Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Day 16 - The road to Te Anau

The sun was up today before we hit the road, not before we got up but before we hit the road at least. Today was all about the drive you see, with little to see en-route as such save for Queenstown and the surrounding area which we would be coming back to at the end of the holiday.

The journey from Haast to Te Anau is around 5 hours, longer if you stop off somewhere like we did.

The first stretch of the journey is between Haast and Wanaka and is known as the Haast Pass.

For the most part it's a really pretty drive and there are a couple of short stops along the way, not that far from Haast which are worth a quick look.

Thunder Creek Falls is a short 10 minute, easy-going walk from the side of the main highway about 20-25 minutes south of Haast. It's easy to find, you can't miss it and a waterfall is always worth a photo or two.

Shortly after Thunder Creek you come across the Roaring Billy. Located on a corner just before a bridge this is quite a busy tourist spot and there is limited parking as some people park here for a while to do a walk to the bottom of the falls. It's one of those places where if you stop briefly just to have a quick look there isn't really a kodak moment, to get that you need to do the walk but then there is that incredible noise. I should explain that 'Roaring Bily' is the name of another waterfall which gushes from a man-made spout out into the Haast river way down below. The sound is deafening, much like the Huka Falls only somehow more 'tuned'.

We didn't make anymore stops until we hit Wanaka, which was our early lunch port of call for the day.

The lakeside town of Wanaka has the feel and vibe of the upcoming Queenstown but without the hustle and bustle. It's relaxing atmosphere is somewhat calmed even further by the shores of the Lake Wanaka watched-over and protected by the Mount Aspiring mountain range surrounding the lake itself.

Wanaka has a high concentration of cafes, restaurants and curious shops. It's a great place to stop off for a couple of hours to break the journey. In truth you could actually while away an entire day here, particularly if the weather is nice as there are plenty of walks and activities which begin here.

After lunch we got ourselves on the road again and it wasn't long before we brushed along the outskirts of Queenstown. The first evidence of being in the heart of adventure kingdom came from Mr. Adventure himself A.J. Hackett and the roots of his empire built upon the edge of the Kawarau River.

The bridge that spans the river is home to the worlds first commercial bungy jump established in 1988. Entry is free for all and there is a viewing gantry which enables the public en-mass to watch the "lemmings" chucking themselves off the bridge one after another but if you want to jump that'll cost you around $140. It's fascinating to watch and the more you watch the more that little adventurous person trapped within your mind tell's you "go on, have a go, you know you want to". As the draw of the edge of a clifftop drags your curiosity towards it, the same can be said of A.J. Hacketts bungy, yet for us the sane part of our brain kicked in and we quickly scrurried back to our car before we changed our mind.

Strangely my fear of heights was part of my brain's encouragement to do it, maybe it would have been the ultimate way of conquering a fear. Certainly as people walk towards the edge with their ankles strapped onto a very stong bit of elastic they don't get a chance to change their minds, oh no, by that time it is too late and after the guys do a countdown from 5 if you don't jump you get a helping hand so that you don't hold the queue up for too long with your dilly-dallying.

Here's a lemming taking the plunge.

Just around the corner from here is Queenstown and the main road cuts between Queenstown airport and the town itself. The holiday had been so quiet and peaceful until now. As we passed over the roundabout at the top of the main street we suddenly realised where all the tourists in New Zealand were... they were here, in Queenstown. We didn't stop in Queenstown this time as we would be returning here properly in a few days time, we just stopped at the side of the road when we saw a breathtaking view of Queenstown in the valley below.

The road leading out of Queenstown is spectacular. It skirts the bottom of The Remarkables, the mountain range surrounding Queenstown, and it would be the first time we'd really appreciated snow-capped mountain peaks this holiday. As a result of this we stopped frequently for photos. On the other side of the road is Lake Wakatipu providing yet more glorious views.

The road from Queenstown to Te Anau is yet another pretty drive taking you through beautiful scenery and little 'frontier-style' towns. Many people choose to stay in Queenstown and then do a day trip to the Sounds and Te Anau. Let me tell you these people are mad. Insane. Nuts. It's a five hour drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, you'd spend most of the day just travelling! If you can, and time will afford it you are much better off staying in Te Anau which is a good halfway point between the 2 places and also close to Doubtful Sound if you are planning to do that as well.

