2 weeks in NZ: Glacier hunting and blue pools

Itching intensely from the previous evening’s sandfly attack, and with dozens of the little fuckers still in the van, I set off back from Gillespies Beach to the nearest town on the main road, Fox Glacier. 

I wandered around the many outdoor shops, marvelling at the many expensive gadgets I could probably just about justify in terms of usage but not really cash. In the end I settled for a Spork. Everyone needs a Spork. To be fair, it also incorporated a knife and was much less than a fiver. Happy days. I also begrudgingly coughed up for a pricey coffee and cake in order to be able to use the cafe’s wifi and power facilities #digitalgypsy. The places in NZ seem really switched on to pikey gits like me just coming in and nursing a coffee for hours whilst using their internet- You only get a generated access code with lasts for 30mins. I’ve seen similar systems at loads of places. At least it means that it works well, but there was no way I was buying another $5 coffee every half hour!

I looked into glacier flights, and found some good deals. I definitely did pick a somewhat spooky day to do it, given that it was just a few weeks since a fatal helicopter crash on the glacier claiming several lives, and also the day of the pilot’s funeral. I found one company with a departure an hour hence- Ideal. A 20min flight was NZ$240- Just over a hundred quid. 

I was picked up from the centre with two lovely Chinese women, from Beijing and Xian, and taken to the nearby helipad where we were boarded straight away. The weather was deteriorating fast, and we were likely to lose our flight that day if we didn’t hurry, poor weather is apparently the cause of the last crash so they are very ‘on the ball’ about changing conditions now.

Copilot Donati

The flight and the views were incredible, but my pictures do not do it justice, the pilot clearly knew his stuff and hence we were constantly at strange angles or flying within metres of the glacier faces. Therefore a bit tricky to take photos, these are the best of the hundred or so I took through the occasional rain and bizarre angles of attack. Incredible experience and I’m stoked that I got to do it. 

Glacier from above

Weather closing in over the mountains…

We landed on the glacier and the Chinese women had to be gently herded away from the tail rotor as they strove to achieve the perfect selfie. I had a brief chat with the pilot about the nature of Chinese tourism and we agreed that they were a good bunch really, despite the slight photographic overload! They now specifically ban iPads and selfie sticks on the scenic flights.

Our man in Fox

The 20min flight actually ended up being a 30min one as this was what the others had booked. Free upgrade- Result! As such we were able to see both the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. As we came into land, the voice over the radio indicated that there was no more flying for the day… Phew!

Top of the mountains

Fox Glacier and upper (closed) observation hut

Magnificent flow of Franz Josef Glacier

Choppers safely grounded

Despite the rubbish weather in the afternoon, I needed to stretch my legs so headed for the Fox Glacier walk. I was expecting something similar to the Franz Josef trek from yesterday but actually most of the path was closed due to a landslide so it was a 15min round trip… D’Oh! We photographed the top shelter from the helicopter and you can get really close to the terminal face of the glacier when conditions permit, but not today.

So, it was time to hit the road and put in some distance towards my goal of Wanaka. The road from Fox was good, and not quite as windy as previous stretches so it was a case of foot down, 100kph most of the way, albeit with an afternoon coffee and cake stop. One has needs! I had to combine this with a concerted sandfly assassination attempt since, once I was in the back of the van, I was again attacked with vigour by dozens of stowaways. I can’t emphasise how resilient they are, even flying through a cloud of Vietnamese nuclear DEET repellent without batting an eyelid. If they had them, of course.

I was enjoying putting in some distance, particularly since the weather outside was appalling, but had to make a stop at the Blue Pools just outside Makarora. I’d been recommended to go there by someone along the way, and upon stopping I found that they were only 15mins walk away through the rain- Another thick, ancient forest to see.

I’m not sure about the science of New Zealand’s intensely blue, clear water however it has wowed me upon every occasion I’ve stopped so far. This was no exception- The blue pools are the meeting point of 2 rivers with a beautiful, clear point in the middle, apparently home to loads of large fish although I missed them on the day in question.

I was idly pondering if it would be safe to swim there the next day- It seems like a great spot but slightly safer at a time of lower rainfall! 

And so, onwards. I’d checked the DOC information board there which indicated a couple of possible campsites. With evening approaching I decided to stop at Makarora Campground, a well-equipped private site with cafe, showers etc for a reasonable 12 bucks a night. Whilst there a school party from Australia were being briefed by their leaders on a multi-day “tramp” which they had planned for the next day. This really took me back to my Duke of Edinburgh days with the same dire warnings about packing stuff, and the same old issues with people forgetting things!

I got talking to Dave, one of the supervisors for the trip and a professional guide. Inspiration again hit me as we chatted about the Pacific Crest Trail, which he had walked the length of. I really hope I make it to the USA as I’d love to do a great trail- Maybe not the PCT in its three month entirety but certainly a couple of weeks on the Appalachian Trail would be amazing. Plans… If I do get to the US I’d be hitting it about the right time too, to avoid the High Sierra snows.

On that point actually, I had no idea how much portable water purifiers had come on these days… I later found this amazing bit of kit in a NZ outdoor store, it uses UV light to purify the water and never runs out. Amazing. Can any readers comment if they’ve used one or if it actually works? A £90 water bottle is a heavy price to pay but for unlimited safe water worldwide… Excuse the hastily snapped iPhone photo.

The Camelbak “All Clear”

In a scenic but sheltered campsite, with no winged bastards troubling me and the temperature higher than it had been for a few nights, this was a good sleep.


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