where are all the woolly mammoths?

You know the moment you walk up to a hostel and see a Kiwi Experience bus parked outside, you’re a tourist again. You’re as far from “off the beaten path” as you can get – you are, in fact, on the very definition of the aforementioned path. So what is Kiwi Experience? Think one massive lime green tour bus shuttling thirty or forty backpackers with a bit of a tendency to party around the country from Highlight A to Highlight B and so on. It’s safe to say it’s best to stay away. Thankfully neither two girls sharing my dorm in Franz Josef were partaking in such an Experience. Instead, they were quite the opposite – curled up in bed when I walked in the room, reading obscure novels, sporting long flowing skirts and chunky knit sweaters in uncoordinating colors. My initial impression of “quiet hippie types that keep to themselves” was confirmed when I learned they’re WWOOFers – traveling around New Zealand, doing farm work in exchange for food and accommodation.

But alas, Kiwi Experience Highlight or not, the Franz Josef Glacier must be done, no matter what your status in New Zealand. Even if you’ve lived here for one, five, or fifteen years, it’s a quintessential sight to be seen. Back in August, I heard about the Naked Bus transport company that guarantees at least one seat on every trip for one dollar. Thus similar to my addiction to stalking the Ryan Air website in London for one-pound flights, I sat down one night asking eagerly, “Where can I go and when??” The answer was Franz Josef in mid-October.

Unfortunately, the amazing bus fare – just $3 for a return journey! – came with a not-so-amazing departure time – seven-thirty in the morning, clearly a forbidden hour with my newly-acquired nocturnal lifestyle. Having finished work at 4am the night before (or should I say the morning of?) and not getting home until 5, I knew there was absolutely no chance of me waking up if I decided to attempt an hour of sleep after I packed. So a proper all-nighter it was, filling the early morning hours with a few overdue emails, scheduling, and figuring out what exactly it is you bring when you’re off to hike a glacier.

The bus ride up was exceptionally unremarkable – I’ve had better and worse transport experiences. Being first to arrive on the scene and check in, I’d managed to stake my claim on the entire back seat, but even being able to spread out and lie down didn’t facilitate that good of a sleep. Our driver, lovely man that he was, seemed to be a little too keen on taking breaks, this due to being a smoker I’m sure. Four or five times along the way he stopped for fifteen minutes at a time, making phone calls, having a fag. I mean, as much as I loved the bus, it wasn’t like I was trying to spend any more than the already seven and a half hours on the trip. We even paused for a forty-five minute lunch break at the Salmon River Café – obviously a pre-arrangement between both parties as “No food or drink are to be consumed on the premises” except for the $20 options found on the menu, all of which included salmon. Go figure.

But somehow we made it, ten rest stops and fag breaks later, and after checking into the Rainforest Hostel – supposedly situated on a seven-acre rainforest, but you can’t believe everything you’re told – it was on to seeing just what Franz Josef as a town had to offer besides a glacier. Well, as it turned out, not much. Besides a scattering of hostels and campervan parks, Main Street – otherwise known as State Highway 6 – held only a handful of restaurants and cafés, a bookshop, one supermarket about a tenth of the size of Premier Taste, a glacier center featuring a gift shop and movie theater, two churches, and a couple of glacier guide companies and helicopter tour booking offices. Even after I walked to the edge of town to explore the Department of Conservation office for the glacier, it took no more than half an hour to cover what exactly there was to cover.

The highlight of that first day has to be St. James Anglican Church, which I visited in hopes of seeing a well-known stained glass window that was even featured on a postage stamp in 1946 for its view of the glacier. Although I didn’t find the door to the church unlocked, what I did find was a white tea cup and saucer sitting on top of a few stairs outside with bright green ivy growing from a crack in the cement. I’m not sure why this particular image struck me – perhaps the suggestion of life in a seemingly empty place – but I found the simplicity of the scene resounding with me long into the day.

An early night in the hostel it would be, despite the Monsoon Bar onsite – “It rains…We pour” – touting itself as the “hottest bar on the West Coast.” And it was early to rise as well, up the next morning in time for an 8.15am tour departure. As I brushed my teeth in the communal bathroom, I overheard Kiwi Experiencers moan about hangovers and gossip about who didn’t come back to their rooms last night. I, for one, was amazed they were able to have such a big night in such a small town. It must certainly take a lot more effort than in a place like Queenstown.

At the office of Franz Josef Glacier Guides, we were given blue, yellow, and red plastic cards to exchange for boots and crampons, overtrousers, and a hat and gloves, as well as a safety waiver to sign – besides cautioning “persons with poor balance” against participating in the hike, it also advised that “Franz Josef is considered a ‘warm’ glacier so it is very likely that you will be getting your feet wet on a guided glacier trip.” Just like with my bungee jump, you have to laugh sometimes at what these companies choose to include in their safety statements and wonder at the complaints (and lawsuits?) they’ve received that led to these waivers.

After a short bus ride to the start of the national park, our day began with an hour-long hike to the face of the glacier. A guide named Amy led us along this portion of the hike, taking us across the rocky riverbed of the valley and explaining some of the history and science behind the glacier. “The region’s a geologist’s paradise,” she says, “They can get a little excited.” She pointed out how far the glacier used to extend, distinguished because of the tree line – the difference between the upper part of the cliffs, covered in heavy foliage, and the lower part, where trees were small and scarce and marked with glacial striations. Towards the end of the Seventies, many were worried the glacier was going to disappear once and for all, so far back had it retreated, but from the 1980s until 1999 a sort of mini-Ice Age caused a huge surge forward, guaranteeing the glacier would be around at least a little while longer. Such are the cycles of its movements and growth that the ice at the bottom of the glacier is never more than fifty or sixty years old at any given moment. I don’t know why I imagined Franz Josef to be some remnant of an Ice Age long ago, but as one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, Amy explains, “You won’t find any woolly mammoths here.”

