Soap’s Stars Trip the Ice Fantastic

Playing it cool on the Franz Josef Glacier

“You can have the Love Shack”

It was an offer by the staff at the Chateau Franz hostel that got laughs all round, the biggest from Soap, my Magic Bus driver who had just driven us from the greyness of Greymouth to the blue skies and bright sunshine of Franz Josef, home to a huge glacier.

“Make the most of it Peter,” he jokes, still not quite grasping that he’s been calling me the wrong name all the way throughout the journey so far.

“It’s Phil,” I say back. He doesn’t hear me.

The Love Shack (That’s where its at…as well as the laundry)

I take my bags to my room and unlock the door to my love shack (even just writing this makes me smile!) to find a small cosy room full of red cushions, blacked out windows, the smell of sweet roses and, shall we say, pretty much anything you’d need for a night in with a loved one.

With no loved ones around, I was just grateful for the chance to sprawl out in a double bed for once. After months of single bunk beds in rooms with up to 20 people, tonight is one to look forward to purely for the fact I should get a good night’s sleep.

Inside the Love Shack at Chateau Franz Backpackers

Of course, the room was purely a chance to have a good laugh, and a few of the Magic Bus gang came in to check out my novel lodgings for the night. We had a tight schedule though, with a helicopter to catch up to the nearby glacier just an hour or so after arriving in the town.

Thankfully, Soap had driven us past the check-in offices not once, but twice, to make sure we all knew where we were going. I resisted the temptation to ask him where we needed to be once we’d arrived at the hostel for the night.

Instead, with the sun shining and a beautiful day ahead, we made our way to the offices of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides to embark on our icy adventure. Its something we had all been looking forward to, a highlight of the south island and one of the sights many people come to New Zealand to see. On the way, Soap had been telling us how lucky we were with the weather.

“The last six times its been raining and people haven’t been able to get up there,” he said.

“I’ve been told conditions are perfect. I don’t want to curse it, but it looks like you’ve got the conditions as good as they come.”

‘Famous last words’ springs to mind.

Checking in for the helicopter…

Having checked in, been given wristbands and everyone excitedly being ushered over to the clothing section, where we were to be issued with thermal jackets, trousers and crampons to navigate around the ice, we waited around for a few minutes. And then along came one of the staff.

“I’m really sorry guys, we’ve got some bad news. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to go today. The wind has really picked up on the mountain and the helicopters are having to bring everyone off.”

It didn’t quite seem real – outside the weather was glorious. It was calm, blue skies, and seemingly perfect conditions. We knew we were also to leave the town first thing in the morning. We had one afternoon to make the trip, and the plug had been pulled. Some of the group at first thought it was a cruel joke, but as another glum-looking group already dressed for the mountain traipsed back into the building, it was clear nobody was having a laugh.

There were a lot of sad faces, particularly from the girls. Kate, from Jersey, and Ailish and Christine from Ireland, were particularly downhearted. There were seven out of the nine of us on the Magic Bus who wanted to make the trip, and we gathered round in a circle to plan the next move.

“I wonder if we could go first thing in the morning, and delay the Magic Bus a little bit,” I put to everyone.

Sad faces all round

It was a thought that gathered a bit of momentum. We knew we had a long day of driving to Wanaka ahead of us the next day, with an early departure on the cards, but we found out what the options were from the glacier company.

There was an 8am departure, which would see us off the glacier by midday. It was something we could put to Soap, but we knew it would be out of his hands.

Back at the hostel, we sat around feeling sorry for ourselves. We managed to drag Soap from out of his room, who immediately got the blame for cursing the weather by speaking too soon about the conditions, and we talked it over as a group. There was an option to head to nearby Fox Glacier that afternoon, but nobody was too keen. We could also take a shuttle to the Franz Josef Glacier walk, which means we could at least see it, but not touch or experience it. Or, as we suggested to Soap, we could take the first helicopter and delay the Magic Bus departure.

“The Magic Bus never gets delayed for anyone, but we can give it a go,” Soap tells us, reaching for his mobile phone.

Land of the long, white (laughing) cloud

We didn’t hold out much hope, but it was worth a try. In the meantime, we were all taking it in turns to look up at the mountains and moan about how it seemed too calm to have any problems. We watched a cloud stay in the sky, motionless, and almost forming a face and mouth as if it was laughing at us – in Kate’s mind anyway!

With a call in to Magic HQ, Soap tried his best to keep our spirits up, sympathising with our disappointment and blaming himself for being the unlucky charm, having had a lot of similar bad luck in recent weeks. Time was ticking waiting for the news of a decision from the Magic bosses. It could all depend on how many people were to be picked up from Franz, in addition to those of us who arrived on the bus. With seven of our nine wanting to make the trip up the glacier, it made sense to delay departure. But if there were another 10 people due to get on the bus in Franz ready for a journey or with activities ahead in Wanaka, we’d probably be out of luck.

