Franz Joseph Glacier: wind-blown but spectacular

Franz Joseph Glacier

from 27 October

The wind nearly knocked me over as I struggled to walk across the rocks and toward the looming glacier ahead of us. Eventually the rocks piled into high hills, and the path wound steeply this way and that, leaving us to zig-zag our way up one side and down the other.

As I pushed forward against the wind whipping around the mountain and back into the valley, I was all too conscious of the sharp drop at my side. One strong gust of wind, one wrong step… but I tried not to think about it.

After a 45 minute trek, I crossed over the rocky hills and reached the glacier’s bottom. There I strapped a pair of crampons to my hiking boots, which dug sharply into the ice for traction.

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen snow or ice, so I felt a strange contentment tramping through the crevices. Still, the sights were spectacular, and like nothing I had ever seen before.

The guides used ice axes to chip into the side of the formations, creating stairs to scramble up and over, deeper into the glacier. Ropes were screwed into the ice to steady ourselves during particularly steep ascents and descents, but most of the time we were left to climb freely across the ice and newly cut paths. With the sunshine warm at my back, it was easy to see why the water flowed freely in places, and why the ice beneath my feet quickly turned to slush.

Franz Joseph glacier is one of only three in the world that comes down to such a low altitude above the sea, and it is also one of the fastest moving glaciers. Even being on the glacier for just a few hours, it was immediately apparent to me just how alive the ice was, with rocks intermittently falling into the valley and water constantly rushing past.

The glacier is retreating due to warm temperatures, and geologists anticipate with current weather trends, 90 to 100 years from now the glacier may no longer exist. It’s humbling to think such a large mass of ice, spanning over 11 km, may disappear if not in my lifetime, than in the next generation’s.

The guides turned the group around at the half-way point of the normal trek due to extreme winds, and so we began our reluctant trek back to the car park, where we debated how to spend the remainder of our day. I was disappointed, especially upon hearing how amazing the last few hours would have been, where we could have had the opportunity to walk inside the glacier, in hollowed out caves, rather than simply on top of it and between crevices. Still, I tried not to let what I didn’t see mar my appreciation for what I did, and all in all, it was a great day.

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Where has the time gone?

The last time I wrote I was still in New Zealand. It already feels like a lifetime ago!

Let me start with Reganne’s wedding.

The week leading up to her big day was filled with lots of wedding stuff. Decisions about makeup, pantyhose, wedding night lingerie. Playlists, slideshows, video stuff. Plus sleeping and driving arrangements for all of Reganne’s Canadian family and friends. It made for an organized chaos filled with warmth and happiness and only the occasional meltdown.

As far as brides go, Reganne was pretty chill. It was the first time I saw this normally mellow girl freak out even the littlest bit, but for the most part she took everything in stride.

The wedding day itself was perfect. Reganne and Matt looked so happy together, and all their plans and hard work came together beautifully. The sun was shining, people were smiling, and after a quick downpour the couple even got a rainbow for pictures.

The entire day was filled with so much love and well wishes for the newlyweds. Everyone has known Matt and Reganne together as a couple for so long; it just seemed like such a natural next step for them in their lives.

Anyway, enough of the mushy stuff.

Back in Sydney…

I stayed with a colleague for a week and put in some crazy hours getting caught up at the office.

The following week I moved into a hostel in the city (aka downtown) for my last couple of weeks in Sydney.

I also joined a gym called the V Club for a month, and I’ve been working out almost every day in an effort to shed some of the kilos I put on from doing nothing but beer drinking and office sitting for the last few months. I even tried out a Zumba class, the latest fitness fad, despite my decided lack of rhythm and coordination. Turns out it’s a pretty good workout and actually a lot of fun once you get into it. I can see why my cousin Mike keeps going back for more!

Next week is my last at Commonwealth Bank, and though I will be sad to walk away from the good friends and colleagues I’ve made, I’m excited about the next part of this adventure I’m on.

I was going to go straight up to Cairns to chill out there, where the weather is warm and sunny, but it look like I’ll probably end up staying in Sydney for a couple more weeks to take care of a few things and close off any loose ends before I turn into a nomad for the next five months.

Yep, that’s all for now.

Kiwi Experience part 2

25 April

I started feeling a bit under the weather, foreshadowing a full on cold. In the afternoon we headed out for a five hour black water adventure. We started out by abseiling/rappelling down a 37 meter wall at the entrance to the cave, the equivalent of an 11 storey building. It was a huge adrenalin rush, sliding down the rope in blackness, with nothing but the headlamp light to guide me. I took a few seconds to look around every now and again but quickly caught my breath and felt my heart race when I did. The cavernous space I was hanging in, suspended by only a rope and held up by a harness, was truly awe inspiring. The ground still seemed to arrive quickly and for all my initial fear I found myself longing to do it again.