Based in the heart of Fiordland we worried initially that Te Anau would be a small town with very little to do, particularly as we'd be spending 4 nights there but let me reassure you that isn't the case. With all the things there are to do around here you'll never get bored, plus there are plenty of places to eat and drink. Heck there is even a cinema.

We stayed just outside the township at a place called Blue Thistle Cottages. This is a small collection of individual cottages built on top of a little hill overlooking Te Anau, and as we drove up the driveway Kate was wishing that we would be staying in the cottage right on the edge of the hill with the best views. Our wishes rarely come true but this time they did.

The view from outside our cabin.

What a truly fantastic place to stay. The cottages are immaculately decorated, each with their own kitchen/diner, lounge (with free Sky and internet access), bedroom and bathroom. It's owned and run by Annette and Peter Gardiner, two of the friendliest hosts we met over there.

Yes, it was expensive but the price does vary depending on the season and it is worth every penny. This was our favourite place to stay in all of New Zealand, if you are planning to stay in Te Anau have a look at Blue Thistle first, you won't be disappointed.

After quickly settling in it was such a glorious evening we decided to go straight into town to get a feel of the place. After a few minutes wandering around Kate noticed a tourism office offering scenic flights over Milford Sound. Now as you may remember from yesterday we'd missed out on the glacier flight due to bad weather and Kate was determined that it wasn't going to happen again. How right she was too as the rest of our time here would be a period of unpredictable weather that the tours would not fly in.

The tour office overlooking Lake Te Anau was very helpful and they got us booked on a flight due to board in just 30 mins with a company just across the road called Wings and Water. These people don't have a website and to be honest you don't need to book in advance mainly due to the problems with the weather. Just turn up on the day and make a booking. Even though the weather was good there was still one other little thing which may have stopped us from getting in the air and that was the need for more people. These are little planes and at maximum capacity can only hold 5 passengers, and any less than 4 meant they wouldn't run the tour.

The tour agent said she would do her best to find more people and told us to go and wait on the pier where the plane was kept. We duly did this, hoping to not get our scenic flight dreams canned again. Once there the pilot greeted and informed us that they were still waiting for another couple to buy the tour and gave us the option of doing a Doubtful Sound overflight instead as he had people waiting for that one already. As tempting as the offer was, especially when he dropped the price that tour wasn't the one we wanted and we stuck to our guns. At the 11th hour our ship came in, in the form of a couple and their young son who like us had seen the weather when they arrived in Te Anau and dashed down to try and get a flight.

Our luck was in and as we took off from the water we couldn't help but feel sorry for the other couple not getting their Doubtful Sound flight but as it turned out they would get lucky after all later that evening.

The flight itself was truly spectacular, if a little hairy at times. With the plane being so small it doesn't take much before it gets buffetted around in the wind. I found this quite fun but I did feel sorry for the other male passenger who was looking a little green around the gills.

The tour felt very personal and we all had headsets with microphones so we could talk with the pilot and ask questions but mostly our jaws were constantly agape looking out across the mountainous areas that form the Sounds. It really is a vast area, something you don't fully appreciate when doing just a boat tour.

A tiny speck of a large tour boat on Milford Sound.

Things like lakes high atop mountains, the treeline which magically stops 200m below the mountaintops and feeling of the immense volcanic power which forced these huge rocks out of the earth.

We were so pleased that we'd missed out on the glacier flight as if we'd done it we couldn't have afforded to do this one and I just got the impression that the Milford Sound overflight was 100 times better. A gut feeling I know, but when we came back down to earth we'd left our hearts in the sky above Milford.

Dinner that night was just a simple pizza in a cafe. Nothing special, then again everything was suddenly pale in comparisson to our experience that day.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Day 15 - Fox's Glacier Stint

It's dark, it's all so very dark. 4.45am the alarm goes off, disoriented I roll out of bed... straight into a wall. The woman on the reception had warned us it was a small room, how right she was. We had a 5:45 deadline to be at the Mirror Lake for sunrise (even though sunrise wouldn't be until 6:30... yeah I know, all will be revealed), and with a 30-40 minute journey ahead of us there was no time for anything. Showering - luxury. Clean clothes - luxury. Breakfast - erm, well ok I made time for a quick snackette and hey the tiny little room even had a fridge! What it lacked however was any eating implements so I ended up spreading manuka honey on my bread using the tools God attached to the end of my palm. Either way it was better than nothing. A shower would wait as we would be returning to the hotel later that morning.

