On Thick Ice
23-November 2004 to 25-November 2004:
It had been pouring rain since yesterday. We worried that this would cancel our pre-booked heli-hike on the thick ice of the Franz Josef Glacier. Given the low-lying clouds and poor visibility, the outlook was rather iffy. So we anxiously waited along with tens of other people hoping we'd get to do our very first glacier walk...
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Day 17: HELIHIKING IN THE RAIN
After a day of nice weather and a day of fair weather, today started off with foul weather. Nonetheless, we got ready, left the Glacier View Motel, and checked in at the lobby of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides Office for the pre-booked heli-hike at 8:30am. We waited anxiously with heaps of other people hoping the weather would be just fair enough to let us go on the excursion.
At about 8:45am, we walked through a light forest and over to a portable building near the helipad. There, we got further briefed on safety as well as putting on the glacier gear for the excursion. Then, we waited at the helipad. There were still anxious moments as it could be called off regardless of all the preparation we had gone through up to this point.
Then, the guy with the walkie talkie got the good news and started sending people in groups to each chopper that landed. We were on the last group to go.
We landed on the glacier a little after 10am. It was kind of interesting how they made a spot on the glacier into a landing area. I'm sure it changes each day since the Franz Josef Glacier was said to be one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world.
When we landed, it was time to put on the crampons. The clouds were still menacing and pelting us with sporadic droplets of water. We were surrounded by steep mountain walls littered with veins of waterfalls. Still, the guide started the hike wielding his pick axe, and the rest of us followed...
And so we walked seemingly randomly about the glacier. There were light blue pools along with dangerous-looking crevaces you wouldn't want to accidentally put your foot into. It was quite a unique and memorable experience to be on this type of landscape. It didn't seem to matter that there were pockets of strong rain during the helihike.
When the group had to wait, usually the guide with literally carve out the trail for us. There was one instance where we had to do the Franz shuffle, which was a particular type of maneuvre to go down a particularly steep obstacle.
Before we knew it, the two hours on the ice was up. While we waited for a helicopter to arrive, the guide started to carve a little trail for us to go under the ice and check out a tiny little ice cave. By this time, we took the crampons off so footing was much trickier.
Nonetheless, the deep blue ice was quite a sight. Julie and I took a few photos in it before we got out. I did have a little trouble climbing out though, but some kind stranger behind me shoved me upwards to help me out.
And so ended our little adventure on thick ice. Before we knew it, we were back in the Franz Josef township at 12:30pm.
So Julie and I grabbed a quick lunch before we got back into our car and drove to the Glacier Valley walk for our own little self-tour towards the terminus of the glacier we were just on.
It was about 2pm when we finally were on the trail. It continued to rain so we already saw a few waterfalls from the car park. Still, we continued the walk towards the glacier.
Initially, the trail passed through some light forest, but it wasn't long before the vegetation opened up and the open glacier-scoured valley lay before us.
Although the glacier looked close, it was still quite a walk to get there. It took about an hour to get all the way to the glacier terminus. All throughout the hike, we saw a plethora of ephemeral waterfalls strewn along the valley walls. Some of them even looked like they could be considered permanent and legitimate, but I didn't recall if any of them had names.
The trail got increasingly rockier as we got closer to the glacier terminus. Given the rainfall, we had to cross a few streams that were no more than ankle deep. Some rock hopping with hiking sticks kept our feet dry through these obstacles.
Once we were at the glacier terminus, I was amazed at how dirty it looked down here. Off to the side was what appeared to be an ice cave. Always mindful that these glaciers could move at any instant, I opted not to cross over the roped barricades and enter that cave. My curiosity kept luring me in, but I refrained.
The size of the glacier was quite striking. We did see a few tour groups make their way up the glacier. It looked like a lot of work, but I was glad we did the heli-hike because if we started from the valley like these folks did, we would've been walking through mostly dirty ice.
So after taking photos at the glacier terminus, we headed back down the valley in the rain. Still plenty of waterfalls flowed given the abundant rainfall so we certainly got our fill of waterfalls - albeit of the temporary variety.
We eventually returned to the car park at 4pm. Then, we returned to our dungeon-like accommodation at the Glacier View Motel and cleaned up in time for our 5:30pm dinner at Beeches Restaurant.
