Today was the day for the big SKI trip! The day dawned with clear skies and sunshine, so we were full of anticipation for our helicopter flight later on. After breakfast, we made our scheduled status call to the helicopter company, only to have our anticipation converted to frustration. They were now saying that we were on standby and that we would only be able to go if the other four passengers were within the weight limits for the six-seat Squirrel helicopter; otherwise, these people would be taken on the four-seat Hughes 500 and we would miss out. We were told to report to the office in Fox Village at 10:15, for weigh-in and to find out if the flight was going to go with us or without us!! We were not Happy Little Vegemites and it took some self-control to set aside the sense that we were being sidelined because we were not full fare paying pax.
Anyway, we turned up as appointed and it transpired that two of the other pax were just under the 120kg limit and the company was able to distribute us around the cabin to achieve a safe weight and balance solution. We were now much happier and then we forgave them all their imagined sins when we found out that Angela had been assigned seat 1 - in the centre, front row; and Ray had seat 6 - left hand window, back row! The two best seats in the house!
Now happy as two little piggies in mud, we were driven out to the heliport, climbed aboard and were off. We crossed to the lower reaches of the Franz Josef Glacier with great views to the ocean and the approaching mountains, then flew up the FJG to a snow landing in the névé at about 8000’ or so. We wandered around for about ten minutes while our pilot, Michael, pointed out all the main peaks and answered plenty of questions.
All too soon, we took off and flew alongside the Tasman Glacier - which we will visit next week - with views to Lake Tasman; passed close by Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the two highest peaks in New Zealand; flew down the length of the Fox Glacier, with excellent views of the icefalls, crevasses and other formations; and finally turned for the Heliport where we landed perfectly on a trolly, little wider than the skids of the helicopter. After all the uncertainty leading up to the flight, it ended up being one of the stellar events of our trip so far.
We returned to our forest lodge, well-satisfied with the morning, and decided that we could not spend the rest of that beautiful day indoors. So we packed up our gear and headed off to Franz Josef Glacier again, this time to hike the valley up to the glacier observation point. The walk is initially through what is termed succession forest, where vegetation has reclaimed ground abandoned by the glacier, but that soon petered out to a more barren moraine environment. We now found ourselves hiking over rocks and debris that just decades before had been locked inside the glacier.
It was fascinating to see the clear lines on the valley walls where major shrubs and trees had yet to make an impact below the recent level of the glacier, while various lichen and other small plants were already colonising those areas. The FJG also had many more waterfalls than the Fox, which added to the dramatic atmosphere of the valley. Also adding to the atmosphere was rain! This was not forecast but, having learnt the hard way not to trust New Zealand’s weather, we were prepared and soldiered on in our waterproofs!
The view of the glacier from the end of the walk was excellent and, because the rain had sent everyone else packing, we had it to ourselves. The helicopters were especially busy and we watched as several of them flew up the South wall of the valley, landed on the glacier, then returned above the North wall. As we walked back to the car park, the rain eased and it soon became obvious that there was a micro-climate effect in play higher up the valley, which had caused the rain.
Being our last night in FJG, feeling deserving of a treat, and being too lazy to cook, we headed out to the Alice May restaurant, the number 1 place to dine in FJG, according to TripAdvisor. Not that that attracted us - it was the $20 specials and Happy Hour prices that did it! It is also a very good-looking restaurant and the meals were excellent, as was the craft beer - what more could you want?
Tomorrow, we head off to Queenstown. The local weather is forecast to be wet and miserable, so it looks like a good time to leave. We have had a terrific time in Glacier Country and are now looking forward to and equally good experience in Southland.