With no traffic on the road it took us only 30 minutes to get to our destination, a route which took us through the outskirts of Fox Glacier which would be a stop-off later in the day. There would be a lot of re-treading of trodden ground on this day.

We arrived at Lake Matheson, aka the Mirror Lake around 5:30. Surprisingly we weren't the only fools out at this time of day, some people had camped here. Not that they were up yet, and who could blame them as it was still dark outside. Sunrise wouldn't happen for over an hour but we knew from our research that it takes around an hour to walk from the car park to get to the best spot at the side of the lake to take photos.

As we pulled into the car park and turned the engine off we were greeted by a blood curdling squealing. It was all around us, kind of like the built-in sound demo you get with a surround sound system, sitting in the car we didn't know quite what to make of it. Eventually curiosity got the better of me and went to the boot/trunk to get our torch. As I leant into the trunk something scurried past my leg, closely followed by something whizzing past my ear so close I could feel a breeze.

Squeal! Squeal! Squeal! Hurriedly I switched the torch on and was completely amazed by what I saw. Scurrying around the ground were 20-30 Possums, being chased by airborne prey in the form of as many Kias! Now as far as we could make out the kias didn't seem to be attacking the possums, really all they seemed to be doing was playing with them, chasing them, bowling them over and then letting them struggle to their feet before it would start all over again. I couldn't believe it, the kias were just trying to have a bit of fun at the possums expense!

Seeing the devastation possums do to the vegetation over there I'd never have thought of myself siding with a possum but after seeing one mentally tortured by a kia I actually felt sorry for the little blighters... if only for a moment at least.

Leaving the trauma behind we headed off into the darkness only to be given yet another fright as we left the car park, "Going to catch the sunrise?" said a voice from nowhere.

"Erm... yes..." we replied cautiously, peering into the pitch black to see where the voice was coming from. Suddenly a bobbing light appeared from the darkness, attached to the head of a young man, "Good morning for it!" he chirped. It turned out he was traveling around NZ too albeit in a slightly more haphazard fashion and last night he'd slept in an old shelter at the side of the car park. He explained that wherever he stays he has to leave before the sun rises to avoid being caught. He'd already seen a sunrise and also a sunset here and gave us a couple of tips on where the best views were before we left him to his packing.

As you walk down from the car park the path forks, one direction leads into the woods and the other to the right across a small bridge towards an open space. Stay on the main path (the left fork), as it is a quicker route to the best views and if you end up doing the full lake circuit you'll end up coming back via the right fork anyway.

It wasn't long before the ambient light level started to improve and we quickened our pace to get to the first photo stop before the sun crested. At a brisk pace this journey took us 25 minutes, but at a normal pace this could easily be 40.

We arrived just at the right time, whipped the tripod out an settled down for 10 minutes to watch the glorious colours forming across the lake. It's easy to understand why this place is called the mirror lake, the water is just so still and peaceful.

The changing colours of the surise over Lake Matheson.

After filling our hearts and our memory cards we moved on. The walk from here isn't quite as easy going but it still wasn't bad and again at a quick pace we managed this next leg in around 20 minutes.

This place is known as Reflection Island, so called because a man-made deck takes you out to a viewing point in the middle of the water. It's incredibly peaceful here and on a really clear day you would get magnificent reflections of Mount Cook in the water. It was a little bit misty for us so unfortunately this wasn't a view we could make the most of. Even so it was still very pretty and there was seating here so we could rest for a while and take it all in.

The rest of the circular path is pretty uneventful, it's a nice walk and that's just about it. As we headed back to the car the day's tour parties started to arrive and a flood of people began to descend on the area. I couldn't help but wonder what they would make of it because as the sun rose the whole area seemed to lose its magic and even the water wasn't so still and reflective anymore.