The food was rather average, but it was a good way to round out an otherwise interesting day on the thick ice.
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Day 18: ASPIRING
Knowing that we had a full day of driving ahead of us, we woke up at around 6am and we checked out of the Franz Josef Glacier Motel (the so-called Glacier View Motel, which there really wasn't much of a glacier view from there at all). We proceeded to drive south along the SH6 looking to see if there was a waterfall along the way as we made our way towards Fox Glacier.
During our trip research, we made an executive decision to focus on the Franz Josef Glacier on this trip and less so on the Fox Glacier. Even so, we still wanted to briefly take a look at the other glacier just to see what it was like.
However, the turnoff and drive towards Fox Glacier seemed to be kind of deep and we only contented ourselves with a partial distant view of that glacier before we headed back to the SH6 and continued going south on the SH6 towards Haast. The time was about 7:30am when we got back to the main highway.
The drive would prove uneventful though there were pockets of bad weather and fine weather as we headed south towards Haast. It was too bad that the fair weather we had prior to our visit to Franz Josef didn't persist, but I guess that was kind of how things tended to roll on the West Coast of New Zealand. Indeed, it was very rainy here, and perhaps that was why there were the glaciers that went right into a rainforest - said to be the only ones of its kind in the world.
Anyways with respect to the rain, I guess you can't predict such things and you try to adapt accordingly.
By about 8:30am, we reached a lookout towards what was called the Knights Point Overlook. It was basically a scenic crescent-shaped bay with a rocky island in it, but it was pretty much a roadside stop to stretch for a bit before we continued goign into the turnoff near Haast, then we would head further south through the Southern Alps towards Haast Pass along the Haast River.
This part of the land was part of Mt Aspiring National Park. We really weren't sure what was in this park other than some backcountry bush tramps, but we were hoping there might be some waterfalling to bag as we made our way south in the direction of Haast Pass, then to Wanaka ("WAH-nuh-kuh"), then over to Queenstown, where we would spend this night.
As we were driving south from the Haast Vicinity into the Haast River Valley, at about 9:10am we started to notice some pretty large unexpected waterfalls to our right (east facing walls). We weren't sure what they were, but we took it upon ourselves to stop the car to take some pictures.
After taking such photos, we then continued along the SH6 only to see more giant waterfalls off the road. This time, we just took photos from the car given the light traffic. However, after taking our shots here, we would find more giant waterfalls further down the road. And it was at this point that we just decided to push on knowing that we couldn't stop for every single waterfall.
However, I did regret not stopping for a series of waterfalls coming down like veins when the SH6 started bending to the east with the Haast River. It was quiet a spectacle and prompted Julie to say, "Whoa!"
But onwards we went until we ultimately made a stop for what we thought was "Depot Creek Falls" at around 9:30am. This particular waterfall didn't have a signpost, but we followed directions from Eugen Winklharrer who was here before and wrote down hints on his website.
After doing that, we then scrambled for a closer look at this intriguing cascade.
Then after having our fill of this rather obscure waterfall, we next made a stop for the signposted Roaring Billy Falls. We weren't sure what this waterfall experience would yield, but if they put signage and a car park for it, we figured it must be worth our while.
But after spending about 20 minutes on the walk, we were a little disappointed with this wishbone-shaped waterfall that was mostly surrounded by bush. It didn't seem very significant, and we couldn't figure out for the life of us why it got a sign and some infrastructure when others seemed to be more impressive than this one yet didn't get any love.
Next at about 10:15am, we went to the signposted stop for Thunder Creek Falls, which had a handful of cars already here. We arrived at around 10:15am. After a brief walk, we made it to a view across the Haast River of the tall but slender named waterfall. There wasn't a whole lot we could do differently with this waterfall to vary up our photos, but the main view of the falls was good enough.
We didn't linger here for too long because there were some annoying snadflies that were buzzing about looking for fresh blood from us.
After Thunder Creek Falls, we made a brief stop at a bridge where there was the rushing Haast River flowing right beneath it. I believe this spot was the Haast Pass, and we got here at about 10:30am. There were already other people here from a tour bus, but we didn't see a need to linger here for too long since the rapids below us didn't seem like a legit waterfall to have a name, and there was no hint of signage saying anything else around that we felt would have been worthwhile here.
