A Travellerspoint blog

New Zealand

The Ice-ing on our New Zealand Cake

Hiking Franz Josef Glacier

overcast 10 °C

Who’d have thought a lump of ice could immediately launch itself into our Top Five Experiences of the entire trip, but our visit to Franz Josef Glacier on Monday easily qualified. We had arrived in the Park late on Saturday evening and – with the mountains completely socked in with low cloud – decided to postpone our hike onto the glacier pending better weather. It was a risky strategy: we had to leave no later than mid-afternoon on Monday to get back to Christchurch in time for our flight onto Australia. Would the notoriously unpredictable west coast weather – that already upset our Milford Sound visit – give us a break and allow us to walk on the glacier?

On Sunday, we killed the hours by catching up on blog entries, and then hiking for an hour or so from Franz Josef to the face of the glacier. It’s a busy trail that ultimately takes you down a kilometre long valley carved by the glacier in previous phases (as recently as 1867, the glacier filled much of the valley!). But the reason that Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glacier are special – in addition to their relative accessibility – is that they are two of only three glaciers in the world that descend into rainforest. Yup, I said rainforest.

Franz Josef and nearby Fox Glaciers descent into dense, Indiana-Jones type rainforests!

The flat valley floor in front of the advancing glacier tricks the eye in terms of scale, and it’s not until you get to the other end of the valley that the height of the ice-mass becomes apparent. With ice and rock falls a real risk, visitors are discouraged from getting too close, with enter-at-your-own-peril type signs and rope barriers positioned several hundred metres from the front of the glacier. But – fearing the weather wouldn’t allow us an up-close-and-personal, we couldn’t resist venturing in as groups of guided hikers made their way down the melting ice-face using stairs custom-hacked by tanned, shorts-clad young men.

Those coloured ants in the middle of the first picture are people!

Even from the floor of the valley, the glacier is an impressive beast. Rocks in the base of the glacier act as deadly teeth and, strengthened by the immense pressure of ice above, carve valleys, leaving striations in rocks and ripping trees from their roots. It’s a living, breathing machine that demands respect and I felt tiny in its massive presence. Getting onto the ice was a nice-to-do until we saw it up close. At that point, it became an essential experience, and we knew that we’d both be devastated if we didn’t get lucky on our final morning in town.

The suspense was so great that I actually had trouble sleeping on Sunday night. Only Lloyd can tell you how grumpy I was when daylight revealed another dark day, with low cloud once again graying out the valleys. We were becoming expert as reading the conditions appropriate for a helicopter landing on the ice, and our fears were confirmed when we learned that the first helicopter trips of the day had been cancelled.

We reported for the noon flight nonetheless. And were thrilled when staff started to ready us for the hike. It looked like we’d get up on the glacier after all! Booted up, we awaited our final briefing just a few metres from the helipad, with the choppers’ blades screaming. The sky was still white with dense cloud, but – wait – was that a sliver of blue I just saw? I put it down to wishful thinking. Strapped into the helicopter, cars and trees shrunk until they looked like mere toys as we were whisked the few miles towards the glacier.

And then it happened.

Before our eyes, the sky was clearing. Not just slivers of blue, but vast, lush, delicious waves of the richest blue imaginable. My eyes could scarcely comprehend the beauty around me. You could have offered me a million dollars to stop smiling and I wouldn’t have been able to stop. I even forgot to get motion-sick on the helicopter!


Below us, the glacier paraded its white-blue ruffles; a giant waterfall of cracked ice. We would not land on the very top where the ice is moving the most quickly at up to 6 metres per day. As the ice reaches the ridge and starts its journey down into the valley, it is clearly at its most unstable and that is strictly the domain of experienced ice climbers. And so our helicopter followed the glacier’s journey down towards the valley, and prepared to land. Below us, a seemingly fly-sized helicopter paused on the ice to drop the other half of our group, allowing a humbling scale perspective of the monster looming beneath.