For the tired and hungry traveller there is a cafe located next to the car park which should be open by the time you get back from your sunrise walk. Unfortunately for us that didn't figure in our plans for the day, and after a slightly longer 40 minute drive we found ourselves back in Franz Josef again.

It was turning into a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky and we'd decided on the previous day that if the weather was good we'd try and book onto a flight over the glaciers and Mount Cook. Mt Cook was somewhere which unfortunately we couldn't fit in for a closer visit as even though you can see it from the west coast the only access road to it begins in the east.

So upon arriving back in FJ we found ourselves a tour company that did such a flight. Mount Cook Ski Planes offer a number of different scenic flights at quite reasonable prices and as they only operate small planes you are guaranteed a window seat with a total of around 5-6 passengers. After enquiring we were told that there was an 11am flight which covered the glaciers and Mt Cook, so we booked it thinking we'd have plenty of time to check out of the hotel and maybe have a short walk somewhere.

A quick shower and a freshen up later we headed off for our first walk of the day. The Canavans Knob track is 20 minute easy climb through rainforest, culminating in supposed glacier and coastal views. Surviving the forming of the glacier 9000 years ago the knob is basically an ancient granite lump with deep soils covering the rock which have allowed and supported the ever growing rainforest canopy.

The walk is located some 2km south of FJ. Head over the bridge south of the township, follow the corner round to the right and you should find yourself on a very straight road, Canavans Knob track is found 1km along on the right hand side.

Whilst the walk is quite nice, the views are somewhat overgrown and unspectacular with the final view looking out towards the Tasman sea being a particular disappointment. There are better walks in the area but not many that are so short and to be honest it's only a disappointment compared to the amazing sights we'd been seeing in the area, stick this walk anywhere else in the world and it would be recommended.

One last thing, the walk gets its slightly bizarre name from a prominent businessman at the height of the gold rush. Richard Canavan walked through Franz Josef in 1872 with Sir William Fox, the New Zealand Premier at that time, somebody who we won't be hearing the last of on this day.

11am back in FJ and disappointment struck again as our scenic flight had to be cancelled due to bad weather. Bad weather?!? It was glorious sunshine, with no wind nor sign of rain! Apparently a front had moved in over Mount Cook and was causing a crosswind, thus ruling out that part of the flight. As that was the bit we really wanted we decided not take them up on the offer of just a glacier overflight. Finally the changeable NZ weather had stopped us doing something, which as it turned out was all for the best as you will discover on the next day.

Disappointed we headed back to Fox Glacier area again to a lovely viewpoint about 2km down Glacier rd (just off the main road at Fox township). On a clear day from here you get fantastic views of the glacier and also Mount Cook in the distance, there's even a handy large compass here to help you get your bearings.

Whilst the sun was still shining we headed off to do our first walk at Fox, the Fox Glacier Valley Walk. You can find this walk 2km south of the township, the entrance to the car park being on the left just before the Fox River bridge. Driving down into the car park looks like you are driving into the heart of a quarry, especially with all the heavy machinery that was there doing renovation when we visited.

For the most part this is quite an easy going walk, if you can make it past the steep incline which leads out of the car park that is! There were many people struggling on this slope, particularly with it being slightly wet and slippy, getting up is one thing, coming back down again is quite another and it's definitely not recommended for those people who are a little unsteady on their legs.

It takes 5 minutes to get to the top of this incline, but once there you are treated to a spectacular view of the glacier. Walk for another 25 mins and you reach the end of the track, right at the terminal face. It's stunning. The guide books say it's a 1 hour return trip but really on a nice day when you get there you are just going to want to stay for a while to appreciate it fully. We found a spot on a handy rock (of which there are a few!), and sat at what I would guess to be around 30-40m away from the terminal face. The silence here is deafening, only disturbed every 5 minutes or so by a cracking noise and then a thud as lumps of ice randomly plummet off the edge. We could've sat there forever in complete awe at the spectacle we were witnessing... plus we really didn't fancy skidding our way down the slippery slide back to the car park.

At the glacier terminal, with the glacier mouth on the bottom right

The "mouth" of the glacier in all its glory.

