I like ice. I like icebergs and glaciers, the odd shapes, the mixture of bright white and deep blue ice. But usually you can just look from the distance or only get close to those parts of glaciers that look a bit drab. So I've only been on a glacier once, a couple of years ago in Svalbard/Spitsbergen.
In New Zealand you can go heli-hiking on a glacier. You fly in with a helicopter and then walk on the glacier for a couple of hours and then get flown out again. All the fun of being on a glacier without having to walk up there! I was sure I was going to like that, so I had booked that flight months ago, and it was even better than I expected.
The weather was fine that morning and unlike the previous day, it wasn't that windy. Which caused a bit of a scary situation. While it was all fine and sunny in the valley, there was still morning fog at the landing site on the glacier. And if that didn't lift until flight time, there would be no flight. And the time window was pretty narrow (about 15 minutes), since the helicopters were needed somewhere else right after this, so the fog needed to lift soon, or the tour would be cancelled. And there was little chance of re-booking, since the tours were all filled for the next two days. But as the tour guides said: Don't worry, it'll be fine.
And it was.
By the time we were all ready, equipped with mountain boots, and got our instructions how to behave around helicopters (never approach from the side or the back, don't press the 'engine off' button), the fog had lifted and the helicopters were ready to go.
It's not far from the helipad to the glacier, so it was only a short flight. But a little sightseeing flight was included by not flying directly to the landing site on the glacier, but coming in high along the mountain ridge and circling once around the glacier before landing.
After we landed on the glacier, got out of the helicopter and watch it fly away, it was time to put some crampons on the shoes. It's trivial, but it's a detail I liked: The tour guides didn't tell us how. It's (very) slightly tricky to figure out how to attach the crampons, but if you look at them and think for a moment, it's pretty obvious how to attach them. So just handing out the crampons and assuming that people are smart enough to figure out such stuff by themselves, instead of being patronizing and treating tourists as if they were too stupid to tie their own shoelaces set a very good standard for the tour.
The group itself was also very nice. I was walking around on the glacier in jeans and t-shirt and was originally slightly worried that I'd be surrounded by a group of people in severe winter gear, pretending they were about to walk to the south pole. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a group of interesting and relaxed people, including a couple of Australians, walking around on the glacier in shorts and the tour guide, walking around in shorts and short sleeves. I nearly felt overdressed.
Now it was time to walk around on the glacier a bit and take some pictures. The weather was nearly perfect for that. Bright sun, no clouds to see towards the sea, just a couple of clouds towards the mountains.
One thing I had been looking for was the chance to get close to an ice cave. Their colours and shapes look great on pictures, and it looked like something I would like a lot. Unfortunately I had never seen one up close, since you usually can't enter ice caves near the tongues of glaciers, since there's a certain risk of collapse (usually slightly overstated, but it exists) and (more likely) the risk of rocks, which were carried down with the glacier, dropping down when the snow and ice melts. Also, due to the amount of rock and debris at the terminal end of a glacier, the snow caves there don't look that good. I really wanted to see one and, if possible, enter it.
But it got even better. Instead of just ice caves, out tour guides located a number of ice tunnels to go through. The first one was about 'crawling height'. Important lesson here: you can't really crawl on pure ice, it's much too slippery, especially if you don't wear isolating clothes, but just something like a t-shirt or jeans that transfer body warmth. I tried at first to get on my hands and knees and crawl through the tunnel, only to lose all grip and slide down to the lower side of the tunnel into a small melting water brook, before lying down on my side and push myself forward with the crampons on my shoes, the only thing giving any decent grip on that surface. So I got out on the other side of the ice tunnel, being soaked wet with ice water. It was great. I sort of realized that this was theoretically a bad situation if the weather would have been worse or some wind came up, but I was so excited by being on a glacier and not only seeing an ice tunnel close up, but actually going through it and everything going right after the frustrating experience of the previous day and the worries of possibly not going to the glacier at all because of the fog earlier that morning, I didn't care about being wet at all.
