Along the Away

a traveler's tales

2014 New Zealand (2753)

If I HAD to pick one single highlight of my trip to NZ it would probably, most likely, OK definitely be the glacier heli-hike I did on Fox Glacier. It really was one of those top-of-the-top travel experiences. Sure, everything you do when traveling is a special experience and rates high on the life scale far above the base line of sitting at home on the couch. But there are some once in a lifetime epic experiences that skyrocket off that scale to be seared into your memory forever. The glacier hike and opportunity to poke around in some ice caves was absolutely amazing – plus, you get there by helicopter!

There was a lot of debate on the road and even amongst travellers online about whether it’s worth doing the half day (4 hour) heli-hike, which is expensive at NZ$400, or doing a much cheaper half day hike or even a drive-and-hike instead. I understand that there’s a point where you just can’t multiply the dollars in your pocket, but if you do have the cash and you’re just weighing up where else you could spend it – don’t hesitate. This is one of those things you have to do while you’re there.

I went with the company Fox Guides. They fit you out in any gear you need; I was wearing water resistant hiking pants already but opted to wear one of their water-proof, insulated jackets plus their leather hiking boots. I had my waterproof Palladium boots but because you wear crampons on the ice I preferred the assurance of a perfect fit and performance on their own hiking boots.

We were assembled into groups based on on our individual weights and then had to stand together on a massive scale to check we weren’t over the helicopter requirements. I went with a few of my travel buddies from the bus tour which was great – we were all giddy with excitement! We were group 2 out of 4 helicopter loads, so we got to watch the group in front of us follow procedure as they ran to the helicopter and hopped in. It took off in a thunder of noise and arc-ed up and disappeared in between the mountains. The excitement mounted for our group as the second helicopter landed and it was our turn to beeline for the door, jump in and enjoy the ride!

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It was a very smooth flight, all of us grinning ear-to-ear with our headphones on and eyes pinned out the window. The mountains loomed up and around us, the higher up we went it dawned on me just how high and big they are, a perspective you just can’t fathom looking up from land or birds-eye from a plane.

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The glacier is an expansive long stretch of ice holding apart the opposing stark mountain sides that it runs between.

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Fox Glacier Heli Hike

I was studying it for a long time before I noticed that a couple of the specks below were actually the other helicopter and the first group standing on the ice! Seriously, just as you think you’ve wrapped your head around the scale of the area it knocks you over again. We circled around as the group below all crouched down with their heads tucked and hands over their ears.

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The helicopter lifted off the ground and drifted away back to pick up another group. Ours descended to the drop off spot and we touched down lightly. I stumbled out and beelined carefully over the ice to the group, we crouched and braced as the helicopter lifted off sending gusts of wind and sheets of ice across our huddle. Once it was gone we gingerly stood up and with the help of our guide put on our crampons which was not too difficult.

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What a godsend they were! As soon as they were on I felt sturdy and safe, I could walk on the sleekest patch of ice and stay totally in control.

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We followed our guide in a single file, taking care to step where he stepped (don’t want to fall through into a cave!) It was unreal, unlike any other environment I’ve ever been on.

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Fox Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world with the odd distinction of ending in rainforest, 13km away from its beginning in the Southern Alps. It has both retreated and expanded over the years – the vegetation revealing its past.

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My favourite thing about the hike was walking through the ice tunnels.

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They’re cave-like, but not far below the surface, most of the time you can see the sky through gaps and holes in the ice above – they’re more like crevices I suppose.

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They are just so beautiful.

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Peaceful and ethereal.

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Smooth and glossy, surprisingly dry to touch.

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At times the tunnel was so tight I had to contort my body to slide through – and slide is the right word. If it weren’t for the smooth slippery walls of the tunnel I’m not sure I could have pushed myself through. I had to contort, lean into the wall and slide around, trying not to fall in a puddle once I’d made it through the tricky part.

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Sometimes the ice was solid above me, but mostly I looked up to see a sliver of the sky between the curve of the ice above.

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We climbed back up to the ground level of the glacier and crunched our way back towards the helicopter pick-up point, stopping for some group happy snaps.

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Our guide chopped up the ice so that once we took our crampons off we didn’t slip and slide.

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We repeated the whole crouch and brace routine again before it was our turn to hop on for our ride back to base.

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Lucky me – I got to sit in the front! I was the ‘co-pilot’ (in my head). Susie looks a bit worried but was happy really.

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The whole morning was just wonderful, I loved very minute! If you ever have the opportunity to go in your lifetime – do it!

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Sydney based, coastal dwelling. When I'm not at work I'm somewhere outdoors, or in the yoga studio, or at my local cafe, or pottering at home.

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