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Published: August 2nd 2006
Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
Mt. Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain at 12,012 feet.
Waking up in Fox Village, I knew I had no reservations but two activities in mind. #1, to see the Franz Josef Glacier in all its glory, and #2 to see the Fox Glacier in all its glory! I had planned to take a strenuous hike up the side of the Franz Josef glacial valley to an overlook but he trail was closed from a recent rock fall leaving me stuck without set plans. Fortunately Franz Josef village was filled with tour agencies, so after some sleuthing I said "to hell with it" and signed up for a Helicopter Hiking tour of the glacier!
It was about $150 US, and to me this seemed steep for a 5 hour tour. But I considered the fact that I might possibly never be here again and charged it. Buy now, pay later! This uniquely American invention was paying dividends here on the other side of the earth. I had 2.5 hours before the helicopter took off, so I sped my way to the trail head for the Franz Josef Glacier face hike. Everyone does this hike, a flat walk to the face of the glacier. My time was limited, and since
Franz Josef Glacier Tour
It was very bright, yet very shady. Very cold, yet almost warm. Very calm, yet very exhilirating! Here, two New Yorkers frame the guide. NZ is a small country: I met these same two blokes 4 days earlier on an 8 person Waitomo Caves tour too!
I was lacking on exercise in the last few days I decided to jog the 1.5 mile hike. It was fantastic! Bobbing and weaving through tourists was fun, especially considering the kiwis hike like they drive: on the left side of the track! I didn't feel especially weird running past people as well, there were a few others doing the same thing passing me.
The strangest thing is people even hike on the left side of the track, just like driving the roads! When you would approach someone in the middle of the trail and automatically go right like on the roads at home, they would go to their left in front of you and expect you to move. Then you realize this is how you drive in NZ as well, on the left, and they are just doing what they think is right. Then you think "Why do humans stick to their social conditioning so resolutely?". You can kind of tell who is from Australia, UK or NZ this way, by what side of the trail they veer to as you approach.
Westlands National Park has similarities to other "Showcase" National Parks around the world.
Its uniqueness inspired it to be named a World Heritage Area, a place where the earth is so obviously special it must be protected. A fault line thrusts up the Southern Alps, creating a steep gradient that goes from sea level to 3500 meters in just 20 km. Virgin strands of New Zealand's dense temperate rainforest cling to the slopes, estuaries dot the lowlands between foothills and sea. Enormous rivers of ice slowly flow down the valleys, remnants of an age long ago where the ice carved the landscape before you. Yes, this place is special.
The face of the Franz Josef Glacier was incredible. Much like the grandeur of Alaska or Chile, the West Coast of the Southern Alps has rainforest that clings to the mountains, deep U- shaped valleys still holding 5 km long glaciers and misty wet weather incessantly arriving from the west.
By the time I got there, I figured I had about 15 minute to enjoy the birthplace of the Franz Josef river. The glacial valley was comparable to anything in the Sierras if not Alaska, considering the Tasman sea was less than 3 miles away. The unique plants, especially the
The Big Nige Canyoning Tour
Wanaka's best all day tour! Hiking, Swimming, Sliding, Jumping, Abseiling, Ziplines...
Southern Beech Forest, left me feeling warm and fuzzy about the special quality of this place. What about all the tourists? Well, they weren't that much of a distraction to be honest, if this is one of the highest visitation parks in New Zealand and a World Heritage Site. I could easily look past the few hundred who made there way to the face.
It's amazing that Yosemite NP in California receives literally thousands of visitors per day, while here is a place just as sacred and dramatic- yet only a few hundred make the journey. Dare I say that California is becoming spoiled, like a fresh loaf of bread that is slowly molding with time? Well, that's simple a matter of high population density. Fortunately, the incredible Southern hemisphere alpine areas like Mt Cook, Mt. Aspiring. Torres del Paine, Perito Moreno and Cerro San Valentin will not see visitation like this. It seems the most dramatic meetings of Glaciers and Mountains residents from the Northern Hemisphere couldn't even imagine is bound to be cherished by few.
When I showed up at the Helicopter Landing Pad for my tour, I ran into two guys from New
York City I had met a few days prior on the North Island. Strange, here we were 4 days later and hundreds of miles away! What are the chances of randomly running into the same people?
In a small country like New Zealand in the off season of tourism: Very high!
The helicopter ride was practically worth the money itself. Its like levitation, technological wonder and teleportation all in one. We were whisked hundreds of feet into the air in seconds, the scope of the landscapes we were surrounded by immediately became obvious. Glacial valleys, high peaks, the ocean and the rainforest all became parts of a whole instead of pieces of a dream. It wasn't long before we were directly over thousands of deep blue crevasse and jagged peaks. On top of everything was a thick marine layer of clouds, giving equal lighting and a misty mood. While to most this seems like "bad weather", to me it means great even lighting for photography and a friendly reminder from Mother Nature letting us know why the glaciers and rainforest are here to begin with!
