Franz Yaw Seph

Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
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Trip End Apr 12, 2007


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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Aside from the Lord of the Rings tours, hiking Fox Glacier was the only other major thing I absolutely had to do in New Zealand. I had heard so many wonderful things about it and I had never done anything like it.

New Zealand's terrain so far had looked alot like California with a little bit of Hawaii sprinkled here and there. It was a temperate rain forest and I was curious how a glacier could fit into this ecosystem.

When I pictured Fox in my head, I imagined a large block of ice floating around off the coast waiting to sink the Titanic. I expected to see penguins dancing everywhere and polar bears drinking Coke. Basically, I expected the north pole but I had no clue how that could exist in New Zealand.

What I came to see was better than Happy Feet.

Fox is one of the few glaciers in the world to end among lush rainforest only 300 metres above sea level. So imagine the north pole in Hawaii.

The reason for it is the steep 2,600 m fall of ice from four alpine glaciers. It journeys 13 km from the Southern Alps down to the coast, and although retreating throughout most of the last 100 years, it has been advancing since 1985 at an average of about a meter a day.

It's popularity, like its neighbor 26 km away Franz Joseph, comes from its accesibility. The terminal face is an easy 5 km walk from Fox village/Weheka. It attracts about 1,000 tourists daily during the high season. Its rapid advance creates dangers of sudden ice and rockfalls so a guide is a quintessential part of any visit here.

The plan was to book our guide at Fox and then do a quick hike to the foot of Franz Joseph. After securing lodging in Franz Joseph, our next stop was at the Glacier Guide office to book our Fox tour. As fate would steer us again, the Fox tour was booked.  By default, we scheduled our full-day glacier hike for Franz Joseph for the next morning. There are half-day options but the only way to really see the glacier is by hiking the full day.

With Franz Joseph the destination for tomorrow's hike, we decided instead to hike to the base of Fox so we could at least say we saw both glaciers. Our hostel even recommended a short detour after our hike to see Lake Matheson just on the outskirts of Fox Village. There we could see Mt. Cook at sunset reflected in the mirror lake. This was turning out to be an ideal itinerary.

I have been comparing New Zealand to California quite a bit and it's because I'm a Cali snob. But when we arrived in glacier country, I was outside of my element. The Sierra Nevadas got nothing on this place.

The best part about the glacier was that since we were still in a rainforest climate, we did the entire hike in shorts. Sure we had our wet jackets and clampon talons for our boots, but with the sun out it was pleasantly warm weather.

We hiked in a fast paced group, much to the chagrin of my sister, so we could see more. The terrain was an icy wonderland of wormholes and ice walls. I was in Hoth and I even threatened to cut open Clemens' belly for shelter should we ever find ourselves stranded up there. 

The group we went up with was a good group too, and our guide was a superstar. One of two dudes from Maine we met on this trip, Tom was a rare employee in the service of New Zealand. Americans generally have a hard time finding work in foreign countries because there's so damn many of us. Tom used to be a forest rescue guy, so his credentials made him a prime candidate.

Our motley crew went up the glacier as guests and we came down the mountain of ice as friends. Such good friends, in fact, that we decided to grab a quick beer with them before we skipped town for Greymouth.

One beer became two. Two became six. Then we stayed for dinner. Then six beers became our own little mountain of empties. Between four Kiwis, another Californian, and the three of us, we polished off enough alcohol to make an Irishman blush.

Needless to say, we weren't making it to Greymouth that night. And, oh yeah, we forgot to book a room at the hostel. Oh well. Times like these, you drink some more. So we did. Well into the night until we found ourselves scattered around the little village of Franz Joseph passed out in random places.

I found a nice couch in the basement of one hostel. My sister crashed in the car, trying not to rock any boats. Clemens stripped naked and passed out in the bathroom of the local bar. No, not really, but he did almost fall asleep while trying to take a piss. Oh wait, that was me.

The morning was painful, as most are following a good night. But in all, we made some friends, conquered a mountain of ice, and though no one was in the mood to drive, we did finally make it out of Franz Joseph. Though our shoulders were hunched (some more than others ... I've been called Quasimodo before), our faces had smiles.

Ahead was more beautiful country. New Zealand rules.
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