It’s My Life: Fox Glacier and Queenstown

Wednesday 27th November
We drove through the centre of Christchurch and saw what remained of the Cathedral and the Central Business District on our way to pick up a new person.

Our first stop outside of Christchurch was a small settlement called Arthur’s Pass the highest altitude settlement in New Zealand and close to the pass of the same name. There was a Kea (a bird that looked like a fat parrot) walking around the village and he/she was the source of some amusement.

After leaving we went to a view point to look down on the new Otira viaduct built to replace the old route parallel to it. There were more Kea flying and walking around and two appeared to be feasting on the roof of the bus. At one point I had considered travelling the Tranz Alpine route by train so it was a bonus when I realised we would be travelling through on the coach though the cloud meant it wasn’t quite a postcard scene.

We carried on our journey and at lunch arrived in Hokitika where we saw a green jade factory. I asked the local camera shop if they had any advise with regards to my camera but was told I’d be lucky to find an engineer on the whole west coast of New Zealand. The manager overheard this comment and tried to help by cleaning the contacts with a cotton bud but as I feared the problem was more terminal than this simple solution.

Having located some food and found the beach was closed I headed back towards the centre of the town to visit the wildlife exhibition where if I was lucky I’d be able to see some kiwi birds in a dark room enclosure. It was only a small exhibition but they fitted in lots of different types of marine life including turtles and various fish. They also had New Zealand frogs and some lizards that are unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs. Entering the kiwi enclosure I had to wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark. After a few seconds I sensed movement on the opposite side so headed over and arrived to see a dark shape disappear behind a hut.

Luckily the kiwi came back out and came right up to the glass I was behind so I got a very good look at it. It was bigger than I had expected and I watched as it slowly lumbered along as it searched for food along the ground. I have to admit its appearance made me smile not just the way it walked and the long beak but it appeared to have a ridiculous grin on its face.

We also made a brief stop at Hari Hari where the Australian Guy Menzies landed/crashed following the first solo trans-Tasman flight.

Carrying on our journey we passed through Franz Josef and past the glacier of the same name but the cloud meant it was difficult to make out the valley. We crossed a bridge over a river and were told that much of the water was melted ice from the Fox Glacier giving it a milky looking texture. Shortly after we arrived in the village of Fox our stop for the night.

After dumping our bags some of us reboarded the coach to go for a short walk around Lake Matheson which is apparently known as the famous ‘mirror lake’. It wasn’t that clear an evening but the views were still nice though ripples on the lake meant I didn’t really notice it being any more reflective than other lakes I’ve seen.

After dinner some of us went on another short walk through a nearby forest in a search for glow worms. Craig told us all to walk in single file in the dark advising that our eyes would adjust to the light. I was fairly near the front and as we made our way along our eyes slowly adjusted but we still had to be careful on steps and when crossing a small bridge.

There were a number of glow worms clustered together in small patches and eventually we came to a stop. Craig explained that we had stopped at at tree where the roots had come out of the ground and that is what the glow worms hung off. The traps they made were not as long as in the caves because there was more risk of breeze but it was still good to see them. After a brief explanation about the life of a glow worm we headed back along the path now using torches making the return much quicker.

Thursday 28th November
The reoccurring theme of early starts continued for those of us who were doing one of the Fox Glacier hikes. I had always planned to do the heli hike especially after seeing the glacier hikers in Iceland but as I knew there was the pending cost of the camera repair I began to have second thoughts and considered the cheaper options. Luckily I’d had a final change of heart in Arthur’s Pass – YOLO – “you only live once”. The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky but we were still warned the flight could be cancelled. It wasn’t – in fact conditions were so perfect Mike our coach driver booked on.

In total there were 3 helicopters and I was to be in the second with a group of 6 with Jacob, Shane, Ainslie, Summer and Emma. I was in the middle seat but still managed to get a fairly good look of the scenery below. We landed and waddled down to the others were crouching and where the crampons were stored. The next chopper came in and we were told to keep our backs to it because we were soon pelted by loose ice.

