Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NZ Days 5 & 6: Milford Sound and Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers

April 17, 10:36pm

I feel like it's been ages since I've written . . . it's actually only been two days, but we've packed so much into them that it seems like at least a week. We've put over 1200km on our rental car, driving up and down the west coast of the South Island and seeing an extraordinary variety of geography, including mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, and beaches, with plenty of steep, terrifying hairpin turns in between.

Most of our drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound was made during the day, which meant that we were constantly marvelling at the beautiful scenery in which we were immersed. There were rolling farmlands full of more sheep than I'd ever seen in my entire life; lush green mountains sometimes capped with snow; and so many lakes and rivers that I began to think that all the land in New Zealand was only in existence to provide borders for them. It's also the beginning of autumn here, so the leaves are starting to change and the countryside is flooded with color-- burgundies, bronzes and ochres just beginning to superimpose themselves on a landscape already made up of literally hundreds of shades of green.

As dusk settled in, the land began to change . . . the golden pastures disappeared and the mountains rose even higher, becoming more sheer and majestic with each passing mile. Small rivulets of water appeared on the cliff faces, cascading straight down-- some large enough to be termed genuine waterfalls. However, with the gathering darkness came an unwelcome guest: rain. A persistent drizzle gradually increased to a steady thrum against Carol's red roof, making the already difficult-to-navigate roads almost impossible to drive. Through the ever-thickening fog, we could barely make out huge waterfalls coming out of the towering mountains, obscured by mist and driving rain. Finally, we entered a rough tunnel hewn out of the mountainside. The tunnel went downhill, giving a distinctly Stygian impression, which added to the already-eerie feeling created by being the only car for miles along a winding two-lane road through the dark and misty valleys.

The tunnel lasted for some time, but when we came out on the other side we were struck completely dumb. A huge open green valley rolled out before us, almost prehistoric in the wildness of its natural beauty. However, the darkness made it almost impossible to see anything shortly thereafter. We followed the road--unknowingly passing countless huge waterfalls and rushing rivers--until it reached the harbor, but couldn't see anything except a Great Gatsby-style green light at the end of the pier, so we turned around and backtracked to the evening's accommodation: the Milford Sound Lodge, a backpackers and campsite near the wharf. It was very much a lodge, quite rustic, like a summer camp; think log cabins and low, squat dormitory buildings with a main kitchen/bathroom/lounge area. The staff were very knowledgeable and helpful, answering all our questions about where to hike and what we should do the next day if it was still raining, and whether or not we should pay for a cruise boat to take us out into the Sound.

The next morning, we woke to a torrential downpour-- so much for hiking at sunrise. In the end, we decided that it was worth it to pay NZ$45 for a 9:00am cruise around the Sound, which included a continental breakfast . . . and it was the best $45 I've ever spent. Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of Milford Sound, even in pouring rain and harsh winds. I really can't write about it-- I would be doing you a disservice. You'll just have to look at the pictures. But I can say with confidence that it is the most beautiful place I have ever encountered, in all my travels.

Ironically, the sun came out just as it was time to leave Milford Sound. However, since we had an eight-hour drive ahead, we couldn't really stay past eleven, Although we managed to snap a few good photos on the way out (in daylight this time!) we wanted to get underway to Fox Glacier, our next stop. We passed through Te Anau, a decent-sized town, on the way, where we ate meat (vegetable!) pies and bought a few things we'd need for the glacier hike. We were also fairly liberal with photo stops and detours, resulting in a pretty leisurely travelling pace. I had my first-ever experience driving on the left side of the road. Unfortunately, (unbeknownst to us), I had volunteered to take on the most terrifying stretch of road I've ever driven--hairpin turns up a steep cliff face with almost no guard rail, all overlooking Queenstown as we passed by it once more.

We reached our hostel-- the Ivory Towers Backpackers-- at about 9:30pm. Dinner was soup and grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches, delicious after our long day on the road. We basically had our own apartment, as there were no other guests in our building. We did, however, make friends with another traveller-- Gilad, from Israel, was taking some time to travel before starting university in October. He'd been travelling NZ for 4.5 months, and had seen almost every small town and attraction on both islands.

Plans for a sunrise hike to Lake Matheson were foiled once more by-- you guessed it-- rain. THe rain had followed us from Milford Sound and was now intent on both drenching both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. We drove quickly to Franz Josef, calling frantically ahead to see if our scheduled glacier hike had been canceled. We'll have to wait and see, they said. And so we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, we were rescheduled for the 10:30am hike, rather than the 8:e0am, but they didn't know whether even that one would still go due to the absolutely dreadful weather.

