Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

Distance travelled 17 kilometres

Distance walked 14.5 kilometres

When we woke up in the morning there was quite a bit of cloud in the sky. This made us a little bit uneasy considering that the main activity for the day was to fly in a helicopter. Luckily, by 09:00, which was the time when we had decided to leave for the pickup point, the skies had cleared and the first helicopters appeared, as dots in the sky, outside of our window.

We went into the town on the Softail, even though it was only a kilometre away, just in case we needed to go somewhere else after checking-in. But the office of Glacier Country Helicopters (Main South Road, State Highway 6, Fox Glacier) in the town was also the pickup point for the minibus. The motorised ride into town meant we had arrived about 25 minutes before our check-in time, so we went to the café next door for an espresso and a chocolate milkshake !

At half past nine we checked-in, were weighed again (I was a rather alarming 111 kilograms, but I did have my HOG vest on) and we were given a colour coded (our group was a sort of pink) armband with our weight and a number. Lucie asked if the number was to help in the event that body identification was required, but the cheery girl behind the counter pretended not to hear her. We were then gathered together for a safety briefing which could be summed up in a single instruction “Do not climb onto the tail of the helicopter or stick your arms up in the air“. The rest of the blab about how the rotor blast might blow your hat off, etc. was more for form than for function.

A minibus arrived and the six of us pinks and another group of six with red armbands piled in and we drove to the helipad. This was, by coincidence, practically right behind our motel. I got the front seat of the minibus. Whether this was determined by virtue of seniority or weight, I have no idea.

We were given further instructions and an order for boarding. I was to be last, which gave me a window seat. We were belted in and given headphones so we could hear the commentary from the pilot. It seemed that the helicopter we were in had once belonged to Bill Gates ! I met the great man once, many years ago and, for all of his brains, HE would not have been at much risk from the blades whirling just above our heads !!

We took off and climbed gently into the sky. Because we had headphones on, Lucie and I could not hear each other and had to communicate with gestures and pointing. Lucie said later that she could hardly understand anything that the pilot said – but to me, who could understand, the commentary was very informative.

 I had been in helicopters before, many years ago at the Bol d’Or endurance race in the south of France. On both of those occasions, the pilots, with young bikers on board, had shown off alarmingly. I was never that worried because to hurt me, the pilot would have needed to hurt himself, but some of the aerobatics those guys pulled were quite disturbing. Our pilot, on this occasion, flew so smoothly that, most of the time it was hard to believe that we were flying at all. Only the noise of the rotors really differentiated it from a hot-air balloon ride. Strangely, there was very little sensation of speed and the only indicator of how high up we were was the microscopic size of the cars far below.

We first flew to the Franz Josef glacier which, in terrestrial terms, was about twenty kilometres back up the road. Of the two glaciers, the Franz-Josef is the narrowest and steepest. The views were simply amazing. What fascinated us the most was the really close view of the top of the glacier and the giant cracks that it had in it.

Then we flew up and over the rocks to the Victoria snowfield which acts as a sort of “feeder” to the biggest glacier, the Fox. We landed on the snowfield for a few minutes, it was truly exhilarating. Of course, we took pictures of ourselves, the helicopter, the pilot, the glacier and everything that moved – quite a few times just, to be sure.

In the absence of any sand, I scratched Lucie’s name in the snow ….

The flight back was along the Fox and then down into the valley it has cleaved through the rock over many centuries.

Somewhat alarmingly, whatever your views on global warming, here is something worrying. We flew past a point where, in the 1930s, a steep climb up the mountain would have put you at a place where you could step out onto the top of the ice. This was at a height of around 30 metres. The ice does not even reach as far down the valley as the former “step-off” point now. Try the same route today and you would be rewarded with a plunge to your doom from 30 metres up !

We landed and set off to ride back to the motel. At the top of our road was a sign indicating there was a “viewpoint” for both the glaciers about ten kilometres further down. We were on the Harley, so we thought “Why not ?“ Sadly, after about eight kilometres we ran into our old favourite, the un-sealed road, also known as a sea of loose gravel. We agreed that it was not worth proceeding for a distant view of something we had already walked upon, so we turned around.

Oddly, on the ride back, we DID get a fine, full-on, view of the Fox glacier in all its icy glory.

After returning home we took a little rest before going for a hike, that Lucie had planned, around Lake Matheson. This was also further down our road and we had passed the turnoff on our aborted ride to the viewpoint. The plan was to have a light lunch at the Matheson Café on the lakeside and then hike around the lake. Like seemingly every café in New Zealand, this one closed very early, at half past three. It was further to the lake than we had thought and, by the time we had walked there, arriving around two, they only had one portion of the food we both chose (bagel with salmon, eggs Benedict and Hollandaise sauce) left, so I, ever the gentleman, had a Panini with pork and leek. They had even run out of the Hollandaise sauce, when it came to it, so Lucie had her meal with mayonnaise. This was the classic case everywhere. Regardless of the volume of the passing trade, the cafés seem to shut at exactly the time most people would want to go into them and, because of the truncated opening hours, they start running out of popular stuff long before that closing time. It was the same with bars and restaurants, even in busy locations, most of them shut surprisingly early.

The hike around the lake was significantly more pleasant than the walk along the road that had led to it. We climbed to several viewpoints, chatted with a few tourists and walked a circuit of 4.4 kilometres.

When we arrived back at the café, a few short minutes after 15:30, it was already firmly closed. Quite literally dozens of hikers and sight-seeing tourists had to walk by without being able to go in. A cup of coffee there cost about 6NZ$, so that alone represents hundreds of dollars of lost revenue. I still cannot understand it……..

When we arrived back at the motel which, without refreshment en-route, seemed rather a long way away, it was already early evening. To make sure we could still find a place open for dinner, we had to go out again more or less at once. We decided on the Cook Saddle Saloon (7859, State Highway 6, Fox Glacier) which was next door to the office of Glacier Helicopters and which we had noticed in the morning.

Like everywhere, some things were off of the menu. We both chose the pan-fried salmon on a bed of risotto which was nicely cooked and went down well.

For dessert we chose to share the orange and almond cake and that was a big mistake ! Not choosing the cake, but choosing to share it, because it was so delicious. We also took our Tuesday Night Drinks photo to send to our poor friends in snowy Prague. The main staff of the saloon were yet another pair of travelling Czechs, working to fund the next stage of a world tour.

We walked back home in the beautiful early evening, there does not seem to be many places in New Zealand where you would need to walk home from in the dark ! We planned out our itinerary for the next few days and then it was time to go to bed as the hike had tired us both out. Outside our patio window, the last rays of the setting sun glinted off of the peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman which were both clearly visible in the distance.

How many bedrooms, in the whole world, have a view like that…