Continuing on, as we passed a couple of bridges with roadside waterfalls next to them, we then made a stop for the signposted Fantail Falls at around 10:40am. Like with Thunder Creek Falls, we made a short walk to get to a view of this waterfall. Then, we saw across the Haast River a bulbous-shaped waterfall that I guess reminded someone of a fan.
As we continued going south along the SH6, we started to notice some pretty big lakes. The terrain also seemed to have opened up a bit so apparently, we must have been out of the Haast River Valley. In any case, we pretty much gunned it towards Queenstown, where we'd ultimately get to our accommodation by about 1:30pm.
The weather was pretty much foul as it was in between pouring rain and ominous threatening clouds during a period of calm. But in any case, we were glad to have arrived at our motel with a view of the mountain range known as the Remarkables. The town itself was next to a large lake called Lake Wakatipu.
Julie and I pretty much spent the next few hours out of the car for once, and we walked around their main area checking out the shops, some waterfront restaurants as we were looking for a place to eat this evening, and looking at all the things you could do to oppossums (from furs to food to charms to whatever) since they were quite the nuissance in New Zealand.
It was a pleasant place to walk around as we had ourselves a pizza lunch to begin our time in town, and then ended up with a semi-fine-dining dinner that did cost us an arm and a leg though I didn't remember a whole lot about it despite paying a high price.
Something interesting that I also noticed while eating here was that their credit card machines had tip entries, which I thought was unusual. After all, tipping wasn't expected in these parts as their GST was pretty hefty to begin with (upwards of 12% or something like that). Plus, I wondered if I started to see this because Queenstown had a reputation of being a tourist town so perhaps some places started to catch on that they might earn a little extra money by guilting their customers into paying tip.
In the end, we would close off this day with a restful sleep while hoping the weather might improve. So much for getting nice panoramas of this place, which we were really considering on doing by taking one of their gondolas up. But not on this trip given the foul weather.
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Day 19: FOUR SEASONS IN A DAY
It was about 5am when we awoke and around 5:30am when we started to leave our motel in Queenstown. Today, we were headed towards Te Anau, and we were really looking forward to finally seeing the famed Milford Sound.
The drive heading west was pretty uneventful though the clouds were high enough that Julie and I could clearly see the tops of the Remarkables as we were passing before it on our way out of town.
By the time it was around 8am, we were in Te Anau. We were staying at the Anchorage Motel in Te Anau, and they were gracious enough to let us check in early, especially since we were spending the next couple of nights here. And after lightening up the car load, we then proceeded to continue north at around 8:45am.
The drive north was scenic as we at first were following along Lake Te Anau's eastern shores, then we found ourselves within a wide flat area called the Eglington Flat. The clouds were still pretty high up even though the weather remained predominantly overcast.
Since we were starting to keep our fingers crossed for good weather and continued to come up empty, we figured that we mind as well be a little opportunistic in making our way towards Milford Sound seeing that the weather here was somewhat fair relatively speaking.
Eventually, the flat gave way to closing in mountainous terrain and we found ourselves following cars on the way. Julie was taking some remarkable roadside shots of the road we were passing through. Eventually at about 9:30am, we were at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel.
There was a traffic light there because apparently only one direction at a time could occupy the tunnel. The ominous-looking tunnel allowed us to enter, and we could see that it was a pretty long one at that.
Then, when the scenery opened up as we got out of the cave, we were greeted with an incredibly steep-walled valley where we really didn't mind following people at this point because wanted to take our time and try to take in the scenery that was before us.
Even with the overcast skies, we could see that we were in a special place.
The road snaked its way down into the base of the valley and then we proceeded to beeline our way towards the township (if you could call it that) at the end of the road at the famed Milford Sound. It was too bad that the weather was mostly overcast and the clouds were pretty low because Mitre Peak was pretty concealed.
Still, Julie and I could see the top of Bowen Falls, but the problem was that the track going to the base of that waterfall was closed. That was a bummer because I was really looking forward to getting a closer look at that falls without having to go on a boat.
Anyways, Julie and I didn't feel the need to do the Milford Sound Cruise because we knew that our pre-booked Milford Track Guided Tour later on in our trip would have included such a tour.