The second tunnel were two connected tunnels with a bit sunny opening in between. This one was slightly higher than the previous one, so it was possible to crouch down and 'duck walk' through it. And the third one was narrow, but standing height, so you could just walk through it (wading through some melt water brook). White ice and snow outside, deep blue ice inside. Just perfect.
I would have loved to stay there for a couple more hours, but the helicopter came back in and it was time to leave.
Before I left for this vacation my sister asked me what would be the thing I was most looking forward to. It was a bit of a difficult question, because there were a lot of things I had never done before, so it was hard to estimated whether these things would be fun or not, but heli-hiking on a glacier was most likely to be a great experience. And it was.
On the way to Wanaka I also had a short stop next to a river with the mountain range as a backdrop.
What I did next day was not something I had been looking forward to from the beginning, but that was because I hadn't planned it that early. I had a full day in Wanaka and noticed two days before getting there that I hadn't made any actual plans for that day. I had sort of considered going for the 'Siberia Experience', which is a flight to a remote valley (called Siberia Valley, hence the name of the tour), a walk through the woods and a jet boat tour back, but I hadn't really decided on it or made any reservations. So while sitting in the hotel at Franz Josef Glacier I tried to figure out what I would actually do in Wanaka two days later. Since I had just come back from the 'too windy to land' ski-plane flight, and the bi-plane flight a week earlier didn't work out at all and I had booked a small plane flight four days later anyway (which was still a bit uncertain due to bad weather), not to mention the heli-hiking the next day, and because the wind conditions on the other side of the Southern Alps were still unfavourable, I was looking for something that wouldn't depend on flying conditions.
At the hotel I found an advertising leaflet for white water sledging near Wanaka. White water sledging is a bit like white water rafting, just without the raft. Instead of sitting on a raft, you use a 'sledge', which is basically a short, thick body board with handles - like the things you sometimes use when you learn swimming as a kid, only bigger. I had never done white water rafting before, partly because it seemed to me that it was mostly about clinging to the raft and being afraid to go overboard and falling into the rapids. With white water sledging, I didn't need to worry about that, since you actually start at that point. And somehow doing black water rafting on the North Island and white water sledging on the South Island had a nice, though pointless, symmetry. So I decided to go for that trip.
It turned out to be a mixed blessing. I enjoyed it tremendously, but it also showed me my limitations rather clearly. Those joining the trip from Wanaka got picked up early in the morning and were driven to Roaring Meg at Kawarau river to meet up with those coming in from Queenstown. After getting our equipment (wetsuit, fins, helmet, life jacket, sledge) and some basic instructions (essentially saying "follow the guides instructions and have fun"), it was time to get into the water. First we went into an eddy to try some simple manoeuvres, like turning left and right, rotating in place and barrel rolls and then it was out into the main river.
And that was when things became tricky, but in a way I didn't expect. I had basically assumed that you get into the river, drift with the stream (maybe make some minor corrections) and let yourself float through the rapids. Almost, but not quite. You have to 'line up' correctly for the rapids, which involves a bit of swimming around and moving quickly sideward to the stream. Which caused me more troubles than expected. I'm not sporty at all, having about the athletic ability of a koala, so I tired very quickly trying swim around. In addition, I haven't much experience in swimming with flippers, so while everybody else managed to get halfway across the river with two or three lazy strokes, I kept paddling like crazy without getting anywhere. It felt like I was just pushing water back and forth instead of propelling myself forward. So even about halfway down the river I was out of breath and my legs were limp and I was floating way behind the group with only the rearguard guide behind me and telling me to move on or pulling me along.
But on the other hand, actually going through the rapids and being spun around by whirlpools ("If you end up in a whirlpool, don't try to swim against the current, it's stronger than you are anyway, but just enjoy it and do a couple of pirouettes and barrel rolls. Enjoy!") not only wasn't scary at all, it was a lot of fun. (If I don't look too happy on the picture, that's because I just popped out of the rapid and had my eyes closed under water...) Usually I don't worry at all about not doing sports, since I don't enjoy the corresponding activities anyway. So if I can't finish a marathon race (unless it's a two day event), I don't mind at all, since I don't want to run a marathon. But here was something that I was enjoying, but couldn't really do.
