Monday, February 14, 2011

Glacier Country

After we left Hokitika I was feeling like something spontaneous needed to happen and suggested that when we saw a river worthy of jumping into, we should do so. 10 minutes later we were all in our swimsuits leaping into a river with a very strong current: strong enough that when we leapt into the water, it rushed us downstream about fifty feet or so until we swam out of the current to the sandbar. It was really difficult for me to actually stand on the sandbar the current was so fast and often had to opt for making it all the way to the rocks at the edge. We cheered and waved at the cars passing on the bridge above us and when the boys decided to jump in naked into the freezing water, I decided I should probably walk away.

We drove down to Glacier Country to stay at a free campsite called Gillespies Beach about 20 km outside of Fox Township. "Glacier Country" refers to the World Heritage Area where New Zealand's two most profitable glaciers sit: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Mike and I had decided that we wanted to take a guided hike onto one of the glaciers and had a lot of difficulty deciding which to do. Franz Josef was much more commercialized and popular and for an extra $20, you got entrance into the Hot Springs. Fox offered smaller tour groups, bigger glacier, and was much older. The major difference seemed to be that Franz Josef offered more ice time but was more expensive.

In the end, Mike and I opted for Fox Glacier based on some locals recommendations, and now having done the glacier, I would probably suggest people opt for Franz Josef. It was definitely a very cool and surreal experience - but the stories I heard from those travelers who did Franz Josef kind of trumped my stories. C'est la vie!

After a buggy, late dinner night at our packed to the absolute gills campsite - we woke early and Tim and Dan dropped Mike and I off at the tour. We decided to wear shorts and layer our shirts as we would be hiking up through a rainforest (hot hot hot) to get to the access point of the glacier (cold cold cold). It was nice for Mike and I to have some time to spend together (although the tour was seriously not as fun without Tim and Dan there to be crazy) and we really enjoyed our tour guide Sam, a native New Zealander in his early 20s. I think the thing that was the strangest was that we were on a TOUR: we were with tourists and for the first time it really felt like we were... tourists! We couldn't go off on our own and had to hike at the same pace as everyone else - so it was definitely a change. We were also required to wear the provided hiking boots. They did not fit. That's all I'll say as I'd prefer not to relive the feeling.

The rainforest was really cool to hike through and I peeled off my layers as fast as possible. We passed waterfalls and crossed water fresh enough you could drink it straight out of the stream. The absolute coolest thing that happened was during a short break during the hike: we had a perfect view of the front of the glacier below us when the front of it collapsed! Pieces of the front of the glacier melt and fall off everyday into the river of water that flows below, but this was a HUGE chunk and the echo of the collapse sounded like thunder down the valley. Sam immediately jumped on his radio to warn other guides and rangers and promised us he'd never seen such a huge chunk fall off. It was so awesome!

When we hiked up the ice stairs to the glacier (which have to be hacked away at with ice picks all day long by three Fox guides) it became frigidly cold. We'd put on our shoe ice grips and grabbed an ice staff to walk with and we clambered around on top of a freaking glacier! The glacier was much dirtier than you'd expect: each snowflakes is built around a speck of dust and when you have billions of snowflakes creating a glacier, you have billions of specks of dust as well. I loved how blue the ice was and we got to poke around a little ice cave in the glacier. It was an overwhelming experience: looking behind us towards the middle of the glacier, it was sparkling ice blue in the sunlight and absolutely beautiful.

And now I can say things like "I climbed a glacier" in normal conversation.

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