The hike was incredible. I met two nice girls from England,
a family from England, the New Yorkers, a family from Christchurch, 5 guys from the North Island and the two Kiwi mountaineer guides.
Sir Edmund Hilary, the first human to climb to the top of Mt. Everest was from New Zealand. Its no accident either, summiting these mountains proved difficult to late arriving Europeans of the 19th century. While the high country of NZ may not be higher than 4000 meters, the jagged ridges and unpredictable weather is some of the most technically challenging climbing in the world. Fortunately we weren't climbing any mountains, but for our stroll on the ice we were given crampons, blue jackets and ice axes. After about 2-3 hours, our time on the ice had come to an end. Without a doubt this was a tie for the most memorable excursion of the trip along with "Lost World Tour" caving in the Waitomo Caves in the North island. The ice, the mountains, the mist... Seems like cheating that by a helicopter we can so effortlessly and safely hike on something so dangerous and transient. To get to a location like this hiking would take 2 days with a 40 lb pack with some
Franz Josef Glacier
Look for the specks of people at the bottom!!
rope work! the flight home was as nice as the flight up. Franz Josef village is a friendly place, all nature lovers and all smiles.
I spent some time in an Internet cafe, talked with some Kiwi's and then realized I was really tired. Getting up early for the hike left me craving sleep. I bought a bag of these incredibly buttery shortbread cookies from NZ that I fell in love with, a bottle of whole milk and went to bed at around 9! These cookies turned out to be my nemesis. They were so delicious, entire 1 lb bags were known to disappear when you added several glasses of fresh New Zealand milk.
Waking the next morning took place in two parts. Part one was at 5am with the sun. I woke up for the bathroom, but found the hotel room to be completely filled with pink light. Looking out the window, I saw the unbelievable- the "Mt. Cook View" had finally revealed itself! The Marine layer had drifted up exposing the peaks and glacier. It was incredible. I took some pictures and drifted back to sleep, fully pleased at the incredible experience of light
I was treated to in this part of New Zealand.
I checked out of the hotel at 8am and set out for Fox Glacier. This was a big day that would end at Wanaka on the eastside of the Southern Alps, 150 winding and mountainous miles away. The day started out overcast like the previous day, but slowly the clouds cleared to deep blue skies. Fox Glacier was a tad smaller than Franz Josef, more intimate and much less visited. I found the valley to me steeper though, affording a much closer experience the rocks, the ponds, the ice and the forest. You could tell this entire landscape was the recent handiwork of the divine. The forms were contorted and carved, polished and cut. With the prospects of a long drive full of frequent stops for pictures pressing my mind, I left at noon but still spending the mandatory 3 hours enjoying the serenity of the place. There's a sign in Zion National Park that says "Spend at Least 3 Hours in the Canyon". A study showed 95% of visitors to National Parks of the USA don't go outside of 500 feet of their vehicles. Likewise time spent
just experiencing these special places was less than an hour.
I twisted my ankle really badly on my way out... So bad it took 10 minutes to get up off the ground from the pain! Unfortunately Im no stranger to twisted ankles though, so I didn't consider it to be a big deal. I soaked it in ice cold the Fox River, and was soon on my way to Wanaka!
Something must be said of the New Zealand Forest. Being a native of the Northern Hemisphere, I was already taken back by the differences in Southern Hemisphere forest when I first visited Chile: No Pine or Fir trees, just a Dense Canopy of Southern Beech forest with scattered natives that are completely alien from familiar species in the Northern Hemisphere. If you know are familiar with pine trees in the mountains of North America, you can travel to the Himilayas over 7000 miles away and still see familiar forests of pines. But go 7000 miles south to New Zealand or Chile and you find nothing similar at all, in fact everything feels more ancient.
When the Supercontinent of Gondwanaland broke apart hundreds of millions of
years ago, New Zealand was one of the first pieces to come off. Australia, New Zealand and the Southern Cone of South America remained sealed in the Southern Hemisphere by the equator from the North. The spreading of the continents and the equatorial barrier provided two divergent evolutionary paths for the Trees and plants of that time. While the majority of the diverse landmasses above the equator were evolving and exchanging interesting flowering plants, the islands of Primevil forest in the Southern Hemisphere became evolutionary snapshots. In fact, the first and most convincing piece of evidence for a Supercontinent in our ancient past comes from the widespread Southern Beech forest scattered across Australia, South America and New Zealand. These botanically ancient plants are found in the fossil record of the cretaceous, 120 million years ago. Other species of the world also give us a glimpse of the ancient past before the flowering trees took over, like the Kauri's of NZ, Araucania's of Chile, and Sequoia's of California.
