Climbing the Franz Josef Glacier

Blackwater Rafting

We just happened to be on New Zealand North Island, where we had been Blackwater Rafting. This is a variation on Whitewater Rafting, and entails poking your bottom through an inflatable rubber ring, chucking yourself into a nearby river, and allowing it to swirl you underground down a dark hole.

Apart from being entertaining in itself, the main point is to see the glow-worms which make their home in the cavern roofs. The worms, encased in silken cocoons, emit a ghostly green light as they try to attract food in the form of newly hatched insects flying up from the water below. As you drift along in complete darkness, rubber ring bouncing harmlessly off the occasional rock, a stunningly beautiful constellation of green stars passes by overhead. It is weird, it is wonderful, and it is thoroughly to be recommended.

North Island to South Island by train

Once back out into the outside world, we towelled off and decided to climb the Franz Josef glacier. Not only was this on the other side of the country, it was on the other island and several days travel away. Nevertheless, from Auckland at the northern end of North Island it is possible to catch a train to Wellington on the southern tip.

From Wellington you can catch a ferry to Picton at the northern tip of South Island.

From Picton you can take another train to Christchurch on the east coast, followed by yet another train (the Tranzalpine) clear across the country to Greymouth in the west, and finally a bus to Franz Josef. Since these trains between them comprise some of the most beautiful scenic railways in the southern hemisphere, we weren’t too upset about it.

Franz Josef

At lunch time, we stopped at a roadside cafe that sold Possum Pie (In Australia, possums are cute furry animals; in NZ, they are introduced vermin and have a nice rich flavour), we arrived in the little backpacker town of Franz Josef. With something of the air of a cheap ski town, it is a place to party, but not a place to dwell on the millions of tonnes of ice set to roll over the town if the climate changes.

After a celebratory beer or two, we dropped off to sleep in our slightly dodgy hotel, unsure of what the morrow might bring. In fact, the dawn light saw us trudging through light drizzle up the terminal moraine of the eponymous glacier. As we walked, our guides split the group of fifty into more manageable segments of ten; our own guide was a chatty little Kiwi called Imogen.

We crunched up the classic U-shaped valley, the footing strewn with the ground-up pebbles of millennia of ice erosion. Slowly we approached the enormous tongue of glacier towered above us, filling the valley from side to side, and high above we could see tiny ant figures perched on the face, chopping away with large axes.

These people, we were told, had already been chipping for hours in the steady rain, making our path up to the surface. Every morning they make a stairway, and every night the glacier fills it in again. If you look very carefully at the picture of the face of the glacier (say about an inch from the bottom and an inch from the right), you can just about see one of these workers wearing a red jacket. Our group paused to put on our Ice Talonz, a kind of tourist crampon with a hinged centre that allows the leather boot of the wearer to flex more comfortably than with the professional climbing kind. Unfortunately, not just any leather boot will do; we had each been provided with a somewhat derelict pair of paratrooper boots, with gaping holes and ungainly repairs sewn up with string.

As somebody who had previous ice experience, I volunteered to be tail-end-Charlie for our group, and we set off up the icy stairway. We soon realised that the state of the boots was irrelevent; the Talonz were great. Halfway up, we were introduced to our ice axes, and then, as the rain stopped and the sun came out, we set off to explore our ice wonderland.

The going wasn’t especially hard for us, but the guides were certainly working up a sweat.They carried large double-ended picks with which they were continually swinging and chipping, grooming each ice-cut step to a standard that would – just – allow ten sets of Talonz to pass before it was completely destroyed. Behind me, bringing up the rear, the leader of the next group began the same laborious process for the ten people behind him. In this manner, all the groups slowly worked their way up the face of the glacier.

Once at the top of the initial ice cliff, the groups split up, each guide picking (and chipping) a different path onto the glacier proper. There certainly were a lot of routes to choose from. The surface of the glacier was crisscrossed with crevasses, sculpted ice peaks, ice walls, and ice caverns, with here and there a plank bridge to provide access to the next segment.

