Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Nimble Fox

Seated next to me was Joseph. He was returning to Hamilton, south of Auckland. The music from his headphones was so loud, I could easily recognize the tunes. They were mostly modern rock songs from the 90s (and an Air Supply number). As I immersed in the Lonely Planet guide most of time, there wasn't much interaction between us...until the last hour before the plane landed at Auckland when he sprung a question. Here for a holiday?, he asked. In that hour, we talked about my itinerary and driving in New Zealand. I was mostly worried about the weather because November is a wet month. I asked if I should be concerned about the rain. A redundant question, I know. But I was hoping for an optimistic answer; an assurance. Well, this is the Land of the Long White Cloud, he said. I couldn't make out that remark. Later, when I checked into the hostel at Queenstown, the warm receptionist asked of my plan for the next day. Happily, I told her that I'd be leaving for Fox Glacier and asked if rain was to be expected. She smiled, then shrugged. Puzzled yet again, I'd finally given up asking about the weather for the rest of my trip.

Waking up to Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu on a sunny morning was one of the best moments I had this year. What's more when the air was cool and crisp. A light breakfast later, I began my scenic drive to Fox Glacier.

From Arrowtown, I trailed the winding, steep Crown Range Road (on a basic 1.3L automatic car, this proved to be a challenge) to reach the golden plains of Cardrona and later, the shimmering blue twin lakes of Wanaka and Hawea. For a few hours, I'd completely forgotten about the rain.

The sky rendered grey as I entered the village of Fox Glacier. The road turned misty, forcing me to slow down and turn on the windscreen wipers. Soon, it began to drizzle.

It was my intention to reach in the late afternoon. With a few hours of sunlight to spare, I was able to make an excursion to Lake Matheson - where on a clear day, promises a mirage of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Not on that day, unfortunately. The light rain had washed out the reflection. Even if the rain had stopped, Mount Cook would still be blanketed by thick, low-hanging clouds. Clearly, it wasn't my day. I was disappointed and solaced in the car munching a large bag of salt and vinegar potato chips.

The rain got heavier later that night. And my glacier walk was just a few hours away. I was terribly worried that the walk would be cancelled.

In the morning, the sky was bright again. Excellent, excellent! I took a look at my watch. It was 9:07 am. My walk would begin in 3 minutes! There was no time for a bath or brushing my teeth. I scrambled to wear my pants, put on my jacket and dashed for the door. I'd even forgotten about my passport and daypack. As I ran, I took a look at my watch again.

This time, the watch showed 7:00 am. I still had on my thermal pants and jacket. Outside, it was raining. I was obviously dreaming but I couldn't figure out which part of it was a dream. More importantly, in reality, the rain got heavier and there was no sign of it stopping in the next 2 hours. I envisioned a large WALK CANCELLED notice hanging outside the guide station. It wasn't about the money gone wasted that got me upset but the thought of having travelled thousands of miles to get here to fulfill one of my life dreams; just to be ruined by the rain.

There was no more optimism left in me. I dragged myself to the station, in the rain, for reporting. The station (which also functions as a souvenir shop and cafe) was warm and crowded. Before I could approach the receptionist, a staff instructed the full-day walkers to proceed to the left side for check-in. Yes, that's me! The walk would proceed despite the rain! I can't really describe how happy that announcement had made me.

Because it was raining, we were provided with raincoats and more serious-looking crampons. There were about 20 full-day walkers that morning. Later, we were divided into two groups. I went with a Brazilian couple (they were on their second honeymoon), two Taiwanese girls (who wanted to skydive in Queenstown), and the newlyweds from America. Our main guide was Megan from Canada. She was accompanied by a more experienced guide, Jono from Tasmania. Besides giving Megan a masterclass in guiding, Jono was also tasked to pave new routes for the coming walks.

They have a name for the full-day walk. It’s called the Nimble Fox. Given the slippery surfaces, I guess we weren’t as nimble as we would have wanted to. Slowly, we ascended the glacier in the heavy rain.

The science of the formation of glaciers is not difficult to understand but the visual effects that these compacted snows create are often magical. And they are always embellished with a spectrum of blue hues. Glaciers only appear blue because of the colour’s short wavelength, which can be reflected faster and not absorbed, as with colours of longer wavelengths; like red or green. To experience and understand better the science of this rare, natural phenomenon are the reasons that made me come to Fox Glacier.

The course was not easy to complete. And if unguided, proves to be extremely dangerous. Megan and Jono did most of the hard work; axing the ice to sculpt flights of stairs to make our climb easier and safer. It’s also important to be aware of the crevasses. One slip is all it takes to have one fall into the bottomless depth. And it’s easy to forget about safety, especially one is distracted by the beautiful ice pinnacles and seracs. That’s why we walked in a line, so that we can look out for each other.

We found a good spot for lunch and obviously hungry, I chomped my Jimmy’s meat pie fast. Apparently, Jimmy’s is one of the most well-known pies in New Zealand. And it was tasty, with the gravy mixed with a good amount of cheese. I only realized that the rain had stopped when the strong reflection of sunlight on the ice pained my eyes. I told Megan that I’d expected the walk to be cancelled due to the rain. She explained that in the case of showers like this, walks usually proceed. I’d continued to say how worried I was about the weather throughout the trip. Sometimes, we just got to have some faith, Jono interjected, while peeling his orange.

The glacier terrain is dynamic. It moves a considerable distance daily and therefore, there’s never an exactly same route, only similar. And that day, we were lucky. As we made our way to the highest point of our walk, Jono found a new path that led us down a fresh crevasse of perhaps just three meters deep. To reach this spot, we had to climb over another pinnacle, at an almost right-angled slope. We left our daypacks behind (to reduce weight) and began the climb; one at a time.

The view of the newly cracked glacier was amazing. We were allowed to land ourselves at the bottom of the crevasse to take some photos. Surrounded by the blue walls, I imagined myself walking on a frozen seabed. The few minutes spent down there were priceless. So was the taste of pure water dripping off the melting glacier.

Towards the end of our journey, the sky was grey again. And it started to drizzle when we neared the shuttle bus station. It’d been such an eventful day; from the dream to the rain to the spectacular glaciers to the newfound friends. Now, I felt that my Aotearoa journey had finally begun. I was looking forward to my next adventure. Was I still worried about the weather? Sometimes, we just got to have some faith. Sometimes, we just got to have some faith.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Home of Middle Earth

Fantasy adventures, be it in form of books or movies, do not interest me much. I did watch Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy though, but for the special effects and hype. After my visit to New Zealand, I wanted to watch them again, not because I have a newfound love for fantasies but just to be awed once more by the spellbinding, surreal sceneries. For me, it's not easy to describe the natural beauty that is New Zealand, so I thought I should begin my journey with a selection of photos taken as I made my way across this magical land; the home of Middle Earth.

NZ 647

Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier

Milford Sound

Wai-O-Tapu, Rotorua

Waimangu, Rotorua