NZ has not only the primitive Southern Beech forest covering it, it has conifers and evergreen trees found nowhere else on the planet. Think of over 10 different evergreen trees, an
Franz Josef Glacier and River
Approaching the mouth of the river!
infinite array of lichens and moss, tens of species of ferns and flowering bushes and you have the NZ forest. The roads of South Westland cut through the thick canopy of this forest like a saw. The scenes were so foreign, so unique a resident of the Nothern Hemisphere must experience them to believe them! Add to this the Glacier capped peaks so close to the ocean and you can see why I was in a state of euphoria in this small part of the world. What more could someone need but sacred mountains, a living forest and an ethereal ocean??
Haast Pass is the southernmost pass in New Zealand. The Haast river plain was quite large, evidence of the size of the glacier that carved it thousands of years ago. The river itself was a crystal clear blue. Soon the thick peaks of the high country appeared. The road wasn't a mountain pass, rather it followed the Haast river up to a saddle. This saddle could be easily mistaken for just a continuation of the river, yet it was the dividing point of New Zealand: the dividing spot where in one direction water flows West into the
Tasman Sea, or East into the Pacific Ocean.
The rain shadow on the Eastside of the Southern Alps quickly becomes apparent. Instead of diverse temperate rainforest, only a few species of Southern Beech trees come to dominate parts of the grassy hills. Sheep farms abound, as does sunshine. Like going into Nevada from California, or into Argentina from Chile- the scene instantly changes from a cold overcast moist forest into sunny dry mountain valleys. The road came to the upper reaches of Lake Wanaka, a large natural lake formed from the receding of an ancient glacier. Many large lakes in the South Island are natural, much like the Lake District of Chile and Argentina. Some are a deep milky blue from 'glacial flour', rock ground to a powder from the work of the ice upstream. Now that the ice age is left, we are left with moraine dammed lakes, sunny skies and big views. Wanaka was a really nice town, and it was here that the similarities with California, Oregon and Washinton became more poignant.
You must excuse the constant comparisons with home, but really it was quite dramatic! Being originally from England, the Kiwis love their
gardens. As such, they plant familiar Northern Hemisphere trees everywhere in the cities. So here you have this dry and sunny place, on the eastside of an alpine mountain range at the same 44 degree latitude that has parks with Pine, Spruce, Cottonwood, Poplar and maple trees. I even saw Sequoias and Aspens on scattered farmhouses, while just an hour away is 300 meter peaks with alpine lakes. I was willing to bet that if you took anyone from eastern Oregon, Washington or the Owens Valley and placed them in Wanaka.. they wouldn't be able to tell the difference!
Needless to say, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I had been arranging an all day canyoning tour for the next day called "The Big Nige" the week prior. Even though it was late season, the Deepcanyon guides pulled a trip together on the next day! I had some beers at a local bar and went to bed. The town was small to begin with and very quiet. I could imagine hundreds more here a few months earlier, but in late fall the tourists has all but disappeared.
Canyoning is the most joyous thing. Ordinarily when a river
Franz Josef Valley waterfalls
Taken from the Helicopter on our way to go glacier hiking!
carves a steep and deep chasm into the side of a mountain it becomes dangerously sharp, slippery and inaccessible. But since descending a rope with climbing gear is a relatively easy thing, bolts can be placed into the rock to allow for a descent of the cliffs. A wet suit can be worn for the freezing water and a helmet gloves and shoes can be worn to protect the body. In this way the chasm becomes a water slide, ropes course and swimming pool all in one! Personally, I feel like its the most fun I think I can have. If you aren't motivated, confident, happy, loud and carefree at the end of a canyoning tour, you aren't human! It brings out the best in us.
Our guide Annette was great. Turns out 2 others cancelled last minute, so it was just this girl Abbey and I. She was from Atlanta and vacationing for a month after 2 years of working. Her itinerary was amazing, she had been planning the tour with a travel agent so everyday was packed for her. The previous day she had been skydiving near Lake Wanaka, the 2 days previous was an overnight Helicopter
backpacking tour of Fox Glacier, and the next day she was going to Te Anau to Kayak the Fjords to a cave filled with glowworms! Made me realize the importance of planning a trip, if I wanted a really long day I could have carpooled with her the next day at 4am and gotten into Christchurch and midnight... but I do believe it is possible to do too much!
I had a drive ahead of me and no hotel reservation. I wasn't worried, there is such an extensive tourist network in NZ its not hard to find places to stay in the off season. My destination was Twizel(T-why-zel, not Twizzle!) a small town on the grassy plains with the 4000 meter mountains in sight- this was where "The plains of Rohan" were filmed in The Lord of The Rings.
