“We are told that Franz Josef Glacier has many more things than Fox, ya see. There’s more to do there.” A Brit on holiday chirpily let on en route to the Glaciers, his girlfriend nodding her assent in response. They were caught on in the excitement of it all, prepping their camper van for the long journey north into Franz Josef from Queenstown and hence missing that incredulous look I was sure my face carried.
How was I to know? For a brief moment it felt as if I were doomed to suffer the sweeping boredom that would descend over me in Fox Glacier, with the mantra of ‘there is nothing to do’ reverberating through just about everyone’s minds –both me and the other poor unsuspecting inhabitants and tourists. But I have been conditioned from birth to live in a small and busy city that believes wholeheartedly in being in a state of frequent and constant movement and activity; it had always taken (and will always take, I suspect) an adjustment to slow the pace of life down, especially on vacations.
First impressions count, so they say. My narrow pre-impression of Fox Glacier already discoloured by that singular comment, worsened when the coach pulled into Glacier country, where dense rainforests were covered by equally dense cloud covers, and the Glaciers were nowhere in sight. Ah, yes, it was the beginning of June, winter.
“Um…where are the snow mountains and the glaciers?” I inquired politely of the amiable coach driver, who immediately pointed towards that same dense cover of cloud I was looking at with distaste, before taking off in his great vehicle in whistles.
Disbelief and well, more incredulity. The brochure had after all said something akin to the effect of “Admire the snow-topped mountains rising out of the rainforest”.
Well, yes, I did choose to believe it.
My first thought? Ach, that brochure lied – but true enough, the photographs displayed were most likely taken during a cheerful summer day, where people wore shorts up the ice. Between muttering under my breath and looking up in despair at the grey, drizzly sky, I nevertheless booked my half-day Glacier walk in the afternoon of the next day with Alpine Guides. The specific instructions were: to have lunch, bring energy food (chocolate!) and wear warmer clothing; boots, raincoat, crampons provided.
I was vanquished the moment the forbidden word ‘chocolate’ came up. It after all, provided an excuse for me to feast on those things called ‘the food of the gods’.
The rest of the day and the early hours of the morning were spent walking up and down the stairs of my motel, looking at the resident fat cat, and ogling the manager on duty as a desperate measure. The constant flow of rain had changed my mind about walking a mere 6 km down the path to Lake Matheson, where the view of Mt Cook is supposed to be incomparable. Despite the rain, the unnatural quiet made me entertain the idea that it was a quiet that one could accustom oneself to, a slow, pulsing rhythm of living that the busy city heart aches to smile along with.
It turned out to be pleasantly international – the people who signed up for the tour, that is as I found out in the afternoon – Swiss, Americans, Canadians and Italians with a geologist on board. Dutifully, we entered the changing area, tried on heavy boots that fit passably, grabbing large trench coat-sized rain jackets that were either blue, yellow or red. Our guides, Karri and Marius, chic, trendy and fit in red and black, waited as we struggled into our outfits, lumbering awkwardly behind them as we made our way to the Glacier and yet not trying to show it.
Of course, we failed miserably.
“Fox Glacier is unusual…” Karri began with the basic facts. And so it was, as I was beginning to discover. This glacier runs down to nearly 200 metres above sea level, existing with adjacent rain forest, formed, according to Maori Legend, by the running and eternal tears of a girl whose lover fell to his death.
The climb first took us through the drainage area, and then steeply into the rainforest, and slight waterfalls, where well-worn steps were visible, hammered into places by steel bands. Cupping our trembling hands and drinking what we could of the water was nevertheless a thrill. As far as I was concerned, there were no outright groans and complaints, for no one wanted to admit that they were unfit for it.
The Swiss couple was mostly silent throughout, the Canadians spoke quietly among themselves, the others muttered under their breaths in their own near-undistinguishable lingo, the geologist was understandably loud, mostly in argument with the guides about Glacier formation and the Italians…well…the Italians…
The most boisterous of the lot were the Italians, full-blooded, daring and dashing in their attempts to climb sharp precipices when our guides were not looking, just to take a photo of themselves against a backdrop that would have been just as stunning had they stayed in the ‘safer’ area.
“Oh my god! What are you doing?!” One heard this throughout and it was a matter of time before I got used to the constant reactions to their antics from the guides.
Stepping onto the ice proper, the resident geologist squatted down in front of the group, held up a piece of terminal moraine.
“Can anyone tell me what this is?” He questioned in the same manner as a talk-show host challenges his contestants for the grand prize of $1000, expecting an answer worthy of an academic intellectual.
Frequent mutterings in Italian meant that the Italians had quite enough.
“Aaaa Rrrrooock.” One of them drawled. I laughed, and half-hoped that the geologist had the grace to look embarrassed.
It was probably best not to argue any longer with a belligerent Italian who was very determined to stand up for the common man who knew close to nuts about Glaciers and its geological history.
Soon after, I found the guides separated from their climbing axes. The incriminating evidence was such that the axes were near the Italians, who had miraculously carved a horizontal tunnel in a little ice cave, so they could shove each other in it to take unusual shots of each other.
“You guys had better come with me, because you are mostly likely the first to fall off the cliff.” Karri announced when it was time to move off the glacier before the sun went down.
Non capisco…it did take them awhile, before it dawned on them.
“Ahh…Eh…Thhank you verrry much!” They sputtered in great indignation.
The downward trail was harder than we thought, even though we did not need to go through the rainforest trail anymore. The path downwards was made through slippery rock, mud and rivulets of melting ice, passing landscape that was gradually becoming a uniform brownish-grey, save for our colourful jackets, until we were finally ensconced in the bus once again.
It was a time of celebration too. Someone lit a cigarette as a trophy of completion, the Italians turned hyper and bounced about, and there was a louder amount of chatting and perhaps an unspoken camaraderie.
Fox glacier, winked a bluish- white, and disappeared out of sight, into the rapidly descending cold, and our last looks were also our goodbyes to that formidable wonder.