Okarito to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier South Island 6 to 10 November 2007
21 Nov 2007
Before leaving Okarito we set off to walk to the Lagoon but missed our path. When we arrived at the south end of the beach it was clear to us that the tide would not allow a beach walk to the Lagoon. Sylvia had a good laugh when a big wave swamped my feet and I was slightly soggy as we retraced our steps and found the correct route, this time choosing to branch off to the Trig which was a shorter walk. This could have been a mistake as it transpired the Trig was at the top of a very steep hill which involved many steps. These were made over 140 years ago and the old nails are still good today.
A notice at the platform on top of the hill stated, '1865 TRIG. In 1865 a surveying headquarters was set up in Okarito to map South Westland. This trig site is one of many Gerhard Muller and his team left throughout the area. The track you have walked up is one of the few visible remains of the European settlement'. If it had been a clear day we would have seen Mount Cook; we did get a distant sight of the Franz Joseph glacier. So having trod in the steps of history we had to decide if we wanted to find out where all Gerhard's other trig sites were, and walk up those steep hills. Maybe another time.
After lunch Sylvia drove us to the town of Franz Josef. As we approached we were thrilled to see the glacier. We are in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park which is part of a massive world heritage area. The biggest highlight of the park is the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Nowhere else at this latitude do glaciers come so close to the coast, and they are getting longer at the present time; not many world glaciers can claim that. The rate of descent is about 5 foot per day in winter and 17 foot in summer, about 10 times faster than the Swiss Alps glaciers. Franz Josef glacier was named after a Prussian Emperor and Fox glacier after a famous mint. Or was it that the Prime Minister named Fox liked mints? I forget.
Our camp site was a mile from the town centre and had superb views of the surrounding hills and snow capped mountains. We booked in at the site for 3 nights and drove into town to do some shopping. One of our first ports of call was at a new Interpretive Centre where we were offered 40% off, a saving of over £7 each. This was a very interesting and informative exhibition. The main surprise was to learn that NZ has a total of 3,153 glaciers of which 18 are on the north island. In the same building was the highest ice climbing wall in the Southern Hemisphere. To our surprise we learned the largest in the world is on the west coast of Scotland.
Back on the main street we booked for a 'helihike' on Thursday, two days away, had 'happy hour' drinks at a bar/restaurant and stayed on for our evening meal. Our helihike involves a helicopter ride to the glacier, an ice landing, a 2 hour guided walk on the glacier, and if you've been good, the helicopter comes for you and takes you back. This had been a nice day and Franz Joseph welcomed us with lovely weather.
Wednesday dawned; it is a day we have set aside for walking. The tops of the hills are covered by cloud and the superb views are having some time off. We wanted to do the 5 hour walk with views over the glacier but landslips have closed this one, so we decide to see how far we get on the 8 hour walk, which turns out to be a zig zag steep forest trail up the biggest hill we have walked so far. Soon we were wearing our new waterproof jackets with the hoods up, and after edging our way along a narrow path where there had been a landslip, a point where we could look down on the helicopters, we came to a very big step which also necessitated we should climb over a fallen tree. There was no way around the obstacle. Although it was unlikely either of us would get over the tree, I as the weakest link with my sore arm tried first and failed. We set off down, stopping to eat our sandwiches at the site of the landslip which afforded good views over the township.
When back down the long hill and on the main trail, we set off to view the nearby lake before returning to the van and driving to the Franz Josef glacier car park to walk the trail to the glacier. After walking to the official viewing point we read the notice warning us of the dangers of walking further. The path ahead was stony and followed the course of the glacier in the days when it was much longer. As most other people were carrying on to view the front of the glacier at close quarters, so did we. After crossing several streams and viewing numerous waterfalls, we arrived at the final rope barrier. At this point the notice informs that if you go further without an expert guide, and a bit of the glacier falls on you, it is your fault.
From our viewing point we could see the long step ladders at points on the ice face which lead upwards and on to the ice; more paths and more steps thread their way through the ice hills until finally reaching the top of the face of the glacier. We had previously been told that walking to, and up on to the ice was strenuous, and due to the amount of stones and dirt carried by the glacier the walk can be disappointing. Never-the-less we observed a lot of groups coming back down the glacier during this late afternoon.
Back at the car park we took the short walk to Peters Pool and were rewarded with lovely views of the glacier and reflected images in the pool. We had walked over 8 ½ miles and were tired. Tomorrow we should be on the glacier.
Thursday. There is again low cloud and we learn that the helihike is cancelled and it was cancelled yesterday. The helicopters must have a sufficiently high cloud base before they are allowed to operate on the glacier. Only the scenic flights had taken place. We re-book for tomorrow, again for the 12 noon flight.
The main reason for being at Franz Josef at this time is to meet up with Keith and June Hyde. Keith was my room mate in Bulgaria on the holiday when I met Sylvia, and he was my best man at our wedding two years later. Keith and June are on a world tour and on the fifth of November they began a two week tour of NZ in a hired campervan. Although they are not due at Franz Josef until tomorrow, I kept speaking of them as if they would arrive today; and about 1pm they rolled onto the camp site and were berthed near by to our van.
After a good catch up of news for two hours, Keith and June set off to see the sights and we, well mostly Sylvia, began preparing the evening meal treat. The camp kitchen is well fitted out and the dining area is excellent, so that is tonight's venue; most of the food being prepared in our van. The starter was dressed salad with warm strips of Halloumi cheese; main course was roast chicken, stuffing, baked potato and ratatouille, and the sweet course was pears in white wine and ice cream. Just because we are living in a motor home doesn't mean to say we don't live well. Before eating we had gin and tonics and various nibbles at the picnic table by Keith and June's van; after the washing up of the main meal we retired to our van for liqueurs and more talking.
Friday. We wave goodbye to Keith and June and reflect on the fact that our meeting was short though very sweet. Ah well, last time we saw them was two years ago at Minnesota when we attended our son's wedding. Who knows where we will meet up next time.
The weather was still overcast with a low cloud base and Keith and June had to settle for viewing our pictures of what the surrounding mountains look like; and the helihike was cancelled again. We booked for the 9.30am one tomorrow and tried the camp site in the centre of town. After posting some Christmas presents, (the cheap rate ends tomorrow for overseas parcels), we used the internet café. This entailed us storing our data on a memory stick as the connections would not work in our computer.
Saturday and the alarm wakes us in time for our helihike which is cancelled again; but there is a 50% chance of the 12 noon one taking place; we hang around until the reporting time of 11.15am and it is off again; and so are we.
The short scenic journey to Fox Glacier entails travelling up and over two large hills and we arrived at the town about 1.30pm. After getting settled on our camp site, which is more like a building site due to the vast improvements that are taking place, we walked the mile up to town. To our surprise we learned the Fox glacier 12 noon helihike was taking place and the 3 pm one may take place. We made a booking and went for lunch. On our return at 2.45pm we read the card stating what refunds we would get if we only got the flight, or if we are on the ice for less than an hour; there is just us booked for this flight so far.
Five minutes later 4 other people book for the helihike and by 3pm there is 8 of us. We are taken by bus to the helicopter site, given rainproof jackets, thick woollen socks and walking boots. After donning the socks, and whilst at the one boot stage, the flight is cancelled as the cloud base has come down.
At least we are fortunate to have time on our side and can wait until our ambition to walk on a glacier can be realised. This afternoon was the nearest so far; we have booked again for tomorrow at 9am. To quote an old song, 'Maybe the next time I don't know, Oh No!'