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.


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