Get to the Chopper! Franz Josef Glacier

We went on a helicopter! And climbed a glacier! And saw a kiwi! So not a bad day, all-in-all.

After a 5am alarm, we headed up the west coast, home to two of the most fast-moving glaciers in the world. At first light, we caught a brief glimpse of the first, Fox Glacier, and ploughed on to Franz-Josef Glacier where we were due to check-in for our heli-hike at 9.30am.

One slight hitch. At 9.05, Joe announced he wasn’t feeling great. At 9.10, he was jumping out the passenger seat and hastily throwing up at the side of the road. We’d survived the hawker markets of Singapore and Malaysia, and some very dodgy-looking street fare in Cambodia, but it appears Joe had been taken down by some fancy blue cheese (again).

At 9.15, we were easing Barry’s spinning wheels out of the mud that our hasty stop had landed us in. And by 9.25 I was sweet-talking the check-in desk to see if we could move our trip. Thankfully, they agreed to fit us in the next day. Phew.

Before long, Joe was feeling a lot better, so we spent the day pottering around the impressive glacier valley in the sunshine and came across a local kiwi sanctuary. Now, Joe has been obsessed with these rare little birds ever since we arrived in NZ (getting excited at every kiwi-related bit of tourist tat – and there is a LOT of kiwi tat), so the sanctuary made its way firmly onto the ‘to-do’ list, making for a busy next day.

It was well worth the visit. Did you know a kiwi lays eggs that are the same relative size as a human giving birth to a six year old?! They can live to 70 years old, but they can’t fly, despite having teensy wings. Instead, they spend their time foraging on the forest floor with their long beak, complete with nostrils at the end, making them the creatures with the second best sense of smell in the world. Impressive little things! But they are endangered thanks to an array of predators introduced by Europeans in the 19th century – only 2% of kiwi eggs survive to adulthood in the wild.

After years of dwindling numbers, NZ conservationists are now acting as care-takers, looking after eggs and baby kiwis until they reach a kilo in size and their chances of survival against a stoat, cat or possum are much improved. We got to see two young kiwis, soon to be released into the wild. In their darkened home, you can hear them scuttling around long before your eyes adjust enough to see them, and they really are very cute, snuffling around in the logs for grubs, and running about at impressive speed. Their quirky little bodies really do look like all those keyrings, cuddly toys and t-shirts… one of which Joe is now wearing with pride.

From one excitement to the next – it was helicopter time! We got completely kitted out from woolly hat to woolly sock, and headed to the landing pad. Just like in the movies, the wind was incredible as the helicopter landed. We boarded, donned our headset, and then we were off. The motion was surprisingly gentle, delivering impressive angles on the turns, and fantastic panoramic views. We were in a helicopter!

We landed on the ice, and scuttled away to put on crampons ready to hike. The glacier moves up to seven metres in a day, gliding on meltwater closest to the rock surface. At steep sections, gravity helps the ice move faster than the general flow and the glacier splits into deep crevices. At times chunks of ice fall down and re-freeze, forming huge jagged boulders on the ice below. We squeezed through the narrow crevices, walls of ice brushing both arms, and were able to see the layers of translucent blue ice that had been compacted down under the pressure from snow and ice above. The sheer power of mother nature is undeniable. The glacier feeds a thundering waterfall, flowing at a staggering pace day-in day-out, which briefly appears and then disappears under the ice, only emerging where the glacier meets the river bed far below. This is nature at its most untouched, most baffling and most formidable.