Vern: We woke up to terrible weather in Franz Josef, very grey and drizzling, and made our way to the parking lot for the Franz Josef glacier. The glacier is in a national park and like all parks is free to visit. New Zealand is rather amazing like this, the Department of Conservation is responsible for so much gorgeous land and maintain so many walks, and all are free to locals and tourists!
Round the back of the van, we prepared our cereal in the parking-lot and caught the attention of two Keas - ballsy brown parrots with red under-wing. They were done with eating the windscreen wipers off of the car next to us and apparently fancied their chances of separating us from our corn flakes. Well at least this is how my fiancee saw it and so I stood back and watched Round Two of Andrea versus Avians. Andrea clapped and stomped and shouted and the parrots hopped back a foot, then she turned to pour her milk and hop hop hop they approached. Then Andrea made a noise (now holding a full cereal bowl) and the parrots backed off only a foot so as to encroach a further two feet forward the next time her mouth was full of cereal. This continued for a bit. It was quite a little spectacle and should really be choreographed for public performance. Andrea did eventually get through her cereal and the Keas went hungry so I guess she's currently at 2-nil!
The forty minute walk over rocky ground across the glacier carved valley was not particularly pleasant in the heavy rain, though it did pass a good-looking waterfall. Unfortunately, the terminal face of the glacier didn't wow us either. Through heavy cloud cover the visibility was poor and the ice wall wasn't really worth risking our un-waterproof camera in the sheets of rain. We took the trail back and took refuge in the campervan. Twenty kilometers further down the coast is Fox Glacier (the two glaciers sort of compete with tour companies offering similar activities on each one) and there we were booked to trek on the glacier which gives the town its name.
We kitted up at the tour agency into waterproof gear and big boots, and took along a backpack with crampons in it. Our guide, Daniela is from Costa Rica - which is a little odd as there isn't much ice in the Caribbean - but she seemed to know what she was doing. The company's bus drove us to the Fox Glacier. Interestingly, the town of Fox Glacier and the glacier of the same name are 5 minutes away but are on two different tectonic plates: the former is on the Indo-Australian Plate, and the latter is on the Pacific Plate. The result of the two plates rubbing together is a range of jagged peaks which have been eroded away by rain and glaciers and otherwise could be some of the tallest in the world.
We walked toward the glacier through a rocky valley. The glacier was currently receding and only 2 years ago was 50m further forward. Daniella pointed out a ladder to nowhere poking out of the valley-side which the tour company used to use to access the glacier.
We came up to the rope-boundary facing the glacier wall up to which the unguided public are allowed to progress: the ice face is smaller than the other but a river ran out of a large blue arch so it was slightly more picturesque. We moved beyond this and up the valley wall past the left of the glacier face and then down to a flat area where the ice meets the earth. Here, we strapped on the crampons - a steel rectangle with five down-facing spikes which slips into the gap between the heel and the treading on a hiking boot. The straps go over the top of the foot and round the ankle and buckle up on the side of the boot. We also picked up a walking stick with a spiked metal tip for balance, and then we stepped up onto the ice. A convenient little ice staircase was cut into the glacier - apparently the guides start every day by coming out here and hacking out these stairs - and we ascended up to the top. A massive white and blue steppe spread out in all directions. The surface was uneven and as slippery as one would expect but by stomping hard the spikes in the crampons would catch and mobility was relatively straightforward. The rain didn't let up unfortunately and continued to pelt us as we traipsed about. The few photos we took were high-risk attempts to get a clear shot without ruining the camera. Our guide led us across the ice plateau passed multiple moulins - unfrozen pools of water - of varying sizes and depths, though Daniella said that most have at least a small funnel deep into the glacier. Apparently, a few years ago a Canadian fell in to one of these pools, slid all the way through the glacier and was flushed out into the river which pours out of the glacier's face. And he lived. That should be part of the tour!
She led us to an ice tunnel which the guides had recently found. It was fantastic! A hole in the ice floor led into a baby blue tube which was completely smooth and a rather tight fit. We crept slowly down the slippery slope which finished in a tiny icy pond over which daylight shone through a small hatch. Up and out of this we popped on the other side. It was wonderfully surreal and climbing through it I felt like I was in a Coca-Cola commercial. This was the guide's ace-in-the-hole and we were all gushing about this wondrous little natural phenomenon. It was also the furthest we were to go on the ice and we turned around here and headed back the way we came. At the icy staircase we were surprised to find three Argentinians who had ignored warning signs and found their own way onto the glacier. They'd picked up walking sticks but were dressed in jeans and loafers and were making slow progress - the guide gave them a telling off in both English and Spanish but was powerless to actually kick them off the ice. I can see where they're coming from avoiding the pricey tour price but wandering around up there without crampons was not smart and there were a few places where our guide had advised us not to tread because the ice looked dodgy.
We climbed down the stairs and back on to mud. Thunder and lighting greeted us on our return to earth and the river we'd crossed on the way in was raging angrily now. We made our way back toward the car-park and the mountains put on a little show for us with an exciting rock fall. Large car-sized boulders made a huge racket tumbling down the valley wall and kicking dirt up into the air.
Back at the tour outfit, we climbed out of all the damp clothes and dried off. It was late in the afternoon and we set off in GEM to try to find somewhere to sleep for the night before it got too dark.