Fox Glacier to Haast South Island 11th to 12th November 2007
21 Nov 2007
Today was our lucky day. Shortly after arriving at the tour office we were taken to the helipad and once I had two boots on I knew we were going on our trip. Jeff and I were in the last helicopter to go up so we watched the others climb aboard and set off. After a wait of 16 minutes it was our turn to climb on board and set off on our trip. Although our guide, Lucia, had told us we were flying with the grumpy pilot he still gave us a nice flight up to the top of the glacier before turning back down and heading for the landing pad. Looking down from the helicopter over the glacier I did wonder where he was going to land I and began to worry a little. Perhaps the leaflet had left out the crucial bit of information that we had to sky dive the last bit. No, the pilot found the only flat piece of ice that I could see and made a perfect landing.
I had been told by a friend to be prepared for a wet bottom whilst walking on the ice and the short journey from the helicopter down to the waiting party was a bit slippery, but I made it ok. We had been told that when the helicopter took off we had to adopt the crouch position due to the downdraft that the rotor blades would cause. So crouched down we waited as it revved up its engines and took off. Not only was it windy but it was like being in a hail storm as bits of ice flew around us. Once the helicopter had gone we put our crampons on, gathered an alpenstock, ( a large pole with a spike on the end to aid balance) and divided into two groups for our walk. Lucia informed us how to walk on the glacier, we had to put our foot down flat in order for the crampons to be effective. Walking any other way would possibly cause us to slip and fall. As we set off I put a bet on with Jeff that I would be the first to slide down, I am pleased to say I wasn't and I didn't. In fact only one lady had a slight stumble but did not actually fall.
Lucia walked in front of us and with an ice pick and chiselled out steps for us to aid our progress, thus making it a bit easier for us. We would walk a little distance and then stop whilst she would give us facts, history and folk lore about the glacier. Guiding on Fox Glacier came alive in1928, when the Fox Hotel first offered guided trips onto the glacier. In 1974 new owners took over and the business has developed into what it is today, with over 60 staff. A number of different trips are offered from half and full day walks, to an overnight trip staying close by the glacier. We had been taken to the middle of the glacier, and at a total height of 2,800m it dwarfs structures like the Eiffel Tower at 324m.
The walk was one of the most unique activities that we have undertaken. The shapes of the ice sculptures, the vivid blue colour when you looked into the deep crevasses was just spectacular. Our party walked down the glacier for a while then turned around and climbed to the highest point we were able to get to. Any trip further up the glacier requires full crampons as it starts to climb up more steeply and footing requires to be more secure. Thirty five to forty five metres of snow fall on the glacier each year in the catchment area, or nerve as it is known. The snow that is compacted on the nerve forms blue glacier ice that is funnelled down the valley. Although much melt occurs from the surface of the glaciers at low elevations, (the ablation zone), this high snowfall continues to push ice down the valley at a very high rate. The glacier flows over large bedrock steps on the valley floors. This causes the ice to extend and break up, forming steep icefalls that are mazes of crevasses and pinnacles of ice. It takes a snowflake that has formed into ice 54 years to reach the bottom of the glacier, Lucia told us we were now walking on 50 year old ice.
Soon it was time to return to the helipad and back down to the village. As we were last up so we were last down. It was interesting watching the helicopters make their ascent and landings, the next tour party disembarked and the first of ours was loaded and left. The guide's lunch was also flown in and they both sat in the middle of this vast expanse of ice munching on a sandwich and drinking tea. The helicopter returned to collect us and we lifted off and returning back to base. Once out of the helicopter it was a really strange feeling walking normally again. It was a surprise to learn we had been on the glacier for two and a half hours, to us it seemed to fly by. Lorna, I managed to keep my bum dry. Jeff managed well using the pole in his left hand, his right arm it is getting better and each day he is able to move it more.
We returned to our camp site for lunch and decided for our afternoon activity we would drive up to the glacier access car park and walk to the face. We were preparing to drive away when a big articulated lorry, which is converted into a hotel, pulled into the campsite and parked across from us. The camp owner told us that it was a German tour organisation that parks on the site every year. The coach with the people would arrive later. Along one side of the truck were windows and each window represented a bedroom. I would love to have seen inside it as it looked fascinating. It must have been like sleeping in a cigar tube.
We drove the short distance up the access road, parked the van and undertook the one hour walk to the face. It was a bit of an up and down track with some good views of the glacier face on the way. We thought that the final barrier ropes here seemed nearer to the face than those at Franz Josef. It was strange looking up into the glacier to think that a few hours ago we were up there walking about. After a stop in the village we returned to our camp. The back of the lorry had now been converted into a camp kitchen and once the bus arrived the passengers quickly disembarked and started setting up bench tables and chairs. We thought we would be treated to a gold old German sing song around the camp fire, but they were extremely quiet and went off to bed early.
Next morning when we awoke the bus and lorry were gone and we never heard them go. We packed up and drove the short journey down to nearby Lake Matheson, a lake formed about 14,000 years ago from a huge slab of ice left behind by the retreating glacier. It is renowned for its mirror images of Mt. Cook and Mt Tasman, NZ's highest peaks. Today was another overcast day and there were no sightings of Mt Cook at all. There were some reflections on the lake but nothing as spectacular as the photo we saw in the café near by. We took the one hour walk around the lake and as we were returning to the car park the clouds were beginning to lift and we were getting sightings of the nearer snow peaks.
After a coffee stop we were on our way down SH 6 to Haast our next destination. The drive today would be 88 mile, the longest we had done for a number of days and some straight roads and gentle hills. On the way we stopped at a salmon farm and stocked up with some salmon steaks and smoked salmon. There was a cycling tour party in the car park tucking into a lovely lunch, we asked if we took our bikes off the back of the van and cycled round to join them would we get fed. They shouted "on your bike you have to do 19 miles first". Thinking that was too drastic for us we drove away and found a nice picnic spot by Lake Paringa.
Our next stop was at Monro Beach car park where we took the 45minute walk down to the beach to where the Fiordland crested penguins breed between July and November. About 30 penguins nest in the tangled scrub near the beach. These birds pair for life and usually hatch 2 eggs, once the chicks are hatched the female feeds it, then at 3 weeks old it goes into a crèche with other youngsters and is feed when it hears the parent calling. Once the breeding season is over they leave the colony. Sometime before March they return to moult then disappear to sea once more. No one knows exactly where they go and what they do. Fiordland penguins are very timid when approached by people so you are instructed to crouch down behind the rocks, at the required distance, and be patient. On the walk down we had meet some people returning who informed us there were some penguins about, so with great anticipation we crept up behind a rock and waited. We were soon rewarded with a sighting of one high up on a rock at the back of the beach and later it was joined by its partner. A couple came in from fishing trips and scurried up the beach. Then our two on the rocks began to descend down to the beach and wander across to the waters edge where they met up with two returning from the sea. It was funny watching them as they appeared to be having a conversation and swapping tales about their day. After a little while they all turned and headed up the beach towards the rocks. Perhaps the two coming in from the sea had said it was cold out there today so don't bother. We spent over three quarters of and hour just watching then and being enthralled, but we had a 45 minute walk back and it was getting on in time. We just returned to the van as the rain started.
We made one final stop of the day at Knights Point where we got some distant views of a seal colony lying on the beach below us. This viewing spot marks where the Haast road was eventually opened in 1965. It was now beginning to rain very heavy so we drove on to Haast and found a camp site, positioning our van within easy distance for running to the amenities block. Tonight we went to sleep with the rain drumming down on our roof and dripping off the sides of our van.