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.