By now, the time had passed for the afternoon trip to Fox. Our eggs were all in one basket. The phonecall came through from head office. It was all or nothing. Soap answered. There are no smiles, and the tone of his conversation is subdued.

Its not sounding good. It looks like Franz Josef is off. Soap comes off the phone with the words “I’ll talk to them and see what we can do,” before hanging up with a sigh.

“Sorry guys.”

There were groans. That was it. We waited to see if it was one of Soap’s jokes, but it wasn’t. He started to walk away.

“Gotcha!” he shouted, turning back towards us with a huge grin on his face.

Happy faces!

For the first time, Magic Bus agreed to delay the departure to allow us one more chance at making the trip up to the glacier. It was a huge relief, and there were happy faces all around. In addition, it now gave us an afternoon free, and we decided to book the Franz Josef shuttle to the glacier walk.

And so we all headed off on the bus, taking in our first views of this famous attraction, ironically stopping off at Peter’s Pool, a name that is still being used for me, where there was a fantastic reflection of the glacier and mountains on the surface of the water.

Peter/Phil at Peter’s Pool

Next up was a long walk along the glacier bed to the head of the glacier.

The Franz Josef Glacier starts high up in the southern alps and descends deep into the lush rainforest of Westland’s National Park, from a height of 2700 metres above sea level, to just 240 metres, in as little as 11 km. It means it is the worlds steepest and fastest flowing commercially guided glacier and provides some of the most dramatic glacial scenery in the world.

The Franz Josef Glacier snaking down the valley

As huge as it is, some seven and a half miles long, its actually constantly moving, being in a cycle of advancing and retreating from its source.The glacier was advancing until mid 2010, but it is currently in a very rapid phase of retreat, shrinking heavily, in a way many people have put down to global warming.

It is also a dangerous place to visit, hence the need for specialist guides to actually venture onto the ice, but even visiting the face of the glacier can be potentially lethal, so much so it is strictly off limits, a fence keeping people away.

Danger…

We reached the yellow rope fence, about 500 metres from the actual ice, with strong warnings not to cross over the line. They are warnings that need to be taken seriously too – most years there is a story of a tourist who ignored it, only to be trapped by a rock or ice fall from the surrounding mountains. Newspaper stories of deaths and injuries are blown up and featured on warning signs, in attempt to put anyone off who was thinking of making a trip over the rope. Somehow, the prospect of thousands of tonnes of ice and rocks falling on top of you is enough of a warning for us, and we stayed well behind the rope.

Stop!

We spent the evening at the local hot baths, a trip that comes as part of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour. I met Soap as he was heading out to the baths, and who decided to take the bus because of the freezing cold temperatures, so I jumped onboard with him. The baths were deliciously warm, and a great way to spend a few hours relaxing with everyone else on the bus and getting to know everyone a bit more. I’ve been really lucky with the groups, having a lot in common with people onboard and sharing the same sense of humour.

Back at the hostel, I ended up having drinks with Thecla from the bus, and two Australian girls Clare and Louise, who were celebrating a birthday. Despite my best efforts, I was persuaded to go out for a beer with them, despite the early morning start the following day.

Our ride arrives

Thankfully, after keeping it to just a couple of beers, I was up in time to check out and made it to the helicopter check-in for 7.45am. This time we made it further than the clothing desk, being issued with full arctic attire, boots, crampons, gloves, the lot, ready for three hours of ice exploration.

We were taken to the helipad, taking in the beautiful dawn view as the sun began to rise over the mountains. The air was still with the sound of silence, until, in the distance, we heard the familiar sound of a helicopter’s rotor beating its way through the sky. It appeared a few moments later, swooping around to us and landing with expert precision just a few metres away.

Destination Glacier

The first half of the group climbed onboard, and within seconds they were far in the distance, making the short five minute journey up to the ice. It wasn’t long before the helicopter returned for us, and we were ushered over to the aircraft door before climbing into the back seat. The pilot didn’t hang around, and within seconds of the door closing we were lifting off and flying into the valley.

With Mel and Kevin in the helicopter

Up on the glacier, a gaggle of blue jackets from the first half of the group marked the landing site, and we all left our stomachs behind as the helicopter suddenly dropped from high above the ice to take its place on the landing site.

Onto the ice

Tom is our guide for the morning. Originally from Crewe, and so a fellow northern lad, he met us at the helicopter and waited as we fixed the cramp-ons to our boots. I’ve never had to wear them before, but the glacier was like no other surface I have ever walked on. It was pure ice – shiny, see through, glass-like ice – and a bit like a giant ice cube. I have skied on glaciers before, but they are normally covered in snow, so to see the huge mass of ice up close was something completely alien to us all.

