I ended the last blog entry by pleading 'bring on some action!'. The maori gods answered my call in Franz Josef.
It only took us a few hours to get there from Barrytown, but the drive alone was more dramatic than the previous three days. The road that we took is in the Lonely Planet's Top 9 Drives in the World and it hugged both the sea and mountains the whole way. It was spectacular, but nothing in comparison to the Torquay to Newton Abbot commute via Newton Road(!).
We stayed in another ski lodge-cum-hostel, but this one had a little more class. We were put in a dorm with a couple from the Stray bus with whom we had not previously spoken to - they were called Liz and Joe. We got talking about travelling and home and it turns out that Joe is from Torquay. What are the chances?!
The reason that people visit Franz Josef is that it is home to a unique sub-tropical glacier. It is very rare to see rainforest interrupted by a river of ice, so visitors like us pay to be guided through the myriad of deathtraps to get some cool photos of ourselves to go in the album. It takes around three days to scale the entire glacier, but we had neither the time or the dedication for such an excursion. A 6hr hike would suffice.
We were picked up by a shuttle bus at a ridiculous hour of the morning so that we could be transported to the 'terminal face' (it sounds like the expression a doctor would have before he gave you some bad news, but it's actually glacier lingo for the beginning). Once we were dropped off there was an hour trek before we got to even touch the cold stuff. However, it was a gratifying walk due to the mountains, waterfalls and the general unblemished scenic utopia. Most of the falls were so high that we couldn't see the source or base.
We were provided with waterproof jackets, trousers, hats, gloves, boots, socks and crampons. Reassuringly once we reached the beginning of the glacier walk we were given strict instructions not to die. We decided to comply. The guides have to create the tracks with ice axes every day due to the constant movement of the mass of ice. At some parts the ice is 300-metres deep, and some crevasses drop that far into an icy river. There are rock falls, ice falls, water falls and clumsy fools to worry about, all while trying to forget you're walking on a sheet of frozen water that moves 2-metres every day. The cracks and thuds that we intermittently heard were disconcerting but we gauged from our guide's reaction whether we should worry or not.
It was intense, otherworldly and incomparable to anything I have ever seen. Some of the crevasses that we had to shuffle sideways through were no wider than a foot, and we climbed down into a cave that was less than a week old (it may collapse within a month). We had lunch on an ice flat with views down on the gorge, up at the ice floe, mountains on the left and right. It was like extreme Pingu. It was an absolutely incredible day.