The Wrinkle Road to White

Imagine your grandma’s face.  She’s lying down and you are a wee one sanding behind her looking on from eye level.  You lean in to see if she’s awake.  You squint at her face…

That’s sort of what the South Island looks like.  It’s got a big mound at the top and heaps of beige craggly valleys that wind away from its famous peak.  Your grandma’s nose – that’s Mount Cook, and her crinkled nasal-labial folds – those are the rest of the South Island.  That white makeup she’s put in to cover up her age, that’s the glaciers.  I’ve been living on your grandma’s face for six months driving my way through her wrinkle-roads and I’ve finally made my way to the base of her nose…

We awoke to the baritone hum of a horn and peered our eyes into the fog of a storm cloud above the train station in Timaru.  Moseying over to the information center, a woman hurriedly approached asking, “where are you headed?”  Eager to share her information, she added, “’cause the road down to Dunedin is flooded and the way back to Christchurch is a mess.  West is just about the only direction you can go, but you won’t see much over there in this weather.”  Just our luck, we happened to be heading west.

Before leaving, we stopped for coffee and picked the brains of an overly made-up barista at a rundown Timaru sports bar.  Handing her our South Island map, she took the pen out of her hair and marked it up with X’s and O’s – a virtual what and what not guide to Southern Canterbury.

The rain weakened to a mist while we sped past rolling hills of amber bush.  At Fairlie the landscape changed and the road ascended Burke’s Pass to the expanses of Mackenzie Country.  This plateau from which the iconic peaks of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park rise were named after the legendary James ‘Jock’ Mackenzie who drove his stolen flocks to the then uninhabited region in the 1840’s.  Gaping at the beauty of the area and realizing its potential for settlement, others soon followed.

If Heaven has a lake, it probably looks something like Lake Tekapo.

Its banks are filled with the kind of dreamy liquid only imagined in Japanese Anime.  It is the kind of place lovers in a fantasy film finally beat all odds to live happily ever after. Lake Tekapo is unreal.

The blazing blue of Tekapo and it’s neighboring Lake Pukaki is due to ‘rock flour,’ a sediment in the water left over from a stony-bottomed glacier that moved across the land’s surface, grinding out fine particles (fairy dust) which now lay suspended in the glacial melt water.

All around us, the mountains of the Southern Alps stretched up into an ocean of graying white.  Blotchy clouds presented the possibility of mystery – a chance to enjoy the seen and fathom fantastical illusions for the obscured peaks. The sky-blue water of Lake Tekapo below the textured grey clouds above produced a peculiar feeling of a world turned upside-down.  Lake Tekapo enraptures you in a land of fairy tales.  It’s no wonder the small, stone Church of the Good Shepard on the southern edge of the lake is one of the South Island’s most popular locations to wed.

A small sign on the church read, “closed due to the weather” but we explored it’s exterior nonetheless, leaving before a deluge of Japanese tourists arrived on their whirlwind tour of the country.  On the far edge of the lake, we ventured to a spot where late fall leaves of a mustard yellow dangled next to unchanging pines above the robin egg blue of the lake.  The color palate of Lake Tekapo in the late fall was masterly.

Above the lake, we braced the freezing cold in bathing suites, easing into a heated spring.  Above the spring, air blurred against the mysterious heat in a sticky, gummy clam. For once, we welcomed the rain as it pounded our heads in a gentle massage while we sat in the 41-degree C water.

In New Zealand, they do not talk about snow in relation to geographic location but rather altitude.  Snow, with its magical ability to transform, edits the landscape. It highlights every wrinkle and underlines every edge.  It ages a mountain.  It gives it wisdom and distinction.   Snow creeps down the mountain to reach the ground where it trips and traps us helpless humans.  Felipe and I had no idea it would corner us underneath the largest mountain in the country but, by the morning after we arrived at Mt. Cook, we learned we would be staying for a while.

At sunset, we hunkered down in Unwin Lodge, 3km outside of the small Department of Conservation run Mt Cook Village.  Unwin Lodge is owned and operated by the NZ Alpine Club and a group of multi-national mountaineers were staying in the complex’s other rooms.  Aside from a small fireplace in the living room, the building had no heat and the sight of my foggy breath would accompany me for the next few days.  Made of wood and stone, the A-frame lodge had large paneled windows on either end looking across to the highest peaks in the country below a golden field of flax.  By morning, the golden field was covered in thick white.

