According to Maori legend the Franz Josef glacier, which forms part of a wider UNESCO world heritage site, was formed from the frozen tears of a maiden called Hinehukatere, who cried for the man she loved and who had died after she’d goaded him into climbing her beloved mountains with her. Turns out he wasn’t as good at climbing as she was.
There’s a lesson in that story for all of us, I expect. My take away? Don’t climb mountains.
Which is why, when faced between the choices of ice hiking and standing still on a glacier, I chose the latter. Thanks to global warming you can’t actually walk directly onto the glaciers these days, as a big bit at the bottom melted last year. The only option is to be lowered onto the top by helicopter.
The cynic in me did pause for a second to ponder whether this was a village wide conspiracy to earn maximum bucks from passing tourists (‘er, yeah, you don’t want to be walking onto that thing, I saw a chunk of it collapse earlier, honest’) but, hey, I admire entrepreneurialism in all its guises, plus I really like riding in helicopters.
Lady luck was shining when I turned up for my 20 minute flight around and onto the glacier. The other passengers had paid for a 30 minute flight, taking in both Franz Josef and neighbouring Fox glacier. The guy behind the counter wondered whether I’d mind flying for longer, for no extra charge. Sweet as, bro.
Fox glacier is 300 metres deep, 13km long, and descends 2600m as it falls towards the coast. And yet it looks tiny in my photographs, snapped as we swooped along the face of the mountains, skirting around the low hanging cloud, up into glorious sunshine.
The crisp blue ice cracks into huge fissures and it’s hard to imagine how much of it would be navigable by intrepid climbers.
It’s breath-taking, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking stuff, witnessing nature demonstrate once more that it can do beautiful (and then some) in its sleep. Even the helicopter pilot thought so.
Numerous people I’d met in the North Island had commented that the South was that much more stunning and I’d failed to believe how that could be possible. The North hasn’t exactly been hit with the ugly stick. But they were right. If eyes could have orgasms, everyone would be sat around these parts in paroxysms of delight.
And it isn’t just the glaciers. The lakes, with perfect mountain range backdrops, make the UK’s Lake District look like an artist’s first sketch. Here they left their works of art.
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand’s fourth largest, stretches across 42km and reaches depths of 300m. More importantly it makes a lovely setting to eat some scrumptious chocolate ice cream from renowned New Zealand ice cream makers Patagonia.
Having spent the last of my disposable cash on the helicopter flight, it was time to reign in the doing things that might kill you for a while. So I didn’t jump out of any planes or fling myself off a bridge with a bit of elastic round my ankles. Neither have that scary and exciting appeal for me anyway – I’d much rather have another go hang-gliding.
Instead I had a lovely glass of wine and bag of salted popcorn at the town’s Cinema Paradiso. The venue is charming, filled with of sofas instead of seats and a convertible volkswagen in the front row. It’s just a shame I was watching The Hobbit, which I found interminably boring, even with all the ‘oh I’ve seen that hill before’ moments.
Final stop in my tour of the South Island was the ‘adventure capital of the world’, Queenstown. I ate more ice cream.
The town is definitely pretty, though very clearly a tourist destination and not much more. I imagine it must be heaving during peak ski season. Turn your back on the shops selling snowboarding gear for a moment though and you will find, stretching out before you with an easy grace, the most beautiful lake I have ever seen in my whole life – and one I do not expect to better any time soon – Lake Wakatipu.
Backed by The Remarkables mountain range, the vista alone makes a trip to Queenstown unquestionably worthwhile.
And importantly the town is a handy base for a (long) day trip over to Milford Sound. A fiord of legendary beauty, especially on a sunny day. The weather is a useful reminder that we aren’t as powerful as we sometimes kid ourselves we are. And so, hoping for sun and blue skies, we were instead met with thick cottony cloud.
The poor bus driver’s commentary consisted of much pointing out things we could see if the cloud wasn’t there. It was an excellent exercise for our imaginations. But we did stop at some mirror lakes en route and I was particularly taken by some trees that had fallen into the ridiculously clear water. It was like glimpsing through a portal to another world, their ethereal nature rendering them all the more spellbinding.
Who wants perfect sunny photos of the Sound anyway? Everybody knows blue skies are boring. It’s why Californians end up doing so much crazy shit – the weather’s just too tediously nice. And the cloud cover added a dramatic edge to the whole proceedings – would we crash into another boat or wouldn’t we?
It’s true what they say about life’s greatest pleasures coming from the simple things. My very favorite moment of the whole week came from a five minute stop, by the side of a fast-flowing river, to drink the icy cool glacier water. Water dripping down my chin as I poured palmfuls into my mouth, I smiled and thought ‘this is the life’.
And it absolutely is.