27 May 2007
It is hard to believe that it is Memorial Day weekend and I am not home! The unofficial/official start to the summer and I am walking on the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand! What is wrong with this picture?
I left Wanaka and started north along the western shore of Lake Hawea, which is just another beautiful drive. It is hard to describe but try and picture a huge lake without any homes, neon signs , coffee shops, billboards or any disruptions to the pristine lake front. The water looks cold as I am sure it is, and the tussock laden hills just add to the picturesque vistas.
After a while, I started up the east side of Lake Wanaka, which is the same lake that I spent the night on the south side. Soon I was driving in the hills and mountain s and there were more S curves and U turns going around the mountains. It was just another beautiful drive as I reached Haast on the west coast in about 2 hours. Now, I am driving along the Tasman Sea with mountains on my right. I am getting word-weary in trying to describe this place. Take my word for it or come and see it for yourself! It is beautiful!! In a country of 4 million people, there is a lot of real estate in between the cities and it is gorgeous.
First, I passed through the area of the Fox Glacier, but I kept going because my destination is the town of Franz Josef and the eponymous glacier! It is so wild to drive into a town and see Franz everywhere. Hotels. Motels, restaurants, everything in town has the name emblazoned all over!
I immediately signed up for an afternoon walk on the FJ Glacier leaving at 12;30 PM. I told the desk clerk about my family connection with the Franz Joseph name and he couldnt believe it. While I couldnt prove it, on the spot, I persisted and he finally gave me a five dollar discount on the price of the afternoon walk. Dropping the FJ name has clout in these parts!!!!
Grandma D or Doris to those who know and love her asked what the origin of the name was. Apparently an explorer named Haast came through the area in the late1800s and discovered the glacier and named it after the Austrian Emperor out of respect. Not that Haast did badly for himself as he has a town, river, street, hotel, etc. named after him about 1 hour south of FJ.
There were eight people on my hike and the first thing is getting outfitted. The hike company provides, waterproof boots, socks, gloves, hats, Gore-Tex jacket, ice cleats and because it was such a beautiful warm day and supposedly a dry one, they decided not to issue waterproof overpants to the hikers.
A Kiwi named Greg is our guide and we board a bus for a ten minute drive to the staging area for the hike. After a twenty minute hike through a rainforest, we come to a clearing and we can see the glacier in the distance. He asks the group How far is the glacier?
Answers range from 400 meters to 1000 meters, where in fact, we are 1 kilometers from the icewall. The glacier is so huge, it completely distorts any perception of distance. We marched over rock-strewn moraine, several streams, thank goodness for those boots!
And donned our ice cleats at the base of the glacier. There is a river flowing under tha glacier, huge mountains on each side and this massive block of ice in front of us! It is 400 meters wide at the bottom and 11 Kilometers wide at the top, which is 6 kilometers deep.
The glacier is moving at a rate of 30 centimeters a day in the direction we came from!( I quipped, It makes for a shorter trip home) There were guide ropes to grab as we started up a stair case that had been carved into the ice. Glaciers are not pretty as they are covered in rocks and dirt and one wonders what the attraction is to glaciers. Very soon, looking back down the glacier, people standing on the river bed below looked Lilliputian!
We climbed up stairs for an hour, alternating between pulls on the guide rope and stepping up the stairs. There were not 8 inch risers, there were more light 15 inch risers and everybody was huffing and puffing, including yours truly.
When we reached a level plateau, Greg , our fearless guide said, It is a nice day, you are a nice group, I want to show you the crevasse! We started down these crevasse with thirty foot walls on either side and the ice was intense blue and the opening was tiny. I had to turn sideways to squeeze through the narrow V opening and had a few anxious seconds as I didnt think I was going to make it. As I squeezed my way through, I wish we had those waterproof overpants as everyone got soaked from the walls of the crevasse. I recall the experience of the Great Barrier Reef and was thinking of the incredible contrast of ocean and ice. That is a remarkable contract. Higher in the icefield, the ice is cleaner, less moraine and more compacted blue ice. It was overcast at this point, but the blue color was unmistakeable. The ice forms are jagged in shape, with rippled surfaces and seemingly endless rivulets of water running down the glacier. I tis wet up there! Damn those pants! The group was very good keeping up with the guide and we managed to take a loop around the ice field to get a sense of the largesse of the ice mass.
Soon, we started down and going down is probably more treacherous than climbing up!
This is where those ice cleats really come into play and help with the traction on the big downward steps. The guide was doing a lot of manicuring and shaping of the steps as the warm air and traffic changes the shape of the stairs in the matter of an hour or two.
We took longer to get down than to get to the first stage of the glacier, but we were all glad to reach the river bed and remove the ice cleats. The walkway was strewn with boulders, rocks and stones of every imaginable size and just walking back is a series of steps from rock to stone to boulder interspersed with streams!
That waiting bus was very welcomed as the fatigue of the journey sets in when you see the end of the trail! At this point, the group was awfully quiet as we were exhausted form our five hour trek up, down the Franz Josef Glacier. I just wish they would get the spelling right!
There you have it, another extraordinary day in this Odyssey! I have flown over Glaciers, seen Glaciers from boats, but never had the thrill of climbing on them. This was another trip highlight!!!
Sunday Morning, I drove two hours north to the town of Greymouth on the west coast of Southland. This is where I drop off the car to board the Tranz Alpine train across Southland to Christchurch. A sit was early in the day, before noon, I decided to take a drive further north to Punikaika, a destination famous for the pancake rock formations and the blowholes. Scientist havent been able to definitively explain why the rock formations look like pancakes piled on top of one another. But it sure makes for interesting viewing. The seas were quite rough the blowholes were quite active in their spouting. That was worth the extra driving. I finished the day with another 2 hour sightseeing drive up to Westport over to Reefton and back to Greymouth. Just more magnificent scenery along a river, through mountain gorges, past beautiful farms and back to the hotel.
The train leaves at 1:45 pm, so I have time for a hike from the town in the morning. Ill be hiking in the morning, so you Journey well too!