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Our Travels in New Zealand Part 3

Author: Mal Part (More Trip Reviews by Mal Part)
Date of Trip: March 2007

Day 29 – It’s GLACIER Day

After a small breakfast in the room we go to town for a decent cup of coffee at the new Hukatere Centre – it opened for business this very day. The Hukatere Centre is a NZ$7million project to build a glacial experience without the need to go near a glacier! This is a bit cynical – it’s really a series of 30 foot ice walls; some vertical, some sloped and some with overhangs, and for $28 for 90 minutes you can don ice climbing gear and try your luck. The whole thing can be viewed from the café via a huge glass wall.

We get the very first coffees from the café and take them back to watch the first two ice climbers showing us their stuff. I have a chat with a ‘suit’ who is hovering around the café – he’s the manager. To add to his discomfort, I ask him what happens if the power fails? He tells me that the temperature inside the ice chamber is –100C in the morning and rises to –20C by the end of the day. He thinks that if the doors are kept closed they’d be okay for several days – a stand-by generator was being delivered in mid-April. I said I’d keep my fingers crossed for him!

Chris has a plan to walk up to the face of the Franz Josef Glacier and to a mirror lake, while I go off for my heli-hike. Paid from my birthday money, this involves a 15-minute helicopter ride over the whole glacier and nevé, a landing on the ice to allow our party to disembark for a 2-hour hike, plus the return to town afterwards.

The helicopter pilot gives the “go ahead” for the trip at 11-30 and we ready ourselves with socks and ice boots, water-proof jackets and ice spikes; and then head off from the heli-pad to the glacier. Each helicopter takes 5 passengers and, since I’m the ‘odd’ one, I get to sit alongside the pilot. This is great because I have an uninterrupted view of the glacier and surrounding mountains before we land on the ice high up on the glacier.

Our first 15-minutes on the ice are easy going so that we can feel our feet and get used to the ice spikes – the walking is largely flat, and there’s not too much free running water. I was surprised by just how much water was flowing on the surface – obviously, the glacier is melting all the time, but water runs in small rivers and waterfalls, later finding a crevasse or melt hole, and disappearing inside.

The Franz Josef Glacier is “fast moving”, unlike many of the world’s – it moves down its valley at an average of 2 metres per day. The glacier is magnificent; the ice is over ½ mile wide and up to 1,000 feet deep. Because it moves so ‘quickly’, the surface is chaotic: huge crevasses, pile-ups and frequent falls of ice from the higher levels - heli-pads on the ice have to be newly made on most days – our second guide cuts a new one while we’re hiking. Because of the “in sun light, blue wavelengths are reflected better by water” thing, the ice is a wonderful blue colour; adding to the beauty of the place.

The guide makes himself very clear, “Follow in my footsteps or I won’t be responsible for what happens to you”. He finds us some great man-sized crevasses and wonderfully shaped ice caves – great for photos, and we all take pictures of each other, as you’d expect.

All too soon, the guide announces that its time to get back to the pick up point, so we trek back down the glacier quickly.. How I did I don’t know, but in getting across a small crevasse I manage to catch my right boot’s spikes in the straps of left boot’s spikes! I had already launched across the crevasse at this point so, with my feet locked together, I land on the other side of the crevasse on my left leg. I’m in shorts, so the leg lands on the ice and breaks my fall – it’s little more than a stumble really. But, the ice is recent shattered by ice spikes – its like 100s of tiny razor blades; my shin and knee are cut to shreds, and blood flows into my socks and boots! It’s such a trivial thing, but the blood makes it look horrendous. The guide takes a look and asks, “Any pain?” I answer, “No”, and he says, “Good”. And that’s it; we proceed to the pick up point.

When we get there, the guide takes another look at my leg (which I’ve now washed off with some melt water). He reminds me that the ice on the glacier has been around for a couple of 100 years, and tells me to clean the wound with saline solution and iodine back in town; advice I take seriously and follow faithfully!

Chris has filled the car with petrol so we take off for Greymouth as soon as I get back – Chris is driving, my leg’s a lot more painful now I’ve warmed up!!!

The drive is quite dramatic. The SH-6 runs between the Southern Alps on one side, and the Tasman Sea on the other, with much of the road directly on the coast. Since a lot of the water/snow that falls on the Alps flows as rivers into the Tasman Sea, there are many, many rivers, and many, many bridges to cross on our way north.

We come across a new phenomenon …. I’ve mentioned one-way bridges before but on the West Coast we have one-way bridges that are shared with the railway!!! The train has absolute right of way, and access is barred by flashing red lights when a train is coming. Cars have access at other times, based on the priority markings on the road. Interesting.

We’d been to Greymouth before – it was the terminus of the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch – but we were only there for an hour. That had been enough to see the centre of the town so, once we’re unpacked, we head off to the nearest restaurant for dinner. Chris orders Lime and Coriander Chicken with couscous, and I order “Whitebait prepared to an original West Coast recipe”. Of her chicken, Chris comments, “Very nice”. Of my whitebait, I comment, “It’s a bloody fish omelette”; and it was.

Day 30 – The road to Nelson

In total, we have 20 travelling days on our holiday and there is a lot to see as we motor through some of the most dramatic and scenic landscapes around. There are also viewpoints and ‘points of interest’ at the roadside or close by that demand a stop and a look-see. The journey from Greymouth to Nelson was no exception and since we have plenty of time, we take the scenic route up the coast (SH-6) rather than the inland one (SH-7). All this leads to our longest drive on the trip – 309 miles.

The coast road is dramatic and rugged, and we are seduced by a sign inviting us to stop at the “Pancake Rocks” - they’re near Punakaiki, at Dolomite Rocks.

It’s an amazing series of wind- and sea-carved cliffs made from layer upon layer of limestone, each about 5” thick. There is a thin, softer layer between each limestone layer, and this has been weathered away to make limestone columns and cliffs that look like piles of pancakes. The sea has cut inlets into the cliffs, and erosion has left columns stranded close to the water’s edge. Blowholes have been created that whistle and boom with the noise of the in-rushing sea. DOC has built a walkway out across the structure so that visitors can get a better look at the sea doing it work; all in all, a great stop. Well done DOC – see About - Viewpoints and Walkways in Section 4.

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