Sunday, March 2, 2014

New Zealand Day 19: Franz Josef Glacier and Haast Pass

Despite a somewhat gloomy forecast and some light rain in the morning, Hilary and I planned to spend the morning doing a hike that would bring us to a viewpoint overlooking the Franz Josef glacier.  We had packed our bags the night before so that, theoretically, we could make an early start of it in the morning.  We rousted B from her loft and bundled her next door to M and Deen’s camper – they had their own plans for the morning – and drove off.

Our first stop was the Dept of Conservation visitor center, where we hoped to get some additional information about the weather, activities in the area (it doubles as the local i-Site), and get some info about the Fox Glacier, which we hoped to visit that afternoon.  They had a neat scale model of the local topography (vertical scale NOT exaggerated).

The light is the Franz Josef Glacier itself.  They also had a pretty impressive demonstration of just how much rain (and snow) this area on the side of the mountains receives.

That tall bar is Franz Josef, which receives 4000 mm of rainfall annually!  Everyone else is around 1000-1500 mm.

It’s a good thing we stopped by!  The Roberts Point Track was, in fact, closed due to flood damage.  Bummer.  The alternatives were the much shorter (1 hr round trip) Glacier View walk, which heads up the bottom of the valley to the snout of the glacier, and the much longer (8 hrs round trip) Alex Knob Track, which was more than we had time for today.  So, OK, off to the Glacier View.

The rain poured as we made our way up to the mostly empty parking area.

We locked up and set Bunny on guard duty:

The hit the trail:

The first half of the trail goes through young forest.  This part of the valley was under ice just a century ago.

The trail then breaks out of the forest and into the open glacier valley.

The glacier is, obviously, at the head of the valley.  However, due to climate change, it has been rapidly retreating and is not visible from this point.  Where I stood to take the previous image was once the end point of the trail, where the glacier ended decades before.  The signs next to where I stood had another illustration from just the past few years.

We walked up the valley over the glacial moraine.  What a rubbish heap (of rock and gravel)!  Through the middle, the river flowed - swift and cold – a battleship grey color.  On either side numerous waterfalls cascaded down the valley walls.  These are not glacier-fed, but rather come from the copious rain.  The streams they make are clear, rather than choked with sediment.  Being rain-fed rather than glacier melt, these waterfalls and streams are nominally warmer than the main river, and some of our information indicated they’d be a fun place for an impromptu shower.  They were still quite cold on this day, though.

We saw some neat effects of water and ice on the rocks.

As we got closer, we started to encounter a fierce wind rushing down the valley off the glacier.  This was flowing in the direction opposite the prevailing winds from the coast, which drive all the weather inland.  The rain had, however, mostly let up by this point, and the clouds were gradually lifting enough for us to see our goal.

Because the glacier is retreating so quickly, the condition of the end of the trail varies almost daily.  Rangers make daily walks up to the snout of the glacier to check conditions.  There are large areas cordoned off with yellow rope, and informative signs warning of the dangers on the other side:

Danger of ice and rocks falling on your head!  Missing were two other signs we’d seen in a pamphlet

Hilary was hoping to see the “Ice Falls on your head and then you drown” sign.  Oh well.

At the end of the track there is a big pile of moraine, with a  bit of ice still in it, and a prominent barrier that tells you to go no further.

You! Shall not! Pass! 
And newspaper clippings of what has happened to people who didn’t heed the warnings:

In the upper right corner you can see a picture of a backhoe being used to move ice blocks to recover the body of some dead tourist.  Cripes!

The icefall of the glacier itself is quite lovely:

The glacier extends higher and for several miles further up the valley.  Goodness only knows for how much longer, though.

We headed back into town after that, and met up with M at a coffee shop.  Hilary thought they had a neat timer to go with her tea.

Deen and B had been visiting another local attraction: the Kiwi House, where they rear and work to protect the endangered Rowi Kiwi.

B also got to play inside a fake glacier

Because the walk to see the glacier was so easy, we brought the whole crew back to have a look.  By this point it was raining again (more rain on the moraine, right?):

The rain began to let up as we came out from the forest.  B worked to earn her Kiwi Ranger badge for this park too.  One activity was to rub some stones together to create the “rock flour” that gives the river its opaque color:

And also to draw and describe different rocks from the valley floor:

We did not make it all the way up to the end of the trail, in part because the low clouds would not have made for a great view.  But we came close enough for B to have a decent look:

Then back to the visitor center for B to receive her Kiwi Ranger badge!

Our next planned stop had been less than an hour further down the way: the Fox Glacier.  Apparently, the walking track there has been moved a bit since the glacier has retreated, and provides a stunning and up close view.  However, when we were at the visitor center, we noticed a bulletin about the road further on, between Haast and our destination for the night: Wanaka.  Due to rock fall and flooding, part of that road has been reduced to alternate one-way, and sections of it are closed from 6 pm to 8 am.  In order to make it over the Haast Pass and on to Wanaka tonight, we would have to skip the Fox Glacier (rain and clouds made that a dubious stop, anyway), and really book it to Haast, where there is a checkpoint that closes to pass-bound traffic at 6 pm.

Book it we did, and made it through the checkpoint at 5:56!  We pulled over to the side of the road a few km down the way to celebrate and use the bathroom.

Then on and into the Southern Alps!

Our Frenzy guidebook noted several quick stops worth a look along the Haast Pass road.  One of them, Depot Creek Falls, is unmarked from the road – just a gravel carpark with a “wee path [leading] one minute to the secretive waterfall.”

Very nice!

We kept on moving, and approached another, more prominent waterfall at Timber Creek:

Unfortunately, we could go no further from here.  Not mentioned anywhere was the fact that there is a second checkpoint at Timber Creek.  It had been gated and locked for the night not long before we arrived. 
You! Shall not! Pass!
Had we driven straight from Haast we may have made it, but even that timing seemed doubtful.  We felt deeply misled.

We backtracked several kilometers to a DOC site called Pleasant Flats.  We were still a bit steamed about being blocked short of Wanaka, but the location was pretty great:

With nothing else to do, we made dinner (a quinoa salad with beans, corn, and cilantro) and settled in for a quiet sleep.  That is not to say that we did any better tonight getting B to bed early – it was still 10 PM before lights out.  Bad parents!

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