QUEENSTOWN | NEW ZEALAND
ROTORUA | NEW ZEALAND
WHEN THE MAORI FIRST ARRIVED IN NEW ZEALAND THEY CALLED IT AOTEAROA – THE LAND OF THE LONG WHITE CLOUD. LATELY IT’S BEEN KNOWN AS THE HOME OF JRR TOLKIEN’S MIDDLE EARTH, THE LANDSCAPES MADE FAMOUS BY THE LORD OF THE RINGS. FROM SYDNEY I FLEW TO QUEENSTOWN, KNOWN AS THE ADVENTURE CAPITAL OF THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE AND HOME OF THE BUNGEE JUMP. NEW ZEALAND IS A LOT OF THINGS TO A LOT OF PEOPLE AND I WAS INTERESTED IN SEEING JUST HOW BEAUTIFUL THIS COUNTRY REALLY WAS.
Queenstown is located right smack in the middle of New Zealand’s Southern Alps on the south island. It’s scenic placing makes it ideal in the winter for a multitude of sports like skiing and snowboarding. Just down the road a bunch of crazy kiwis decided to jump off a bridge with string attached to their ankles. As much as I’d love to try skiing or snowboarding someday my main reason for staying here was to visit Milford Sound and try my hand at glacier hiking.
I jumped on the bus departing Queenstown for Milford, the route takes you straight through the Fjordlands National Park. It’s a jaw dropping spectacle of alpine meadows ringed by jagged snow capped peaks. We passed through small streams and mirrored lakes, surrounded at all times by glistening glaciated mountains. It takes about four to five hours to reach the coast. It looks quite close on the map, the road however winds a twisted path through the Fjordlands with jaw dropping vistas at every turn, the name evocative of an ancient land populated solely by beards and axes.
Once at the Milford visitor centre we boarded the boat which would take us out through the sound. Milford Sound is technically a fjord, a huge channel in the earth carved by a glacier thousands of years ago. It’s precipitous sides create a natural spectacle Rudyard Kipling described as the eight wonder of the world. Thankfully it was a cloudless, sunny day. Milford Sound has a reputation as being one of the rainiest places on Earth, but today the view of the cliffs and the snow dusted summit of Mitre Peak were crystal clear. Apparently Captain James Cook passed by the entrance to the sound without ever seeing it. From almost wrecking his ship at Cape Tribulation to sailing past Milford Sound I’m convinced the guy was a drunk. It’s a spectacular place, even if the channel is a little shorter than I expected. At the mouth of the ocean we turned back around, spotting seals on the rocks below.
The ship was surprisingly agile for a vessel of it’s size. The captain pulled us right up to a cliff face allowing a waterfall to cascade onto the deck. After a refreshing shower we pulled back out and returned to the docks. In the visitor centre they were displaying a huge slab of “greenstone” in the lobby. Greenstone, or pounamu, is the maori name for jade. The maori rarely came down to the south island, finding it too cold, but they planned expeditions here specifically looking for greenstone, a substance they believed had magical properties.
Back on the roadto Queenstown the driver had finally shut up. On the way in he spent about an hour talking about birds which were related to turkeys. They’d been hunted to extinction here but some people still claim to see them. It’s not exactly Bigfoot is it? Maybe they were all killed to stop people ranting about them. This was a trend I noticed about kiwi bus drivers. They loved to talk. I get that New Zealand is a beautiful place and a landscape to be proud off, but it’s self evident when you look out the window. I just want to get from A to B. I don’t need to know the elevation of A or the fact that B burnt down in 1913 when a barn dance went horribly wrong.
Back in Queenstown I awoke the next morning after apparently sleeping through an earthquake. “Dude, did you feel the earthquake last night”, “Mad earthquake last night bro!” was bandied about a lot in the hostel kitchen that morning. As you’d expect Queenstown is a very Dude / Bro kinda town. It’s also very pretty and very walkable. From walking down the hill from my hostel I’d reach the town centre in about 5 minutes, a quick turn to the left would bring me past a range of small bars and restaurants to the lake shore, while dead ahead there stood a hulking mountain with ski lifts plying up and down. Every street corner had shops selling winter sports gear and I bought the cheapest pairs of gloves I could get my hands on. I wanted some hand protection for the glacier hike and I also wanted something to eat. New Zealand, like Australia, isn’t cheap. I found myself living off Subway’s. But their roast chicken with jalapenos and chipotle sauce was consolation enough.
It was another long bus drive that took me from Queenstown north towards the tiny village of Fox Glacier. Along the way I was treated to more stunning scenery as we passed by Lake Wanaka and then along the coast. I was also “treated” to another chatty bus driver who spent most of his time complaining about how it hadn’t rained in weeks. He definitely wasn’t Irish. I was surprised to learn that it was low season for glacier climbing here. In fact on the day I checked out of my hostel I was the only remaining guest and the owner (who had also left) instructed me to lock up and slide the key under the door.
