Sunday, March 25, 2007

The West Coast and Big Old Glaciers

A nice dinner at the local Thai restaurant, green curry, phad thai, tom kha soup etc. It was fairly busy, which was strange for us. New Zealand? A full restaurant? To show you how things are here, a couple walked in at 8:15pm and I was seriously worried they would not be served! Ridiculous. Afterwards we enjoy a jam night at a bar close by, before retiring later than planned!

With a knock-on later than planned start the next morning. Dad had asked reception whether we could pay the day before because we'd be leaving at the crack of dawn. Well, paying at 9am is not normally an issue at motels! We head off on SH (State Highway) 6, which runs all the way down to the Glaciers and beyond, a distance of about 250 miles. The landscape changes gradually as we approach the west, becoming greener and less dry, though the weather is quite fine today.

Look what I've found!

We stop in the rather drab Westport for a bite to eat for lunch, then carry on along the coast. A sign on the way in said "If you want England, go to Christchurch, if you want NZ, go to Westport"! Not a good advert for the Kiwis! The road across to the west was quite painful, swerving left and right almost continuously. The coastal road is better, though not without bends, and we whizz down through Greymouth and Hokitika at a fair pace, only occasionally getting stuck behind the camper-vans which seem so incredibly popular for touring here.

It's noteworthy that people are very polite drivers here, and almost always pull over to let faster vehicles through. Also although this SH6 road is a primary state highway, there are occasional single-lane bridges where one direction or the other has priority. Dad of course, slams on his "clutch" whenever he's not sure what's happening. The funny thing is that the traffic seems to be so light that these bridges, so the single lane doesn't seem to be an issue. There are postcards on sale here that are entitled New Zealand Traffic Jam, showing a flock of sheep in the road, but it's true - a shepherd moving a flock about would be the closest you'd come to congestion, certainly on the South Island.

The next stop for us after Westport are the "Pancake rocks" at Punakaiki.

And we're only half way to the Glaciers!

These are interesting limescale formations that look like stacks of pancakes, and have formed rock features that produce blowholes for the waves coming in, with blasts of water searing into the air. Not today though - the waves are booming about in the caverns below us, but not enough to give us a soaking (that would be much appreciated in the hot sunshine!).


Finally the long haul down to the Glaciers. There are various stretches along here where there are no petrol stations for a couple of hours drive, so we need to watch the fuel gauge, and we almost run out coming into Greymouth! It's hard to believe that there are glaciers here to be honest, we're really near the coast, and the landscape is of small hills densely covered in trees and foliage. However, suddenly in a gap between the hills some juicy mountains and glaciers appear.. We must be here! We find our favourite motel chain Bellavista, and book a "Helihike", i.e. where a helicopter takes you up the glacier then you go walking on the ice, for the next day.

Snowy stuff as seen from Franz Joseph Township

Helihike up Franz Joseph
There are two glaciers in this area, Fox and Franz Joseph, both in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Fox is the slightly smaller quieter one, Franz Joseph bigger, more famous, slightly more accessible. Normally I'd go for Fox, but as we're pushed for time, and for some reason Dad is tired after driving about 500km, so we visit Franz Joseph. This enormous glacier normally advances at 1m per day, but sometimes ramps it up to 5 or 6m per day, about 10x the speed of those in the European Alps. The Maori knew FJ as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere, which means "Tears of the Avalance Girl", a beautiful name. The more usual name was given to it by an Austrian, Julian Haast, who named it after the Austrian Emperor at the time.

The glaciers are here because NZ's South Island is right in the path of the Roaring Forties winds that come from the Southern Indian Ocean, laden with rain as they hit the Alps here, depositing a ridiculous 17m of rain per year high up above us, which falls as snow and feeds the glacier. This snow builds up, gets squashed, and becomes ice, flowing down and squeezing into a relatively narrow valley, plus dropping steeply down towards the temperate coast where we are staying.

Incidentally, I now have the answer as to why the ice is blue. When under lots of pressure, all the oxygen is squeezed out of the ice. Without the oxygen, the ice reflects all but the blue spectrum, and therefore appears blue to us. Goddit?

So, we turn up at The Helicopter Line's offices at the appointed hour, and are kitted out with their very heavy leather boots (compulsory), socks, waterproof jackets and crampons. For some reason a size 10 is ample for me, which is surprising. Either NZ sizes are bigger than the UK or their manufacturer is very generous with sizes. We walk out and wait for our helicopter ride up. Soon our 'copter is here, and we hop in, belting up and putting headsets on. Dad reveals that he used to ride helicopters when he worked on a gas rig in the North Sea! Who would have thought! Apparently it was such hard work that he took up Chartered Accountancy afterwards.

We lift off effortlessly, and whizz up the glacier. The ice is something to behold.

The pilot takes us up to the top of the glacier, then circles around, banking so we all get a good view, before dropping us on the landing "site" that the guides have cleared this morning. Out on to the ice, we step down a small staircase cut into the ice to a rocky area where everyone is waiting.

Here we put our crampons on, strapping the metal teeth which will give us grip on the ice to the bottom of the boots. This done, we set off, following our young female guide who has an enormous ice-pick, and helpfully clears a way for us.

We start walking up the ice and towards the edge, the ice crunching beneath our feet, though if you reach out with your hand to touch, you find it very hard.

There is water trickling everywhere, and in spots you can hear a bubbling or gurgling noise below, presumably where water is dropping down through the glacier. Everywhere there is white coloured "slush puppy" ice, with occasional cracks and holes showing the deep blues of crevaces.

Our guide finds a hole that for some reason we're supposed to climb through. It's a painful process all round!

Dad grazes his knees, in the process polluting the glacier, tut tut. We then trudge further up, through another cave and a small tunnel.

All around us are strange ice-sculpures, and at one point she asks us not to stand underneath a wave of ice in case the top breaks.

The ice moves up to 6 metres a day in the middle, and so there are often ice-falls, which of course can be very dangerous, especially when some of the peaks of ice can be 80m tall. It's very hard to judge the size of everything on the ice, until you see some humans far away, to put things in scale.


A successful day

We return to base, I'm so happy to put my own boots and socks back on, then we enjoy a celebratory late lunch, before setting off to drive to Wanaka. The drive is along a good road, is incredibly quiet - we overtake one camper-van the whole drive, and very beautiful, passing through forests, along the coastline, turning inland at Haast, heading up to Haast Pass at 563m, then down along the enormous and broody-looking at dusk Wanaka and Hawea Lakes.

We arrive in Wanaka in the dark. It's a small town in a lovely spot, and everyone seems very fond of it. Not long for us to enjoy it though, as tomorrow morning we go to Queenstown Airport and fly to Christchurch. I've picked up some tickets to watch the Canterbury Crusaders vs the Stormers in Jade Stadium at Christchurch!

1 comment:

Lewis and Fliss said...

It makes me a little sad that I won't be getting to see any of this with you guys, but I really hope it all goes to plan and you continue to have what appears to be an amazing time. Look after king frog!
Take care
Fliss x