Monday, May 9, 2011

Land of Glaciers!

Written Sunday, May 8, 2011
Franz Josef Village, Westland
South Island

Posted  Monday evening, May 9th
Wanaka, Central Otago, South Island

(Click on Photos to Enlarge)

Waking early to sunshine in Hokitika this morning, we boarded our southbound bus, Marjorie, this time driven by Magic Nick, and headed off. We had a brief stop at the gold mining town of Ross, then drove straight through to Franz Josef (about a 2 ½ hour drive), but not before Matt and some of our fellow travelers could get friendly with the village goat:

As we turned inland from the coast, the clouds lifted a bit and we got some amazing views of the increasingly rugged country. Had there been no clouds at all, we would have been able to see the higher peaks, including Aoraki/Mt. Cook, but as it was we were lucky to get some glimpses of snow behind the foremost ranges. The West Coast, also known as the Wet Coast, gets huge amounts of cloud and rain, due to weather systems that have thousands of miles of ocean (and Australia) to gather steam, then come up against the Southern Alps and have dump all their moisture on the coast. The areas around Franz Josef measure their yearly rainfall in metres, not in milimetres or centimeters like other parts of the country. We’re just happy that it’s not actively raining, and that we were able to take in these views:

We’ve really been enjoying the commentary by our bus drivers, and also getting to know some of our fellow travelers. Here’s a few fellow Magic passengers (Magicians?) posing with the bus mascot Ross in Ross:

And taking photos of Lake Ianthe, one of the many “mirror” lakes in Westland, that are often so calm that they perfectly reflect the scenery above them:

We pulled into Franz Josef Village, in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, just before noon, and checked into our respective hostels. The village is so tiny that all three hostels are side by side, and there are a couple of glacier guiding offices, an information centre, and a couple gift shops, and that’s it. Truly a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place, with the immensely steep mountains rising up behind it and the glaciers visible from the main street. The way the town is laid out and it’s alpine feel reminded me and Matt of Government Camp, the ski town on the sides of Mt. Hood back home in Oregon.

After checking into our backpackers and making a bit of lunch and a cup of coffee, we joined back up with Magic Nick, who drove us up to the carpark near the foot of Franz Josef Glacier, and we all walked up to one of the viewpoints from which we could see the glacier. The glacier was named after Austrian Emperor Franz Josef by an explorer by the name of Julian van Haast. He named quite a few places in Westland, and has a town further south named after him. We’ll pass through Haast tomorrow.

I had thought we were a bit unlucky to have a cloudy day, but Magic Nick said it was a really great day to view the glacier, and that last time he was here, the cloud and fog was lying so low in the valley that they couldn’t see the glacier at all. The narrowness of the glacial valley, as well as the steepness of the valley walls and the glacier itself, was absolutely astounding to me. There were waterfalls coming straight down the mountainsides, and a river flowing out from underneath the glacier (pronounced “glay-see-er” by everyone who isn’t from the States…).

I hiked a short additional distance by myself up to the floor of the glacial valley, for some more views and photos. From the bottom of the valley, even at a distance from the glacier itself, the steepness of the valley walls and the ice were magnified, and totally awe-inspiring.

In the hour before sundown, the clouds cleared and we walked outside to incredible views of unbelievably sharp peaks above us, and glaciers and snowfields we didn’t know were there in the fog. Having finally gotten the zoom lens working, I got some good detailed shots in the fading light:


Later in the evening, after dark, we met up with Magic Nick and a few other Magicians, and were led by Nick on a short hike out of the village to view amazing constellations of glow worms along the trail. It was pitch dark, and the clouds and rain had closed in again, and Matt and Nick and I were the only ones who were cool with hiking without torches (flashlights) on the totally flat, straight trail. Nick insisted that it would be a better experience, but some of our companions got really freaked out by being in the dark without a light, and Matt and I couldn't help but give them the ultimate night hike experience: we quietly stole ahead down the trail in the dark and climbed off into the bush, and then loudly and suddenly yelled "Boo!" at our fellow hikers as they went by. They were great sports about it, and we all about died laughing. Matt and I felt very proud of ourselves; after all, there's next to nothing in a New Zealand rainforest that can hurt you besides your fellow humans, and we thought it useful to teach our friends that lesson :)

The village of Franz Josef thrives on guided glacier hikes and heli-hikes, as well as scenic flights over the glaciers and the Southern Alps, but as they’re really expensive and we’ve already gotten great views of the glacier, we’re heading out tomorrow morning to Wanaka with Magic Nick, as there’s not much else to do in the village. Everyone else that came up with us today is staying here to do activities on the glacier, so tomorrow we’ll be traveling onward with those Magic-ers who have been up here since the last bus came through. One of the unanticipated effects of riding a hop-on, hop-off bus is that you make friends on one leg of the journey, then part ways as one person hops off and the other stays on, and then a couple legs later in the journey you end up on the same bus again! We’re very much enjoying the company and the opportunity we’ve gotten to travel with Magic, with endless chances to admire and savor the grandeur of this country. 


Quick update from Wanaka (WAH-nah-kah), where we arrived this afternoon (Monday). We are now on the sunny side of the mountains, and we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful view as we arrived into town, seeing Lake Wanaka spreading out before us, with craggy peaks behind, and surrounded by the brightest fall colors I have ever seen.  It all just keeps getting better. Just to prove it, here's the view from our dorm room at our backpackers here:

And our gear where we ditched it by the lake to soak up the sun as soon as we climbed off the bus:

Yes, it really does keep getting better.

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