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.


Blogger Michel (travelnotes) said...

Hi Shaune,

Thanks for bringing your blog to my attention.

It's reminded me that I have to add a Travel Blog section to Travel Notes.

Maybe, I'll get around to it in September.


10:51 am  
Blogger dorischua said...

Hi Shaune,

I knew about your blog via Tripadvisor and I'm really impressed with those amazing shots... I wish I could take good pictures like you!

Our family was in NZ last Oct/Nov too... check out


8:49 am  
Blogger loahlam said...

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6:27 pm  

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