Happy Landing

It was soggy weather driving up through the West Coast with minimal windows of blue skies.  Although we hadn’t pre-planned many activities for our itinerary, we had geared ourselves up to do a Heli-flight to one of the glaciers.

One of many inspiring quotes on the pontoon at Lake Matheson.

We stopped in Fox Glacier thinking we’d take a flight from there.  Our plans were thwarted by the weather with rain closing in all around us. We also wanted to take in Lake Matheson which is nearby. On our first trip out to the lake we took the walking trail through the ancient native forest to a pontoon that extends out onto the lake which is where most of the iconic ‘picture postcard’ photographs showcasing the stunning reflections of New Zealand’s Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in the lake, are photographed from.  The lake is surrounded by tall rimu and kahikatea trees with the resident birds creating their own symphony orchestra.          

No mountain reflections in Lake Matheson, but the bush made some.

The easy walk among nature was certainly worth the effort once we’d arrived at and descended the stairs to the pontoon there was no iconic reflection to be had, thanks to the grey skies and low light. Most of the lakes are surrounded with bush that offer an abundance of easy to difficult walking trails and if you are keen to reconnect with nature, then these walks are the best way to do it.

This is what happened to us as we started to look for more bushwalks nearby the areas where we were camping or parked up.  Once on the walk, we became acutely aware of what was around us and started to notice the smallest of things – like a tiny red dot on bright green growth – ‘oh it’s fungi’; or the slightest movement of a tiny creature. The smells can vary from sweet to pungent and we definitely enjoyed the latest sounds from the feathered residents. 

On our return bush walk we discovered a variety of small, coloured mushrooms, many native to New Zealand. The rich soil combined with the lush moss covering the banks and the forest floor provided the perfect habitat for these species to flourish. The fungi appeared in all shapes, sizes and colours – from tiny cone like shapes no bigger than the nail on a pinkie finger, to the translucent blue on the very pretty blue caps to the deep beige of small mushrooms clustered so close together it looks like a bed of sponges. And that was the day I decided to leave my Nikon camera in Moti! Nevertheless Chris managed to photograph some of the blue caps. 

An imperfect blue cap.

Needless to say Lake Matheson has been added to the ’unfinished business’ list for the next southern adventure. 

Even though the rain continued for the next 24 hours we drove to Franz Josef with everything crossed for better weather.  At least the campground at Franz had a cosy bar which made a pre-dinner drink, in front of a large open fire, that much more enjoyable.

On waking the next morning, Chris’s first words to me were, “the choppers are flying”!  Breakfast, showers and domestic duties were completed in record time and we were hightailing it down to the ‘Heli-Services’ depot on main street Franz.  We could hear and see their chopper lifting off from the landing pad nearby, and with very blue skies we thought we’d be in luck.

The weather we could see in the township was very different to what was  happening at some nine kilometres and 300 metres altitude away. Swiftly moving clouds were creeping closer to the landing area on the glacier, preventing flights that had the all clear on departure, to not being able to land. 

HeliServices NZ offer scenic flights to Franz Josef glacier – one of nature’s most breathaking experiences.

Fortunately we were on a flight within 30 minutes. I have to admit that while I was excited I also felt nervous about getting into a helicopter. However once the process of boarding and seating is complete; safety belts and headphones on the nerves dissipated as quickly as the chopper gently rose from the ground. There were no bumps or air pockets like a small plane, and before we knew it,we were face to face with the forest trees lining the hills, which then gave way to the dark brown, craggy rock face, and then the snowy peaks.

Looking down directly into the crevices and folds of the glacier was both mesmerising and terrifying at the same time.  Mesmerising because your eyes are scanning the patterns and colours of the ice and terrifying because you can’t help think of the consequences of putting a foot wrong on a climb!  The reality of the harshness and severity of the crevices and the skill a mountaineer would need to climb the glacier, was a step too far for me.

It’s difficult to perceive the true depth of the crevices.

Parts of the glacier were very dirty which the pilot said was the residue from ash and smoke from previous years’ Australian bush fires. Other parts were pristine white and of course you could see the usual turquoise sparkling back when you looked deep into the crevices.

The glacier is receeding at the rate of one rugby field per year.

Our pilot was excellent and knew the glacier like the back of his hand, having been flying in the area for nine years. No sooner had we touched down we were out onto the glacier. I was expecting to sink into soft ice but it was firmly packed and easy to walk on.  To be that high up with ice, rocks, blue sky and clean air around us was breath-takingly beautiful. It was almost too hard to comprehend the beauty and sheer scale of it all. The 10 minutes on the glacier literally was ‘heaven on earth’ or ‘peace and quiet’.

Flying towards the landing area.

As we returned to base it seemed as if the pilot had put the helicopter into slow motion and we were inches away from the rock faces on the opposite side of the mountains (as our upward flight).  If I’d had an open window I felt I could have scraped my hand or my lens along the rocks – they ‘appeared’ that close.

The rockface was raw and rugged.

Sharing the flight were two Australian tourists and all four of us were euphoric at our 30 minute morning jolly. Being quiet and slow in the season, the company had reduced the rate but given that it’s usually a once-off experience we still would have made the flight at their regular price.

Walking on the glacier and looking up and around us.

We feel like we’ve made memories to last us a life time.

The Waiho River which skirts the township of Franz Josef is fed by meltwater from the glacier. Minimal tributaries were evident.

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