Milford Sounds and the Franz Joseph Glacier

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March 12th 2009
Published: March 31st 2009
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It took us around seven hours to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sounds. For the most part we drove through fairly picturesque farmland, it was only when we reached the Fiordland National Park that the scenery got really beautiful. There is dense woodland through which dappled sunlight shines. The translucent leaves are caressed by the light and shimmer brightly making the forest glow a golden green. There are mirrored lakes reflecting the great mountains on one side and the forest on the other. Fish swim in the crystal clear water and ducks paddle on it's surface occasionally diving through weeds to find food. The road climbs past great silent grey cliffs with waterfalls cascading down from above. We stop before a huge tunnel and take in the view a Kea Parrot joins us looking for food. It climbs onto the car and pecks at the rubber trim of the door. We drive through the blackness of the tunnel and emerge on the other side our progress slowed by a camper van. The views are stunning. We arrive at Milford Sounds and walk around the stoney beach looking across the shallows and into the bay that is dotted with little islands of green with trees sprouting from them. The backdrop is the sun setting behind great green islands that seem higher than they are wide.

The following morning we have another seven hour drive to the Franz Joseph Glacier. It is dark when we arrive at a hostel that buzzes with enthusiastic back packers. We get up early the next day and there is a nip in the moist morning air. We drive into town, park and eat breakfast before our induction meeting with the Glacier guide. We are kited out with socks, walking boots, cramp ons and a waterproof jacket before being driven by bus to the start of our trek. The walk starts on a dry river bed that is grey with dried silt and covered in rocks. The river is still there but much smaller at the moment. It winds it's way through a valley banked by steep hills on either side that are densely covered with vegetation. Waterfalls cascade from the sides of the valley the most impressive of which is called the trident because of it's three forks. The Glacier dominates the end of the valley massive, beautiful and daunting all white, blues and grey. It is hard to judge it's distance or size. It looks like we have a ten minute walk to it's base but the guide tells us it will take us more like forty five minutes to an hour. We walk beyond a fence and sign that warns us of danger and not to pass and take a sharp left up the side of the steep valley into the vegetation. A rough path has been cut through the trees but it is wet and tretourous as we walk on the slippery rocks and roots and hall ourselves along clinging to branches and the occasional rope. For some in our party it is a little too much and the ask to go back, unfortunately this is not allowed and they have to continue with us to wait at safe place until we can all return together. We emerge out from the vegetation, cross a stream and once more drop down to the dry part of the river bed. We pass a huge rock stripped with compressed layers of minerals and sediment and turned on it's side by the shifting of massive tectonic plates. We round the corner to the foot of the Glacier. The rive runs from here emerging from the Glacier through a small dark cave in the ice. We put on our cramp ons and after a short safety briefing follow the guide to the foot of some stairs that have been cut into the ice. We begin our climb up the Glacier. It is slow progress as the stairs have to be maintained on route, they melt, crumble and break and are remade by a swinging pick axe. It is not long before we are surrounded by the walls of the Glacier cut by wind and shifting ice they sparkle, white with areas of grey sediment and patches of translucent blue caused as the blue light is the only light of the spectrum with enough energy to penetrate the ice. There are cracks through which water rushes deep and down into the darkness below. After an hour or so we emerge onto a bit of a plateau which gives us fantastic views of the Glacier we are on and the valley below. It is hard to describe the mass of ice that we are stood on. We can only see the first corridor of ice as it enters the valley. It takes us two ours to get about 5% of the way into the corridor that is as wide as three football pitches placed end to end and getting wider the further you climb. Half a days walking might get you to a third of the way in with there still along way to go to the top where great towers of ice the hight of multi storey buildings jut out from the main body of ice. The split and occasionally fall with a great crash. Beyond the corridor of ice that enters the valley is a huge mass of ice that expands out so that the Glacier is the shape of a frying pan. It is the fastest moving glacier in the world and unlike most others it is still growing.

We walk back down the ice and retrace our steps back to the bus. Before long we are back in town and setting off on yet another long drive, up to eight or nine hours, back to Picton where we will catch a ferry to Wellington the next morning. We have done allot of driving over the last three days perhaps trying to cram too much in but our time here seems far to short for the marvels that are to be experienced. I will definitely be coming back to see more of this wonderful Island.


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