And then came the fatal blow that finally sent my carefully-laid plans crashing to the ground . . . the highway just north of Franz Josef had collapsed due to recent heavy rains, and was closed. In the States, this wouldn't be a huge obstacle; but since this is New Zealand, there's usually only one way to get from one place to another. Our progress north was completely blocked, and there was no way to get to Punakaiki, our next stop. We had to figure out a way to get to Christchurch by Saturday night, and where to stay that night since it looked like we couldn't get to Punakaiki. All the while, the rain continued, oblivious to our petty problems.

In the midst of heated deliberations over what we should do, in came some good news: our glacier hike, unthinkably, was still on! We were subsequently fitted with waterproof pants, a rain jacket, boots, hats, gloves, and everything we would need (including crampons-- see below). It was still pouring, and I didn't relish the idea of doin a four-hour hike on a glacier in the rain, but we had come all this way and I wasn't about to let a bit of drizzle keep me from what little remained of my carefully crafted itinerary. We boarded a bus and set off for a hike on Franz Josef glacier, the steepest commercially guided glacier in the world.

And it was wet, and cold, and at times miserable-- but I'm glad we did it. We walked through a verifiable jungle for some time before emerging into the glacial valley. As Steve said, "it's like freakin' Jurassic Park!" I half-expected a few dinosaurs to lumber around the corner. The valley featured a wide stone riverbed with a flooded river racing through it, and was bordered by the same sorts of mountains we'd seen in Milford Sound-- very steep, covered in lush green trees, with a copious amount of waterfalls poking out periodically.

There's something humbling and yet astounding about a glacier. I think it has a lot to do with the idea of so much history in one place-- with speeded-up geological time. You can see the striae on the rocks from the advancing and retreating glacier, and you can look at boulders the size of a medium-sized car and listen in disbelief as your guide tells you they fell last week. Strange, but exhilerating.

The hike TO the glacier was actually the hardest part of the trek. At the base of the massive wall of ice, we fitted our boots with crampons: spiked metal frames that are strapped to your feet. As you walk, they dig into the ice, giving you better traction, and you can't really climb at all without them. Our guide went ahead of us with a pickax, renewing the pre-cut stairs and pathways that were quickly washing away beneath the constant assault of the elements. We climbed slowly but surely up the almost-sheer face of the glacier, slipping and sliding past caves, wells, deep fissures, and crevasses so deep that they go halfway down into the 100m thick glacier (100m is the equivalent of a 30-story building). The ice is blue, not white, since it's so dense that it's over 90% water instead of the usual 50%/50% water-air ice that forms over puddles and lakes.

The rain did not let up one little bit for our four-hour hike; in fact, the guide said that if the weather had been any worse at all they would not have taken groups out. As it was, we were taking detours to avoid landslides and extra care with certain glacier paths. But as wet and cold as it was, it was still a great experience that I'm glad I did it.

And to top it all off, when we returned to town we found that they had miraculously rebuilt one lane of the highway, and we would be able to get to Punakaiki that night as planned! We were overjoyerd-- but also famished and in desperate need of a hot shower. So after raiding a nearby cafe for sandwiches and sausage rolls, we actually drove the 25km SOUTH back to Fox and just walked into Ivory Towers to use their showers (hey, we did stay there the previous night). By the time we left for Punakaiki, it was easily 6pm and starting to get dark. 2.5 hours of hard driving got us to Hokitika, where we stopped for groceries and delicious Indian food, and by 10pm we'd made it to Punakaiki.

Our hostel here is right on the beach, which is amazing. The town is very small-- no supermarket or petrol station here at ll-- and there are more stars than I think I've ever seen. I'm looking forward to a walk on the beach tomorrow and a slightly less frenzied day as we reach the last leg of our trip :(

Waterfall in Milford Sound

The end of the Sound-- the Tasman sea


Me, Heather, and Steve

A common sight on the walls of Milford Sound

A chasm with a rushing river; roadside stop on the way out of M.S.

Another chance photo stop on the way out of M.S.

Late-afternoon sun shining off lake Wakitipu

Driving out of Queenstown, overlooking the valley

Sky at sunset


on our way into the glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Wet and cold but still having fun!

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