Day 5: Ice Hiking & Rubbernecking
Day 4: Keep Rubbing!
Day 3: Glowworms, Hydroslides and Dragons
Day 2: Gas for the Pass and Passing Gas
Day 2: Thar She Blows!
Day 1: The Adventure Begins
A Dash of Preparation
October 30, 2003
Day 5: Ice Hiking & Rubbernecking
Day 5 Fox Glacier Tour 0900-1300, Fox Glacier – Wanaka Drive @ 1330 // Awake @ 0645L // ACTIVITIES: Glacier Hiking, Driving
I wake up excitedly, before my wimpy alarm ever goes off, trying to organize my scattered thoughts. It doesn’t take long to get moving. The sun is beginning to peek through the mountains and gaze on the town – it looks as if the morning will be perfect for the half-day Glacier Hike I’ve arranged through the front desk.
I have a heart-starting cigarette and sip my rapidly cooling instant coffee in the brisk morning mountain air. There’s definitely something different about this town – the smell and feel of it – but I can’t quite grasp its elusiveness. I head down to the Alpine Guides headquarters, eager to check in and get something in my stomach besides instant coffee and nicotine. Inside the faux ski-lodge there is frenzied activity as different groups scramble over each other to check in for the full day, half-day and heli-hiking tours offered by the company. Another large gathering earnestly tries to buy every imaginable souvenir in the store. For my part, I pick out some tasteful postcards and a silver-on-black baseball cap sporting the town’s name with a silver fern leaf before hopping into line.
I sit at one of the ‘rustic’ wooden benches outside to wolf down my breakfast and sneak in some postcard writing. Right in the middle of my eggs, sausage and bacon – my half-day cluster shows up under the same overhang. The guides are busy splitting the group into two – with one consisting mostly of young and middle aged adults, and the other being comprised of kids, families and elders. Inside the boot shack, I’m granted permission to keep my own relatively new but well broken in Montrails on. They’ve served me well so far, and would probably host the crampons and today’s hike without complaint.
According to our bus driver, by mid-afternoon there was sure to be a squall-like rainstorm in the glacial valley, although it promised to be a gorgeous morning,. “Simply a fact of life around here” he dryly quips. I’m especially pleased with my decision to book a tour through Alpine Guides, since they are part owners of a trail system that is strictly off-limits to unguided individuals trying to get close to the glacier terminus.
The road, though a relatively short journey, turns from uncomfortably bumpy to seat-dislodging insanity before coming to an end in the granite parking lot, located where the glacier terminus hung about 20 years previously. Graham, our friendly looking salt-and-pepper bearded information source is quick to assure us that we will not lose any time or sights by waiting a bit for the other group to get ahead. He launches into a brief history of the Alpine Guides company and some of his personal history as well. Graham has personally seen the glacier terminus hundreds of meters both ahead and behind of its current position – the retreating and advancing being among the most dramatically variant in the world
I had no idea the half-day hike would be a true hike, but it’s well worth it. On the first sloping ascent, I can feel my calves tighten and release, adjusting to the incline. My feet stretch into my boots, and my knees pop a few times before getting used to the steady uphill motion. We plunge right into a temperate rainforest, a sight that is still somewhat magical to me, though I’ve now seen it a few times. Graham notes that this is one of three places in the world from which you can view a true alpine glacier from the thick of a rainforest. The second is Franz Josef, 25 km. up the road.
There are breaks in the rainforest, where the trail seems to get steeper and more intense before plunging back into the moist world of ferns and leafy greens. Birdsong echoes sparingly as we approach the first bridge crossing a torrent of the mountain melt-off that’s spilling down the sides of the valley.
We all step carefully along, though at least one person manages to submerge a foot. Graham reminds us all glacial and mountain runoff in the area is fairly pure water, but this fast-moving stuff from atop the nearby hills especially so. I take him wisely at his word and refill my water bottle.
I delight on what an unexpected and fantastic a turn of events this is, for at no time in my trip had I ever thought about doing a glacier tour. In fact, were it not for the encouragement of several new friends along the way, I would’ve blown right by this wonder with nary a picture to remind me of its majesty. Instead, I find myself creeping alongside a living glacier, on my way to scale its very form. The valley below looks amazing.
At the highest point of the trail, the path winds up and down extremely steeply, cutting back and forth, and traversing rocks rather than dirt. Because of this, the company put in looped chains to guide the walkers and hopefully keep them from falling down the many cliffs that comprised this upper lip of the glacier valley.
Graham stops us here for a while, detailing the intricacies of glacier formation and Fox Glacier’s history in particular. He points out marks throughout the valley clearly indicating the glacier’s movement. He describes the great heights the terminus once stood at. The township itself had been buried under ice only 300 years prior.