The glacier itself is twelve kilometers long, filling a valley between steep cliffs that for all intents and purposes reminded me much of Milford Sound – the same sheer rock faces, the same low-hanging cloud cover, the same waterfalls threading their way down through deep green trees – all but for a massive block of ice sitting in the middle.  We are told to picture the glacier as a frying pan, with the flat, round section at the top being the Névé, a 50 square kilometer section that accumulates 30-40 meters of snow a year. It can take six years for this snow to compound and form into ice, ice that is pushed forward by the weight of new snowfalls. The “handle” of the frying pan is five kilometers long, running down from the ice fall – often shifting five meters a day – to the terminal face of the glacier – which can move up to one meter a day.

When we reached the face, Amy handed us over to Bryce – “rhymes with ice,” he says with obvious pun intended – who would be leading us on the rest of the full-day hike. He sat us down out of the way of any rockfall and showed us how to strap on our crampons, funky little contraptions that made it feel like wearing steel soccer cleats – not that I ever have or anything, but still. “Anyone ever wear these before?” Bryce asks as he checks that each of our crampons have been secured properly. A Scottish guy named Peter raises his hand. “They have many glaciers in Scotland, Pete?” Bryce asks, obviously amused, and I immediately appreciate his sense of humor, as well as his philosophy of tour-guiding. He had each of us go around and share our name, nationality, and whether we were traveling with anyone else – thankfully I wasn’t the only loner.

Besides Scottish Peter and an American couple from Maine – she sporting L.L. Bean and him an oversized woolen green Swanndri poncho – “Only in New Zealand,” I had to think, “Can you get away with wearing something like that” – I got to know Jonny, a guy my age whose backpack had a patch in the shape of a red coat of arms with “Jersey” and three gold lions emblazoned on it. While my only knowledge of Jersey is in the context of New Jersey back home, I soon learned of the Isle of Jersey, part of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy. While closer to France, they are a part of the United Kingdom, technically referred to as a British Crown Dependency. A mere 45 square miles in size, Jersey is considered an off-shore tax haven and the financial services sector is its chief source of income, something Jonny worked in for six years before needing more than island life and heading out to travel. Just like that cup and saucer outside St. James, it’s funny the things that stick to the corners of your mind, how this discovery of a new place – not quite a country in its own right, but almost – made my day on the ice that much better.

With our crampons secured, the group divided itself into two based on physical ability. With only thirteen to begin with, Bryce took my team of seven and said we should be able to cover a lot of ground with our size – “Most days, we can have six groups of at least ten each.” And so we were off on the first segment of our hike, an utter labyrinth of stairs weaving and winding their way up the face of the glacier. What could have been potentially disastrous to my out-of-shape heart – stair after stair after stair – was avoided thanks to having to stop every few meters or so for Bryce to take a pick-axe to the path, evening out the ice and shaping the stairs. Many of the steeper sets of stairs as well as tracks with substantial overhangs had strong cords set up as handrails along them – “No one’s too cool for the handrails,” Bryce says as he tightens and readjusts the screws keeping the cords in place.

After a solid hour or two of Stairmastering our way up the glacier, we reached a wooden box filled with ice picks a little less intimidating in size than Bryce’s – a box that marked the peak of the half-day climb. It was a good reference point, as it showed me just how much you would miss without choosing the full-day experience. You would miss squeezing your way through crevasses so tall and so narrow you have to shuffle along one foot in front of another, and turn your torso sideways, one arm extended behind you, just to make it through. You would miss the naturally formed caves, where water has smoothed out the sides so slickly that walking through them is not unlike scampering through the brightly-colored plastic tubes of McDonald’s Playworlds in your socks. You would miss the view from the vista, where you can hardly believe how far you’ve come in just a few short hours, where the waterfalls along the rocky valley seem minute, and where the glacier itself appears before you as a frozen sea, waves of ice slowly surging forward, the concave shape of each a strikingly electric blue, stunningly translucent, a shade seen only before in a Crayola box.

At the top, Bryce arranged us together for a group photo, me holding his ice pick high into the air, before starting the descent. Anxious to make the bus ride back, we waste no time – “On our way up, we can do what we want, muck around wherever, but it’s straight down the way back.” As I prepared myself for yet another uneventful night in Franz Josef, Jonny and I realized we were not only staying at the same hostel but would be catching the same bus back the next day. Oh, how misery loves company. But what seems like nothing more than another nondescript small town to me isn’t to others. Bryce shared that while in big cities, you might find 5% of people are interested in outdoor activities, in towns like Franz Josef that number is more like 85% and while my ideal weekend might include movies or museums, a performance or night out, these outdoor enthusiasts fill their days off with rock and ice climbing, tramps, or skiing and snowboarding down south.

That’s what I’m coming to learn about New Zealand, though – there are some places that exist simply because of one main natural attraction, one that makes up for the rest of your visit being perhaps less-than-stellar in comparison. And even that last statement is only in my opinion. Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, after all, and to the right person, a little town with a permanent population of just over 400 might have more to offer than what initially meets the eye.

As for me, I’m just happy my first glacial expedition was so successful, and that even if I had fallen in a crevasse and been frozen alive, I wouldn’t have had to hang out with woolly mammoths until the next Ice Age.

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1 Comment

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One response to “where are all the woolly mammoths?

  1. janell Rardon

    Thank God you were not frozen alive! I absolutely love your picture of this glacier hike. What an incredible experience. I will see you in three days! xoxoxo

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