Monday, May 26, 2008

Walking on Water

We shouldn't be let mind a dog, never mind two children. The night before our planned excursion on Fox Glacier, Sara gave her unsolicited opinion on the food in Arthur's Pass in the direct and physical way that we are used to from the girl: she barfed it all back up before bedtime. It wasn't looking good for the hike. To make matters worse - much worse - the following morning as we got up early and started to prepare ourselves the same child pointed out, again in the most direct way possible, that her stomach was empty and her sugars were low, by fainting in the bathroom. She didn't black out, but she ended up on her arse, murmuring slowly to herself, until we set her on the bed and put her head between her knees. Really - if anyone feels like reporting us, I'd almost encourage them.

But it gets worse again. Sara recovered quickly, and protested our decision to call off the glacier trip. She insisted that she wanted to do the hike and that she was fine now. We weren't buying it but set off to Fox Glacier (half an hour's drive from Franz Josef) to see if we could get a refund of the $100 deposit. When we got there, and explained Sara's alternating puking and swooning, Malcolm our guide-to-be told us that she'd be fine (these Kiwis are as good as the Aussies at shrugging off illness, danger and common-sense).

So, responsible parents that we are, we continued to increase Sara's sugar levels using fruit sweets and juice, fitted herself and Nina out with boots, and got on the bus with the guides that led to the start of the trail.

What's a glacier anyway?, I hear you ask (admittedly over the noise of those baying for our children to be removed for their own safetly). It's a river, really, that moves 100,000 times slower than normal rivers. Instead of water, flows ice. Instead of a spring, there's a snow-collecting basin (called a neve) over 3000m up the mountain, where today's snow compacts yesterday's and eventually compresses it into ice. The ice flows downhill under its own weight, moving on a layer of water formed where the ice meets the underlying rock, but also moving internally, in a plastic flow. At the bottom of the glacier, the terminal, where the higher temperatures defeats the pressure, the ice finally melts and runs off as cloudy green streams.

The way you get up onto Fox Glacier is to start near the terminal of the glacier and hike for the best part of an hour along the mountainside - the bank of this river of ice - until you reach a point where it's safe (in the I-have-signed-a-waiver sense of the word) to move onto the glacier itself. To reach this point, we had to climb a fair bit, as well as move along a narrow trail at the edge of a bluff. This last fact might alarm American or Antipodean readers. That's because they know what the hell a bluff is. A bluff in European English is a clever card-playing pretence, and very little else. So when we were told in advance that we would be walking along a bluff, I thought it odd but not much odder than anything else I've been told by a guide in the last 5 months. Halfway along our hike to the edge of the ice, we found out what a New Zealander means by a bluff. A bluff, so far as I can now tell, is a f**king great cliff with a 100m drop. It has a path alongside whose width is very much economy class. And by way of support for those who might have fainted that morning there is a chain and a red-bearded, grinning guide. (Social services numbers are in the Government section of the phone book, if you haven't found it yet).

We survived, and not having been killed are of course stronger (big chunks of ice bring out the Nietzsche in me). Nina and Sara dealt with the heights like two little girls who know what it feels to zip along on a flying fox at 7 meters, and we all went on to have a surreal and rewarding experience walking on top of a glacier for 90 minutes or so.

When we got to the edge of the glacier, we were handed poles, and told to put on our instep crampons. And then we walked on water. We stepped onto 12km of frozen but moving water. The surface was broken in a thousand different ways. Where it met the mountainside, it thrust upwards, trying to burst its banks. The centre of the flow moves faster than the edges, creating crevasses whose depths are disguised by the pools of water that fill them. We were walking in the melt zone of the glacier, where the liquid flow created other perfect imperfections on the icescape - archways, circular pools and waterfalls. From the mountain, the uppermost surface of the glacier is undulating but looks smooth. Up close, it is anything but. The ice looks like a snapshot of the choppy surface of a lake on a windy day.

On any trip, there are inevitably things that you wish you had kept your wallet closed for. You're probably glad you did them but you wished you didn't have to pay so much for it. We spent less than 100 euro in the backpackers in Franz Josef, and a little over 100 euros for the half-day trip on the Fox glacier. It was one of the best value highs we've had on the trip so far. If you come here with kids, be aware that there is practically nothing else to do in either Franz Josef or Fox Glacier. The evening activity is limited to going to the pub, and apparently they get quite boisterous. Our irresponsibility as parents doesn't extend to finding out in person.


1 comment:

Carol Lawrence said...

Hi Brendan, Letizia, Nina and Sara,

Just getting into this blogging thing, trying to work it out, so perhaps Jasmine can do a short blog instead of a School Journal for our trip home in September.

I was hoping to get to Ireland as well, but with stops in New York, San Francisco, Sicily and of course a major time in England to see family, it unfortunately might get pushed off the agenda again.

Great to see you all having such fun, certainly inspiring me to travel more.