We left Queenstown at 8:00 yesterday morning for the long bus ride over the mountains and up the west coast towards the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The weather was rainy in Queenstown, which did not bode well for what the coast would be like, our experience at Doubtful Sound having taught us that the west side of the mountains — the windward side — is the rainy side. This proved unfortunately true in a big way, as there was some discussion among the bus drivers at the hotel as to whether the usual route over the mountains, called Haast Pass, was even passable due to severe rains and rockslides the night before. And by “severe” I mean a foot of rain overnight. (The last time I saw rainfall like that was 30 years ago while living in Hilo, Hawaii, and my fingertips still get all pruny at the memory.)
The ride took all day, including various pit stops and a lunch break, and wound through spectacular waterfall-riven mountain scenery, along steep canyons…and through a whole lot of rain. The mountains were shrouded in fog, the rivers swollen in the gorges — hell, even the hobbits stayed indoors. (In case you had forgotten, this is Lord of the Rings country, and we have passed a number of locales where parts of the movie were filmed. Every bus driver is legally obligated to remind us of this.)
An impressive rockslide had taken out one of the highway lanes on a switchback near Haast Pass, leaving a single lane for two-way traffic. The road crew clearing the debris directed traffic, and we got quite the view from our seats on the canyon side of the bus, there being barely two feet of clearance between the side of the bus and a crumbling zillion-foot drop into scenic doom, and of course no guardrail.
There was a brief period in which the sky partially cleared, and our driver remarked sardonically that we should take a picture of it as it would likely be the last blue sky we would see for a couple of days. So far this prediction seems to be borne out.
The drive up the coast is impressive in part because the mountains approach so closely to the water; driving north, you have the Tasman Sea on your left and southern Alps more or less immediately on your right. The rain continued on and off, but the cloud cover never broke and the mountain tops remained shrouded in mist.
We arrived in the village of Fox Glacier at about 3:30 PM, a very tiny place that exists more or less exclusively to serve the tourist trade associated with the glacier. It’s basically a single street about three blocks long with one or two side streets, and the only establishments are a few inns and motels, about four restaurants, and a number of excursion booking businesses for arranging glacier hikes, helicopter tours, and visits to nearby attractions like thermal baths. (We’ll see more of the latter on North Island in four or five days.) The mountains loom pretty much across the street from the town, or at least we assume they are looming from what little we can see through the fog.
Our inn is very pleasant, a small family-run establishment of about a dozen motel-style rooms. Our room is pretty large, with a well-equipped kitchen, and is surprisingly well-heated against the raw weather by a space heater on one wall. The whole front wall — the entrance off the parking lot — is a big sliding glass door that would afford a great view of the mountains if you could see through clouds.
The weather got worse through the evening, if that were possible, with the rain coming in squalls throughout the night. It would stop for maybe 15 minutes, just long enough to fool you into thinking you were out of the meteorological woods, and then suddenly come roaring through with a vengeance again, sometimes with thunder and lightning as well. This pattern continued throughout the night, leading us to wonder by this morning whether our glacier hike was actually going to happen. As of this writing, at 9:30 AM, that is still an open question.
Early this morning we got dressed in as many layers as we could squeeze into. At 8:30 we trudged the blessedly short distance through the rain to report as required to the outfitter, where we were to be equipped with rain gear and ice crampons. (Ice crampons! Cool!) But the mission was aborted: the guides reported that the continuing rain had rendered the glacier surface temporarily unsafe. They offered us two options: (1) we could head out with the guides anyway to do a so-called terminal face walk in which we could look at but not walk upon the glacier, or (2) we could rebook for an afternoon hike and gamble that conditions would improve. We’d really like a shot at hiking on the glacier itself, so we decided to take the gamble and opt for the afternoon booking. So now we have a few hours to kill back at the motel, and we’ll see how things evolve. If the weather were not so nasty we could at least take a walk around the area…but if the weather were not so nasty then we would have had the morning hike in the first place. Stay tuned.