Lunchtime and Fox Township has its fair share of eateries, well 4 or 5 at least. We chose Cafe Neve mainly because it served light lunches and a good range of toasted sandwiches. The wind had suddenly picked up which meant we didn't fancy eating outside, luckily we found ourselves a window seat indoors and watched out of the window in amusement at the other patrons trying to keep their napkins and everything else on their tables. We knew is was getting bad when the shop sandwich board collapsed and pirouetted into the road.

After lunch we hit the shops in Fox... which took about 10 minutes. It really is a small place, even more so than Franz but it is unique and quite charming too, in a small frontier town kind of way.

Back to the activities: our next walk would be the last of the day. The Chalet Lookout track car park can be found on the left just after the Fox River bridge and is a tough at times 1.5 hour return. The strange wind which had whipped up so suddenly had disappeared now in much the same manner, even so most of this track is covered by rainforest so we would've had ample protection from the elements.

The walk begins easily with a steady climb along an old glacier access road built in 1937. About 20 minutes in we came across a massive bolder, mystically lodged into the mountainside, defying any kind of gravitational pull the earth can muster. Known to it's friends as '‘Bivvy Rock'’, it actually provides a natural shelter beneath it's hulking mass for walkers and climbers, evidence of which can be found around the bottom, more sheltered underside of the boulder.

Another 20 minutes on and we came across a surprise, a large, mainly dry riverbed. When I say large I mean large, large and wide. We stood looking at it, particularly the wet, fast flowing bit in the middle not quite sure how we should get across, if indeed we should be getting across when we saw an orange arrow far away on the other side showing the way. Crossing was not an easy task, even though most of it was dry we still had to attempt the stepping stone technique to get across the wet and still quite deep portion. We wondered just how the heck you get across in the wet season. Maybe you don't, who knows?

Then not 5 minutes after crossing one river we came across another one, even wider and even more awkward. This is another track which isn't as easy as the guidebooks may have you believe but if you can make it, it's worth it in the end.

The last stint takes you through another covering of rainforest before finally you come across a wooden stairway up to a deck with a stunning, almost unreal view of Fox Glacier. In fact here's a picture of us in that very location but it looks so fake that it could've been taken in a photo studio anywhere in the world. In reality the flash on the camera is to blame for this but with all the tree cover it's so dark that if you want a picture of yourselves you need to use it.

Oh I almost forgot, why is it called Fox Glacier? Well it's all to do with that chappy I mentioned earlier, William Fox. In 1872 the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir William Fox named the glacier during a visit. Obviously unable to come up with anything else he named it after hiself, thus removing the glaciers Maori name forever. In Maori times the glacier was known as Te Moeka o Tuawe, which derived from an ancestor named Tu Awe who fell to his death while exploring the area.The riverbed here was his final resting place and the legend has it that as his lover Hine Hukatere wept, the bed of the valley filled with her everlasting tears of ice.

Although retreating throughout most of the last 100 years, it has been advancing since 1985 at an average of about a metre a day.

Back-tracking away from the viewpoint you can find the historic Chalet Hut site. The chalet doesn't exist anymore and is marked at a clearing where, less than 100 years ago you could look down at the glacier from within the chalet itself. Explorers and travellers such as William Fox would've stayed here and enjoyed wonderful hospitality whilst looking out upon the majestic glacier. Lucky, lucky people.

Returning to our car we hit the road again, heading towards our final destination of the day, Haast. Haast is a 2-2.5 hour drive from Fox, with only a couple of places of interest along the way featuring mainly coastal viewpoints. Looking out to the Tasman Sea from here goes to show just how rough the waters can be off this particular stretch of coastline. This is a good habitat for the Fiordland Crested Penguin and if you are visiting during breeding season between July-December make sure you have enough time to stop and check out the "locals". Needless to say we didn't see any, but I guess that's what you get for going when the weather is better!

Haast looks like a reasonably big place on the map, maybe even a major town as you head into the south-west. However arriving in Haast we were surprised to discover possibly one of the smallest, middle of nowhere places we had seen on our journey over in NZ. There is nothing here save for 2 hotels and a filling station. On arriving at our hotel, the World Heritage - Haast we were told that the restaurant wouldn't be opening that night as there wasn't enough guests in the hotel to justify it and the only place we could grab a meal would be in the bar. We were also warned to eat early as there was a big rugby game on that night and the bar would get busy. We didn't hold out much hope but rushed to our room, dumped our stuff and quickly ran to the bar as we didn't fancy missing out on a meal.