Twizel was a great little town that felt out in the middle of nowhere. This is the sunniest part of New Zealand, and nearby observatories provided a constant reminder. The stars were unforgettable. The town was empty. I just don't mean there weren't any tourists, the entire population of Twizel is 1500 people! I treated myself to a nice
meal of Venison that is raised like Cattle in New Zealand, it was delicious. the restaurant was run by a young couple, and they were playing this most curiously enchanting brand of reggae. The waitress said it was a New Zealand group called "Katchafire". I have since bought both of their CDs and they've become favorites, its really good reggae!
The next day was a day hike in Mt. Cook National Park, followed by a 4 hour drive to Christchurch. My flight to Auckland, then home left from Christchurch in 2 days... was my time in New Zealand really this close to being over? Fortunately, I saved the Crown Jewel of New Zealand for last- 12,000 foot Aoraki, or Mt. Cook!
Aoraki has always been sacred to the Maori. In fact officially calling it Mt. Cook was felt to be offensive and disrespectful by many, so the government now must refer to the mountain in print as Aoraki first, before saying Mt. Cook. It makes sense to me, we Europeans should be calling mountains by their local names when we find them for ourselves in the first place! Like Denali vs. Mt. Mckinley. Denali has so
Glacial colors, Franz Josef
Its blue because glacial ice is so dense. This density causes all the other colors in the spectrum to bounce around and be absorbed inside the ice crystal... only the deepest blue makes its way out...
much more meaning that Mt. McKinley. Would you rather have the first, spiritual name given to a mountain thousands of years ago or a recent, secular name given a hundred years ago? These aren't just any places, they are the most dramatics landforms the earth has to offer, rocky mountains of ice standing like sentinels, gods of Rock that stand unaffected by wide, rain and ice.
The Park was fantastic, the glaciers here during the large glaciation that formed the canyons in the Sierra Nevada 20 million years ago must have been incredibly large and long. In fact when the glacier came down this valley from Mt. Cook to the terminal moraine that today forms the shore of Lake Punakaki- it was over 40 miles long and 5 miles wide! The longest glacier in New Zealand today, the Tasman Glacier is in this valley. I hiked to an overlook 2 miles and enjoyed solitude for a few hours by climbing high on the cliff walls from the tourist deck overlook. It was odd to see the people come and go, at first I was the newest person there. Then as time went on, the people left one by one.
New people arrived, but eventually there was complete turnover. This happened several times over the next 2 hours, and I wondered if people actually enjoyed themselves spending just 10 minutes at an incredible overlook like this. They missed the incredible occasional ice fall from the glaciers, rumbling like thunder. They missed the incredible changing clouds, the lights and patterns in the lakes and rocks. They missed to different birds that came and went for fleeting moments, and the eventual sunshine that bathed the entire scene that earlier was murky with clouds! This viewpoint was truly in the top 5 I have seen among my travels the others being Angels Landing in Zion NP, Glacier Point in Yosemite NP, South Rim Grand Canyon, and Moro Rock in Sequoia.
See for yourself:
The drive to Christchurch was uneventful. I didn't speed to respect the locals, and it took forever to go through every little farming town. The "Canturbury Plains" that surround Christchurch are the largest flat area in New Zealand, and being down river from all the rivers and glaciers means fertile soil. This in turn means LOTS of agriculture, similar to being in the Central Valley of California
because every town, every business and every truck is in some way related to horticulture or animal husbandry!
Christchurch was a very pleasant, cosmopolitan city in a very non-dramatic flat plain near the ocean. While the density of downtown Christchurch made it feel like a big city, the population is only 350,000 people. I really wanted to see the botanical gardens, but arriving late and night and leaving the next morning meant I wouldn't be able to visit. They are supposedly the best and oldest in New Zealand!
Overall, the trip was unforgettable. I arrived in New Zealand with this set of expectations of what the place was like, after hearing so much about it and seeing so much of it in movies. The reality of New Zealand is much more friendly and familiar than the otherworldly and exotic ideas I had in my head. The people are extremely nice and down to earth, the landscapes are stunning, the plants exotic. But the whole experience of visiting New Zealand was entirely comfortable, its almost as if for some reason that I was stranded here I wouldnt feel far from home. Its an incredibly rich and diverse country with
Ice Tower, Franz Josef
After 10 minutes of walking on the ice with crampons, I immediately professed the tour was worth the money!
really good people. Im just happy I only had two weeks... Why? Well, with so little time I didn't see everything, and therefore I was forced to save so many precious places in New Zealand for my next vacation there! Milford Sound, Queenstown, Dunedin, Kaikoura, Arthurs Pass, Mt. Egmont, Tongariro Crossing, Rotorua.... the list goes on- still so many incredible places to see on these two incredible islands!
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