With the crampons on it was much easier to walk, though all of us decided to use a hiking stick for a bit of extra stability. The glacier is constantly changing during the warmer months as it melts so the route taken by guides changes regularly. Both had been working as guides for a number of years and tried to give us an indication of how much ice had melted in the past 3 years.

Our first stop was a small ice cave which seemed impressive enough at the time but really this was just an appetiser because in the next one we were actually able to fit inside. We had to clamber down to reach the cave and getting up was a bit tricky but luckily the crampons held firm on to the ledges and no one slipped.

The surrounding mountain range was stunning and it was amazing how the ice just went right through the middle. After hiking along the top of the ice we came to a cave that we had to crawl through and I managed this particularly badly so ended up with very wet trousers. As it was hot they dried fairly quickly but I wondered how the others hadn’t ended up in such a state.

Next we went down in to an ice canyon; the ice towered over above us and this section really did feel like part of an expedition some of the great explorers would have encountered though I’m sure theirs were on an even grander scale.

Once we were out we started our hike back to the helicopter pick up and passed one of the glacier waterfalls. I have to admit in my opinion whilst the water was cold and refreshing it didn’t taste as nice as I had anticipated compared to say the Buxton spring water.

We had to wait a few minutes for the helicopters to return to pick us up and I was signalled to sit on the window side behind the pilot. Once we were in the air he suddenly started to perform a action that created a fair amount of g force. For a second I did wonder If we were about to crash in to the hill side but then realised it was because he had seen a rare breed of mountain goat. It was also particularly evident from above how much the glacier had retreated.

Back on the coach and our first stop was to the scenic Knights Point and which had a fine view of a crop of rocks just off the coast out to sea. It no doubt helped that the sun was shining and wet Kaikoura began to feel a memory.

We travelled along the Haast Pass Highway and our next stop was to the mighty sounding Thunder Creek falls. Some coach tours I’ve been on have had to have stops in the middle of no where at soulless service stations. Not in New Zealand. The drivers seem spoilt for choice for where they can pull over for a 15 minute break. Each stop uniquely spectacular and these water falls were no different, water crashing down in to the Haast river below.

We had a brief stop in the small village of Makarora where some decided to get an ice cream before we continued our journey past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Maxine, our coach was struggling with an over heated engine and some of the hill climbs were painfully slow so with Queenstown below us we pulled over for another brief stop.

That night we went to Winnie’s for dinner where we were given so much garlic bread, chips and pizza even I was defeated. Just before leaving Winnie’s Greg, Shane and I had a quick skittle shot which sounded nicer than it was before we moved on to Ice Bar. This was the first time I’ve been to one of these bars despite wanting to do so for quite a while. We were given thick coats to wear and a pair of gloves which all seemed a bit extreme but on entering understood why. Everything was ice, the bar, the glasses and even the tables and seats. I had a cocktail called Happy Feet, named after the unfortunate penguin that got lost off the New Zealand coast and for which New Zealander’s raised lots of money to return it to Antarctica only for it to be eaten by a shark or whale a week after it was ‘free’.

After the cocktails a few of us had a flavoured vodka shot where the vodka was poured in to the top and you had to suck on a straw. We also had a couple of normal vodka shots and the alcohol was certainly beginning to flow. We left and returned to Winnie’s as they were offering prizes for winning various competitions. Shane and I performed a faultless version of a fish caught on a hook being reeled in and soon others took to the dance floor.

However after more skittle shots and a shot of black sambuca a highly controversial result in the limbo saw us all walk out in disgust. The guy that won should have lost in the penultimate round and the whole competition had seemed totally rigged in his favour.

Leaving we went to Buffalo which was utterly rammed. The early start was beginning to catch up with me and after performing my signature dance move for a bit, along with some of the ‘classic’ moves created at Pier Pressure in Aberystwyth I called it a night. I’d probably been asleep a couple of hours before Greg and Mitch returned in the process making our room the post going out hang out.