The bar felt very "local" and there was even a mass bunch of bikers having their weekly meeting outside on the veranda. We had no reason to worry though, as always everybody was really friend and most suprisingly of all the food was outstanding, much more like restaurant food than pub fare. The presentation was fantastic and the portions were much more "bar-sized", it was a winner all round!

Haast is a stop off point, nothing more. If you are into wildlife then it's located in a massive nature reserve and there is plenty for you to get your kicks from, if however you're like us and have somewhere else to get to it's a good place to get a nights kip.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Day 14 - Hokitika to Franz Josef

This was the day I'd been looking forward to all holiday, even so my feelings were a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Today's main event was a heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier. I'd never been in a helicopter before, nor walked on ice so it would be new experiences all-round. That's later though.

Today was another pre-dawn start to catch the sunrise, the weather was dry and calm so we were expecting a good one.

Lake Kaniere Scenic Reserve was our first port of call for the day as it is only a 15 minute drive from Hokitika. We'd heard little about it but it was mentioned in the Rough Guide as an area featuring some of the best bush scenery around. As all we wanted was a lovely setting for a sunrise we figured we couldn't really go wrong, plus we were looking for something to fill enough time but enable us to still drive comfortably to Franz Josef in time for our heli-hike at midday.

The scenic reserve offers visitors opportunities for picnicking, walks, swimming, boating and camping. We arrived just as the sun was cresting on the horizon. The difference between this place and some of the other places we'd traveled to for a sunrise was that it was deserted, not a soul to be seen. The feeling that we had a whole scenic reserve to ourselves was somewhat humbling, yes there were houses dotted at one end of the lake but with the occupants not yet risen we felt like the only people on the planet.

There's a gravel road which runs around the perimeter of the lake, which we chose to follow. We knew because of the road surface and size of the lake that we wouldn't make it the whole way round but there was a couple of short walks that we wanted to do. Now I should mention here that the road surface, whilst being quite new and well laid is in fact created from large stone material which is normally used as a base layer for asphalt.

The problem with it is that unless you have a 4x4 you really can't travel on it above 5mph as it can be pretty damaging to both tyres and suspension, and if you're anything like us you really don't fancy knackering your vehicle mid-holiday.

So be warned, a trip around here can take much longer than anticipated. There are no other roads, this is the only one so make a note of the time you start on the road, then you can at least work out how long it will take you to get back to the beginning.

Some 20 minutes along the road we found our first stop. Here a small lay-by has a short path opposite which culminates in a pool at the base of the Dorothy Falls. The light levels were too low for any real photo opportunities, and we'd left our tripod in the boot of the car. I did manage to get this shot by resting my camera on a handy rock though.

It's a 5 minute return trip.

From the same lay-by is another path which leads to Canoe Cove, a pretty little area at the waters edge, looking back towards the beginning of our trip. 10 minutes return.

People bringing animals here should be warned that the forested areas had vermin control in the form of poison. This is well signposted and was our first experience of NZ's great possum "damage-limitation" plan.

We drove on for another 10 minutes and then realised it would take another 30 to get back to the start and sadly at this point we had to turn the car around and head onwards to our next destination for our appointment. It's about an hours drive from Hokitika to Franz Josef.

Franz Josef is a tiny little town dominated and overlooked by a towering glacier. Situated each side of the main through road FJ is mainly a handful of restaurants, a supermarket and a bunch of tourism agents. In the back roads is a range of accommodation and residential streets.

Most importantly there is a fuel station here. Take heed of this as from this point on filling stations are few and far between, and it's wise to fill up when you spot one in a slightly larger town as the ones that you do find dotted along the highway are always over-priced.

We had a little time before our booking, but not enough to go sit in a cafe so we bought a couple of pies and a drink from the supermarket. Whatever you do don't do the same as the pies from here were truly awful and can only be described as plain dirty.

