Friday, September 23
(Day 22) Franz Josef Glacier
I feel like crap; one drunken night of self-induced poor sleep followed by one hungover night of almost no sleep at all. Fortunately, I am doing the half-day glacier hike leaving at 10.30 and not the full day hike beginning at silly o’clock
The Franz Josef glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world offering guided walks to the general public. The Fox Glacier, 20 minutes away from here is another, and the truly spectacular Perito Moreno glacier, which I visited in August, is the other of the three. I missed the start of the glacier walk season by one day in Argentina and so I am determined to give Franz Josef a go.
Fully kitted out in hiking gear, our team of 12 hikes for 45 minutes along a flat river bed until we reach the terminal face of the glacier. This is where the glacier reaches sea level, after descending 1300 metres from the top of the mountain above us. It is a dramatic sight, with the snow-capped mountains giving way to the kilometres-long ice glacier, which in turn ends at a river bed surrounded by lush rain forest. The full day hike takes punters half way up the glacier, helicopters buzzing overhead, but I am content to simply experience the thrill of hiking on the glacier itself, exploring crevices and tiny hidden ice caves. I imagine walking in crampons will be tough but after ten minutes it feels completely natural to firmly stamp the metal spikes into the ice below as we descend into our first spectacular crevice. Hiking on a glacier, particularly in the tough-to-negotiate narrow bluey-white ice crevices, certainly provokes a sense of the unreal. It is a magical parallel universe that evokes all kinds of strange imaginings.
The best photo opportunity of the day is sliding head first through a 5-metre long ice tunnel. Too late to ask, I find the guide is there to make sure I don’t hurtle head first into the solid ice corridor below and an early grave.
Argentina’s Perito Morino is certainly the more beautiful and spectacular glacier, if you wish to compare two of the three places in the world where you can access a glacier in this way. Anyone visiting it will never forget the pulse-rate-quickening sight of huge blocks of ice breaking away from the glacier and collapsing into the glacial waters below, in turn causing a mini-Tsunami to race across the lake. But comparing the two isn’t like-for-like anyway. Perito Morino is advancing, while Franz Josef is, as is the case with most glaciers in the world, receding. And while Perito Moreno is in another league in many senses, Franz Josef does boast the unique setting of mountains, coast and rainforests adjacent to it, and so both of these wonderful places should be considered world class attractions.
Still buzzing from the hike, we return to Franz Josef town where a memorable day of adventure is topped off with two hours of 40 degrees water relaxation in three outdoor thermal baths. This comes as a nice bonus with the 120 dollar hike. The thermal baths are cut into the rainforest with huge ferns within touching distance of the steaming pools. The addition of heavy rainfall and the noise of some creature or other emanating from deep inside the rainforest add to the wonderfully chilled ambience.
After an early scare, Australia easily see off the USA on the big screen at the adjacent pub. I am so relaxed after my hike and spa that I can hardly keep my eyes open once the Aussies start to easily run the tries in.
Australia 67 USA 5
It’s a 10am departure from my lie low in Wanaka and a spectacular 6-hour drive to Franz Josef on the west coast of the South Island. I am running out of superlatives for this island as we pass countless waterfalls, emerald lakes and stunning mountain scenery. Once we hit the west coast, the scenery completely changes as lush green rainforest tumbles down from cast hills to wild, deserted beaches. Dundee Amber is with me for most of the journey and makes excellent company before she jumps off at the Fox Glacier, where she is planning a helicopter ride onto the glacier the following day. As for me, it is another night at a YHA, this time with the remarkable backdrop of snow-covered mountains and rainforest encroaching as far as the back door of the hostel. The Cathay Pacific air stewardess and her mum from Shanghai, who I met in Wanaka, are also staying at the hostel and help me knock back a bottle of Hardys Shiraz as Tonga go head to head with Japan