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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

New Zealand - Day 8

Monday, Dec. 27 – Fox Glacier to Greymouth

Today was a busy day. We started off by visiting Lake Matheson, a short drive from our motel. It’s a 20-minute walk on a trail through the woods to get to the lake, but it took us about half an hour due to the halflings that are with us… It was a very pleasant walk as the weather was absolutely perfect: an almost cloudless sky and temperature just right. The lake itself is very secluded and if it were not for the other tourists, it would have been just Mother Nature and us.

After Lake Matheson, it was finally time for the real attractions of this area: the Glaciers. The glaciers are one the most visited natural sites in New Zealand, mainly due to the fact that glaciers are not usually found at this latitude but rather much further south. The two glaciers – Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier – were “discovered” in the mid 18th century and at the time they were rather big, as is evident from the signposts indicated where the glacier was in 1750. They have receded considerably since and today they are probably less magnificent than they were in the eyes of the Maori that knew them for centuries.

We first drove to a viewpoint a few kilometres away from the Fox Glacier. Then, we drove close to the glacier and A. and I walked for a few minutes to get a closer look. Basically, if I hadn’t known it was a glacier, I would have thought it was snow that somehow slipped down from the top of the mountain towards the valley below… Back down from the track we met another Israeli family, with three daughters that looked very gloomy at the prospect of getting out of the car and walking. Then we drove on to Franz Joseph Glacier, about 25 kilomtres away. Here we all took the 20-minute trail up to the Sentinel viewpoint to take a look. This glacier looked remarkably like its twin brother.

After all this activity and walking, A. and I went to an Internet place in Franz Joseph village, me to post some pictures and A. to “work” on his website. The guy running the place took an old bus and converted it into an “office” with about 10 computers in it. Pretty neat.

By now it was around 2:30pm and we were going to start heading north, but then I thought we’d check out the helicopter flights that go up to the glacier itself. There was a 20-minute flight leaving at 3:40pm so I bought ticket for A. and I (T. refused to get on a chopper). We had coffee until it was time to leave and during this break we saw the same group of Israelis from yesterday (the pensioners). T. called them “va’ad po’alei Ashkelon”, or something to that effect.

At 3:40pm A. and I took off on the helicopter, together with another family of three. This was my first-ever helicopter ride and I was pleasantly surprised. They warned us not to walk to the back of the helicopter, lest we get our heads chopped off by the tail rotor. We then had to put headphones on to drown the noise of the rotors and wear airplane-like seat belts. A. and I had the front seat on the way up, right next to the pilot and before we knew it we were airborne. I was surprised at how smooth the takeoff and flight were but I suppose that the weather helped make it a smooth ride.

The pilot took us up the glacier on the face of the mountain and landed on the top of it, right in the middle of a huge snow/ice patch. We had a couple of minutes to take pictures and squint at the whiteness before heading back down to the village. The glacier looked a bit more remarkable up here. A., needless to say, had a whale of a time and called it “the best flight of my life”.

As we had 200 kilometres ahead of us, we set off immediately northwards. Our destination for the night was Greymouth, the largest city on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand (population: about 12,000). On the way we passed a few villages, and made brief stops at Ross – a historic village from the gold-rush era – and Hokitika, a larger town where we had ice cream in a fish & chips shop that looked like it came out of East is East, the British movie. At Greymouth, we checked into our motel (the Alpine Rose) and then went looking for food. We found the “town centre”, where it is all supposed to happen. Alas, although it was almost 8pm, the place was deserted. Not empty, but deserted. We saw perhaps 10 people the whole time we were driving around the city.

Tired from the long day, we retreated back to our motel for the night. Tomorrow is our final stop on this journey: Christchurch, the big city of the south island.

PS – A. again wanted to add his comments:

At the glacier, we had to wear our own sunglasses. Dad showed me how it felt without sunglasses, it was H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E!!! I couldn’t see a thing! “YIKES” I hollered. I just had to put the glasses on again.

At the way to Greymouth, we stopped at a mini-fake-jail. It had a fake three-hole thingy. I took two pictures in that thing. After that, we left back on our way to Greymouth.

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