South Islands West Coast- Greymouth and Franz Josef

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If only I could fly by helicopter everywhere!

So another day, another Stray Bus and another driver. This one was called ‘Whales’ as he likes whales. His actual name is Adam but all Stray drivers go by their given company nickname. Either was he is a ‘ledge. Really good music, great driving, good facts and really ace sense of humour. There were still quite a few people on this bus that had been together since Auckland but not a clicky bus like the last one. So as Hedd and I settled in to the day drive to Greymouth we were quite pleased about the whole thing! So we were off to the West coast which according to Whales “s**ts on the Great Ocean Road in Australia on a good day”! Unfortunately we weren’t seeing it at its best; it was a bit wet and wild outside. But at worst it gave the coast a rugged edge to its beauty; it was still a spectacular drive. Our first stop of the day was at Cape Foulwind, named by Captain Cook in 1770 when his ship, ‘Endeavour’, was hammered by persistent wind and rain as it sailed through Tauranga Bay. It is also a place favoured by hundreds of Kekeno (NZ fur seals), which is what we were here to see. So just a 10 minute walk from the car park and we were at a viewing platform just above the rocks they were lazing on. There were little seal pups there which were just too cute for words as they scampered over the rocks- from a far they reminded me of black Labrador puppies with webbed feet! Whales played the first of his many tricks on us as we got back to the bus by gasping in disbelief at a bird standing by the picnic tables stating “wow, you hardly ever see kiwi’s out so near at this time of day”. As we all excitedly huddled around this bird taking pictures, slowly our eyes found an information board stating that this was in fact a wood-hen which is frequently mistaken to be a kiwi (a nocturnal bird) by tourists. In unison we whined: “Wha-les”! Even though we had only been on the bus 2 hours, we should have known better; Whales was always pulling our legs! Next stop was at Punakaiki to see a special limestone rock formation called Pancake Rocks. The rocks there are made up of layers of mudstone and limestone (due to ‘stylobedding’ hundreds of thousands of years ago) and as the mudstone layers have eroded more quickly than the limestone layers, the rocks turns out looking like pancakes stacked on top of each other. The sea was thunderous and the weather still a little wild which just added to the drama of the place. There were also little chimneys in some of the rocks which when the waves came in, sprays of water came in, up and over the chimneys causing blow holes, which were cool to watch. Then it was back on the bus completing our journey for the day at Greymouth. Well the place is certainly grey! Whales admitted that it’s a bit of a dump but a good place to break the journey from Abel Tasmin to Franz Josef and to pick people up from the railway station who had traveled the scenic rail journey over from Christchurch. So we looked around the town a little, bought some supplies from the supermarket then chilled back at the hostel (Dukes Backpackers) playing round robin pool and making the most of the happy hour at the bar!

Lunch time on the 29th Jan and back on the bus to continue onto Franz Josef. We had some new people so we welcomed them the Whales way, i.e. “Hey everyone we’ve got new people on the bus, say hey new people”; “Hello new people” we say in reply. Then he started the day on the bus the way he always does with his “Good morning, its gonna be a good day” song. No one liked to tell him it wasn’t morning anymore as we all secretly love the song! We split up the 3 hour drive with a stop at a place called Hokitika to check out a big shop and carving centre for ‘Pounamu’- jade/greenstone in Maori. We wandered around and learnt about the how the different shapes mean different things, e.g. that twists/crossovers represent the bonding of a special friendship or relation and a fish-hook wishes prosperity and good health for the wearer. Back on the bus and over a single lane bridge which is also shared with a train line (!), we continued forward traveling through a town called Ross which used to be a good mining town back in the day and the local pub was famous for having a 3 kg nugget of gold which they used to just prop the door open. The pub eventually sold this nugget to the English who bought it to give to the King for his Coronation. He then smelted it down to make gold cutlery which apparently the Royals still use to this day….Fact! 30 minutes outside of Franz Josef our final little stop for the day was at a beautifully blue river. It was a glacier stream and full of what they call ‘rock flour’ which when reacts with the water creates this gorgeous powdery blue flow. Very pretty. We arrived into Franz Josef at 5pm and got settled into our hostel called ‘Rainforest Retreat’. Not so much of a ‘retreat’ as it was rammed with 2 other bus loads of backpackers! But we fought our way through the kitchen, made dinner and then breathed a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over taking an evening stroll around Franz Josef village before bed.

