Whilst exploring the Fiordland we decided to take in a few glaciers, the most memorable for me being via an unforgettable helicopter ride and more spectacular scenery from New Zealand, but this time with the added bonus of an aerial perspective.
The Glacier Journey
We arrived in the glaciers after our beautiful road trips ,but alas the weather was doing its ‘grey sky’ raining thing again. For much of the journey there we got to see very little of the views after we left Lake Wanaka. The Kiwis are telling us this is one of the worst summers they’ve had and I’d have to agree with them if the last week is anything to go by. As you know us Brits are obsessed with the weather, so I’m glad it’s so changeable here!!
From the Fiords, the journey to the Fox Glacier took us through Mount Aspiring National Park, a quick stop for a twenty minute tramp to see the blue pools then onwards in the rain to Haast before making our way through some very interesting mountain roads to the glacier. These are lined with Ferns and huge strange looking trees as you change your outlook from mountains to flatlands then mountainous areas again as you approach.
The rain and clouds don’t bother you so much when you are in the forest walks, if anything they actually heighten the experience as the foliage, moss and rivers come to life in that weather. The same goes for viewing the many roaring rivers that cascade down the mountains at various points on your journey. The rain swells their banks and makes the scene much more spectacular.
We arrived at Fox Glacier with not a glacier or mountain in sight, as the rain and clouds hid everything from our view. We had already spent some extra time awaiting fine weather at the Fiords and there was no way we could afford to do the same here. We had exactly 36 hours to find some nice weather to walk the hour round Lake Matheson to get the view of Fox and Mount Cook (from the other side we last viewed her), do the walk to the Glacier view point and squeeze in a Helicopter flight. The weather vane had to swing…
With a vague promise of some slightly better weather in the late afternoon of the following day. I decided to take my chance and booked my number one bucket list trip of New Zealand. A helicopter ride to view the Glacier and Mount Cook up close, hopefully in the sunshine. We retreated to the warmth and tranquility of Bertha and cooked dinner, locked the doors and listened to the rain splatter on her fibre glass roof.
I awoke the next morning at 6am to the sound of rain splattering even heavier against the Roof. I got up and looked outside and for miles either way all I could see was grey sky and drizzle . I was deflated, my hope of seeing the glaciers from the air, by foot or even close up seemed doomed.
I pottered about for an hour for my morning ablutions and looked at five different hourly weather forecasts for the area trying to find one that offered some hope. Suddenly, there was glimmer of sunlight which over the next hour burgeoned into a beautiful blue sky.
We quickly put Bertha into daytime mode and headed for the lake south of the Glacier for what promised the best view of the mounts on dry land. The skies held and an hours tramp later we had bagged some beautiful shots of the mountains and were headed to what would have been our second walk of the day to view the glacier close up. This was thwarted by a rock slide which had meant the road to the viewpoints were closed. John has his suspicions about the legitimacy of this closure, as if you’re accompanied by a local guide ‘WITH A KEY’ you are miraculously unaffected by said landslide (we even witnessed coaches exiting from this closed off area – what ever happened to the ‘right to roam’). We found an alternative route (it wasn’t difficult due to those oh so friendly NZ’ers) to a less than close view and added some distant shots of the glacier base to our portfolio.
It was now after eleven and three hours away from my pre-booked (but shrewdly unpaid for) appointment with the helicopter. I said to John that I was not sure our luck would last another three hours. We decided to high tail it to the helicopter tour office, I wandered in to see if I could get on an earlier flight.
By chance a couple had just booked a flight but they would not fly unless there are a minimum of three people in the helicopter (usually six people make the same flight). I said yes and exactly five minutes later we were off to the helipad. Just a very excitable Craig and an Italian couple who were being romantic and canoodling in the van on the way to the helipad.
We arrived and I saw the chopper sat on a mound of gravel, its rotors idling and after a cursory safety briefing (keep out of the way of the rotors!) we were guided to the Helicopter. I hung back a little and the pilot guided the lovebirds into the back seat and beckoned me forward to the front seat next to him, I nearly wee’d myself with excitement. I had a near 360 degree view for the flight.
I donned my headset and he told us briefly the route we would take and next minute we were in the air as I watched John and Bertha disappear in a split second to tiny dots on the ground. He then banked left and we headed for the Glacier and Mount Cook.
I was utterly bewildered at the grace of flying in the helicopter. Minutes later the glacier came into view and I nearly dropped my camera; it was an amazing sight as it nudged closer and closer to you. Then after following the glaciers path we began our ascent up towards the peak of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, flying through the few clouds that had gathered around their peaks. He hovered for around five minutes at their peaks before we flew over the top of Mount Cook for a peek at Lake Pukaki where we had camped two weeks ago.
I saw where we would be landing on the glacier. The pilot manouvered the helicopter in a dramatic swoop and arc before setting her down gently on the snow.
The pilot said he’d expected most flights to be cancelled due to the weather, and that I was extremely lucky as local forecasts expected the 100% cloud cover to return within an hour. I was then, completely on my own with just the sound of the helicopter blades idling behind me as I pinched myself and reminded myself that I was awake and stood on top of a glacier with a helicopter awaiting me to whisk me down to earth, both literally and metaphorically.
The journey down was brief apart from some hair raising moments when he took the helicopter into the side of the mountains in search of mountain goats and a glimpse of a glacial waterfall.. Then I was back down to Bertha and John with one of the biggest smiles on my face I have ever managed to produce. This trip is worth every single penny of the NZD $285 (£142) it cost and I would pay it again, and some, tomorrow to have that experience.
It was about an hour after that I was properly able to converse with John, over lunch, I was on such a high. We departed the Glaciers and looked back and as the pilot had predicted the sky turned a dark shade of grey and the glaciers and mountains disappeared from view.
We decided from there to make our way across Arthurs Pass and stayed the night at a beautiful free DOC camp about three quarters of the way towards Christchurch at Lake Pearson. A beautiful peaceful camp on a lake surrounded by mountains.
The next day delivered some more of the same weather and looking at forecasts, when we hit the internet signal on the outskirts of Christchurch, it was going to do the same for the next three days in the South Island. We decided that we had used up every iota of weather luck in the last week so we decided to have a mammoth driving day and hot tailed it to Picton to catch the early ferry the next morning and towards some finer weather. Although it was with a very heavy heart that we would be departing the South Islands after spending an amazing 3 weeks traveling around, and it is something we both hope to do again.