The mountains surrounding Unwin Lodge contain the majority of New Zealand’s highest peaks, nineteen of which are over 3,000 meters. There is virtually no forest amidst the ice and rock and roughly 40% of the park is enveloped in glaciers.

The Maori feel it inappropriate to stand on top of what is effectively the head of an ancestor.  However, numerous people flock to this area to climb in Edmund Hillary’s footsteps to the top of Aoraki (Mt Cook). It is hard to visit Mt Cook and not feel the urge to become a mountaineer.  Home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the town itself feels a tribute to him.  He represents the ideals and aspirations of every Kiwi.  Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man (along with sherpa Tenzing Norgay) to climb Everest, is New Zealand’s greatest national hero.  In a small country with few claims to fame, Kiwis are proud to have put the first human on top of the world.

The small Mt Cook Village is impeccably tidy and neatly arranged like a box of chocolates.  Essentially a collection of hotels and Department of Conservation buildings, the town is organized in DOC signage and surrounded by a plethora of trails.  This miniature alpine service village is located at the foot of several valleys.  Think of the plaster handprint you made as a small child – Mt Cook sits squarely in the palm of the hand and each finger mold valley was carved out by various glaciers and their terminal rivers.

We explored two of these valleys, Hooker and Tasman.  The Hooker Valley path was obscured by fresh snow, the valley’s first layer of the season. We marched through the crunchy powder following a clearing over and beyond two suspension bridges. Deer tracks lead us onward and we watched as rabbits hopped across our path in their early winter confusion.  Two weeks ago, we swam in the Tasman Sea.  Now, we were bundled in four layers of fleece plowing our way through a winter wonderland.

The Hooker Glacier, engraved in dueling horizontal and vertical edges, sat tall beyond its terminal lake.  The Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest, morphed beyond its face into the clouds of the storm.  Like most glaciers in the world, the Hooker and Tasman are retreating at a rapid place.  The Tasman Glacier covered the distant overlook where I sat gawking just one hundred years ago.  The steal-blue Lake Tasman, with its breakaway icebergs, is itself just fifty years old.

The snow-covered valleys of the Mt Cook region had a barren, end of the world magnificence.   Underneath the great heights of the Southern Alps, we trekked each day through a landscape devoid of color.  It was a world of violent, vibrant gray until the sunset lent a fleeting color, dousing the land it in a fiery glow and adding a touch of drama to the desolation.  They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  For me, Mount Cook National Park captures the raw beauty that draws millions to visit New Zealand each year.

The snow petered out, the plows came, and I no longer had an excuse to hide in a lodge beneath the New Zealand’s greatest heights.  We cleared the windows, revved up the car, and journeyed onward towards the last stop on our great South Island adventure.  The real world was soon to recapture us into it’s nine to five and the snow at Mt Cook proved just a sample of what was to come as we drove south to hide out the winter at the ski fields above the lakeside city of Queenstown.

Alex Knob Trek – A Photo Diary

My friend Arnaud lives by a strict code of Parisian order and, at times, the world can be quite black and white for him.  However, the other day he was feeling rather whimsical.  Having only hiked the one “mandatory” trek in town (the one leading to the glacier), Arnaud wanted to try another trail and, in an uncharacteristically impulsive maneuver, pointed to the longest one on our map.

Not only was the Alex Knob Trek long (listed as a day trek at 8 hours), but the starting point for the trail was well over an hour by foot from our home.  That brought the grand total up to 10 hours and, as it turned out, we both slept in.  Starting our hike at 11:00 am, we were already racing against the clock to make it back before dark.

After a quick stop at the “supermarket” in town, the contents of my unnecessarily large backpack included various layers of clothing, four muesli bars, two bottles of water, some pita bread, two French baguette, and a small tub of humus.  Much of the bread was used to feed the amused birds on our lunch break.  As you can imagine, we were famished by the time we arrived home.

We agreed to share the responsibilities of carrying the bulky backpack to the top of the mountain, but I soon came to realize that on this outing I would be acting as both sherpa and motivational speaker.

