February 27 - March 2 - Glacier Country


Glacier country is just beautiful. I know I'm repeating myself again and again. Hey, not my fault this country is so beautiful. So, Franz Josef glacier it was for today. The drive was actually longer than I expected so I checked out the options I might be interested in doing and talked to the DOC (Department of Conservation - or Conversation?) a bit. I eventually booked a guided walk to the foot of the glacier. The helicopter option was just a bit over my budget for now. (Oh dear, I just spelled 'budget' 'butchet' - brain, wake up, it's past noon.)

I'm glad I did the guided tour the next day because we got excellent information about the area, the plants and geology around, and, of course, the glacier and the ecological impact on it. Our guide, Matt (from Tennessee actually) was a great and funny guy. Just what you need. While we were all wearing decent hiking boots (some of us even water proof boots provided by the company) and waterproof jackets and even pants (also provided) Matt went barefoot in his hiking sandals (Keens type). He even went to the glacier river and got us some big chunks of glacier ice to look at and touch. The water of the river is so cold that it produces a layer of smoke or rather condensation on its surface. That's why the river is called Smoky River in the Maori language.

I'm going to share two stories here that Matt told us. If you're interested, read on, if not skip ahead 😉

Story number one: Why is Franz Josef Glacier called Franz Josef Glacier? It's not even an English name, let alone a Maori one. Very German instead. So, Franz Josef was Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and Hungary in the 19th century. What? You didn't know he'd been to New Zealand too? No surprise because he hadn't. I'm not even sure he knew where New Zealand was.

Franz Julius Haast, later von Haast, was a German geologist, born in Bonn in 1822. He came to New Zealand in 1858 working for a British company who had hired him to find out about the suitability of New Zealand for German immigrants. He surveyed both islands of New Zealand.

Here I come to the story Matt has told us. Haast was hoping to make a bit more money and decided it might be a good idea to approach the wealthy and powerful emperor Franz Josef. (My German readers will recognise that name from the lovely Sissi films 😉 ) In hope of getting a good sum of money by naming a glacier after his highness, Haast renamed Victoria glacier (after Queen Victoria of England) Franz Josef glacier. His reward for that was a few goats. Goats! Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the emperor's response. After all, he had glaciers in his country too and who cared about an island on the other side of the world anyway?

Haast was not amused. Instead of naming anything after anybody else anymore, he just named lots of things after himself. That's how we've got the town of Haast, Haast glacier, Haast river, Haast eagle (the ginormous eagle that extinguished after the moa, its main food source, had extinguished too), and more things baring his name.

Haast was a renowned geologist and later founded Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. Haast was knighted in England and died in Christchurch in 1887.

Story number two: Kā Roimata o Hinehukatere, the Maori name for the glacier. Like so many places in New Zealand, this one too has a name in Te Reo, the Maori language. Translated it means 'The frozen tears of Hinehukatere'. With a name like that comes a story of course. Ngāi Tahu (the local Māori tribe) tell the tragic story of Hinehukatare and her love. This is how Matt told it:

For a Maori person it was very unusual to climb the snowy mountains because it's very dangerous without the proper gear. Mind you, they didn't have the crampons nor appropriate gear. More unusual even was it a woman would do that. Hine loved climbing the mountains. The other reason Maori wouldn't climb up the mountain is it's where the gods live. As a mere human being you don't just go where the gods live.

So Hine was seen as a weird person and she was a bit of an outcast and even considered something like a half god because she would do that. They were worried they she was half made of ice and that if they touched her they would melt her. Or the other way round, if she touched them, they would freeze.

One day she had to go down into the village and get some supplies for her. This waka, the Maori canoe, came up to the beach. Inside this boat is a young devilishly good-looking man. Hine saw that man and was completely blown away by him. His name was Wawe. It was love at first sight for both of them. They shared the next few weeks together down at the beach and their love just grew more and more.

Now, when you are in love with somebody you want to show them what you love and what's important to you. That's how Hine felt too and she wanted to show Wawe her mountain. Even though he wasn't too sure about climbing up the mountain, he did it and followed her. It was a very high mountain and towards the peak Wawe became weaker and tired. Suddenly he slipped and gravity took over. He fell all the way down and died.

Hine was heartbroken. She lost the love of her life and it was her fault because she made him do it. She was at the top of the mountain and she cried and cried and cried. So much so that the entire island could hear her cries. So much so that the gods could hear her cries.

After weeks of crying the gods took pity on her. Hine had been crying for weeks and what started as a trickle turned into a stream. The stream turned into a river. The river turned into a waterfall. The gods blew some ice-cold wind down the mountain and froze the water to ice. The frozen tears of aroha (love) stay as a reminder of Hine's grief. That's how the glacier received its name Kā Roimata o Hinehukatere – The Frozen Tears of Hinehukatere.

Isn't that a sad story?

In any case, doing the hike to the see the glacier is a fantastic thing to do. If you can spare over $NZ400 feel free to book a heli flight and walk in the glacier. I bet that's a great experience too. In my case I didn't even regret not having booked the flight because it was cancelled that day anyway due to bad weather. For our hike though, it had cleared up enough to have a perfect view of the glacier from about 750m away. That's the closest you can walk up to the foot of it.

Included in the tour package was a visit to the hot pools which I gratefully took advantage of. How wonderful to be soaking in 36-40C warm water and just relax. The water for the pools comes directly from the glacier. I'm glad they heat it up though. I soaked in all three pools and in the end I decided the 36C warm water is just right for me. Maybe a glass of wine would have been the icing on that cake. But then again, I was the designated driver once again (that just happens when you travel solo or sola) so all was good. I had a fantastic day once again.

The next day I was up early to join a bird watching tour with a ranger. Why not learn something about the local fauna while here. This trip is a great mixture of sight seeing and education. Not that I remember everything, especially all the native names of the fauna and flora escape me quickly again. Doesn't matter, it's nice for the moment and I enjoy it every time. And I do know three birds, no four, no five: kiwi, kea, kakapo, tui, and moa. It's something 🙂

Our little ornithology tour ended at the blue pools which I wanted to see anyway. Unfortunately, just like with the Hokitiki gorge river, the pools were green that day. It had just rained too much the night before. Well, I saw the green pools then. Sweet as.

The drive continued and I left Glacier Country and entered Southland. Beautiful Southland with its many lakes and rivers. I saw several rainbows which are not that rare here I guess. Rain and sunshine are good friends here and visit each other daily. That one rainbow however was particularly beautiful to me because it accompanied me for 20 minutes. And then the rain moved on and bright sunshine illuminated the hills and lakes. Lakes of blue, green, and turquoise water. Stunning. And so I made it to Queenstown.

Whataroa River( Smoky River)
Whataroa River( Smoky River)
heart of ice
heart of ice
Our guide Matt under a waterfall
Our guide Matt under a waterfall

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