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Terra Australis Incognita

South Island: Glaciers, free falling, and the most epic hike of all time

NEW ZEALAND | Saturday, 27 December 2008 | Views [890]

The next day was for hiking up to the glaciers. There are two of them, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef. You can hike up to a viewpoint for both, but there's really nothing stopping you from waltzing all the way up to the terminal face (where the ice is) except a few barriers, warning signs ("extremely dangerous unstable ice" and "do not proceed"), and shouting tour guides. So that was on the agenda for sure.

Glaciers are one of the most impressive things you can ever see - just look at the photos. The valleys that enclosed them would have been prime attractions by themselves as well, had it not been for the ice within.

The walk up to Fox was shorter and with less warning signs, so we went all the way up to the face, where I almost got hit with a falling ice bomb as dad tried to take my picture.

Franz Josef took more effort - much more effort, including a detour over steep wet rocks, with a rope to hold on to and pull ourselves up with. But this glacier was simply spectacular, with a taller and much more imposing face than Fox. The valley was more beautiful as well, with tons of waterfalls on either side, reminding me of what I heard of the fiords further south. But the combination of extremely explicit signs that all but warned of certain death, my prior experience at Fox, and the intimidating sight of the glacier up close made us turn away before reaching the face.

The next morning was the helihike, which blew everything else out of the water. In a helihike, you ride a helicopter all the way to the top of the glacier and walk around. This is where the best ice formations, and perhaps even ice caves, would be.

The helicopter ride was half the fun, providing the best views I'll probably ever get of snowcapped mountains, the glacial moraine, and, of course, the gigantic ice snake that is the Franz Josef glacier. He flew in low over the glacier before we landed, and it wasn't too hard to imagine that this was Antarctica or Greenland.

This was even more true when we landed, and nothing was visible of the valley or the town below, or anything at all except snowy mountains and the mass of jagged ice we were standing on. It really is a chaos of ice, with giant ice slabs and ice boulders piled on top of each other in completely random fashion, pockmarked with melt holes, and with little ice streams running throughout. There's no path, of course, so our guide had to chop little steps with his ice pick here and there so we could get over obstacles.

Just when I thought the tour was over and I wouldn't get to see an ice cave, our guide told us he had something cool for us to see if it was still there. And sure enough, there was a tunnel carved through the ice. The walls were as smooth as porcelain and glowing blue in only the way that glacial ice can. I only had time to go in for maybe half a minute, but it was fantastic nonetheless.

We hit the road once we 'coptered back to base, going inland now and through fantastic scenery - the sky was overcast, but there were still plenty of waterfalls and giant lakes to enjoy along the way to Wanaka, where we stayed that night.

The next morning there was rain, so fortunately we had not booked anything. But when we got to Queenstown, the "adventure activity" capital of New Zealand, the sky had only scattered cloud, and once we got to the top of Queenstown's gondola, the sun was out, revealing the hyper-blue lake below and "The Remarkables", which is the jagged mountain range that borders this lake. There's a fantastic luge course at the top of this gondola that was one of the best bang-for-your-buck experiences I've had on this trip. I've heard luge described in several different ways, but here it is basically a motorless go-kart that is powered by gravity (remember, Floridians, this is on a mountain!). Great fun, and takes a little more skill than a go kart to keep from tipping over (and I still have a small scar to prove it!).

We had one more day before our epic three day hike across a mountain range, so I filled it by doing a "canyon swing", which is basically a bungee jump, but instead of bouncing back up you swing across a canyon after the free fall. The 200 foot freefall was one of the most intense things I've ever experienced - you know you're attached to a rope, but you can't feel it, or anything other kind of grounding or tension, and your brain acts accordingly. I think I would have enjoyed the 600 foot swing across the canyon at the end, but I was still getting over raw panic from the free fall.

So it was finally time for our big hike, and the day of, which we had fretted over endlessly because of bad weather forecasts, was perfect and sunny, dotted with only a few friendly clouds. And the walk was glorious, more beautiful than I imagined any mere hiking trail could be. First was a hike through still-soggy temperate rainforest, then along one of those surreally blue New Zealand streams running through a gorge. Mountain tops were visible all around, but when we got into Routeburn Valley, things really got amazing. This was like Land of the Lost, or the Yosemite Valley that no one had discovered. Waterfalls hundreds of feet high poured down every slope, and where the valley forks into two, there sat a fantastic range of snowcapped peaks, finally visible in all their glory after days of being covered by cloud to anyone who wasn't in a helicopter.

But then we got to the "hut", which was more like a hiker's resort overlooking this valley, and it rained, and rained and rained. And continued to rain the next morning, as we crossed the tree line into alpine territory. But then, being so high up, it started to snow, with just a few flakes at first, but heavy flurries following! All of this in the southern hemisphere's equivalent of mid-June.

With everything shrouded in cloud, it was perhaps foolish to go on a side trip along one of the steepest trails I've ever climbed to get better views. But we did, and there was enough of a break in the clouds to see some of the surrounding peaks and alpine scenery, including an alpine lake (called a tarn) below. The way down was even more treacherous, but by looking at where my feet were going so much, I noticed some really beautiful green and purple stones, and some marbled with quartz. This kind of colored rock was all over the trail, and I suppose it was the greenstone the Maori valued so much in the area.

The rest of the day was cloud cloud cloud, except for a small break revealing a beautiful lake where the next hut was located. The way down was through one of the strangest forests I've ever seen. It's so wet here that lichen and moss of many varieties grows on every possible surface, from the rocks to the trees to the ground.

The hikes weren't taking as long as I anticipated, so there was some downtime each day, during which we played chess using trail mix for the pieces. I won both times.

Cloudy conditions continued the next day, covering the Hollyford Valley, which, as I saw later in clearer conditions, is even better than the Routeburn Valley. But then the sky cleared up in minutes as it only can in New Zealand, so we hiked up another side-summit for reasonably good views of valleys on all sides and the peaks surrounding them. But I was almost too beat at this point to notice.

I had been trying to guess if certain birds I had seen along this trail were Kea, New Zealand's mountain parrot. But as we reached the parking lot, a huge green bird landed on a car, and there was no mistaking it. These parrots are incredibly tame, and will tear at your packs in search of food, even when you're around. But it made for a great picture, I think.



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