It would have been very, very easy to get lost, because at eye level you could only see a few metres before the next turn or junction; certainly the other groups quickly disappeared from view as we set off down our chosen cleft. The only sign of them was the distant chip-chip-chip of the ice axes, and the occasional flurry of static from the guides hand-held radios, as they checked in with each other and tried to ensure that groups did not meet in any narrow gully or halfway along some steep ice shelf.

At around lunchtime, we finished climbing to what seemed to be the summit, only to find ourselves on a pile of median moraine with views of the next few miles of glacier, an even more complex and tumbled labyrinth, dotted here and there with the occasional glimpse of one of the other parties as they wound their way in and out of the sculpted tunnels.

After lunch there was time for a quick foray into the tumbled masses above us, then we got stuck in to the long trek back down. And a long trek it was! As the five day groups and the several half-day groups converged on the only ice stair at the tongue, the narrow crevasses got very congested. The guides continually radioed back and forth, and even though most of the time we couldn’t see further than a few metres, it was clear that all the other groups were very close by. Occasionally two groups would meet, and would have to work out some kind of precedence.

Even though the stair-dressers had clearly been chipping all day, once we got there the ice was melting with a vengeance under the combined onslaught of a day’s sunshine and a glacier-full of tourists. The stairway was a cascading waterfall. Standing in running ice-water and waiting for Imogen to chop away yet another piece of rotten ice, cold seeping through our soaking woollen socks, we began to wish that the guides weren’t taking quite such good care of us and would let us take our chances; anything to take a few warming steps.

Of course, they were doing the right thing, especially once we started to see some of the frail and unfit people who had just come up for an evening stroll; some couldn’t manage to step from one rock to another (we wondered how they would ever cope over the snow bridges), and one guy was clumping across the fractured ice in Talonz with a video camera glued to his eye; absolutely crazy, as we were all clinging with both hands and full concentration to any available handhold.

Safe and sound at the bottom, we removed our Talonz and headed for warmth and beer. Of all the adventure trips that we have done in New Zealand, this is the one that really deserves the name. We were climbing in quite dangerous terrain, and the guides had to be – and were – very, very professional; no larking about here. Imogen told us that to have Franz Josef on her adventure-guiding CV was the most respected experience that she could have. We were not at all surprised.


The town of Rotorua straddles the geologically active fault-line that runs down through North Island New Zealand. Driving in, the first thing that we noticed was the heavy pall of steam that hung over it. The next thing that we noticed was the pungent sulphurous smell.

Our first stop was the Buried Village, inundated by mud in 1886 when the local volcano blew its top in a spectacular display of fire and storm. Up until then, the town had been a fashionable Victorian tourist spot because of the nearby pink and white terraces, now destroyed, and so the event was well recorded both by the local press and by the diaries of visiting Englishmen. Certainly there was enough fascinating detail to make an interesting museum, culminating in a walk among the now excavated buildings.

Possibly the highlight of the sunken village was its 40 metre hot waterfall, probably more spectacular than usual on our visit due to the continuous heavy rain.

The path to the fall was curious in that it was guarded by fierce signs warning of heart attacks and falling children, when in fact even with water cascading down the steps, it was just a gentle stroll which Bronwyn negotiated in flip-flops.

By the time we got back to the start, we were soaked through and quite cold, so it was just as well that we had booked ourselves into a hot mud bath and spa.

Hell’s Gate Thermal Valley

Hell’s Gate, in another part of Rotorua, is an area of volcanic mud pools. After a slightly dubious lunch in the tourist cafeteria, we ventured out into the continuing rain to explore the sights.

The different pools and features are packed side-by-side in a large field of mud and rock, with footpaths winding between them. Each has its own temperature, colour, and character, and many have stories associated with them. For instance, Hurutini was named after a Maori princess, victim of an abusive husband, who killed herself by jumping into it. Hell’s Gate itself is the largest boiling whirlpool in the country, of unknown depth and a constant 98C. The Inferno owes both its gunmetal colour and its superheated temperature to a suspension of graphite particles, and the Cooking Pool was once used by the local Maori as a kind of bain-marie.