The heli hike was probably the most anticipated highlight of our NZ trip. There is only one company offering glacier walking tours, the long established Franz Josef Glacier Guides. They offer a whole range of different trips to the glacier, from 3 hours to a full day hike. We chose the 3 hour one, mainly due to our usual time limitation and our relative inexperience, not that this would have been a problem as we discovered later. It had been recommended by some friends of ours that had done it two years previous and our itinerary had deliberately lead us down the west side of the South Island to give us this opportunity which we will probably never experience again.

The concept is simple and thrilling. You are flown midway up the glacier by helicopter and are dropped off just below the main iceflow. Here you are guided around some spectacular and unique icy terrain on foot. The tour is very dependent on good weather conditions, it doesn't have to be sunny but the slightest bit of wind or rain causes them to cancel it. As the weather has been so terrible in Hokitika the day before we had slightly resigned ourselves to the fact that there was a strong possibility that the trip might have to be cancelled and we were prepared for this disappointment. However, on arrival at the tours main office in FranzJosef we were thrilled to find out that although the weather was not ideal and visibility might be reduced on the glacier, it was still going ahead.

There are two places to do a glacier heli-hike in NZ, and both of these are within spitting distance of each other, with the other option being at Fox Glacier. We had researched the best heli hike tour for us to partake in and following recommendations from various sources we were informed that the Franz Josef Glacier was the place to do it.

We had come prepared for the cold with our warm thermal tops and even thermal trousers. As it turns out this was a little over the top for summer months but a few layers on your top half is definitely advisable. If the sun is out on Franz the temperature up on the glacier is sweltering.

From the office in Franz Josef you hurriedly board a bus... which takes you all of 100 yards to the air strip where we started to kit ourselves up for the adventure.

You are supplied with thick socks and boots, crampons (spikes for your boots), and if desired hat, gloves and waterproof coat. Be warned that the water-proof coat Kate borrowed smelt like a wet dog but it was a godsend nonetheless.

It was a mixed group that was joining us on the trip, different nationalities and differing ages. We were talking to one mother, who with her son and daughter had come on this trip after the death of her husband. I would guess that this lady was in her early 60s and shortly after the start of her holiday had been hospitalized due to an allergic reaction of some short - nevertheless since that point she had done any dangerous sport activity going including throwing herself out of an aeroplane. Whether it was grief spurring her on or not you couldn't help admire her bravery. She wasn't that great on her legs either but managed all the same. This was all the more proof of the tour guides great ability both at finding the easiest path and also cutting a safe passage across the ice.

At this point in preparation for our helicopter journey we were divided into smaller groups of 6-7 people and all asked to give our weight so that they could calculate an even spread of people not only in the groups but also actually within the helicopter itself. They were actually very particular about these calculations and after dishing out a high factor sunscreen (seemingly important on sunny days), we were eventually geared up and ready to fly.

The advantage of flying in a helicopter is a relatively smooth take off and landing, unlike a conventional plane. As soon as we were up in the air the friendly pilot offered us the opportunity for a scenic or more exhilarating flight up to the glacier. Kate remained silent but the rest of us opted for the latter suggestion so she quietly tried to hold on to her stomach. In fact it was rather exciting as we swung from side to side along with some informative commentary about glaciers from the pilot. It was awesome (sorry, but it was), and now I can't wait until the next time I get to go in a helicopter again.

Here's a bit of video I captured during the flight.

We landed on the "helipad" on the glacier. This consisted of a 3 metre square of scraped ice which they carved out every week or so, the reason for this being the glacier is constantly moving downhill at a rate of 2 metres per day. Upon arrival our first task was to attach our spikes to our shoes and start to gain our confidence for walking on the ice. Amazing enough even after 3 or 4 steps you start to realize that with the spikes you really are very secure in your footings and we had no hesitation in walking, running and jumping on the ice - to varying degrees of course.

Walking on the glacier was truly magical and breathtaking - there are no other better ways to describe the experience. Until you actually stand on the glacier you really don't get any appreciation of the true scale of it all. We were dwarfed by it, like ants trying to scale an ice spillage from the freezer.

Every photo of us features large soppy grins on our faces and child-like excitement in our eyes.

Look very closely at the image to the right and see if you can spot the "ant" tour party (for those who can't be bothered to search they're in the lower right third).

