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The South Island Begins

... and the Franz Josef Glacier

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We departed the Ferry in Picton on the Northern tip of the South Island and headed toward the Abel Tasman National Park. The Park is supposed to be spectacular when the weather is good, with beautiful aqua blue bays and lovely beaches, perfect for kayaking, hiking, and just lounging in the sun. As luck would have it though, on the way toward Abel Tasman, it started to rain and it became apparent that it was the beginning of a real storm. We ended up pulling into a holiday park in Nelson, a pretty big town about 100km from Abel Tasman. I couldn’t bare driving another two hours in the rain. The roads to Nelson from the Ferry had been the curviest of the trip and we were averaging about 40km per hour. It’s a strange feeling to drive by looking out your side window, or in some extreme corners, looking over your shoulder just to see what the next stretch of road looks like. As we ate dinner in the camper, we began rethinking our visit to Abel Tasman entirely. It would not be fun in a pouring rain, so we decided to head for our next stop, the Franz Josef Glacier. The next day we drove through a steady and at times heavy rain for about 400km. The roads were better but still I white knuckled it with some pretty scary traffic, and even a single lane bridge that actually was shared by the railroad – and this was the good road. We arrived in the tiny town of Franz Josef in the early evening.

The Franz Josef Glacier
We pulled into the “Rain Forest Holiday Park” in Franz Josef just as the skies were starting to part and the rain slowed to a minute drizzle. Now, you might be asking why would something in a town with a Glacier be called “rain forest” anything? It’s a pretty crazy thing, but the central west side of New Zealand gets hammered by rain. The mountains rise to 10,000 feet within a few km of the coast, so Tasman Sea storms dump literally meters of rain as the clouds get pushed upward by the mountain range. The saying in town is “We measure our rain in meters”, and we heard that a few times as we were told that they get over 5 meters of rain every year. This rain has sprouted a beautiful and lush rain forest over the years with beautiful ferns, grasses, massive and mossy trees, broad leafed and otherwise. Our Camper felt like a fern bar inside – which was pretty cool. You would have no idea that a massive and still advancing Glacier is only 3 km from town.

Hiking the Glacier was the reason we came here. Our first day in town, we went to the Glacier museum and Imax and learned about the area and the Glacier. We booked a guided hike for the next day. The hike was called a “3/4 day hike” which put you on the Glacier for about 4 hours. Luck was on our side this day for weather. In a town that gets over 15 feet of rain a year, this morning’s sky was a stunning blue, interrupted only by misty clouds clinging to the mountain sides. We met the guides and our fellow hikers that morning and put on the hiking gear provided. The guiding company provided boots, a jacket and crampons (spike attachments) for walking on the ice. We piled onto a bus that took us over the milky blue glacial river to the park entrance, chattering excitedly, where we all disembarked and began tramping toward the base of the glacier. Unfortunately, the path to the glacier had been washed out by heavy rains, so we walked on newly cut paths, that required us to scale up and down ladders affixed to rock faces, just to get to the river bed. Most of this walk was in lush rain forest, with cliffs covered with waterfalls, vegetation and ferns, climbing up to the now-clearing mist above. We then tramped for about 2km across the river and toward the Glacier base. Huge ice blocks, some the size of cars, lay in the river from an explosion last week where the snout of the Glacier gave way to a flood of water and Ice. Our guide paused and pointed to the face of the glacier to show us some tiny little black dots that turned out to be hikers making their way across the glacier ahead of us. “We will be there in an hour or two” we were told.

We strapped and re-strapped our crampons on to our boots and began slogging up the glacier. The face of the Glacier was covered in shale and was a difficult trudge. It looked like a mountain of Rock, but just under the layer of Rock was frozen ice. Ice that is the densest on the planet. So dense that it glows blue when uncovered by snow or rock. We climbed up perhaps 100 feet before we reached ice that you might viscerally associate with a glacier. From here, we climbed a ladder of ice and clung to a chain that had been hammered into the ice. We climbed for hundreds of meters, between crags, over crevasses using a ladder, even through a cave, and we continued upward. We stopped quite often, catching our wind, as the guide pointed out glacier facts. He showed us how high the Glacier had been over the past decades and how far it had advanced in the past few years. The glacier was advancing meters per day only a few years ago, but had slowed now, yet it was still advancing. In the ice age of course it had reached the ocean which was about 10 km to the west. A glacier is like a frozen waterfall we were told, pushing itself down the mountain and the more snow that accumulates on the top of the mountain, the more mass to push the glacier along.

We reached the peak of our trek, and rested by a little glacial waterfall where we filled our water bottles with real glacier water – which was tasty and cool to say the least. We could look up toward the mountain’s peaks and see the glacier flowing downward. There were cliffs of ice above us, and it was nearly impossible to judge the scale of these cliffs until a helicopter appeared in front of one, looking more like a gnat on a refrigerator door than a helicopter carrying hikers. It was hard to believe that we were on a glacier and near sea level with crampons on our feet and plenty of air filling our lungs, when only three months earlier we were hiking in Tibet at 17,000 feet, wearing our tennis shoes, but gasping for air.

It felt like the hike back to the Bus would never end, and while it was only 9km total, it seemed so long with rented boots and crampons on our feet. It had taken its toll on all of the hikers, and the bus was eerily silent on the way back to town, with each of the hikers looking glazed over and tired. Now, the guides and the crew that had been clearing and cutting ice paths that day chattered excitedly, while all us hikers sat slack jawed and exhausted, remembering the beauty of whatwe had seen that day and what our aching feet had accomplished.

Posted by Blakei 08:56 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel

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What a fabulous hike. The pictures are amazing. This would be one of my favorite experiences. It looks like you are at a very high elevation, but you're not. The blue of the ice is beautiful. I loved being able to see each of you. You surely have some great pictures for Xmas card 2008!
Love, Grandma

by geezer2

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