We had already got used to the sulphurous smell that had assaulted us the day before, and as the wind and the rain picked up, we welcomed the occasional hot breeze that blew off one bubbling pool or the other.

The Mud Volcano had built a man-high cone around a fizzing crater.

The Steam Cliff boiled and, it is said, occasionally spits gouts of water several metres into the air (although it wasn’t doing that while we passed by). The twin pools Sodom and Gomorrah grumbled ominously to each other as we struggled past, cheap umbrella bending and blowing in the wind, often becoming more of a liability than an asset.

Hell’s Gate Spa and Mud Bath

We packed all our clothes into plastic boxes, and were shown by the cheery Maori attendant to our personal mud bath, screened off by rush matting walls. A rectangular hole in the ground contained hot water piped from the mud fields, and a thin layer of the mud itself. The attendant hosed in a bit of cold to bring the temperature down to a bearable level, and then we lazed around in the water and smothered each other in the silky mud.

It was very relaxing but also quite hot, so when our allotted twenty minutes was up, we willingly sluiced down with ice cold water from the hose.

From the bath, we went straight into the warm spa, which featured an almost scalding hot waterfall that was wonderful to lie under as we straightened the travel kinks out of our bodies.

This was a more public pool, and other people came and went until finally, reluctantly, we climbed out for a final shower, feeling all floppy and relaxed.

Before going into the spa, we had been warned to remove all silver jewellery, in case it got tarnished by the sulphur. That night, safely showered (and after removing an amazing amount of crystallised mineral from our hair), we put our rings back on. In the morning, we woke to the vivid stench of old pond water, and noticed that all the silver had gone completely black from the remaining residues in our skin.

Lady Knox Geyser

By means of some manipulation with old rags and soap, the Lady Knox Geyser is persuaded to erupt each morning at 10:15am. We actually got there at 10:45, in time to encounter streams of buses, cars and camper-vans coming in the opposite direction. However, when we got to the site itself, the geyser was still quite impressively erupting, with the added bonus that the surrounding wooden amphitheatre, built to hold hundreds of spectators, was almost empty.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

In the spring of 1886, the area around Mount Tarawera was a popular tourist destination, due in the main to two spectacular geological features known respectively as the White and Yellow Terraces, a set of brightly coloured cliffs with steaming hot water pools and falls. There are many pictures of parasol-bearing ladies in crinoline dresses perambulating around on the rocks.
Then in June of that year, the mountain blew its top and ripped a fault line 16 kilometres long that destroyed the existing lake system, along with seven small villages and both terraces. When the magma hit the hydrothermal springs, the resultant explosion hurled rock, dust and and sand some 11 kilometres into the air, raining down in a boiling flood on the surrounding countryside. All life, both animal and vegetable, was destroyed in the cataclysm, so the riot of greenery seen today is all new growth.

Close to Frying Pan Lake, so called because of the crackling and bubbling sounds that it makes, the cataclysm briefly created the worlds biggest geyser, which played from 1900 to 1904, although nothing remains of it today.

Inferno Crater Lake is the largest geyser-like feature in the world, although the geyser itself cannot be seen because it plays at the bottom of the lake. However, its results are seen in the curious cyclical water level which follows a regular pattern over a period of about six weeks. The water is highly acidic, sometimes around pH 2.1, and at up to 30 metres deep and 80 centigrade, at which temperature it overflows to feed the hot water features further downstream.

One of these features is Warbrick Terrace. The colourful shallows are caused not only by crystallising minerals, but also by various red and green algae that colonise the pools.

At the far end of the walk, a boat was waiting to take us out onto Lake Rotomohana. After the 1886 eruption, the resultant crater slowly filled with rainwater until it covered an area twenty times that of the original lakes, with a water level 40 metres higher.