The visitor centre at the Milford Sound was kind of comical in that there were giant sandfly models hanging on the walls. I guess they knew about the deviousness of these bloodsuckers. Plus, there were also keas around to add insult to injury and amp up the annoyance factor.
Eventually at about 10:40am, we drove off and made a stop at the Chasm at about 11am. We took our time going on this walk hoping to see some waterfalls though it turned out that the Cleddau River carved such deep notches into the aptly-named Chasm that we could only hear the rushing waters and peer into the river disappearing into the cracks, but couldn't have anything photo worthy to convey the waterfalls and arches in there.
There was a Japanese Tour that also happened to be here so Julie and I definitely weren't alone on this visit.
When we had our fill of the Chasm, the weather started to come down. By about 11:30am, we were waiting our turn to go through the Homer Tunnel as the light was red for us. However, the rain really came down hard while we were waiting. In fact, it was kind of scary the noise the thick water droplets were making as our windshield was getting blasted by the sudden downpour.
Even the windshield wipers couldn't wipe the water off the windows fast enough.
Our windows were starting to fog up so we had to turn on the AC and the defrost.
Eventually, it was our turn to go through the tunnel to take a break from the chaos of the downpour. When we emerged from the other side, it was still raining, but at least it wasn't as crazy hard as it was on the Milford Sound side from which we entered the tunnel from.
The drive then proceeded to return to the waterfall at Falls Creek, which our Tumonz software called "Christie Falls." This time (it was 11:45am), we stopped the car past the deep gutter and pullout next to it so we could take photos of the falls from the bridge. Even though the falls was gushing, it somehow seemed less impressive in person than it was when we had first seen it as we were driving past from the Falls Creek Bridge.
After Christie Falls, we then took the signed turnoff to the unsealed road into the Hollyford Valley. The drive was surprisingly smooth for an unsealed road. We made it pretty quickly towards the end of the road at 12:15pm, which was near the Hollyford Track. That was where we found the trailhead for Humboldt Falls, which was signposted.
So with the rain still coming down (but not as hard), we donned our rain ponchos, braved the annoying sandflies, and then quickly walked uphill the well-developed track to the lookout for the very tall Humboldt Falls.
Further adding to the scenic allure of this place was a companion waterfall sloping in profile to our view that was about two-thirds the size of the more major waterfall. It was a pretty neat view and our time spent here was only tempered by the annoying sandflies conspiring to give us those really itchy bites.
After having our fill of the falls at around 12:30pm, we then hiked back downhill to get back in the car, then drove out of the Hollyford Valley and proceeded to go back south on the Milford Highway towards Te Anau.
As we were driving through the Eglington Valley, we made a quick stop at the Mirror Lakes, which was a disappointment. I'd imagine that it would have been mirroring had we been here either early in the day or near sunset.
But it wasn't lost on us that they put the Mirror Lakes sign upside down fully expecting the tourists to see the sign being read right side up in the lake (which was really more of a "calm" section of the Eglington River). It was just that the reflection was rippling during our visit.
As we continued further south towards Te Anau, the sun started to come out and we could see fields of yellow flowers blooming alongside the road. We could also start to see Lake Te Anau, which was said to be the largest natural one in the South Island.
Eventually by around 2:30pm, we finally made it back to our motel in Te Anau, where we got out of our wet clothes and proceeded to do a little exploring of the town of Te Anau. Unlike Queenstown, it was a bit of a sleepy town even though most of the infrastructure here seemed to be largely geared towards tourism.
I recalled we were looking for a place to eat, and we eventually settled on this place that got good recommendations (I forget the name - Jack and Jill's?). It was a bit on the windy side when we were waiting to be seated, but when we were eating, we looked out the window and saw a bit of hard rain.
After Julie and I had our dessert, paid the bill, and went back outside, it was still blustery and windy, but the rain stopped, the clear skies were back out, but the remnants of the turbulent weather we had just missed while eating was in the shape of a menacing wave-like cloud literally scraping Lake Te Anau. I don't think I had ever seen a cloud that shapely do that before.
Indeed, four seasons in a day, and with tomorrow being the Doubtful Sound tour, we were hoping that the weather might calm down so we might experience that cruise under agreeable skies.
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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