Franz Josef Glacier & Queenstown
December 21 - Christchurch to Franz Josef Glacier
In the morning, we joined the TranzAlpine, the train from Christchurch to Greymouth through the Southern Alps. This was a much more popular journey than the Overlander and the TranzCoastal and the train was a lot longer. The scenery leaving Christchurch consisted of the plains, mostly farming country, but about ninety minutes after leaving Christchurch, the train started to climb and the scenery became more interesting.
The TranzScenic waiting to leave Christchurch
The Canterbury Plains with the Southern Alps in the distance
Getting among the mountains
In the heart of the Alps
A quick stop before starting down to Greymouth
At Greymouth, we stopped only long enough to pick up our rental car, which turned out to be a rather beat up, ten year old, Corolla. Not quite what we had expected , but the price had been much lower than all the other companies, so .......
We drove from Greymouth to Franz Josef Glacier and checked in to the Alpine Glacier Motel. The town wasn't much - it really only exists as a base to explore the glacier, but the mountains in the background were impressive.
As we didn't really have time to do much that day, we decided to see what all the fuss was about. We drove as far as we could and then walked until we could see the Glacier, which was impressive, even from a distance. As we had already planned a hike to the Glacier the next day, we didn't go any further.
We headed back to town for dinner and got into conversation with another American couple, Marci and Chris, who also were trying to decide if they should take a helicopter onto the glacier. We must have spent at least an hour comparing notes about our travel experiences.
Franz Josef Glacier main street - note the mountains behind.
December 22 - Franz Josef Glacier
Next morning, we still couldn't decide if we wanted to take a helicopter ride onto the Glacier. We ran into Marci and Chris again who were about to go flying and we had hoped to see them again later in the day to compare notes, but we never did. In the end, we decided to wait until the next morning to take our flight, as we were already committed to a hike at 12:30. We used the morning to do some chores and some planning. At 12:30 on the dot, we checked in for our hike and our adventure began.
The half day Glacier Experience was described as " a fantastic introduction to the enthralling world of ice. Traversing spectacular tracks OF ONLY MODERATE DIFFICULTY (my caps) this experience is suitable for MOST AGILE PEOPLE". The next step up in difficulty was described as "adventurous", so we figured "moderate" should be fine. We were provided with coats, socks and boots AND CRAMPONS and were offered (but didn't take) over trousers. So off we go - a ten minute bus ride to the start of the hike to the glacier. Of course, the fact that everyone else on the bus were at least 20 years younger than us should have given us a hint. The first part was a hike along the river bed and valley floor. Although it was rough, it wasn't hard walking and it was almost flat. Then we put on our crampons and the hard work began. First we had to climb an ice face. Steps had been cut and there was a rope handrail, but still challenging. Then we started climbing THROUGH crevasses - twenty feel tall and VERY narrow. The only way through was sideways. Very challenging. And finally, to a flat part of the glacier where we could catch our breath - before doing it all again in reverse ! We made it and lived to tell the tale, but I don't think either of us realized exactly what we were getting ourselves into ! I guess when you get to our age "moderate" means something different ! But still a great experience.
December 23 - Franz Josef Glacier to Queenstown
Next day we decided that having climbed up, over and THROUGH a glacier, we really didn't need to fly over one, so we set off for Queenstown, which was about a six hour drive away.
On the way out, we stopped briefly to take a look at the Fox Glacier, a few miles down the road. Impressive, but we had been there, done that (although no T-shirt !)
The drive to Queenstown was very scenic, with mountains and lakes on all sides.
We arrived in Queenstown mid afternoon and checked into our hotel, The Central Ridge Boutique (ie: expensive) hotel on the edge of the city center. There were only thirteen rooms and (initially) they gave us the only one without a double bed, but we fixed THAT the next day. The room was really large with excellent views (of course !)
Once we had unpacked, we went out to scout the downtown area, which was about five minutes away. We were also checking out what we would do the next day and there's a lot to do in Queenstown. It started to rain and we didn't have rainjackets, so we bought snacks and ate dinner back at the hotel. However, before we could eat dinner, we took part in the nightly hotel ritual of wine and hors d'oevres which are served from six to seven. This gave us a chance every evening to meet our fellow guests, most of whom were English or American. By the time we had eaten the hotel's snacks and drunk their wine, we didn't really need dinner !