Heading out-of-town, we passed the historic St James Anglican Church, which could not have had a better view of our day’s path.

The trailhead for Alex Knob lies towards the end of the Glacier Access Road.  We turned off the road in good spirits and headed into the rainforest towards our first stop at Lake Wombat.

After this short detour, we continued upwards through the rainforest until we reached our first westward views of the cow pastures on the southern fringe of Franz Josef.

Thick trees, wrapped in vine and draped in moss, lined the path while the sun’s reflection danced off pools of water resting in cupped ferns.

Upon arriving at our first glacier viewpoint, we stopped for lunch and watched the clouds flow into the valley.  Arnaud ate his baguette, I ate my humus, and the birds ate the scraps.  A German hiker passed, smiled, and livened our spirits when he said, “just 45 more minutes to the top!”

I think we misunderstood him.

Arnaud had not worn the proper shoes for our outing and, as a result, was lagging behind on the wet, rocky path.  In true form, he was hiking in fashionable iridescent Nike sneakers, the same ones he removes from a shoe bag each day to walk home from work.

Arnaud owns three bags specifically designed for carrying shoes.  I, on the other hand, have three pairs of shoes.

The rainforest gave way to sub-alpine terrain as we continued upwards into the clouds.  The views were superb, and every turn felt like it might be the top, but 45 minutes came and went we would not reach the top for two more hours.

Looking westward, we watched the Waiho River winds it’s way to the Tasman Sea just below the horizon.

To the north, sat the small township of Franz Josef and the ruby-red rooftop of my apartment in the abandoned motel a kilometer out-of-town.  Lake Mapourika, the largest lake in the Westland, lay nestled in the foothills.

The distance between Arnaud and I grew exponentially throughout the hike.  As I approached the summit, I heard his faint, exhausted calls from below.  I had promised him that the top was just around the corner far too many times to win his trust, but finally, it was the truth.

The wind whipped around the top of Alex Knob as a light rain dampened my clothes.  I waited in the cold as the small black dot in the distance transformed into a mopey Frenchman.  Arnaud looked miserable, but his stubbornness would not allow him to give in.  When I dared to ask how he was, he exhaled, “tired… But fantastic!”

It was 4:00 and we had made it to the top of Alex Knob.  Cold and wet, we watched as the sun peeked through the clouds, illuminating the red rooftop of our faraway home.  I knew that the next day Arnaud, with great hyperbole, would tell the world of his vast feet (failing to mention his trusty sherpa)… but for now, he could not move his legs.

“Get up”


“We have to go”

“Five more minutes”

“Come on…”

“I can’t”

“Arnaud!  This is only half way.  We have five more hours ahead of us.”

Slowly, silently, he arose, and we began the long journey home.

Ice Ice Baby

Living in a town with not much to do, I tend to sleep too much.  The other morning, I went so far as to let myself sleep until lunchtime.  I was having one of those wild dreams that I didn’t want to end.  You know, the ones where you have a friend from elementary school, a friend from college, and a co-worker all hanging out together.  Then, somehow, one of them blue people from Avatar shows up and suddenly you are all traipsing through a jungle in Asia.  Anyway, things started getting hairy.   We were panicking, the end of the world seemed eminent, and helicopters were whirling above.  The dream started to feel a bit more like a nightmare.  I had to get out of there, so I quickly forced myself awake.  Still, the helicopters were whirling.  I was freaking out, I was sweating, and then I remembered I was in Franz Josef where the helicopters zip about all day long as if I am in a war zone.  We have tons of loud, winged creatures in Franz Josef – the dragonflies rule the daytime, switching shifts with the moths around 9:00 – but, none of these are as loud, pesky, or prevalent as the helicopter.

But, I’m not one to hold a grudge.  Instead of being angry with the helicopters for ruining many peaceful afternoons on my balcony and for their constant noise pollution, I decided I should get to know them a little better.  On my first day off, I booked a flight on the Helicopter Line to see for myself why so many people board so many helicopters everyday in this small town.