On the one hand, this enormous mass of water has covered over almost all of the interesting scars, so that much of the tour comprises we are now floating over the site of…. On the other hand, the captain gave us a fascinating history of the explosion and of the subsequent recovery of the flora and fauna.


The Wai-O-Tapu thermal area covers some 18 square kilometres and is covered with collapsed craters, cold and boiling pools of mud and water, and steaming fumaroles. Its a pretty spectacular place, with all sorts of colours and formations, and over an hours worth of walking tracks between them.

Boiling Mud Pool

Finally, just before we left the region, we stopped at a mud pool by the side of the road. We sat on the fence and listened as it made satisfying cooking noises and burped large gouts of mud several feet into the air, all accompanied by the distinct smell of hot dog sausages.

A very curious part of the world indeed.

Lake Wakatipu

The TSS Earnslaw

Queenstown, New Zealand, sits at one end of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. If you’ve ever seen a postcard of snow-capped mountains reflected in limpid New Zealand waters, then this is where it was probably taken. From our lakeside hotel room we could see the twin funnels of a steam ship, and after a few days of skiing, bungy jumping, rafting and lugeing (Queenstown has got to be the adventure sports capital of the world), we felt that we could do with a change of pace, so  we clambered up the gangplank to see what was going on.

As soon as we got inside we were greeted by the gorgeous smell of hot steam and hot oil, and we realised that we had entered another world. The enclosed decks consist of galleries around a light well that drops down through the centre of the ship, giving an unobstructed view of the two enormous steam engines, the furnaces, and the busy crew of engineers tending to the vessels every need.
In its heyday the Earnslaw ferried some eight hundred passengers at a time, but there seemed to be only a few dozen people aboard, so we had plenty of room to watch. The crew scurried around the engines, checking gauges and lubricating everything in sight with long-nosed oil cans, while stokers piled coal into the twin furnaces. Finally the oil cans were put away, the enormous brass indicator rang ‘Ahead’, and in a cloud of steam the two screw shafts began to move.

I was spellbound.As the Earnslaw accelerated up to thirteen knots, the ship was filled with the mighty rolling thump of the engines and the comforting deep rumble of the prop shafts. The stokers stepped up the pace; the Earnslaw burns a ton of coal every hour.

Up on deck, the scenery was just as beautiful, and in between mesmerised trips down to the steam room, we sat and watched the shore and snow-capped mountains slide by.

Walter Peak Country Farm

An hour or so into the cruise we paused at the Walter Peak High Country Farm, an old but still operating sheep station which also boasts a rather splendid colonial restaurant serviced each evening by the TSS Earnslaw herself. A few of us got off to be greeted by our guide, a shepherd, who took us on a tour and explained what life was like living on the station.

We were treated to a sheep dog demonstration by some of the older, now retired dogs, who were still fleet enough to give a very impressive display of crowd control in a small group of bewildered sheep.

We were then introduced to a few of the stations sidelines, in the form of deer and Scottish highland cattle, before retiring to the main house for cream tea.

The highlight of the farm tour was the shearing demonstration. After we had eaten we were taken to a large barn, to be greeted by the most appalling squealing sound, which turned out to be a couple of young orphan lambs. Don’t ever be misled that lambs bleat, they don’t, they shriek; but we found that they soon quieted down if you picked them up, and Brownyn had a fine time bottle feeding one of them as we settled down to watch the demo.

A couple of adult sheep were milling around at the back of the barn. The shepherd manhandled one of them towards us, and then flipped it onto its back, whereupon it instantly went limp, and from then on it didn’t seem to care one whit either for us or for anything that happened to it. Out came some electric clippers, and the animal was firmly but gently shaved. I had expected it to wriggle and fight, but it just lay there uncomplaining on its back as it was moved this way and that, and before long it stood naked before us.

The pelt was surprisingly greasy to the touch, and heavy with protective lanolin.