Now traveling the short distance downward to our glacial entry point, we see several other groups at various stages along the ice, including our other half just dismounting and removing their crampons [metal spikes which are tied to the bottom of your hiking boots, giving you traction in ice] and replacing their poles. Graham keeps us entertained with anecdotes and a fair warning to stay away from his swinging ice axe when he ‘repairs the stairs’.
The group excitedly marries crampons to boots, ensuring a completely snug fit. We grab our hiking poles – a long wooden broom handle with a semi-sharp piece of metal at the ends. Graham reminds us not to eat the back of his ice ax, and to step carefully and flat footed. “Ballerinas tend ta’ eat ice ‘round up here” he added with a grin. He isn’t kidding – though it’s always hard to tell with Kiwi guides. As I step onto the ice, planting my pole firmly and stepping down flatly, my ankle still finds a reason to cringe as my heel slips out slightly to the left.
We tread upon the ice path, which carefully winds and picks its way among crevasses, holes (properly moulins – think of a pipe from the surface of a glacier to its center), icefalls (just like waterfalls, but with ice), and small sinkholes (suncups and the like – formed by warm weather).
“We carve these ice steps out at least twice a day” Graham calls over his shoulder, “and sometimes more, depending on the weather. Not to mention every guide that comes through here cuts out some steps to keep the shape of the trail right. Rain can wash it out quick, but the sun can wash it out a lot quicker.”
I understand already, just recently having converted my pants to shorts. Still, I feel a definite need to keep the watch cap on my bald head. Graham stops us for a moment, pointing out an almost perfect moulin formation, into which he tosses a nice sized rock. We listen for a good 5 or 6 seconds before we finally hear the clatter-splash of its landing. It’s a long way down.
“Now, on to something else I hope is still around” Graham says gleefully and leads us up and around the ice path, coming about a sharp corner to a remarkable blue crystal cave. It’s melting quickly from the still-rising heat and sunlight of the day, but it’s still sharply defined, and amusing to walk through.
I run my hands along the ultra-smooth blue ice on the interior of the cave – it’s frozen silk at my fingertips, slick and frictionless. I’m tempted to lick it, but resist, thinking of “A Christmas Story”. The rest of the group crowds ahead and behind me, all of them taking pictures in the ice cave – a rare chance for anyone who is not by habit a glacial hiker.
Our guide continues to give us an education on glacier formation, glacial deposits, the physics of ice flow, and a number of other fascinating topics as we follow him through the crevasse. He’s discussing till now – the great deposits of rock left behind by the ever-moving glacier. It comes in all shapes, sizes, and brittleness. Some of the stuff crumbles to dust if you look at it funny, other rocks are so sharp they break the skin when you pick them up. There are little piles scattered hither and thither along the surface – some of them seeming perfectly logical, others appearing out of place. Our escort tells us about the slow churning and layering motion of the glacier, and how it “tosses” the rocks from underneath to the exterior of the glacier. You can tell which ones have been run over flat, and which ones have been constantly churned too – the former being smooth and flat, the latter looking like broken glass.
We wander further ‘up’ the glacier to a good vantage point for the icefalls. Icefalls are, according to Graham, a very common geological formation on glaciers – it’s a tap or spigot for the ice flow that comprises the main body of the glacier (at least the part we’re walking on). I’m gazing at what looks like a cross between Superman’s home and an avalanche – jumbles of ice, pillars and columns strewed this way and that, punctuated by spans, blocks, and massive chunks of ice. Above and below the falls, the ice is comparably smooth. In our half-day walk, we’ll miss out on a visit to those icefalls, a feat that the full-dayers will accomplish.
The air is chill on my head and torso, even under layers, but my legs are quite warm from all the exercise. I notice grayer and grayer clouds rolling in – pushing against the hilltops that surround the valley – trying to find a way in.
“Ya’p – won’t be long now,” mulls Graham peeking around before going back to cutting the rapidly melting stairs away with his swinging ice axe.
The other guy just smiles as he leaps across the gap and onto a bit of rock. “I don’t need luck – I love this weather – more glacier to have for myself!” and with a wry grin starts trudging his way along.
We’re taking a different way out – right down alongside the glacier to the terminus. The path is steep, rocky, and Graham makes sure we take it slow. The till here is loose and fine, save for occasional large jagged boulders, all of which have spiraling rayed patterns. Some rocks look like they were split in half or just split period, and when I ask Graham about it, he tells me it’s been shattered by frozen water expanding. As we near the terminus, we find ourselves fording several runaway valley streams. The water running down the mountainside often picks new paths, and today is pretty wide – to the end that almost everyone gets their feet wet.