The morning of the glacier hike our group had gathered at the glacier-climb building on the main street. When I say “main street” I mean “only” street so it’s not hard to find. We bundled into the van and after a few minutes we arrived at the heli-pad to receive our equipment and instructions. We were outfitted with crampons and – if you wanted – thermal overalls. I’d never been in a helicopter before so the ride up the mountain was just as thrilling as the glacier itself. Man those things can lift off fast! The christmas list was quickly amended.
In no time at all we were flying through a sharp glacial valley before the glacier itself came into view – sliding down the mountainside like a white snake slithering on a belly of ice. Just above the head of the glacier the sentinel-like peaks of the Southern Alps, among them Mount Cook, at over 12,200 feet, the highest in New Zealand. We disembarked from the rollercoaster like helicopter ride and began unpacking our gear under the biting wind of the rotor wash. After a few more minutes briefing on how to fit and walk using the crampons we set out over the ice.
We were hiking on a flat section of the glacier. As I looked further up the mountain I saw a vertical section,the force of gravity causing the ice just underneath to buckle into huge waves and crags of frozen water. Our guide explained the enormous forces at work here. Because some sections are more vertical than others the ice is flowing at a different pace, therefore you get something similar to a pile up on a motorway. Ice smashes into ice causing huge canyons, crags and caves to form in the subsequent sections. We’d be exploring these later on.
Walking on the glacier surface turned out easier than expected. The sharp claws of the crampons bit into the ice like teeth into meat – so long as you were walking correctly. Even the flat part of the ice wasn’t completely flat, it was wavy. It was a frozen landscape of constant peaks and troughs and you had to use your body weight and center of gravity correctly otherwise you could find your feet going from under you. And this wasn’t like slipping in an ice rink. One bad move could have you sliding into a crack god knows how deep. A fall here on solid ice would be worse than falling on solid concrete, your bones snapping like matchsticks.
With these cheerful thoughts we hiked to the entrance of an ice cave. This particular cave had formed about seven months previously. Carefully we dropped down into a large depression in the glacier surface to find our selves inside a small canyon of ice. A crack led us down further into the heart of the glacier as the walls and the ceiling closed in around us. Slowly our world became darker but glowed with a strange blue hue. The fantastical blue colour of the ice is due the amount of air trapped inside, and how it reflects light. Guide ropes and pegs had been hammered into the ice to help us downwards, to our left a small stream of glacial water was flowing. After a few minutes we arrived in a fully enclosed ice cave. I’ve never been in an ice bar but I imagine it’s something similar only this had had less booze and more chance of instant death if the glacier collapsed. Everything was bathed in an almost supernaturally blue light, like a hallucinogenic dream. Removing my gloves and putting my bare hands up against the wall I could imagine the constant strain and shearing of the glacier as it carved it’s way out of the mountains womb into the rainforest below. Like all glacier’s the Fox Glacier began it’s life as snow compacting near the mountain summit. Over the centuries it began it’s journey as a master artist of the landscape, chiseling and polishing the terrain to it’s image.
Holding onto the guide ropes for dear life we emerged out of the ice cave, feeling like Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger and thankfully not Sly Stallone from Rocky. And the best part? Another helicopter ride back down!
Up until recently it had been possible to hike the Fox Glacier from the ground. Due to shifting of the glacier and shearing at the face it’s now considered too dangerous and so the only option for now are these “heli-hikes”. I’d recommend them over the ground hiking anyway. You get airlifted further up the mountain, and chances are you encounter more impressive ice formations up there. Aside from the cave we slid through ice tunnels, climbed up through holes in the glacial surface and came across many impressive creations.
Many people who visit New Zealand and want to hike a glacier are presented with two options – Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers. I’ve heard from my guides (who operate tours on both) that they are basically the same. The glaciers are roughly the same size and contain many of the same features so I guess choose which ever is convenient for you. It’s an awesome experience not to be missed. The only drawback is that stealing a helicopter isn’t as easy as you’d think. Allegedly.
I’d mentioned that the glacier descends into the rainforest. It’s probably the only part of the world that I know off where this happens. New Zealand’s south island is covered with temperate rainforest. On the road to Fox Glacier we had stopped in a place called Thunder Creek where there was a huge waterfall cascading over a tall forested cliff. Here at Fox the vegetation is also extremely thick. Dark green moss covers every available surface in a thick droopy blanket. The trees are old and knarled and massive tree ferns – even bigger than ones I’d seen in Australia – loom everywhere you look. The fading sunlight dabbled through the trees and the mighty ferns swayed in a slight breeze. Again the Middle Earth comparisons came flooding back to me. This didn’t look like any of the woods back home. It was an otherworldly, Tolkien-esque environment. After an enjoyable, and lonely few hours in here by myself I strolled back into town, checking over my shoulder periodically to ensure I wasn’t been followed by a rogue goblin or orc. I did see a dodgy looking cat though.