December 24 - Queenstown
This turned out to be a busy day. Our first event was the Shotover Jetboat ride. This had been recommended to us earlier as the best of the many jetboats around Queenstown. A Jetboat is a small high powered speedboat with no propellor. Instead, it is pushed through the water with high powered jets of water which can be steered. This makes it VERY manoeverable and also needs very little water to operate and of course, it also makes for a very exciting ride.
We headed back into town and the first thing we saw was the gondola ride. It looked like a good place to see the town and to get a cup of coffee, so we headed up. Of course, the views were spectacular and I was intrigued by the parasailers who were using the hillside as a launching ramp.
The parasailing office was just a few steps up from the restaurant and I couldn't resist ! I asked if I could go "now" and they said sure ! Kristine didn't seem to think it was quite her thing, so she headed back down the hill to meet me at the bottom. I was introduced to my pilot, Rene and we walked over to the launch pad. Setting up only took a few minutes, but then the wind changed and we couldn't launch. After waiting about ten minutes, Rene decided to move to another, higher launch site. He took the gear on a four wheel ATV and left me to walk up a VERY steep hill ! By the time I struggled up, he had the gear laid out and after a few minutes of waiting for the wind to settle, we were off !
The sensation is a little spooky at first - after all you ARE several thousand feet off the ground with nothing under you except a piece of nylon for a seat, which doesn't seem terribly substantial. After a few minutes, when you realize that you aren't about to crash and your pilot seems to know what he's doing, it's very exciting - a real thrill. To cut a long story short, we went VERY high (over 5,000 feet) and very long - probably nearer thirty minutes than the ten I had been promised, but Rene was having a good time and so was I, so we kept on going ! Finally, I guess we had to come down and we landed in the school playing field were Kristine was waiting, waiting, waiting......
So now we went to check out the third event of the day and certainly the toughest - the Bungy Jump. Ever since I chickened out from jumping in South Africa, I had been planning this jump, but now we were in the right place at the right time. There are several bungy jumps in Queenstown, but we decided to start at the first commercial bungy jump, from the Kawarau Bridge, which crosses the Kawarau River.
It was about a thirty minutes drive from Queenstown and of course before making a decision, we had to see how it worked. We stood and watched people throwing themselves off a bridge for about half an hour before I decided that it might as well be now or never. I signed up, paid my money, stood on the scale (!) and got in line behind all the other people who were jumping. The waiting was frustrating - not because I was scared but because it was getting cold and just standing around wasn't very much fun. Obviously, watching people jump off a bridge was quite interesting but after a while, it becomes rather repetitive and my dear wife was waiting to see me jump. Anyway, after over an hour, it was finally my turn. First, they strap you into a harness "just in case" - I guess in case the straps around your feet come off. Then they tie your feet together with a nylon band wrapped tightly around a towel.
Then it's time. You shuffle to the edge and it's a LONG WAY DOWN. They have you smile at the camera, smile at the onlookers and then 5-4-3-2-1 and jump ! I really had doubts if I could do it but having come this far, I guess I had to go. I tried to jump but the best I could do was fall forward, so it wasn't really a dive, but at least it was a jump.
A weak smile at the camera
Kristine (in blue) had been patiently waiting and thinking "Thank God, I didn't agree to jump".
Hanging upside down and bouncing like a rag doll until they pull you down and untie you.
I don't remember the fall at all, but I do remember bouncing around and then being pulled into the boat. Not sure if it was "fun" but at least I did it and if I ever do it again, I'll know what to expect.
So after all the excitement of the day, we headed back to the hotel for our evening drinks and snacks and called it a night.
December 25 - Christmas Day in Queenstown
We hadn't expected to do much on Christmas Day apart from lunch, so late in the morning, we went for a walk around a very quiet Queenstown. After our walk, we went back to the hotel for a traditional Christmas Day dinner of Turkey and Christmas Pudding.
And to finish the day, wine and snacks (although we couldn't eat the snacks) back at the hotel.
It wouldn't be Christmas without turkey and paper hats !