Just as we’re leaving, a sign catches my eye. I take a few seconds to process it and begin laughing wholeheartedly. A few people look back to see what I find so hilarious – but it seems the sign is only funny to a few who share my appreciation for the Kiwi’s innate and ingrained sense of humor.
Back at the ‘base’, I talk with Graham some more. He seems like a typical good-natured Kiwi, friendly, genuine, and reluctant to share the thousands of tales he’s accumulated in his life. New Zealander’s, after all, are not by nature braggarts – though many seem to have accomplished great things within their lifetime. His eyebrows arch when I tell him of my plans to kayak Doubtful Sound in several days.
“Oh, you’ll have a great time there. You’re very lucky, you know, not many people do that, and it’s a shame. Also, say hi to Christina when you get there – if she’s still working. And enjoy yourself – that will be quite an experience.”
The drive to Wanaka – a distance of roughly 240 kilometers – is great, too. I’ve got the music blaring, and the brief time I spend along the coastline is great - it smacks of Oregon. The high cliff tops and evergreen forests crashing down into the Indian Ocean seem very familiar to me. The first 140 km. blazes by surprisingly fast, and before long I pull into the World Heritage Visitor’s Centre in the tiny outpost of Haast. There doesn’t seem to be anything else here, save for a settlement quite smaller than Fox Glacier.
I’ve made it to the Haast Pass highway to Wanaka. Fodor’s Guide made it clear that this was a must-see drive, and I’m planning to make the most of it. Although the distance between here and Wanaka is only 100 km. drive, I’ve got several scenic stops planned. Not much to see at the first stop – Roaring Billy Falls – but I take a picture anyway before heading back through the cool forest trail to my sedan. Perhaps I’m getting spoiled on the magical scenery that seems to abound in this country.
A little further up the road is the Thunder Creek Falls track. The sun seems to be continually fighting the forest and the landscape, covering the land with thick draping shadows that give the illusion it’s much later in the day. This particular track is short and sweet – a black pavement walkway ducks behind a grove of native flora and discharges me onto a wooden observation platform. Thunder Creek Falls can’t be missed as it streams down onto the waiting pile of discarded rocks. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the life I know back home releases its unconscious hold on me and disappears for the rest of the day.
Back on the hardtop now, with the mountains still shadowing the tricky turns. Warning signs mark the way, each one advising extreme caution, dangerous curves, and excessive downgrades. The road dips and swings, rounding bends at insane angles and dropping back into flat, straight highway sections where speeding is the only option. It’s on one of these roads that I fly right by the infamous “Bra Fence”, identified in one of my guidebooks. Without a thought, I screech to a halt and throw the car into reverse, backing until I’m just opposite of the landmark. What started out as a practical joke is now an actual feature of the drive between the townships of Haast and Wanaka. I have no true desire to figure out when or why these items of clothing came to be left here.
The snaking begins again and starts the slow sloping descent alongside the head of Lake Wanaka, instantly astounding me with the dramatic change of scenery. The temperate rainforests have disappeared now, replaced by sharply defined mountains and dramatic lakescapes. The sun seems to play with me, ducking behind the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake as I traverse the zigs and zags of highway 6. I know I’m running out of daylight – at least it seems as such, though it’s still only 4:00 PM, but I keep pulling over to capture the moments and magic of the sun shooting through the valleys around the Minaret Peaks.
Not much further down, the road veers away from Lake Wanaka and embarks on a parallel course with Lake Hawea. I’m sure these lakes were born together, as I notice the same majesty. The difference here is that the mountains on the opposite shore are now lit directly by the setting sun, rather than appearing backlit. The views are ever enchanting, and I stop more than once just to gaze across at a world previously unknown to me. At one particular stop, I find myself face to face with a dream-world setting – and just stay there for a few moments letting it all sink in. It finally dawns on me how lucky I am just to be here.
The last 20 kilometers go quickly once the road pulls away from the lake, and I’m happy to be in town as the light fades from the sky. It takes me a while to find the Purple Cow, but I do. Although this is somewhat legendary backpackers for the South Island, I find it to be noisy and crowded, and not at all what I’m looking for after communing with so much beauty. While I check in and scan the place, I realize I’m unwilling to deal with large groups of people tonight – and part of me wishes for a solitude I know I won’t get here.
It’s an early night, and I find myself eager to be lost in the wilderness as I drift off to sleep.
~~end day 5~~
Posted by Mike on October 30, 2003 01:09 PM
Category: Hokitika / Fox Glacier / West Coast