Saturday, November 24, 2007

fiery sun and cold, cold ice

Busy, busy times in our last two weeks in New Zealand - and indeed, of my travels. This time.

Last weekend, we ventured to Abel Tasman national park; NZ's smallest, but one of its most beautiful in my opinion. Unlike the rugged beauty of the many mountain ranges, the rains, snows and high winds, Abel Tasman has beautiful curves of beach, washes of azure ocean with golden sands and thick forestland just metres from the coastline.

We lucked out and managed to sweet-talk a local landowner into letting us camp on his land down a rough track next to a river, a kiwi plantation and forest. Mountains in the distance, the small town just a minute or two's drive.

The following morning, I took an early water taxi up to Tonga, past a few huge, fat seals lounging on the rocks, and walked along the coastline back towards the town, through beautiful beaches at Bark Bay and eventually ending at Anchorage beach after wading across a tidal estury whose waters were rising rapidly.

I walked alone - Alex's foot was still giving him trouble so he and Kath had taken a boat trip - but there were plenty of trampers going my way or the other.

The sun was hot, the wind low. I believe I even got a little bit of colour... Every now and then the winding, uphill, downhill track would crest and I would peak the ocean before descending into dark forest again. Or edge along rocky tracks with thick bush masking the drop away to the sea.

We drove on south, through the Buller gorge and down to the west coast of the south island.

Here, we skirted the land on winding roads with dramatic storm-laden skies and the wind-swept Tasman ravaging the rocky outcrops which here and there rose up monstrously from the shallower waters.

We pulled up at Pancake Rocks - layered formations of weather-beaten, time-condenced stone with huge blowholes which spout furiously at high tide (we missed it by quite a way but it was still very impressive - the roaring seas still making a splash in the caverns).

And then it was down towards the glaciers. We stopped for the night at a small town close to the beach north of Franz Joseph and camped at a community-run campsite. After watching sunset on the large, pebbly beach with a tin mug of goon, we met a Kiwi girl and her English boyfriend and they indugled us by enjoying in a few rounds of 'I'm a chocolate bar, this is my dance', which soon led to confectionary and ice creams. A great, very random evening.

We ummed and aahed over which glacier to climb and how long Alex's foot would hold out before deciding to climb Fox the following afternoon.

It was a long trek up the side of the mountainous glacier - taking us along boulder-strewn paths with signs such as 'No stopping for the next 30 metres due to rockfall risk, up metal ladders and along a sheer cliff face.

And then we attached crampons to our sturdy borrowed leather boots, picked up a snow pole and climbed onto the glacier - stomping our feet like teenagers to grip the ice.

We climbed ready-hewn steps for about twenty minutes and then turned back. It was a little disappointing - I expected huge ice caverns and caves to wander through instead of pretty much up and over the great ridges.

But the glacier itself was pretty impressive, despite the cloudy afternoon obscuring the top half (at least) and the mountains behind. Such power, such weight and pressure. Interestingly, it is advancing (up to a metre a day) but you can see how much larger the glacier once was 30 years ago, and in the preceeding years as well, from the varying lines of vegetation and rock formation.

The following morning we checked out Franz Joseph glacier from the ground and then headed down to Queenstown.

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