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No Worries, Franz Josef Glacier

Glaciers

The four-and-a-half hour Tranzalpine train ride takes us from sea level up to about 2400 feet and then back down to sea level on the western side of the South Island. A relaxed ride through the sharp peaks of the Southern Alps is the main attraction of this ticket, but for a long time we’re treated to a relaxed ride across the flat brown expanse of the Canterbury Plains. Eventually the train begins to point upward and we snake through the foothills, gaining altitude. Clusters of sheep trot away from the tracks toward the scrubby green slopes that funnel the train toward Arthur’s Pass.

Word from the early sightseers is that the open-air observation deck is packed like a cattle car, so I bide my time monkeying with the Australian minidisc player and thumbing through a travel guidebook. Once we clear Arthur’s Pass I mosey back to the observation car – not too crowded now, a line of travellers on the north side filming the shallow blue water coursing over the flat gray stones of the wide stream beds. Sheep dot the steep gray hills, some reaching dizzying heights in the search for food. The sharp peaks go on and on – we spend hours negotiating the forbidding terrain our 767 crossed in minutes on the way to Christchurch.

Greymouth is the last stop on the westbound track; dating back to the 1860’s gold rush and home to fewer than ten thousand residents, it’s still the largest town on the west coast. It’s also warmer than Arthur’s Pass, and we hurry into the train station bathrooms to change into lighter clothes. We push our mountain of luggage to the rental car counter where Melanie is checking on our station wagon.

They have us down for a sedan. No way – we barely fit all this stuff in the wagon in Australia. I tiptoe backwards as Melanie digs in.
Okay. There’s a wagon due back in a half hour. We cram half of our luggage against the wall behind the rental counter, leaving a two-foot gap for the clerks to do their work. Eric piles the rest of the bags onto a cart and heads into town, looking for a post office. He and Cindy are going to mail as much gear home as they can. They’ve had it with all this stuff.

The guidebooks don’t have much good to say about Greymouth. It’s not an aggressively bad place, but there’s not much to recommend the tired storefront facade of the flat little town. Melanie and I grab a sandwich and I buy an America’s Cup baseball cap to replace the hat I apparently abandoned back in Christchurch.
We’ve got the wagon now, the same kind of Ford Falcon we had in Australia, but we’ve lost Eric. The mental picture of him wandering the town with all his possessions in a cart is almost too much to bear… however we have no option but to wait. Luckily, it’s a small town, and he eventually emerges onto the main street a few blocks away. We wrestle the bags into the car and I spirit the cart back to the train station before Eric can cause any more trouble.

Back to driving on the left, with a new twist – New Zealand is in love with the one-lane bridge. Cue the last verse of Red Barchetta (I won’t elaborate – you either hear this or you don’t, and there’s nothing I can do about it). Every rocky spillway is crossed by a one-laner, and signs on either end tell which side wins in case two cars approach at the same time. Traffic is pretty sparse, so there’s not much jockeying to worry about. I pop on the Perkins, Walker and Owen cd I picked up in Melbourne, and we all regret it – this is some dreary, depressing stuff. It sounded fine back at Portofino…

It’s about 120 miles south to the glaciers, and we pass a number of small towns with Hawaiian-sounding names: Hokitika, Kokatahi, Waitaha. It sure looks tropical – ferns and palms crowd the roadway, and misty clouds cling to the tops of the steep green hills to our left. The damp winds coming off the Tasman Sea wring themselves out over this side of the Southern Alps, making possible the glacial activity we’re about to visit.

This part of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth – during the summer, the rain nourishes the lush flora around us, and in the winter it snows so much there’s no way to melt it all off, leading to something on the order of 3000 glaciers in the mountains of the South Island. Two of the most spectacular are the Fox and Franz Josef, which also hold the distinction of being the only glaciers in the world that descend into rainforest. From the road the only sign of these rivers of ice is the baby-blue silty water coursing over the gray floodplains to the nearby coast – a quick left, a one-lane bridge and we’re in the Franz Josef parking lot. We choose the quick overlook path for now, and climb in the cool humid air to the observation platform. A mile or so away we see the terminus of the Franz Josef, a rocky flood of ice under the overcast sky. Thin ribbon waterfalls spout from the sheer cliffs of the valley, some vanishing into mist before they reach the ground. Melanie gets something in her eye. We head for the hotel.

The Franz Josef and Fox lie about fifteen miles apart and each has a little town (a cluster of motels, restaurants, tour agencies and helipads) to accommodate the sightseer trade. Our guidebooks suggest that Franz Josef has the slightly larger town, so we’ve booked two nights at the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel. At $75 a night it’s pricier than pretty much anything else in town, but it does have its own restaurant and pub… and not being able to tell much about Franz Josef nightlife from the small cluster of dots in the guidebook, that makes this lodge a safe bet.

It’s popular with tour groups. As we collect our key at reception a bus full of seniors pulls up, and we race to our rooms to be the first at the communal washing machine. As Melanie rests her swollen eye Eric calls around for dinner reservations and I head across the street for snacks. The hotel restaurant is booked well into the night, but Eric manages to find us a spot at a restaurant around the corner.

Beeches has the quintessential Southern Hemisphere mix of sophisticated menu and indifferent table service. We manage to snag a table on the wide sidewalk beneath a propane heat lamp, and enjoy a few moments’ view of the snow-capped peaks before total darkness sets in. The food is excellent, complemented by a fine New Zealand red (Montana cabernet) – we go through appetizer, main course and dessert, and are presented with a $120 check, acceptable for a meal this good back in the States but this is in New Zealand dollars. We just got a great meal for about $15 US a person.