Next morning (30th) and time to explore what Franz Josef is all about- the Franz Josef Glacier. We had booked onto a HeliHike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides and we met the rest of our HeliHike group (11 people) at their office at 11.45am.  We got handed our first bit of kit- waterproof over trousers and then headed over the road to pick up the rest; including a rain jacket (protection from the wind more than rain- it was a gorgeous sunny day), sturdy walking shoes and a rather fetching bright red bum bag to house our crampons (or as i like to call them- ‘ice claws’) for our shoes when we were on the ice. We felt ridiculous over dressed, heavy and boiling as we stomped through town to the heliport where we got taken through a super kit safety briefing before stepping onto the helicopter. They are loud! We put our seat belts on and our headphones so we could hear the captain and then we were off. It was a surprisingly smooth ride. I got a window seat and took loads of pics of the views. Our pilot took us on a 10 minute scenic flight up to the upper part of the glacier called the Neve which is the ice pool that ‘fed’s the glacier and back down over the drop in the glacier (an ice waterfall) to land around 100 meter below this- still very high up the glacier. We got out of the helicopter, took our first steps on the ice and took in not only the glacier but also the panoramic views of the mountains that surrounded us. Danny, our guide for the 2 1/2 hours, greeted us and directed us to tie our ice crampons onto our shoes before heading out on our guided walk amongst this awesome glacier scenery. The ice in a lot of parts was a crystal blue colour which he told us was due to the ice being so compacted that all the oxygen gets squeezed out of it leaving behind ice that can absorb all colours apart from blue hence giving it a blue appearance. Danny had been guiding here since 2008 and he told us that the glacier had changed a lot in that time. When he started Franz Josef was one of the few glaciers that was advancing but now it’s definitely in retreat with more rock poking through as the glacier melts.  We walked off to the right of the glacier over mounds of ice, through little streams, avoiding big holes and unstable ice on the way. Danny had a pick axe and made us little steps in the ice on the really steep bits. We crawled through 2 ice caves, saw an ice lake and walked to a big waterfall. In a word- WOW! We also witnessed a rock slide down an adjacent mountain. You heard it before you saw it. It was a thunderous, fearful noise as the big bits of rock tumbled down the steep sides. Just showed us in real-time how fragile these glacier landscapes are. The 2 1/2 hours went really quickly and soon it was time for us to get back on the helicopter again. Our pilot I think was keen to get home so it was a super quick flight. But he did some stunt moves sweeping from side to side, and going up and down fast making your stomach jump. It was fun! Then we were down on solid ground again, relieved to be out of all our layers but so happy to have experienced our first glacier and our first helicopter ride all in one afternoon!

With our HeliHike we got free entry into the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. The pools were luxurious surrounded by forest and ferns which gave it a really lovely atmosphere. There were 3 pools- 1 at 36 degrees, 1 at 38 and 1 at 40 degrees. We eased ourselves into it at 36 degrees which at first seemed boiling but then almost got chilly! Time for the 38 and the 40 degree pools now that we were hardened ice climbers! After 40 minutes of relaxation we headed back to our hostel for dinner (not so crowded this time) and a couple of drinks at the hostel bar with some Stray pals. The bar that evening were holding a ‘Killer Pool’ competition with a chance to win a bungy jump, rafting or luge’ing at Queenstown. Great prizes! So naturally both Hedd and I signed up and gave our $2 each for charity. There were 25 players, all with 3 lives. If you didn’t pot anything on your go, you lost a life. And on it went. First round and I potted the white! 1 life gone. Second round after spinning around 3 times and taking aim I potted nothing. 2nd life gone. Third round after a shot of vodka, spinning 6 times and taking aim I…yep you guessed it, I potted nothing! I was out. But Hedd and our Stray pal called Chirag were still in with all 3 lives in tacked.  And the rounds went on and on until Hedd was down to the last 5. That round loads of people fell and it was just Hedd vs a guy called Eric. Chirag and I were cheering Hedd on and Hedd was doing really well but then over shot one ball, potting both the ball and the white. So Eric won. But Hedd still won a rafting trip in Queenstown worth $149! Not bad for a $2 charity entry! In celebration Chirag, Hedd and I donned red snooker chalk noses and saluted Stray Backpackers Bus before crawling exhausted into bed past midnight. We tried not to dwell on the fact that we were due up in less than 6 hours time but the late night was worth it.

Greymouth and Franz Josef in a snapshot:

  • Weather= A mix of wet and wild with clear crisp sunny days
  • Food= Spag bol and fajita’s
  • Drink= Celebratory cider
  • Lesson learnt= A wood-hen is NOT a kiwi!
  • If I won the lottery…=…I would buy a helicopter

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

Going on a heli hike may have been the more expensive option available to us, but it was definitely worth it. The whole experience was amazing. I’ve never really thought of ice as beautiful before, but blue ice is just stunning. I felt at times that I was walking through an alien environment, it could easily have been the setting for a science fiction move. I just wanted to run off and play, although it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t as the one time I tried to be a smart ass on the ice, I fell flat on my face…

Oh, and by the way, did Helen mention that I played a kick ass game of “killer pool” and won a voucher for free rafting in Queenstown!! Ok, so I came second, but the other guy only won because I potted the white. But I got the prize I wanted and he bought me a shot of Yagermister as a consolation prize. Result!

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2 responses »

  1. wow!! that glacier hike sounded amazing, what a fantastic thing to be able to do. the stray bus sounds like a real laugh by the way!!xx

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