Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ice Everywhere

From Wanaka, we recieved a postitive weather report for our planned hike of the Rob Roy track. Within the day walks brochure of Mt. Aspirning National Park around Wanaka, this hike was described as a relatively easy tramp past waterfalls with stunning views of glaciers (or something like that), so we were onboard.

The hike was nice, and included the requisite walk through a cow and sheep paddock, a swing bridge, a river gorge, and views of a mountain and glacier. It really was nice, and the weather cooperated beautifully. All these walks have a range of times for completion, ie 2-3 hours, or 3-4 hours. Grant and I are always the later time mentioned. I blame it on all the pictures we take rather than our fitness level. So, despite the "surprisingly easy" walk, we were tired.

Our next real stop, being on the glacier (glass-ee-air) tour, was Fox Glacier. First, we had to drive down a 40-km round trip gravel road outside of Haast for, according to the Lonely Planet, "unforgetable views" of the Southern Alps. Well, considering how overcast and rainy it is in the rainforest, particularly that morning, our views consisted mainly of the trees beside the road. In order to keep Lonely Planet to their word, we are committing the drive to this blog so as to not forget the unforgettable.

Right, so at Fox Glacier, we decided to plunk down a few extra dollars for a guided hike on the glacier. Grant and I have seen a lot of snow in our times in the Rockies and Cascades, however we had never been on a real, live, moving glacier before, and the only way to do it safely is with a guide. It was incredible, and one of the real highlights of the trip. Our group was fairly small, and it was a sunny day.

At the start of the glacier, our guide jumped out onto the "dead ice" and chipped out a hunk of ice for us to pass around. The day before it had been all rock covered, but had lept out of the ground overnight to expose clear ice. The ice up close was not what you expect looking at all the mud, rock, and blue landscape of the rest of the glacier, but it is a very compact, clear, frozen substance - sometimes with bits of rock inside.

From the terminal face of the glacier, we climbed a private trail and staircase up through the rainforest to get safely onto the glacier. There was no way to climb the face itself, as there was ice and boulders collapsing all the time, not to mention the ravines and holes to navigate. At one point they had a tripwire set up on the cliffs to let us know if a rockslide was going to topple over us. The guide watched the green light while the rest of us crossed along the cliff. We were instructed to run if he yelled "run". Apparently the tripwire gives you about eight seconds warning before boulders squash you.

It is striking where the rainforest ends and the glacier begins. It's a clear line, with some gravel to keep it separate. On the one hand, you are not surprised because you wouldn't expect a forest to live on ice, yet at the same time, it comes so close and all the way up the mountain except for a few meters all the way along the glacier.

The guides all cut a safe path with stairs and ropes, even along the glacier, and we all donned crampons to help ensure our vertical stance. The trick was to give up all sense of respectibility, and to stomp around like Calvin and Hobbes to make sure our spikes stuck in the ice. While in my own world stomping around, the guide said "that's right, don't be embarrassed, just keep stomping around". I didn't realize I had to worry about not worrying about being embarrassed! There were awesome holes, bits of downed aeroplane(I don't think it was a genuine authentic old fashioned steam powered job though), and all sorts of "sea stories" about ice rescues throughout the hike. And I didn't even mention the world's only alpine parrot, the Kea, which ganged up on us and tried to steal our packs, and pecked at our backs. Luckily they didn't follow us all around the glacier.

After making it safely back, we decided to drive to the next glacier North, Franz Joseph, to have a look, but decided one hike on a glacier was sufficient. The town was nice, surrounded by the mountains and all.

Further North, we veered back towards the coast, and left the rainforest behind. We caught tantalizing glimpses of the Southern Alps, but no real panoramic views through the foothills and forests.

In Hokitika, we caught our fist glimpse of the Kiwi, and I'm not talking fruits or the edible things either. Through cooperation with the Department of Conservation, a local had set up a small zoo with a variety of aquatic life, and three kiwis. Kiwis are nocturnal, so they keep the lights dimmed during the day for the tourist to see, and turn them on at night so they can sleep. Since we were the last customers of the day, the handler let us stay while he turned on the lights so we could get a good look at them. They were running all over the enclosure excitedly. They run really fast, and look really odd. Flightless birds just look funny. They are actually quite a bit like a mammal as well, but you'll have to google them to get better information. We were happy to get a good glimpse of the Kiwi, so Hokitika was a success. Hokitika is the jade capital of NZ, so we got a good look at traditional Maori carvings. Very beautiful, but you had to watch out for the shops that sold Chinese instead of New Zealand jade.

While trying to decide our next 8-9 days to Nelson, we headed up the coast to Pancake Rocks to enjoy the sun and beach. Pancake rocks were a nice geological oddity, and definitely worth a look, but after trying to order coffee, we realized it was time for some R & R in a hotel with some good hot curry in our bellies. Next we're off to cross both major mountain passes before meeting Robin's mom in Nelson for a week of luxury.

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