I hopped on the 6 passenger aircraft along with a German and a Brazilian couple at the helipad on the banks of the Waiho River just after twelve and headed up into the sky not far from my balcony at Mueller.  We followed the Waiho River out of town as it wound it’s way towards it’s source, the Franz Josef Glacier.  I caught a quick glimpse of the helicopter as we passed over Lake Wombat and glided above the sub-tropical rainforest into the foothills of the Southern Alps.  The lesser peaks to the right, situated below Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook, were blanketed with ambling waterfalls.  With the rata bush in full bloom, the mountainside was dotted with swaths of crimson red.  All of the green and red soon passed and below lay a gnarly city of glistening blue ice.

Viewing the glacier from the Helicopter was superb, but I what I really sought was to squeeze past the narrow alleyways, climb through the hidden caves, and cup my hand for a taste of the cold, crisp ice water below.

We landed in a flat area about halfway up the glacier and took our first cautious steps onto the crunchy ice.  Gathering at a safe spot, we removed crampons from our jumbo-sized fanny packs and, with the assistance of our guide AJ, attached them to our boots.  AJ was a short, nimble, wild haired Kiwi with an obvious enthusiasm for what he does and where he works.  It seems you can’t get him out of the snow and ice.  When I asked what he does in the winter, he replied, “Mostly, I ski or I’m out here on the glacier.”

AJ’s job is constantly changing as ice slides down the mountainside at over four meters a day.  Each day, new caves form as others collapse in on themselves.  Loud pops further up the hill are constant reminders that the land is in a state of perpetual motion.  My eyes dart up for the chance to see blocks of ice cascading down the upper face, but, alas, each pop is a false alarm.  It hasn’t rained for two weeks and the ice doesn’t have the lubrication it’s accustomed to.  Consequently, the ice is progressing at a slower pace and AJ has had a chance to scope out some of the more fascinating paths through the sharply etched landscape.  Fashioning steps out of the soft ice with our picks, we set out into the vast glacier to explore the odd and unexpected.

Using the curved end of the pick as a handle, we poked our way through the glacier.  Many of the surface formations were hollow, humming against my pick in a deep, lingering bass.  I tapped the various offshoots like ice chimes as I passed, signaling my arrival.  Some, not able to handle the vibrations, crashed to the ground, melting into water in search of the nearest stream.  Perhaps, later that day, this very water found it’s way down the glacier to the Waiho River rushing by my backyard.

The German couple could not put down their cameras, but who could blame them.  They must have posed in front of every possible background in every possible way, utilizing the ice pick for maximum effect (ice pick as cane, ice pick as sledge hammer, ice pick as gun, ice pick as picture frame, ice pick fighting, etc).  Not wanting to feel left out, the Brazilians copied the good poses, but were pickier with the photography skills of the Germans, asking for re-shoots and specific zoom techniques.  I hung close with AJ, laughing at the couples when we weren’t talking about the Glacier.

As we waited for the helicopter back, AJ rustled through several plastic tubs to reach his meager snack.  When the Brazilian woman jokingly asked why he would go to such effort to protect his food, AJ offered, “Oh you don’t know about the Kea Parrots.  They’re smarter than a seven-year-old human.  It’s true!  I’ve got a five year old at home and I deal with these guys all day on the glacier.”  These birds, we were told, have an amazing intelligence, with a resume of talents that include ripping the rubber lining off car doors to get to the food inside.  They are now a protected species, but at one time these olive green and yellow birds were almost completely eradicated by local farmers who shot them as they sat on farm animal’s backs, chewing into their flesh.  YouTube: Kea Parrot.  The video titles alone are enough to shock you.

The helicopter ran late and the ominous clouds made good on their threat.  The rain came down and my shorts, t-shirt, and waterproof jacket were no longer enough to keep me warm on the icy terrain.  When the aircraft finally arrived with the next group and a leggy girl in ultra-short-shorts stepped out, we all looked at each other and laughed through our chattering teeth.  Shivering, I hopped into the copter and rode down the mountain, past my balcony to the helipad at the edge of town.

Back on the ground, I stood hot and sticky looking back towards the now obscured peaks in the distance.  Dense, swirling clouds framed the Southern Alps in an appropriate grandeur.  Exploring such a unique formation, I was given the opportunity to witness, in small scale, the ever-changing theater of life on a Glacier.  I realized that if all the people in all the helicopters that leave this small mountain town get to see the city of blue ice as I did, then I suppose I can suffer through the noise and use it as a reminder of my own journey on the Franz Josef Glacier.