Spot the landing helicopter....

The clear day was transformed into a mild snow storm as the helicopter left us on the ice. Above us, clear blue sky. Behind us, thick grey clouds disguised the valley below. Though relatively low in terms of elevation, it felt like we were on top of the world! Once fitted with crampons, the ice was remarkably easy to walk on and – under the watchful eye of our guide – we were allowed to clamber about, posing with our ice picks and pretending we were real ice mountaineers.


Lloyd and I simply couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we managed to get on the ice, but for the first time in days the sky had cleared as if on cue for our arrival. For just over an hour, we explored our tiny piece of Franz Josef, from small ice caves and crevasses to crystal clear glacial ponds and streams formed by the melting beast. Towards the floor of the valley, it’s actually pretty warm – certainly well above freezing – so the advancing ice needs to outpace the inevitable melting at the front end. It’s a battle the glacier is winning right now, and Franz Josef has been advancing for the last decade or so.

Click above for our Glacier Video Diary!

As we climbed up the glacier, it was clear that the break in the weather was going to be little more than temporary. Thick cloud was closing in around us, and – after about an hour and a half - our hike was abruptly cancelled for safety reasons: if the cloud closed in the helicopter landing area then we could very well be stranded on the ice. Our guide skillfully rushed us back to the makeshift helipad formed by a stone circle on the ice, and we returned without incident to Franz Josef Village.

"Did anyone see where our blue sky went?"

We both longed to stay on the glacier, but we couldn’t be disappointed with the experience at all. For me at least, it was one of the most poignant moments of the entire trip, overwhelmed as I was by the glacier’s beauty, power and longevity. Landscapes are shaped by so many different forces, but here was one that I could touch and really feel. I was truly humbled.

Now, it was my first glacier and I am sure there are many at least as impressive as Franz Josef out there (and you can bet Alaska will make a strong appearance in my next ‘Places to Visit’ list), but if you have the opportunity to experience Franz Josef the way we did – by helicopter and a walk on the ice (aka ‘Heli-Hike) – then just do it. It’s pricey, so be prepared for that. But don’t even contemplate missing it.

We left Franz Josef just elated from our Heli-Hike which was probably a good thing as we (well, technically, Lloyd) had another long drive ahead of us. We were about six hours from Christchurch, and we wanted to get at least halfway there before finding a place to overnight.

Posted by jacquiedro 05:38 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Witnessing the Ultimate New Zealand Experience

What else to do with a high bridge and a long piece of elastic?

sunny 22 °C

New Zealand is the infamous home of bungy jumping and outside Queenstown is the bungy operation that claims to have started it all – AJ Hackett’s at Kawarau Bridge. We decided to stop and watch some brave folks leap off the 142 foot high bridge, which overlooks a particularly picturesque river ravine. With bungy elastic strapped firmly around their ankles, and loud heavy rock music pumping from the jump station, individuals nervously hobbled to the edge of the platform and plunged to the river below. A few were ‘helped’ with a gentle nudge if they were taking too long.

Even watching people jump leaves a lump in your throat. As perfect strangers stand on the platform, you feel nervous for them: everyone can imagine the all-encompassing and uncontrollable terror they’d feel standing in the jumper’s shoes. You’d have to be crazy, right? I mean, of all the adventurous pursuits, bungy is the one I said I’d never do.

I guess I lied.


I didn’t have any intention of doing it. But as Lloyd and I watched, I started to feel tempted. We’re in New Zealand, the home of bungy. The more I thought about it, it became clear that I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t do it. I’d never forgive such an overt demonstration of lack of courage. Though my belly was doing triple backflips just thinking about it, I concluded that there was – in fact - no choice. It simply had to be done.