The shepherd had all sorts of tales to tell, particularly about the annual gathering where everybody in the homestead combs the hills with horses and dogs in order to flush all the sheep, which live wild all year round, back to the farm for shearing. In fact, the papers only recently had carried stories of a sheep dubbed ‘Shrek’ which had escaped detection for six years and whose coat, when finally sheared, weighed 26 kilos, enough to make twenty suits.

After the demonstration we wandered out of the barn, looking up at the forbidding steep hills and pondered on the hardiness of the shepherds who lived in this beautiful but lonely place.
Then a steam whistle blew from the lake. It was the Earnslaw, come to take us back to the modern world.

The Awesome Foursome

The phone rang while we were enjoying a well-earned post-ski beer at the Dux Deluxe brewpub in Queenstown, New Zealand. It was the guys from AJ Hackett, confirming our 134-metre bungy jump, highest jump in New Zealand and probably the world, and first of a series of adventure pursuits known locally as the Awesome Foursome.

Nevis High Wire Bungy

Early the following morning, we found ourselves bouncing around in a bus climbing up a rickety private track, past a number of unusual little beachcomber-style houses. Part of my stomach was complaining that a glass of water and some paracetamol do not make for a full and satisfying breakfast, while the rest was clenched in a knot of trepidation. It was even worse for Bronwyn, who doesn’t like heights at the best of times, resolutely trying not to look out of the window as the four wheel drive scrabbled along the cliff edge up into Shotover Gorge.
On our arrival at the top, we were confronted by a stationary cable car gondola slung out over the centre of the gorge. To get there, we stood on a little open tray and winched ourselves across. The guide had previously scrawled all our body weights on the back of our hands with permanent marker; at this point he explained that whoever had the biggest number, jumped first, with no exceptions.

Bronwyn glanced around at the handful of midgets and stick-men in the tray, and it didn’t really need a hurried variation on stone-paper-scissors to realise that, yes, she was going first.

In contrast to the young and joking staff that we had seen thus far, the man who greeted us at the gondola door was calm and precise and exuded confident experience, which is exactly what you need when he is about to cuff your ankles to a piece of elastic and throw you out of the window.

The first hurdle is to shuffle to the open door of the gondola and sit in a dentists chair with your feet up. Down to your side, the tiny ribbon of the Shotover River winds along 134 metres below. Each piece of equipment is carefully explained as it is strapped on, particularly the quick-release that allows you to sit up at the end of the jump, so that you are winched back up to the gondola by your waist rather than hanging by your ankles, which would probably be slightly disturbing.

A quick wave to the ever-watching cameras, and then, with your feet strapped firmly together, you shuffle out onto a metal plank stuck out over the ravine. This is by far the hardest part.
This is swiftly followed by the scariest part, which is when the guide throws a big soggy rope bag over the edge. As it drops, it gives your ankles a good sharp tug in the direction that you really, right now, don’t want to go.

Then everybody counts down, and…. you jump.

Once you jump, its such a long way down that initially there’s really no sensation of falling, just a feeling that there is a heck of a lot of wind. Its a lot like sky-diving in that respect. However, there comes a point when you realise that the ground is approaching very fast indeed and you don’t have a parachute, but then suddenly you’ve reached the end of the elastic and you’re shooting skyward, the cable car looms close, and then you’re heading back earthward again. Laughing.

At the top of the second bounce, you pull the rather neat trick ripcord, your ankles swing free, and you find yourself in a sitting position with views up and down the gorge as you are slowly winched back up to the gondola.

On the bus back down, Bronwyn gazed happily out of the windows at the view. Vertigo? What vertigo?

Shotover Jet Boat

Next up was the famous Jet Boat, which plies the rapids on another stretch of the Shotover river. First you climb into wet-weather gear, then you clamber aboard and hang on to the wonderfully heated safety rail as the pilot does his stuff.

