Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Fox Glacier - a heck of a ride
Back home in Wellington our wee friend Sara had just finished telling us about all the bugs she is afraid of. She is timid, by her own admission. But when talk turned to Fox Glacier and a helicopter flight she had taken there she became a different person. She said it was the most wonderful thing she’d done in ages, perhaps ever.
Even Mum, who with good reason is a bad flier – she’s had some terrible experiences and family friends were killed in a plane crash – seemed to perk up. Thus were sown the most unlikeliest of seeds. If I’d had to bet on the chances of Mum flying in a helicopter up a mountain for no apparent reason, I’d have taken long odds.
But when in Queenstown she began talking about her desire – small, unformed, to be sure – to go bungee jumping, I thought we might be in with a chance. Still, while making enquiries into the operations in Fox Glacier, her natural skepticism seemed to have returned.
“Can you tell me which of the pilots drink in your bar?” she asked the barman at our hotel.
“That’d be all of the above,” the barman replied. I’m not sure how serious he was being. The Kiwi humor is understated and can sometimes be lost.
“Well, which is the worst offender,” Mum persisted.
“Oh, he’s over in France,” came the reply. Ah, his drinking had got him expelled. That seemed to reassure her; there were standards.
That night we made reservations for a helicopter trip, but I think she was secretly praying for the weather to worsen so that the 9:30 a.m. flight would be cancelled. Sure enough, we awoke to an overcast day and the news that the operator would assess the weather and tell us later if it was a go. She seemed to think that was that. She took a phone call while Dad and I talked with the operator. Suddenly he told us that there was a break in the weather and we were off. Mum was still on the phone and, she said, didn’t have time to get worried. Within minutes we were at the helipad.
“It’s not very big,” she said to the operator and pointing at the helicopter whose rotors were already cranking up.
“I gave you the big chopper, Miss,” said the operator. “The little one’s still in the shed here.”
It was indeed a very little shed.
After a Monty Python-like safety briefing, which involved pointing at a board and instructions that were lost to the noise of the chopper – I did hear him helpfully tell us not to raise our arms as we entered the helicopter – we were being buckled in.
A quick glance at Mum revealed a slither of apprehension, but soon she was giving the thumbs up. Seconds later the bird was in the air, swooping forward, and heading up the mountain. I must confess it turned the stomach a little, but as we headed up under the clouds to the glacier – which comes down to about 900 feet above sea level – the scenery simply hijacked my attention.
It was glorious (there I go again with the superlatives, see the last two posts) and soon we were up in a blue-sky world with a long blanket of pure white ice beneath us and peaks, including Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman, towering raggedly above us. We made it up to almost 9,000 feet and it was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen, a different world – a different planet.
“All right, we’ll head over to Franz,” said the pilot, meaning Franz Josef Glacier, but saying it so that it sounded like France. Oh shit, the drinking pilot hadn’t been exiled at all. He was merely flying Franz Josef Glacier, as we were now. I gave the pilot a meaningful once-over, suddenly concerned. But he showed no signs of a trembling hand or a hung-over disposition. A wee tremble this close to the rocks could be fatal. In fact, he was the most confident, if taciturn, young man and inspired confidence.
After we flew over to Franz, we returned for a touch down on Fox Glacier. The non-drunk pilot swung the chopper around and it twisted my stomach in a wonderful, if breath-stopping way. And then we were on the ice and looking round at the primal splendor of the glacier. What a bloody place. There was time for photographs and high-fives for the wonderful craziness of what we had just done (or, rather, survived). Then we were back in the helicopter. This time I was sitting in the front. The pilot had left the rotors turning and, had I slipped, I could have knocked the joy-sticky thing and the whole chopper might have gone over the edge. Not that I’m in the habit of slipping while seated.
The pilot was taking his time and was fiddling around in the tail section of the helicopter. What the hell was he doing back there? Wondering what the red wire did that had suddenly come loose? Just as my worry was getting serious, he reappeared beside me, with something that looked like a User’s Manual in his hand. I may have sworn under my breath.
Turns out he has some sort of dark room back there and had been developing a picture of all us to stick in a brochure. It was for sale, naturally. Still, better than a jerry-rig at 9,000 feet.
By the time we were heading back we were all seriously into the ride; it was beautiful and wonderful and thrilling and came to an end all too quickly. When not-drunk pilot touched down, Dad spontaneously gave him a round of applause. He deserved it.
As we were leaving, Mum asked the pilot where he’d learn to fly like that.
“Oh, I taught myself,” he said, and left.
Again with the Kiwi humor. That was a joke, right? We’ll never know, but I will be checking the bars tonight.
And now for a few facts: There are more than 360 glaciers in the Southern Alps of the South Island. The largest, Tasman Glacier, is 29 kilometers long. The Fox is 13k, Franz Josef 11k. The Neves receive up to 45 meters of snow each year. The ice can flow up to 21 feet a day. Mt. Cook is New Zealand’s highest peak at 12, 316 feet.