#72 Walk on a Glacier: Part 1

This particular item seemed to be quite elusive to me and took me three attempts, which spanned nearly four and a half years. Some bucket list items are easy to achieve. It is just a matter of planning to go do it and then following through. However, walking on a glacier proved to be much different. I will recap the first two attempts in this post and then the story of how it was finally completed will be told in my next post.

Attempt #1

While travelling through New Zealand in 2013, my friend Kyle and I found ourselves in Queenstown, then Wanaka and then heading up the West Coast. The West Coast of New Zealand is a rugged place as it cops the brunt of the weather systems that come in from the Tasman Sea. As a result, the West Coast is a rainforest but also has many glaciers in the Southern Alps. Two of them, the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier, have been made famous as they are two of the three glaciers in the world that stretch from the mountains and terminate in the rainforest.

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The rugged West Coast
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glacier

I knew our plans were taking us up the West Coast so going to one of the glaciers was on my radar. This would have allowed me to cross another item off my bucket list. However, New Zealand is not a cheap country to travel around. Also, four nights of living it up in Queenstown and skiing for a few days put a hammering on my already dwindling bank account. As we hit the West Coast I was down to the last $1,000 that I had to my name.

The cost for a guided walk up to the glaciers was $450, nearly half of my remaining balance. We had not secured work, and did not know how long it would take to find jobs, so I made a mature decision to withhold spending any more money until we returned to New Plymouth. We stayed in Franz Josef for a couple nights and did some other free tourist adventures but I was quite disappointed that money was the thing stopping me from completing something that was at my fingertips.

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Fox Glacier
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Cliffs carved from ice movement
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Fox Glacier
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Did not actually set foot on it for safety reasons
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Oh well, I knew the glacier was not going to melt any time soon and my plan was to stay in New Zealand for a while so I decided to put it on the back burner. It was a good decision that I saved the money as I made it down to my last $6 before the pay cheques began to roll in.

Attempt #2

After completing my paperwork to receive my private pilot licence, in September 2015, I began doing small flights around New Zealand on the weekends. This was good training because I wanted to go on a serious mission. I asked my friend, Peter, if he would join me on a one-week trip, where the plan was to fly down to Queenstown over the Christmas holidays. Peter is scared of heights and not the best in small planes but he agreed and we began to plan our trip.

My flight plan involved flying from New Plymouth to Kaikoura, crossing the South Island to Greymouth and then tracking down the West Coast to Franz Josef. The plan was to spend a couple nights in Franz Josef to allow us to go on the Heli hike, which I had missed out on 2013.

Peter was also excited, because he had always wanted to go whale watching for humpback whales and Kaikoura is one of the best spots in the country for whale watching. However, when Peter checked the website he realised that it was not the right time of the year for humpback whales. We decided to skip the whales for this trip but the plan was still to make it to Franz Josef.

We took off from New Plymouth on the morning of 19th December. It was beautiful weather across the North Island and our flight down the coast was enjoyable. After crossing the Cook Strait to the South Island, the weather began to change. We landed in Kaikoura without any issues but, upon arriving, we checked with the local aero club regarding the weather in the area and the chances of making it over to the West Coast. It did not look good for the rest of the day and rain was starting to sprinkle on us at the aerodrome so we decided to call it a day and stay in Kaikoura for the night.

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Cook Strait ferry
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Our crossing route

The next morning we arranged for one of the pilots from the whale watching excursions to pick us up in town and take us to the aerodrome with him. The weather was fine in Kaikoura and a bit of cloud was forecasted for the West Coast but some webcams were showing clear patches. We decided to go for a flight and check it out. As we arrived over to the West Coast we found that it had been blanketed in a thick cover of cloud that stretched as far as we could see. The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, meaning land of the long white cloud. On that day, I understood the name better than I ever had before.

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Cloud bank
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Needless to say there was no way we were going to make it to Franz Josef, so Peter called our tour company to tell them we were not going to make it. They advised us that the tour had been cancelled as the low cloud affects their ability to safely transfer passengers up to the glacier using their helicopters.

We retraced our steps and made our way back to the Kaikoura aerodrome, feeling a bit defeated, again. This time it was weather that kept me from completing my goal, not money. When we arrived back to the east coast we were greeted by fantastic weather.

On our way back to Kaikoura

Just as we landed one of the pilots walked by and told us that three sperm whales were going to be up in five minutes, as he tapped his index finger on his watch. I chuckled a bit, unsure of how he knew when the whales were going to surface. I was curious so I asked him and he told me that they have a very regimented breathe hold and they come up for air roughly every 40 minutes. After explaining this to me he said, “Jump back in your plane and follow me out, we are taking off right now.”

Peter and I looked at each other and then both went for the plane doors. We hopped in the plane and I did my pre-flight checks, quickly. We followed his lead, took off from the runway and began heading out towards where two tourist vessels were located. On the flight out, the pilot explained to me, over the radio, to stay at 1,500 feet and fly in a constant circle. He was going to fly between 500-1,000 feet to give the paying customers a better look. This was fine for us as we could see plenty from 1,500 feet.

We arrived over top of the whales and I initiated a banked turn at 1,500 feet, dipping Peter’s side of the plane down towards the whales for a better look. There were two whales at our location and one at another location. I felt like the pilot of an AC-130 gunship, flying high over enemy territory. I maintained this bank for about 15 minutes while we watched the whales play.

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Two sperm whales

We may not have made it to the glacier but we did manage to get a pretty awesome self-piloted whale watching tour. This definitely made the day worthwhile. After landing back at the aerodrome we changed our plans and decided to head down to Queenstown a day early. Again, putting bucket list item #72 on the back burner.

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Transiting in towards Queenstown
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Make sure to check back for my next post, #72 Walk on a Glacier: Part 2, which will tell the story of how I was finally able to cross this item off my bucket list.

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