As New Zealand was in the midst of their winter we decided to spend only three weeks in the cold again before searching out some serious island sunshine.

This was certainly not enough time to make the most of this beautiful country and although the sun was out when we arrived, it deserted us after a few days and the constant clouds and rain stayed with us for the rest of the journey.

However the scenary, especially in the South Island helped raise the spirits – with dramatic ‘wow’ factor views over every hill.

We landed in Christchurch and spent a day or so organising ourselves with an NZ mobile phone, local internet access and shopped around for a good deal on a rental car. After also kitting ourselves out with warmer clothes we left on a bright sunny morning for the first adventure – driving over the Southern Alps via Arther’s Pass.

We’d been told that there had been fresh snow over night and that we might have to fit snow chains to the car for part of the trip. It promised to be exciting. As we approached the mountains we could see each one was topped with white and sure enough as we started the ascent it started to snow gently.

It was quite a shock to the system opening the car door half way up to be greeted with ice cold winds and snow flurries – this was a first on the trip. Unfortunately the clouds had descended so we missed some of the splendour of the scenery, but the general Alpine atmosphere was a novelty in itself.

We got to the top of the range arriving at Arther’s Pass around lunchtime and stopped for a cuppa in a tiny cafe nestled in to the moutain side. All their supply trucks had been delayed due to the weather but this was winter and everyone was used to it.

Moving on we passed through amazing mountain views. Large lakes surrounded by snowy peaks and the like. Bearing in mind we’d seen mostly coast and desert for the last few months this was fabulous.

Finally reached the west coast and, typically, the sun came out again. We’d intended to stay the night around here, but none of the small towns we passed through were particularly inviting so we pushed on to the Glaciers further south.

Driving was a pleasure. Open roads, next to no traffic and after Daisy the Van a car with five gears and power steering. Great.

We pulled in to the Franz Josef Glacier village as twilight approached and found a small lodge with log cabins and an outdoor hot tub for a couple of nights. Our plan was to take a trip up the glacier the next day and then move on.

We found the local pub – where thankfully you could still have a cigarette after eating – and got talking to a group of tourists from England. They too were going up the glacier the following day and talked us in to investigating the full-on ‘Heli-Hike’ option. This involves a deathride helicopter trip round the moutain, being dropped off high up the glacier and then hiking around the ice for a couple of hours before a flight back down. Pricey, but fairly unique so we took the plunge and booked ourselves in for the afternoon session.

The next morning we woke to clear skies and bright sunshine. No danger of the trip being cancelled due to weather then. As lunchtime approached I quietly began to question the whole idea. All those that know me will understand my reluctance to pay good money to be thoroughly exhausted and not a little apprehensive throughout the ordeal!

Still, swallowing my fears we arrived at the offices to sign away all responsibility of the crew and declare ourselves ‘fit’ (?!).

Then came the fitting of snow boots and crampons, plus your very own ice pick thingy. Doubts were building again.

In no time at all we were in the helicopter and plunging towards the moutain at break-neck speed. It was completely exhilarating, the pilot showing us no mercy dipped and swooped over the glacier face giving us the most amazing views and stomach turns. I’d have been happy to stop there and relax with a G&T but it was only the start of the fun.

Landing on the ice we were told to carefully make our way over the mirror smooth glacier to a holding area while the helicopter took off. Being the last to land we were watched with amusement as we all took baby steps down to the others, all of whom had gone through this first test moments earlier.

There were two glacier guides and we were asked to split in to two groups – those who wanted a more physical experience to move to the left. I don’t think the last syllable was out of his mouth before I scuttled to the right mindless of the hazardous ice in my haste to join the ‘girly’ group. Due to numbers Nigel ended up in the roughty toughty guide’s lot which in retrospect probably suited us both.

Then it was on with the crampons, a quick lesson in how to avoid hari-kari with your ice pick and ‘off we go’ a-glacier hiking.

The group I was with consisted of an out-doorsy Australian couple, a family from Devon and two Japanese girls who spoke no english and couldn’t fix their crampons on properly. Our guide was a Tasmanian GI-Jane called Kate. She seemed to live for danger and having exhausted what Australia had to offer was now working her way through New Zealand’s challenges.

So, the glacier. It’s hard to describe but imagine a vast avalanche of ice that is sliding down a moutain towards the sea. It’s full of deep ice-caves and scary crevices. Some passages are so narrow you have to cut chunks out of the wall before sqeezing through. It’s constantly changing shape and when the sun’s out can be quite treacherous come late afternoon.

Kate our intrepid guide had picked out a vague route that would show us some of the highlights whilst testing our fitness and nerve. Bless her.

If this was the ‘girly group’ then God help Nigel and his lot. From the first it was tough going with footholds disappearing and crevice floors dropping away in to ice cold water. It was also a lot of fun! Each step required concentration and it literally kept you on your toes – or crampons – each minute.

We got into a couple of scrapes when nearing the end of the first hour. The most alarming was when one of the Japanese girls fell in to a crevice up to her armpits in freezing water. After struggling like a mad thing and screaming in Japanese she was eventually helped out and after a while, once she’d stopped shaking, managed to see the funny side of it.

We were all getting along well, helping each other out when footholds started to melt and the like. Everyone thought I was travelling daringly solo until Nigel’s group appeared out of nowhere (literally) and we swapped tales.

The last challenge of the hike was a vertical descent down a wall of ice using a rope. Sound like fun? Well it did look a bit hairy when standing at the top, but we all managed it and even cut out some ice steps for the roughty toughties behind us!

We made it back to the pick-up site in one piece, albeit with one party member still dripping and then jumped in to the helicopter for a ‘deathride’ home.

Back at sea level we retired to the nearest bar and celebrated survival a bit too much with another couple of fellow hikers.

The next day I found it hard to walk, but looked back at the piccies and agreed it was well worth the pain!






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