Friday 29th November
During the night my work colleagues had told me rain was predicted for Friday and I just hoped it would hold off long enough in order for me to undertake as many of the activities I had lined up for the day as possible. The first was the Shotover river Jet boat and because I’d decided to skip breakfast I went to the infamous Ferg Burger/Bakery for a much craved for bacon and egg roll before check in.

We arrived at the Shotover river which had once yielded the local population gold and caused Queenstown to grow in the late 1800s. The river is now cruised dramatically by speed boats which travel close to the rocky edges, rocky outcrops over shallow waters and perform 360 degree spins at speed. I was in a boat with Jesus, Shane, Greg, and the Streaky Bay girls.

I was sitting on the left side and each time we headed for the side of the overhanging rocks and branches I instinctively ducked. The guide/driver provided lots of interesting information whilst also being highly skilled at controlling the boat as there must have only been millimetres in judgement at some points.

My next activity was the canyon swing and whilst the clouds were beginning to build up at settle it didn’t seem to windy and was ‘safe’ to jump. I’d briefly seen Jacobs picture of him sitting on a tricycle and as this reminded me of a Simpson episode where Homer has to ride a tiny bike I decided i would do the same (Victoria said she had the same image when I told her how I’d opted to fall). I had also wanted to do a jump backwards as I’d already gone forwards when doing the bungy so prepared myself for two jumps. When I arrived I was put off by the cost of a second jump and photo packs especially as I still had hang gliding to come. I therefore decided to make my one jump memorable and asked if I could do the tricycle backwards.

Slightly lost for words as apparently I was only the second person ever to request that style of jump as it was particularly dramatic they started to hook me up. Sitting on my tricycle they pushed me to the edge and with a final shove pushed me off. Apparently my face was a picture as I disappeared over the edge and I was hardly surprised when I was told. Not knowing where I was falling was a weird sensation and I was in such shock I didn’t let out a sound until somewhat hilariously after I came to a stop I howled out youuuu orrrrns. During the fall I had performed a number of backward somersaults/flips and I clung to the bike handles knowing it would smack me in the face if I let go.

Being raised was more nerve racking than the drop because i had time to think and the machine appeared to be making various bolt breaking sounds and the cable shook dramatically. I looked down and wondered what my chances would be. Not good I figured as this was the highest canyon swing in the world. Soon I was at the top and having a laugh with the guides. The group declared the name of the jump should be “the Johnny Jump” and when it was pointed out to me I wasn’t actually the first I retorted with ‘but James Cook wasn’t first to discover New Zealand but history gave him the credit’.

I think that’s the first activity since my first sky dive in Switzerland that has given me a proper adrenaline kick and I was still buzzing by the time I got back to town. We decided to get a Ferg Burger and being overwhelmed by choice I got the Bengal Chicken because I was beginning to crave a curry and this seemed as close I’d get. I wasn’t disappointed and I can only hope that like Hell’s Pizza they decide to open a branch in London when I get back.

By now it was raining and I was told the hang gliding that morning had been cancelled and I didn’t rate my chances of the afternoon session going ahead. It was also to cloudy to make it worth getting the Gondola to the top of the hill and despite being a friday all of a sudden Queenstown looked a bit deserted. I’m not sure what most did but Greg Mitch and I stayed in until the time the group had agreed to meet for dinner. Mitch rather spectacularly crashed out because despite shouting his name and clapping my hands over his head he didn’t stir until the 8th or 9th attempt.

After eating we found an Irish Bar with a live band playing mostly modern Irish folk songs and after a request from Shane and I they agreed to play Fairy Tale of New York. We returned to Buffalo but we’d arrived earlier than the night before and it was mostly us and a group with one guy that was trying to claim the dance floor. The day had taken it’s toll and as I’ve failed to have a transiberian style nap in New Zealand I was in the second wave to leave and if hadn’t been the last night for so many I’d have gone much earlier.

Saturday 30th November
The departure time was changed from 7.15 to 9.15 and the extra sleep was much needed and as we left Queenstown I reflected on the fact it had met all expectations and could totally understand why it is such a popular place for backpackers to visit.


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