Happily, the jump crews were taking a break for the twenty minutes or so before my jump, so I didn’t have to torture myself with experiencing the agony of jumps while I waited. But before I knew it, Lloyd and I were walking towards the jump platform in the middle of the bridge. Interestingly, I no longer felt nervous. I was 100% focused on the task in hand: I wanted to get off the platform as quickly as possible and reduce the opportunity for dithering or backing out. And I wanted – needed – to do it without once looking down.

Waiting on the bridge to have my legs bound...

Ankle binding.

Lloyd, prohibited by his back from jumping, left to get to the viewing area while I was taken onto the back of the jump platform. With a thick, blue towel for padding, my ankles were strapped firmly together while the crew member made some unwelcome small talk about the weather. There were questions I wanted to ask about the science behind the jump, but I was so totally focused on getting off that platform that I mostly sat there with a steel look of determination. When the crew attached the bungy cord to my feet ‘restraints’, I knew my time had come. Still, mysteriously, no nerves.

Just seconds to go.... Focus. Focus. Focus.

I was helped to my feet and – as well as you can with your feet bound together – hobbled to the edge of the platform. I manage a pretty convincing smile for the camera and a wave over to Lloyd. The crew dude counts down from five. Five. “Just keep looking straight ahead.” Four. “This will be over in less than two minutes”. Three. “I just have to jump… the rest will take care of itself”. Two. “If I hesitate, it will just make it worse”. One. “Just do it.”

Just did it!

I’m flying, and everything goes deathly silent. No rock music, no screams from the crowd, no water, no birds. Nothing. The last thing I remember seeing is the stunning vista ahead of me: beautiful blue sky and a river ravine. I realize I’m still looking forward. And then – the sensation of falling. While I feel every inch of the drop, I don’t see any of it. My eyes are wide open, but it’s as if my brain chooses to block out the terrifying sight as I plunge towards the water. As the bungy gets to work, and I bounce back almost as high as the bridge, my sight is restored, and I can experience three or four ‘bounces’ with all of my senses.


Immediately, the ‘retrieval’ crew is coming after me, and – still hanging upside down from the bungy – I’m dragged into the dinghy. The relief is overwhelming. The achievement of having jumped feels massive. And as soon as everything stops shaking I’ll be able to confirm that I’m physically unhurt.


And of course, I’m fine. A few hours post-bungy, I still had a massive headache in the back of my eyes, but was fine after a good night's sleep. It's hard to know what's left to beat it in our last two days in New Zealand.

Posted by jacquiedro 23:57 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (4)

Fast River Canyons and Remarkable Peaks- But No Hobbits

Queenstown Day 2, Part I

sunny 17 °C

Blessed with another stunning day, we managed an early start and headed out of town a few miles to the Shotover River where we planned to take a jet boat ride through the river’s spectacular canyons. This being Queenstown, we would do so at high speed in a specially designed jet boat powered by twin V6 Buick engines, each cranking 200+ horses, and propelling 800 litres of water a second.

These photos don't even begin to do it justice....

For 25 minutes, our jet boat skimmed across the water, swerving around canyons at high speed and frequently avoiding massive boulders by only a matter of inches (check out the video… there is NO zoom used at all). The 360 degree turns throw us around the boat like rag dolls, but left us smiling every time.

Exhilarated, we dried off and headed to the outskirts of Queenstown where we planned a late breakfast overlooking the town in Deer Park.

Hey, it's not called Deer Park for nothing....


The fact that several Lord of the Rings scenes were filmed here did not escape us, and we did spend an hour or so admiring the dramatic backdrop of the Remarkables.


The animals here are quite used to visitors – in fact you are encouraged to feed them by hand, so we spent a few minutes with some baby goats which were actually too young to be interested in the supplied animal feed. Far more assertive were the deer, who would have knocked the can out of my hand given the opportunity!


It was a perfectly appropriate way to wrap up our time in Queenstown, and it was with some reluctance that we headed out of town, although - as it turned out - we wouldn't make it too far before our next stop ....

Posted by jacquiedro 20:56 Archived in New Zealand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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