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Fabulous Franz

14 April 2010

I meet up with P for a final drink and he takes me for a drive to Arrowtown which is famed for his golden past but now is a quaint tourist town with original buildings and tree-lined avenues. We have a few beers in the local pub in front of the fire and then I head for an early night as I have to get the 8 hour bus journey to Franz Josef.

When I wake up there’s a lovely pink tint to the sky and it looks like it is going to be a nice day in Queenstown the day I leave but waiting for the bus to arrive, the sky starts to cloud over. The bus is packed, mainly with Korean/Japanese/Chinese tourists on their way to the glacier. The bus is a normal intercity like a National Express but it comes equipped with a minute by minute commentary firstly by Paul and his patter and then the drivers swap over half way and we get George and his jabber. George displays an impressive knowledge of cloud types and photosynthesis. No chance to sleep on this bus, but most of the commentary is interesting despite Paul’s obsession with the local golf courses. I cannot image a driver on a National Express bus in the UK doing this and the most you get of them is a grunt and followed by a ‘feck off’. The ‘Orientals’ seem to love it and take every opportunity to take a photo whether it be through the bus window at full speed or over the tops of people’s heads.

The West Coast of the South Island stretches 600 km from north to south and is only 70km at its widest point and has Nikau palms and semi tropical fruit trees in the north to ice, snow and temperate forests in the south. En-route, through Wanaka and Haast, we pass wild coastlines; deserted beaches; dense forests of giant trees, ferns and mosses; big rivers and little creeks and glaciers and mountains that form part of the Southern Alps. We also pass Bruce Bay and it’s where people put piles of stones and other weird things on the beach and make wishes: I make mine from the coach as we pass but Brad still hasn’t called.

We reach Franz Josef at 4pm and there is just enough time to catch a shuttle bus to the face of the glacier. I get chatting to a bloke who was my bus from Queenstown as he’s staying at my yoff hostel and is also going to the glacier. He’s a Kiwi but has never seen the South Island and has been travelling around for 2 months and is then heading to France to learn French and teach rugby. Sounds alright to me.

We get dropped off in the car park and then it’s a 45 minute round trip walk to the face of the glacier, first along a track and then across a stream. And it’s worth the visit.

Franz receives 300,000 visitors a year and has the unenviable reputation of being New Zealand’s wettest township (I cannot get used to this word being used to describe a town without the South African connotations) and in 1982 lost both its airstrip and bridge when a torrential 1.83m of rain was recorded in 72 hours. Apparently more rain fell, but the gauge overflowed and it could not record anything further.

The science bit. A glacier is fed at the head (nerve or accumulation basin) by large amounts of snow that compact and partially melt to form a whitest granular snow called firn. Over several years as water seeps in and air is expelled under the weight of accumulating snow, the granules eventually merge together forming bluish glacial ice. Under constant gravitational pull down the valley, the glacier slowly moves forward/downward like a giant ice river. The ice slowly melts as it reaches the more temperate lower levels closer to sea level.

As you will see from the photos, the ice is blue in some places but it has stated to rain and the light is fading so we head back to the car park and get the shuttle back to the yoff hostel. I sit in the bar, check emails and have some dinner. I am on my own in the 4 bed en-suite dorm: alrighty!

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