Next came the zipline. The guides attached me to a rope, told me to turn off my headlamp, and sent me hurling into the black distance, with only the glow worms illuminating the ceiling of the cave. I’d never done a zipline before and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved every second of it.

From there we jumped into the near freezing water with a tube and spent some time navigating down the cave channels. At one point the entire group interlocked our tubes into a long chain, and the guides pulled us silently along the water, giving us the opportunity to lay back and stare at the glow worms on the ceiling.

Eventually chucking the tubes, we went the rest of the way on foot, stepping on increasingly uneven and sharp rocks, in places wriggling through the tightest crevices to emerge slightly scratched and bruised on the other side. Then we came to the foot of the waterfalls and saw a massive eel gliding through the water before disappearing into the blackness.

The fastest route out of the cave was climbing up the waterfalls, and so I stuck my feet and hands into any rock hold I could find, pulling upward fully aware that letting go was not an option. Here there were no harnesses, no ropes, no safety mechanisms. It was just me and the rocks. After the first waterfall I continued with the second waterfall, less daunting than the first only slightly so because I knew roughly what to expect. Then I emerged triumphant from the cave, jumped back into the van, and headed back for a hot shower and cup of tomato soup.

Fun fact: the glow worms are actually maggots and the glow is from their excretions. Doesn’t sound quite so appealing now…but the trip was still well worth it.

26 April

Freak weather led to a bit of an adventure today. A massive tree fell across the highway from the high winds, and with the only way to our destination blocked, we all needed to get off the bus and clear the brush.  A few of us helped direct oncoming traffic to prevent an accident, as the tree was just around a corner bend. That was the first of many trees that fell along the road, and the first warning sign of the power outage later in the day.

We arrived in Taupo early in the afternoon, and I promptly went to sleep. My travel buddy Sophie and I were lucky enough to be upgraded to an en suite double room from the dorms, so I was able to be sick and feverish in peace. The power went off at about 5 and came on at 11 that night, which made for an interesting party night. Of course, I was too sick to care.

27 April

I spent the morning enjoying a fairly domestic sense of normalcy you don’t usually get while traveling. I spent an hour in the bathroom doing girly stuff – a clay face mask, painting my toenails, soaking my skin in moisturizer. Then I wandered down the main streets, which reminded me of an extremely busy small town back home, perhaps the size of Okotoks. I found a delightful hole in the wall coffee shop, then ventured into the grocery store to stock up for a few  days.

In the afternoon I walked down to some thermal hot springs with some other girls on the tour. The spring essentially consisted of a small waterfall alongside a large river. I thought the hotsprings would be like home, built up like a swimming pool, but here we actually sat right in the natural stream below the waterfall, no manmade influence apparent except for the walking path.

Unfortunately there was also no place to change, which meant we needed to get a bit creative.

28 April

This morning I woke up with a rash all over my body. It looked like I was a recovering burn victim. The cause: an allergic reaction to the thermal hotsprings. An antihistimine and topical cream got me back to normal in a few hours. Meanwhile we headed toward River Valley Lodge, passing the infamous Mount Doom of Lord of the Rings.

Along the way we stopped and did a two hour hike to the Taranaki Falls. I was struck by how unassuming New Zealand is, without the flash and splash of some countries, but quietly confident in its uniqueness and subtle beauty.  I was also struck by how familiar the scenery seemed, while still being decidedly foreign. The brush, the trees, the creeks could all be found at home, but something didn’t seem quite the same. The incongruence of the familiarity and foreignness was unnerving.

29 April

Whitewater rafting! After a late night with a few too many glasses of red, the morning came early, but once I got onto the river,  it didn’t matter. After some of the crazy winds and rain of the past few days, the morning was calm and sunny and bright, a perfect day. The rafting guides were eager to get going since the rapids were high.

We started out with some grade 3 rapids before advancing to the grade 5 rapids. In some places we needed to get out of the raft and scramble across the rocks because it was too dangerous. Personally I think climbing over the rocks without proper shoes was more dangerous, but then, I haven’t seen the carnage on the river that the guides have.

After a morning of rigorous back and forward paddling, we climbed up a massive hill to get to the bus and headed into Wellington. This was the last day of my Kiwi Experience tour for this trip to NZ, but I’ll probably stop by to see Reganne on my way home in October/November and will have the chance to pick up where I left off to see the south island.