“The best thing you can do is walk normally, feet straight, and put pressure on the spikes,” Tom tells us, advising not to walk sideways and to avoid falling down holes in the ice.

We followed Tom, who was armed with an ice pick to help clear the way, through a maze of icy valleys and around caverns formed by the constant movement of the huge mass.

Tom, our guide

“When I first got here three years or so ago, the ice was right up to the greenery on the side of the valley walls,” he tells us, showing a huge drop in the ice level in just the short time he has been guiding in the area.

The constant change in the structure of the glacier has actually caused a few problems in recent months with tourism on the glacier. Until April, a cheaper tour would take the public on a full day trek from the bottom of the glacier up to the point we were standing. The helicopters were part of a more expensive, more exclusive trip. But all that changed when a giant hole opened up in the ice lower down, forcing tours to pass around it by the sides of the valley.

Exploring the ice

However, the rock faces that surround the glacier are notoriously unstable, partly due to the constant process of freeze-thaw, where moisture and water freezes in the rocks, expands, and then thaws in the morning, letting go of whatever rocks it has broken away during the night.

“We actually had a pretty bad rockfall a while back that I saw, and I knew there were a few groups in the area,” he says, reflecting on a potentially disastrous moment.

“There was a few minutes when one of the guides couldn’t be reached on the radio which got us all worried, but then he came over to say he was ok.

“Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but that was the worst one I have actually seen.”

A tight squeeze

I surveyed around the glacier sides and piles of loose rock and dust can be seen all over the area, sites where substantial portions of the mountain have dropped away. For this reason, the guides now stay well clear of the rock face, and the only way of reaching the glacier, avoiding the potentially dangerous walk around the hole, is by helicopter.

We made our way down the glacier, dropping down into gaps in the ice, walking around deep holes that have formed, and edging our way up and over various ice formations created by the constant movement of the white mass.

I say white, but in many places the ice is a bright blue, a result of minerals in the ground being absorbed. In some places, it was a particularly deep blue, with millions of air bubbles and particles suspended in frozen time.

Hiding in the ice

We edged our way along a narrow gap, the tightness causing a few of us problems with our new walking boots and tricky conditions. The walls of the ice were as smooth as and had the appearance of polished glass. At one point, Tom fixed a rope to an ice wall, and threw it down to help us climb a particularly steep set of steps that had been chipped away into the ice.

Kate laughing in the narrow gap

It was a fantastic, if more than a little tiring, three hours of walking and climbing around on the glacier, and we were grateful of a helicopter lift back off it and down to the village. Had the original full day tour been running, we’d have had to walk all the way back down the glacier, and Tom admits that it would often leave even some of the hardiest walkers exhausted.

As we were waiting for our flight back down to ground level however, the glacier provided a reminder as to how potentially dangerous the area can be. In the middle of a conversation with Tom, suddenly we were all stopped by a deep rumble that sounded very much like thunder rolling away nearby. But the skies were clear, and there was no chance it was the weather causing the noise. I could feel a slight vibration under my feet. It carried on for a good few seconds, causing us as to stop and look around to where the noise was coming from.

“Rockfall,” said Tom, looking in the same direction we were. We’d fallen silent and waited for the noise to stop. A few minutes later, a huge cloud of dust rose up from the site of the rockfall. A stark warning by the mountains that the dangers are incredibly real.

Rockfall…

We flew back to the village, knowing there would be no hanging around in order for Soap to get off at a decent time so we could make the long drive to Wanaka. Besides, there was an important rugby match between his beloved All Blacks and Ireland in the evening.

“We will be there for kick off, even if we have to skip toilet stops and pass a bottle around the bus,” he joked.

Back in the chopper

He’d already loaded all the bags into the boot of his bus to save time when we returned from the glacier, and within 20 minutes of touching down in the helicopter, we were back on the Magic Bus and on our way further south.

“Did you all have a good morning Peter?” he asks me. I replied as normal – I think the name Peter is stuck in his head, despite me writing my name every day on his accommodation sheet, and his passenger log clearly showing my details.

Soap navigating another narrow single lane bridge

The delayed departure means a few of the regular stops during then long drive south may have to be missed out, but Lake Matheson, close to the nearby Fox Glacier, was one stop that Soap wasn’t going to cut from the itinerary. We were glad he didn’t, as it was stunning. Its another ‘mirror lake’, a perfect reflection formed by the incredibly still water – bar the odd duck or three – of the surroundings.

Lake Matheson. Stunning.

When those surroundings are alpine forests with the backdrop of picture postcard snow-capped mountains, it makes for a beautiful place to spend a few minutes, taking photographs and absorbing the view.

Back on the bus, Soap had been dealing with a few requests from a couple of passengers, who for sake of anonymity will be known as red jacket and yellow jacket. It’s fair to say they had caused one or two problems along the way, mainly with a language barrier, but most of us on the bus also queried a general lack of common sense and wondered how they had managed to travel so far without getting completely lost somewhere.

