Breakfast research reveals the existence of a donut shop. We put on our shoes, lock the door, and go for a walk. Plump raspberry jelly donuts and ones filled with chocolate and custard sit innocent and pert behind glass. I ask the proprietor, “Do you have coffee?” He looks apologetic, “Yes, but it is brewed.” Wow, brewed coffee: this is first. “I’ll take a large one.” Among the other pastries is a luscious cheese-and-tomato turnover/croissant thing. “Joss, look,” I say, pointing at it, “And one those.” The guy says, “Do you want that heated up?” “Yes.” “No.” After selling us on the three-donuts-for-ten-dollars super deal, “Do you want some napkins?” “Yes.” “No.” And as we pay, “Do you want a plastic bag?” “Yes.” “No.” I’m hoping we’ve gotten it out of our systems.
It’s starting to dawn on us that, in mere minutes, we will be boarding a helicopter to a glacier. We gather with others, nervously milling. A trio of women wander aggressively through the crowd, disappearing, reappearing, and vanishing again only to be herded back into the main room. We’re given a colored wristband (orange) and asked to fill out a release form at a row of computer terminals. Both Joss and I take blood pressure meds and are questioned about same, then told we’re ‘good to go’ when we can spell lisinopril.
We’re shuffled into another room to be fitted with gear – boots and socks, crampons, foul weather jacket and pants, and a fanny pack for sundries. The gear smells like ass, which lends an element of authenticity to the adventure. Explorers would stink, wouldn’t they? Then we’re led on a ten-minute walk through ‘rainforest’ to the heli-pad. The orange people have been weighed and split into two groups according, I suppose, to poundage.
Even with headphones, the noise is deafening, but lift-off feels like an effortless plucking and tipping, then we sort of scoot headlong through air. The ride is a sweeping, banking, bone-rattling joy. Rock, forest, ice, cloud; all swoop by. And then we land. On the ice. A young man helps us out; there have been six of us in our helicopter. He’s Rhys our guide, a wiry, goofy Welshman.
Where the fuck are we? Okay, this is the surface of the Franz Josef Glacier, twelve kilometers of ice hundreds of meters thick slowly and quickly being extruded between bare rock walls. It snows like a son-of-a-bitch high in the South Island’s Alps and over time it compacts, funnels, and slides toward the sea. The mechanics are as fascinating as they are inexorable. Franz Josef and its companion to the south, Fox Glacier, may be the only glaciers in the world to terminate in a temperate rainforest.
The glacier’s surface billows in major and minor keys, with chromatics of white and blue and highlights of black. It is wet, water everywhere, and today the air is colder than usual, says Rhys; the overcast is the reason. Hikes up onto the glacier were discontinued years ago because of the glacier’s increasing instability. As the weather warmed, it moved faster and dangerous changes to the surface were frequent enough that safety became an issue. This was in the 70s and that’s when the chopper rides began.
Perspective here is not just deceptive, but utter bullshit. Human scale does not apply to this landscape. Looking up, we see an enormous stone outcropping that ice is flowing on top of, around, and in front. “What do you think they call this big black hole?” asks Rhys. “The Big Black Hole,” I chime in, ever familiar with the obvious trick question. “It appeared one day. There was a huge explosion and the face of the glacier blew off. And we had this. It is the tip of a rock spire taller the Eiffel Tower.” The scope of what’s happening here is 99% abstract and 1% real. Just then, there’s a boom and a tumbling crash and a section of Franz Josef at the edge of the Black Hole bursts into pieces. “See that snowball rolling down?” says Rhys, “That’s as big as a campervan.”
Gotta love crampons. Without them, we’d be slip sliding away. They affix to the sole of the boot and, with spikes over an inch long, offer traction and stability. We follow Rhys as he picks a path in the general direction of upward, knocking off protuberances and carving rudimentary steps with an ice axe. He’s wearing shorts and long black boots that come to just below his knees, which are pink with cold and dinged with small scabs and bruises. We are climbing so we can get a better look at the seracs, blue ice towers in all kinds of shapes – slabs, pyramids, pinnacles, and giant sculptures Henry Moore could only dream about.
I could describe every single moment; the experience is that vivid. We took lots of photos, but mostly, when we weren’t clambering, we stood there.
We got back, ate a really late lunch, went back to the motel, got out of our now rank garments and made a beeline for the kiwi. Franz Josef has a kiwi, too. Joss loves these ridiculous birds. But it’s early evening and the little guys have retired from their hard day’s night. Fortunately, our entry fee allows us to come back in the morning when they’re just starting their night.
We pick up some meat pies and eat ‘em in the room.