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Up in the ice and snow above the southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Franz Joseph Glacier landscape is moving at five meters a day. There are rifts and caves where fast moving ice has met slow moving ice, it climbs and it dips; there is hard snow and soft snow, and walking around up there is like walking in clouds.
Up there – on a Franz Josef Glacier Guides heli hike – I was in a different world. I was in a moment in time that, despite the shifting landscape, would have looked the same ten thousand years ago, a hundred years ago. It'll look the same tomorrow and it'll look the same when the next millennium rolls around.
It is, without a doubt, one of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. New Zealand is known for these views. And the best part is there is nothing to pollute it. The air is clear, it's clean, the water dripping from the walls of the cave is as pure as you'll ever get.
I looked one way, my view was of snow and rocks climbing into the sky; cliffs of ice I could hear creaking, shoulders of it breaking away in the distance sounded like thunder.
Turn around and the view is of a rain forest descending down into the valley, the ocean reaching out to the horizon in the background. There are only two places in the world where a glacier meets a rainforest. And this is one of them.
The heli hike is a hell of a thing. The Franz Josef Glacier Guides building where we met was welcoming, the staff friendly and really fun to chat to. I knew immediately I was putting myself into safe hands.
I wasn't sure what I needed to bring. Not much, it turned out. I arrived in shorts and a t-shirt, and a jacket. Pants were supplied, and a jacket, along with socks, boots, crampons, gloves and a hat - even sun block. It turned out I wouldn't need the gloves and hat, but would definitely need the sun block.
There are two other important things I needed. First was a camera. I took about thousand photos up there. The second was sunglasses.
The helicopter arriving in is a really cool thing to see. It's loud and it swoops in and lands like a bird, the wind thrown off the rotors is cold and strong. I climbed on board with five people I didn’t know, but who I’d get to know over the following few hours.
The pilot whisked us away. It was my first time in a helicopter. I loved it. We headed towards Franz Josef Glacier. The pilot started pointing things out to us. He told us how thick the ice is in places, and about the West Coast rain forest. He told us a lot of stuff, but I wasn't taking much of it in - I was just stunned by what I was seeing.
There were cracks in the ice big enough to swallow you whole. I quickly understood why a helicopter is a good way to get up onto the glacier. The pilot gave us a tour of the valley. Of the rain forest. Of the glacier. I snapped off about a hundred photos.
Then the helicopter settled down onto the snow, a large flat area big enough to accommodate a football field or two. You're unloaded, you meet your guide, then the helicopter disappears to bring back another half dozen people, and your party is complete.
Our guide was AJ and to sum him up in one word, I’d have to go with 'cool'. He knew his stuff. First thing he told us was how warm we were all going to get. So we all left one of our two jackets behind. The sun was out. It can be cold up in the ice, but it can be hot too. Incredibly hot.
Then we started walking. There are some steep areas but those we mostly avoided. We followed in AJ's footsteps, a dozen of us, AJ pointing out the areas where we can't go, pointing out the geography of the place, telling us how these caves are made.
We weren't in any danger - we weren't taken anywhere where the ice is thin. We were well away from the breaking ice. Ten minutes into our walk I had to strip down to my t-shirt and tie my jacket around my waist. A few minutes later I was sweating.
We spent a few hours up on the glacier. You don’t need to be super fit, but I was given a bit of a work out. We did walk around for a few hours. We did see a lot of awesome things. This was our day. That's what AJ tells us. We can take our time. We can do what we want, within reason. Want to see some ice caves? He showed us some caves.
Want to rest a bit? Not really, but the option was there. Want to check out some areas where the fast ice has met the slow ice, where gaps are formed in the earth? Let me turn my camera on. Want to crawl through a tunnel? Sure. Of course. I've always wanted to crawl through an ice tunnel. How about shooting down an ice slide, using your supplied jacket to slide on? Absolutely.
I had brought my Frisbee with me. Could we find somewhere to throw it? I don't think that had been done before, but we found somewhere for it. I'm not sure why the first snowball was thrown, but there's plenty of ammunition to keep that going as well. Don't want a snowball fight? Then my advice is don't throw one at your guide. And while all this is happening, my camera just kept on firing away taking one amazing photo after another.
Franz Josef Glacier Guides
Franz Josef Glacier Guides – based in Franz Josef, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island – is an internationally recognised alpine tourism operation established in 1990 to offer guided hiking experiences on one of the world’s most accessible glaciers. The glacier heli hike lifts tourists into a dramatic alpine landscape of towering pinnacles, deep blue caves and ice passages that is usually reserved for experienced mountaineers. The experience includes a scenic helicopter flight onto the glacier, a two-hour guided walk on the ice and panoramic photo opportunities.