They weren’t huge problems, but just awkward ones like having completely different arrangements for accommodation than everyone else, at one point prompting a drive around a town centre in search of the drop-off point. And then one of them opened a tin of tuna – and when you’re on Soap’s bus (or any bus for that matter!) an open tin of tuna is a huge no-no for obvious smell-related issues. Despite his patience being tried on more than one occasion, Soap somehow still managed to keep a smile on his face and accommodate requests as well as he could. He might have secretly been twanging his rubber wristbands somewhere, his way of releasing stress, but he would still be the happy, cheery guy we had all grown to love as our tour guide.

Its the Magic Bus!

“I’ve got no plans or times for the rest of the day, as we’re in new waters for the Magic Bus, but we’ll try to fit in as much as possible,” he tells us over the speakers as we head off down the road yet again.

It gave us a sense of adventure. We had gone against the norm, and I think even Soap was enjoying being away from the routine timetable and exploring the route to Wanaka at a different time.

As one of New Zealand’s scheduled buses approaches from the opposite direction, Soap smiles.

All roads lead to the mountains

“He’s going to wonder where I’ve been,” he laughs. And with that, the coach driver approaching starts pointing at his watch and laughing. Most of the regular drivers on the island know each other, and it was funny to see the camaraderie as Soap gave a knowing wave back out of the windscreen.

Lunchtime on the Magic Bus!

Most of my group on the bus had managed to fall asleep, a mass of legs criss-crossing the aisles and nodding heads bumping on windows as everyone enjoyed a nap following the cold and hard work of the morning. I tucked into yet another Vegemite and cheese sandwich, and judging by the laughs and smiles I’m now getting everytime I pull out the ingredients to make my regular lunch, its becoming something of a running joke.

We headed further into the southern alps as the sun began to get ever lower in the sky, turning the white snow caps into beautiful shades of pink and orange.

Same old…same old!

“I never get to see this scenery at this time, its stunning. You’re in for some really special views,” says Soap, himself taking in the view as he continues the 300km drive.

We briefly stopped at a waterfall, which would have been our final scenic stop had we kept to the original departure time, and it was the final tick on the list. Somehow, despite leaving almost five hours later than we should have done, we had managed to fit absolutely everything into the day. In fact, taking into account the extra walk the day before to the glacier, we’d actually been able to do more than any of the other groups that have stayed at Franz Josef. In addition, the way we saw a beautiful sunset, and the fact the sun was in a perfect position at Lake Matheson for photographs during the afternoon, meant we had much better photographs and some brilliant memories from the time we made the Magic Bus late.

A new view for the Magic Bus!

We pulled into Lake Wanaka in darkness, and as the engine was turned off, Soap decided to address the coach and mentioned my name as ‘Peter’.

“Its Phil,” I shouted yet again.

Soap started laughing over the speaker system.

“I’ve been seeing if you’re just too polite to tell me and how long I could carry it on,” he chuckled.

The only thing is, half the bus still doesn’t know my real name, and instead know me as Peter. It all starts to get a bit complicated!

The Magic Bus in Wanaka

We had, however, arrived in time to watch the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka before coming far to close to losing the international game with Ireland. Soap was incredibly quiet for the second half, particularly with a couple of very hopeful Irish girls in Ailish and Christine on the bus. Sadly, their hearts were broken when a last minute drop goal settled the game in the All Blacks favour, but we all enjoyed an enthralling game and finished off with a few beers at the bar.

Soap and his stars…next stop, Queenstown

It was nothing too heavy though. We were up early in the morning – the destination is Queenstown, the party and adrenaline capital of the world.

Sounds like fun? Find out more or book the Magic Bus by visiting their website at www.magicbus.co.nz

Want to learn more about the Franz Josef Glacier Guides? Their website is at www.franzjosefglacier.com

And if you fancy a stay in the Love Shack, visit the hostel website at www.chateaufranz.co.nz

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3 thoughts on “Soap’s Stars Trip the Ice Fantastic

  1. Wow Phil, so many wonderful memories just came flooding back! I was at FJ Glacier 7 years ago, and was randomly looking at my pics just yesterday. I wanted to go helihiking, but it was cancelled due to the weather so I did a half-day hike from the bottom instead, which was still amazing. So pleased you got to fly up 🙂 Where you off to after Queenstown? Happy travelling you 🙂 Cx

    • Hey Claire, great to hear from you! Loved the glacier, and the helicopter was a lot of fun when we finally got in one! After Queenstown I spent a couple of days in Christchurch this week, before flying to Fiji last night where i’m currently enjoying the warmth and sun again! Back home in less than three weeks – arrgh! Hope you’re well! 🙂 x

  2. Pingback: The end…of a chapter | afishoutofgrimsby

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