The guide took us through the basics of the glaciers, how it had retracted and had growth spurts over the years, history of tourism on the ice etc... At the same time with a pick ice he carved steps (yes, real steps!), in the ice for us to walk on and showed us marvelous formations in the ice which included us walking through ice ravines, squeezing through ice caves and posing for photographs as we went along. The glacier changes so often though that a wonderful cave he took a party through on the previous day could quite well be gone and a new one formed elsewhere.

There are always a number of guides out on the ice at any one time, so if one makes an interesting discovery they radio all the others to let them know.

Two different ice caves, both large enough for us human
types to walk through.

Kate navigates an ice tunnel, one which we had to pull ourselves up through a small hole to reach the other side.

The colour of the ice is an incredible aquamarine blue, apparently the reason behind this is the way the sunlight reacts with the densely compacted ice. To the naked eye sunlight looks white, however we all know from our school days that light is really made up of all the colours of the rainbow. Each of the sun's colours have different amounts of energy in them and when the sunlight tries to go through the solid glacier ice crystals the sun gets broken up into lots of colours. Red and yellow have very little energy and the thick ice absorbs the red light more than it does the blue.

Just like with water, more red light is absorbed compared to blue and the blue light has enough extra energy to reflect back from the solid ice crystals without getting absorbed. This is why the only color people see is the blue color that escaped. Now, I'm a lighting cameraman and I know a fair amount about light but that was something I'd never thought of before this trip.

Long distance visibility was not great and got progressively worse over the 2 hours we were on the ice until right at the end it was drizzling with rain but this did not dampen any spirits. On the return trip we spied the full day hike making its way down the glacier as the rain started to get more heavy. It was at this point we were glad that we had opted for the half day excursion. On the return trip Kate got to sit in the front of the helicopter whilst old fatty and another couple were placed in the rear (it's all about weight distribution you see, and a helicopter needs a lot more weight in the rear).

I recommend this trip for everyone, it's not too hard going, there's spectacular scenery, and you'll experience things which you never dreamed of. It was worth every penny and the memories will last a lifetime.

After coming down from the hike we had a coffee in a simple Swiss chalet like cafe and then headed back to our hotel for the night, The Rainforest Backpackers Retreat.

On arrival the lady at the desk told us matter of factly after looking us up and down "You do realise it's only a small room?", as if to try and convince us to upgrade but continued to say regardless that there weren't any other rooms available anyhow. The room was actually fine for our needs but probably the smallest on the holiday. It was our only stay at a hostel during our time in NZ and despite the small room was pretty good. It was slightly noisier than most of the places we'd stayed at but then there are many more young people at places like this so it's expected.

There is not much to do of an evening in Franz Josef apart from the nightly screening of Flowing West - The Glacier Movie at the IMAX inspired HELIMAX. We decided to go to an early evening performance. Tucked away in the back of the Alpine Adventure Centre the cinema was of a reasonable size but there was only about 12 of us in the auditorium. The movie was by no means spectacular but there was some stunning imagery and a perspective of this area of glacier country of New Zealand that you can not appreciate from the ground. From a professional point of view though it is a little dated, with a hint of the 80's about it. If they asked I'd happily shoot a new one for them ;-)

After this we made our way straight to our intended eating location the Blue Ice Cafe. We got down there around 5:45pm and it was already getting busy, if I remember correctly they don't take bookings either so you really have to get there early to ensure a table. The reason for this is there aren't that many places in FJ that serve food at night so the ones that do get packed. We had a traditional lamb dish and it was not too shabby, however what looked really nice were the pizzas.

After dinner the weather was still a little wet but we decided we should walk the food off anyway, particularly as it was still daylight.

We drove to a deserted car park not far from the base of the glacier. Here there are a number of walks but as it was starting to get dark we chose the Sentinel Rock Walk as it was only a 20 min return.

This was an easy walk, some of it with stairs, which culminates in a viewing platform offering spectacular views of the glacier terminal (where the ice turns to water at the base). It's definitely worth it, particularly if you're at a loose end like we were.

After this we headed straight back to our accommodation, full but completely exhausted.

Me with a big soppy grin on my face (again), trying desperately not to slip and make an idiot of myself, and Kate with a big soppy grin and her coat featuring eau de wet dog.