the day boiling hot. We only put our raincoats on when we knew we were going to get wet (more on that later) and our sunnies stayed on all day (except when Elles started to worry about panda eyes!) We spent the next five hours on the ice, exploring cracks and crevices, watching Cliff teach Simon and Toby (Guides in training) how to cut ice steps and use their equipment correctly, and marvelling at the wonderful waterfalls cascading down the sides of the valley. We also saw an avalanche, which was pretty cool. From where we were it looked just like a waterfall, but you knew it was snow because it wasn't continuous.
Cliff led us up, down, through, under and over some of the bluest ice I have ever seen. We're pretty sure he was just making it up as he went and he kept getting lost but we always ended up back on track. We kept seeing big pools of water next to where we were walking, which did lead you to ask questions about how thick and stable the ice really was, but Cliff knew what he was doing, and apart from losing the bottom part of your leg once or twice there were no dramas.
We found a short tunnel through the ice, which we crawled through. We were very lucky because once formed caves and tunnels only last a month or so before they melt. It was awesome and we got a bit wet crawling along because the ceiling was so low.
After what seemed like hours we were starving but when we looked at our watches it wasn't even midday! We explored for a further half an hour and then we stopped for lunch. It wasn't too bad a place to sit and eat. Apart from the odd helicopter there isn't a sound to be heard or a soul to be seen. You knew there were other groups on the Glacier somewhere but there was no trace of anyone else.
After lunch we thought we would be doing more of the same but Cliff stumbled upon a very deep hole. Elles thought he was asking her to go down it when she stepped up first and was almost about to say "Are you completely barking?? That's vertical!" But no, he was just showing us. Obviously we couldn't go too close to it in fear of falling in so Cliff threw a bit chunk of ice which Dan could hear rattling its way down for a good 20 seconds or more into the heart of the Glacier. This showed how dangerous it could be.
Shortly after that we found ourselves facing a very narrow crevice and we had no choice but to go through it. Elles led the group (behind Cliff) and she kept squealing as the ice walls became tighter, completely soaking everything she was wearing (but luckily we had our waterproof jackets on) and there were one or two exceptionally tight bits where Dan didn't think he would squeeze through and had to drag his rucksack behind him. The only way we could move was to shuffle our feet one at a time, keeping our bodies sideways, looking into the deep blue of the ice. Absolutely incredible, these words nor the picture do it justice. In places it towered at least three metres above us, sometimes more, and we seemed to be going deeper into it rather than coming out the other side but after about ten minutes the walls suddenly got wider and we were out the other side. We were all soaking wet but we had great big smiles on our faces.
We carried on for about half an hour before it was time to turn round and head back to the starting point. We had had such a fantastic time but we were quite glad to be heading back as we were both utterly exhausted. Although we hadn't walked very far (about 6 km's) we had been ascending and descending a considerable amount. We were the first group back down, although AJ's group caught us up by the time we took off our crampons. We took our time heading back across the valley towards the bus and we were back in the village by 4pm, thoroughly exhausted but very happy. This was by far one of our most favourite walks. It would be hard to beat!
When we made the booking online we were persuaded by the discounted Hot Glacier Pools offer and treated ourselves (again) and we were so glad we had. By now my feet were really starting to ache from the boots and we were really looking forward to relaxing for an hour or so in tranquillity. Nothing can beat a good soak in three different temperature pools and floating your troubles away (not that we have many!) And we weren't the only ones. We bumped into Suzanne and Michael, the Danish couple from our group, who had a similar idea, and as time went by more people arrived who we recognised from the other two groups. A popular follow up activity, both of which are owned by the same company I later realised. They must be sitting in a pub somewhere laughing their little cotton socks off!!
Afterwards, Dan decided he deserved a well earned pint so we headed to the pub (where again we saw a few familiar faces) and had a drink. We couldn't get Internet access from the camp site because it was too far out of town and we had been without for the last couple of days so we logged on whilst sipping our cold beverages and checked our email etc. We soon became slightly side tracked by the mouth watering food that was coming out of the kitchen and figured if we stayed a bit longer and had dinner we could upload some blog and photos so we thought of you all and had a very yummy burger and steak (which was less than the burger???) Thanks guys, you're the best!!
Dan and Elles xx