29/11/2012 - 30/11/2012 25 °C
We got up very excited about our helicopter trip over Mount Cook and the two big glaciers (Franz Josef & Fox) only to find the weather overcast and drismal. “Maybe the weather will be better further south”, we thought, so we packed up and made our way towards the Southern Alps. This wasn’t a boring journey by any means, every bend in the road revealed another spectacular panorama of dark green hills and snow capped craggy mountains. The low, grey cloud drifted around the peaks, and as we got nearer to Franz Josef Glacier Village the rain set in.
Naturally our chopper jaunt was cancelled, so what to do in an alpine village whose sole existence is to provide a base for scenic flights and mountain walks - when it’s raining, misty and there are no views? Most people seemed to be wandering up and down the one street, looking in the tourist tat shops, or drinking hot chocolate in the little timbered bars and cafes. We really are in backpacker country here, with campsites and hostels way outnumbering regular hotels. We drove out of town and took a short but very steep walk to a lookout point to get a view of Franz Josef Glacier. We could see it in the distance, but a hundred years ago it could be seen from the town.... global warming strikes again.
We checked in at Glenfern Villas, a little out of town, but wow! Proper little houses with full kitchen and separate living quarters and bedroom. So much space and so tempting to sit and make use of the free wi-fi, but on this kind of tour you have to keep going, so we went back into the village, to the Glacier Hot Pools and lazed in the hot water for an hour or so instead.
The next morning there was high wispy cloud and the sun trying to break through: ideal flying conditions and even before we had packed up to leave, we could see the helicopters circling the glacier high above the town. We drove over the hills to Fox Glacier Village and presented ourselves for our flight, whereupon we were promptly flown back to Franz Josef... what had taken us 25 minutes to drive took less than 5 minutes to fly. We picked up another passenger and then it was up and away over the glacier. We landed on a snowy saddle, high in the peaks, to take pictures and play in the soft, newly fallen snow. Back in the front of the tiny helicopter with windows all around, it was hard to decide what to look at first! The sun shining on Mount Cook, the broad frozen river that is Fox Glacier, the lakes and plains all spread out below, the crags and fissures of the mountains. It was so beautiful I was almost moved to tears by the sheer majesty of it all.
Back on land it was time to get on the road again and start the long drive to Queenstown. We stopped to pick up a girl who was trying to hitch to the start of a trail leading up a high valley to some hot pools. It was 26km out of town so took only a few minutes. As we dropped her off, another pair of hitchhikers was waiting for a lift at the very same spot. Now, our car isn’t really big enough for us and our luggage plus another two people and their rucksacks, but they’d been waiting for an hour. So they squeezed themselves in and off we went. Stephanie and Trevor were from California, near Yosemite, and loving the mountain scenery around here.
On the way, we discussed local delicacies and how we’d all been told we must try to eat the local whitebait... Somewhere around Ship Creek or Haast we saw a sign proclaiming ‘whitebait patties $7’ so we rattled down a dirt track to a fish processing ‘shed’ where a barbecue was fired up and the whitebait patties were cooked fresh for us. Now, imagine what we know as ‘whitebait’. It was nothing like that! More like elvers, mixed with beaten egg to hold them together, then dolloped on to a hot griddle and served on bread with lemon and salt. Strange, but very tasty.
We dropped the hitchhikers off at Wanaka, then drove on along the edge of the lake admiring the wonderful views of the mountains reflected in the water. As we settled into our comfortable lake view room here in Queenstown, we speculated that our accommodation was probably considerably more luxurious than Stephanie’s and Trevor’s!