Two huge Buick engines power a sixteen-seater speedboat with zero draught and a lunatic for a pilot, who takes great delight in ducking the nose of the craft just past sunken rocks and floating trees, sweeping the passengers merely inches away from overhanging rocks, and executing trademark 360 degree turns, while burning up and down the canyon above Queenstown.
It is extraordinarily exhilarating. The pilots train every day for three months before they’re allowed to take paying passengers, and its easy to see why as you duck under the next rock as the side of the canyon passes inches from your face in a spray-filled blur.

Helicopter up the Canyon

Removing our wet-weather gear, we climbed into wetsuits and boarded a bus out of town. Halfway up the hill, our helicopter was waiting, with white-water rafts rolled up and strapped to its skids. Donning ear-defenders, we clambered aboard.

The pilot didn’t hang about. He wasn’t simply flying us up the valley, he was going to have some fun on the way, so we skimmed along side-canyons and shot vertically out of gorges, swung around huge rock formations and slipped from side to side as we wound our way upstream.
We were all wearing headphones so that we could communicate with the pilot, and the hardest part was not screaming Whoooooooo!!! into the microphone whenever an unlikely stretch of horizon or river appeared in the windscreen.

All too soon, we reached our destination, a spit of gravel in the middle of the Shotover River. The equipment was quickly unloaded, and the chopper returned for another load. When it returned, it raised an enormous and painful cloud of sand and mica, and over the next hour as it ferried people and supplies onto the spit, we got used to hunkering down and closing our eyes as soon as we heard it hot-dogging down the mountainside.

White-water rafting down the Canyon

A petrol generator appeared miraculously from behind a rock, connected to a couple of leaf-blowers which were used to inflate the boats. Once all half-dozen rafts were judged to be firm enough, we were allocated first to a boat and then to a guide, who gave us a little tuition into the meaning of all the various commands that were about to be screamed at us.
Basically these could be reduced to “Paddle like hell!”, “Paddle like hell backwards!” and “Duck!!”. Then we all pushed off into the water to practice. Everybody in the boat of all ages and from all walks of life had to learn very quickly to work together, four to a side with the guide at the back, and then we were off down the first rapid, followed by a very large fit Maori in a surf kayak as support.

At first it was easy enough, and we skimmed down the canyon according to the screams of the guide, Left forward! Right backward! All forward! All stop! The rubber boat was very flexible, and the hardest thing was keeping your seat on the outer edge and your feet wedged under the rails in the middle as it twisted and spun downstream.

Before very long it became clear that some people really weren’t going to pull their weight, and on a particularly awkward corner surrounded by vertical cliffs of wet rock, one of the guys at the front (who was supposed to set the pace for the rest of us) lost the plot completely. The guy behind him stopped paddling, and we smacked bow-first into the wall.

There was a period of wet and dark as the boat folded like a clamshell, bow to stern, and when it opened up again I was the only person remaining on the right hand side. The guide’s paddle floated to the surface and I flung it back to her as she climbed back into the boat, and then it was All forward!! with four people paddling on the left side and only me balancing them on the right, as we went over the next cascade.

Somehow or other it all worked out and we reached the next area of relative calm without going over again. I credit this in some part to my long experience of white-water kayaking, but I was paddling like a maniac and was pretty tired out by the time we reached the safety of the next eddy and picked up two of the missing people.

Bronwyn, however, had completely disappeared. It transpired that she had been sucked under for quite some time before popping up near to the guy in the rescue kayak, who had directed her to some rocks from where she hitched a lift on another raft. It was a bit of a relief to see her clinging to the middle of the next boat as it spat out of the cascade and t-boned us.

The final stretch was relatively easy, but certainly entertaining. The river entered a horizontal bore which was part of an old mineshaft, and we all tucked our heads down as we drifted in the dark to the tiny circle of light below. Then suddenly we erupted into the sunlight and over a final cascade, paddling like furies, before lying back and enjoying the last gentle drift home.

Awesome, just as advertised.