In another act of stupidity I’d booked my flight to Rotorua from Queenstown instead of taking the bus straight to Christchurch and flying from there, which would have been more straightforward and avoided backtracking. Good thing I never claimed to be clever.
Rotorua lies in the heart of the North Island. It’s a volcanic wonderland populated with bubbling volcanic mud springs and hissing geysers. A short distance away smoulders Mount Ngauruhoe, better known to movie buffs as Mount Doom. Interestingly it’s a centre of maori culture and I was heading out into the forests to meet them.
In the evening after arriving at the visitor center in town I hopped on a bus to head 15 minutes outside the city to the Tamaki Village. On the bus we were to nominate a “chief” who would carry our introductions and gratitude to the maori chief we were about to meet. As usual with stuff like this everyone kept their heads down and the old guy at the front gets picked. With our new chief brimming with enthusiasm we entered the village just as the sun had gone down. Out of the shadows a maori warrior sprang at our brave chief, screaming and gesticulating wildly like a madman on crack. Before I had a chance to wet myself another appeared and repeated the intimidation. There was a thunderous clap of hands and a hush fell over the crowd.
It was the chief. He seemed nice.
After we had been welcomed into the village we were taken on a tour through the woods, stopping off at the traditional homes and introduced to the villagers who explained all about the crafts they were producing and the games they were playing. Each person was in traditional maori costume which seemed to be composed of old style fabrics and skins. I narrowly missed out on qualifying for the New Zealand Olympic team playing a weird game of hop scotch before taking part in a haka.
Because not everyone reading will have watched international rugby – probably prefering a wuss sport that requires riot control armour to play – it’s kinda hard to explain what a haka is. I guess it’s a kind of war dance the male members of the tribe would carry out to intimidate an opponent before battle. The New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, perform it at the start of every rugby game. Considering they’ve won the world cup twice in a row now it’s a safe assumption that it’s effective. Myself and two other guys were shown the moves and had to perform to the group. Here I was in the woods in the middle of the night doing a Polynesian war dance. So manly. I could feel my testicles expanding with each lunge. The rest of the night I spent walking bow legged and referring to women as “broads”. I think I even slapped the chief on the arse and asked him to make me a cup of tea.
The village itself comprised of a gathering of small wooden huts and buildings, around them scattered about were wooden maori carvings and totems. Soft tribal music floated in the background and the soft flickering lights made it feel almost like an elven village from Lord of the Rings. Maybe it was intentional, or maybe I just had Middle Earth on my brain after being attacked by Gandalf riding a giant canary in the lobby of Wellington airport.
I saw one dude taking a chisel to another guys face. He started chopping away like he was in woodwork class. This was a demonstration of maori tatooing. The maori, like many pacific island cultures, are famous for their tribal tatoos. Here they are called ta moko and they’re very important as they signal social rank and status. Maori get moko everywhere – even on the face. Some faces are completely covered in loops and intricate spirals while women usually have them on their lips and chin. I’d seen my uncle completely butcher a staircase with a similar chisel so there’s no way in hell I’d let one near my face.
Dinner that night was an assortment of meats and vegetables cooked in a hangi. It’s a pit dug in the ground. The food is loaded in and hot rocks placed on the top until it’s cooked. I’m not sure when they know that it’s cooked seeing as they don’t have a timer on it, and don’t even seem to wear watches. It was served in a very modern looking restaurant a short walk from the village and afterwards was a session of traditional song and dance followed by a properly energetic haka. A warm and wet feeling was beginning to spread through my pants. I was just hoping our “chief” would survive the night heart attack free. I was sitting in the second row.
Our friendship had been accepted by the maori so the next day, with all my limbs intact, I went for a walk around Lake Rotorua. No wonder they call this place Sulfur City. Parts of the lake bubble with underground hot springs and steam hisses and settles over it like a blanket of fog. The birds don’t seem to mind though, the place is full of them. I wondered if that prehistoric turkey also lived here. Not far from the docks I came across a magnificent carved canoe. It was a maori waka. This thing was mind blowing. Every inch was covered in intricately carved maori spirals and designs, especially the bow of the ship which sported a dude’s head covered in tribal moko. Hundreds of years ago the maori traveled from pacific islands further north to discover New Zealand. If their boats were half as bling as this one they were arriving in style. If this was a car there is no way I’d feel secure pulling up to it at a traffic light.
After the jaw dropping views in the south island and the aggressively welcoming maori in the North I spent a relaxing few days with some friends in Auckland before flying onwards across the Pacific. On the night I arrived in Auckland we watched an All Blacks game at the bar. Before the match began the kiwi rugby players began the haka and my PTSD began to kick in again. I shivered. That familiar warm feeling spreading through my pants was just one beer too many I told myself. Because a 32 year old pissing himself in public was still ok.
Next time: The Cannibal Isles, I take drugs in a shop, and a guy threatens to eat me