After we had been through three rapids (called 'man-eater', 'rollercoaster' and 'dead cow'), we entered a calmer part of the river, so it was time to get to the shore, into the bus and do it again, only this time starting a bit further up the river to get an additional rapid into the trip. And while the first run was through the 'outer areas' of the rapids, the second run was to be right through the middle. Anyone not going?
Well, that would have been me. Out of breath and a bit wobbly in the legs, I couldn't have done it on my own. But the tour guides told me not to be ridiculous and they would, if necessary, pull me all the way through the river. They had the training, the experience, they didn't mind the exercise and I should have fun and not worry about silly things. Hard to argue against that. So on the second run I was mostly pulled along, lined up for the rapids and let go. Was it fun? Certainly. Did I feel embarrassed about it?
Sure. So I the end I was glad I took the trip and it was a great experience, but I was way out of my league here. (And it was slightly ironic that the advertising leaflet noted that "The attraction of White Water Sledging is that YOU are in control, unlike rafting where the guide does all the steering." I didn't feel in control at all, and the guide did all the steering. But the leaflet also claimed "It's fun" and it was right about that.)
In the afternoon I did something that was better suited to my abilities: puzzles. 'The Puzzling World' is in Wanaka and has an interesting outdoor labyrinth and also a couple of illusion rooms inside. While most of it is fairly standard stuff, it works well, since they used mostly illusions that work well if you are part of them, like a room built with a slope, which has billiard balls seemingly rolling uphill and another room with an odd perspective that makes you 'shrink' and 'grow' by going from one side to the other. (This one had a neat twist. Usually you have to watch somebody else from the outside of the room to appreciate the illusion, but here there is a camera connected to a monitor with a two minute delay, so you can walk around the room and then see yourself 'change size'.) The labyrinth also had some interesting twists, since it wasn't 'flat', but had bridges connecting the parts of the maze. In addition, it wasn't a simple 'find the exit' maze, but the task was to visit the four towers at the corners of the maze in a specific order, further complicated by the fact that all towers had two entrances, but only one of them was the real one, so sometimes you found your way to the base of a tower, only to find that this wasn't the right entrance at all.
Later that afternoon there was enough time to just drive a bit along the shores of Lake Wanaka, sit down, enjoy the view and write some postcards.
Before driving on next morning, I visited the "Transport and Toy Museum" in Wanaka. It's rather strange and it I wonder whether it really deserves being called a museum. (Ok, according to the definition "A building or portion of a building used for the storing, preservation, and exhibition of objects considered to be of lasting value or interest." it probably is.) The problem is not the lack of interesting things (there are lots of them), but I had assumed that the term museum implied a certain amount of order, structure, and information, which was clearly missing. Essentially it's a lot of stuff that someone has acquired and stored in a couple of empty airport buildings. Antique cars are standing next to fairly recent looking cars, somewhere are toys stacked upon shelves, somewhere is a collection of fuel caps standing in some corner (or something like that, it's not labelled) and while some of the rarer cars have a sign with a bit of information attached to the windshield, most of the stuff just has no further explanation.
It's an oddly comforting place, since with all the random stuff that fills up my rooms at home, I feel pretty restrained and rational in gathering stuff compared to this.
Driving on, I soon passed the line halfway between the equator and the south pole.
A while later I stopped at an 'Historic Site', though the history connected to this site was quite recent. The claim to fame of this site was that this Kawarau Suspension Bridge was the first site with commercial bungy jumping. I knew that I wouldn't be jumping, so I just had a coffee and watched a few jumpers before driving on.
Onwards to Te Anau...
Back to New Zealand, South Island, part 1
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