The Franz Josef Glacier is one of many major glaciers slouched on the western side of the Southern Alps, some hundred or so kilometres north across the Main Divide from Mount Cook. While neither the largest nor longest glacier, what may make Franz Josef of particular interest are the limitless opportunities it provides for making loads and loads of money.
Franz Josef Glacier Town offers a range of activities catered to all types of budding glaciophiles, or even those whose interest in glaciers is remote at best: you can hike to the base of the glacier. You can take a guided walk on the glacier. You can observe the glacier from a helicopter. You can skydive over the glacier—the highest skydive in New Zealand—or you can bungee within proximity of the glacier. You can bathe in the glacial hot pools, which, by happenstance, are not natural thermal springs or take any of their healing qualities direct from the glacier itself but a water supply common to all households, although you need not know this provided you don’t ask.
Some towns are built on textiles, some shipbuilding, others coalmining; Franz Josef Glacier Town was and still is built, metaphorically, on the glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier’s closest kin some kilometres to the south on the West Coast, the Fox Glacier, offers many of the same amenities on a lesser scale. Here too there is a township; here too you may probe the vastness of the ice from a great height by helicopter. But Fox Glacier Town is altogether smaller, quieter, less profitable. It was for this reason I favoured Fox over Franz Josef as an overnight stop before tackling the Haast Pass en route to Wanaka.
For some time now I’d sought to wean myself off as many forms of pre-mediated experience as possible, i.e. holiday packages, guided walks, tour buses. Bungee jumps within the proximity of glaciers. Not that there was anything wrong with these things—I myself had gone kayaking along the Whanganui River, traversed through the glow worm caves of Waitomo in a rubber ring, was guided enthusiastically around the mud pools of Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland—nor was there anything intrinsically bad in an experience purely because it was paid for. The problem is that the scope of such experiences is limited by necessity. When something is being sold, there must be an expectation to both sell and act as guarantee that what you’re paying for is going to—or, when risk of death is involved, not going to—definitely, absolutely happen. And this thing must definitely, absolutely happen dozens upon dozens of times a day, if it’s going to make any money in the first place.
Again, this isn’t a bad thing. If anything the certainty is comforting. When we’re abroad we want to spend as little time making decisions as possible; having the scope of eventualities narrowed down allows us to sit back and just enjoy. Within those boundaries comes a kind of freedom.
But it’s a very particular kind of freedom. One that, when overdone, feels inadequate, even when the full experience is ostensibly still there. It’s like reading the last page of a book when you’re only halfway through; afterwards you may enjoy the rest of the story, but you can’t shake the notion you’ve somehow compromised what could have been a more rewarding enterprise.
For some time I suspected the slow death of serendipity to be one of the plagues of modern life; in New Zealand the feeling was endemic. Here jumping of cliffs is a lucrative trade. And I wanted to get away from all that. I’d bought a tent and taken up hitchhiking and began carving out my own experiences.
Another benefit of Fox Glacier over Franz Josef is that it can be observed from the roadside, and the base is reachable by foot from the township. My plan next morning was to walk out there and see it before continuing my journey south, hopefully hitching with somebody leaving the glacier car park.
It was a beautiful morning. The path to the base began inside a small rainforested area, and before long emerged parallel to the main road and crossed it. On the other side the Fox River appeared occasionally between the fronds of shrubs and ferns, lying on a plain of grey sludge, hued so vividly blue to be reminiscent of cheap liquid detergent. I carried on in a wide arc towards the glacier, over suspension bridges and wooden steps, until the road was only visible by the brightly coloured dots of cars drifting along it.
Managed walkways are plentiful in New Zealand, with varying degrees of sophistication (suspension bridges, board walks) and maintenance depending on popularity—but the absolute minimum upkeep is the ubiquity of fluorescent orange arrows tacked to trees, keeping you in the right direction. Getting lost is a serious thing here, in a country with only four and a half million people—over a third in Auckland alone—yet the same land area as Great Britain. But despite meeting no other walkers that day, the possibility of getting lost was unfeasible. The steady flow of traffic on the road and the reliable burr of helicopters going between glacier and township afforded civilisation a constant presence.
Halfway into the walk, in a denser part where the sky closed in again and the river was present only through sound, tacked to a tree and pointing eastwards through a thicket, was another sort of arrow; a fluorescent pink one. Westwards the path continued, clearly defined by a set of wooden steps, and a customary orange arrow. I had never seen a pink arrow before.
The thicket made navigation difficult. Where branches failed to snag my rucksack they slapped my face. A dozen more pink arrows appeared and transcribed a path invisible to both eye and any clear rationale. I was brought to a clearing atop a small bank of scree, leading down towards a trickle of water. On the opposite bank was another pink arrow pointing towards another thicket. Once through this, I came to the top of another bank leading down to another trickle of water. Ahead the two parallel streams converged, exposing the thicket as an islet. Ahead was the Fox River. Another pink arrow pointed down towards it.
The arrows alternated back and forth between riverbanks, which grew further apart as the flow of water thickened. The location of the glacier, obscured behind a mountain face, was only detectable by the helicopters continuing their eternal pilgrimage. But the glacier was no longer important. My goal was limited to a scope of every five to ten metres. Over half an hour I traipsed the basin like this.
What began as a game became a chore. Finally one arrow beckoned me over a bend in the river too deep and without enough stepping stones to cross. I hugged the bankside and followed the river for an alternative crossing. After the river straightened itself it disappeared down a summit onto a grey, treeless plain. On the other side of this plain, for a while obscured by either bush or basin, reappeared the distant road. On seeing it I thought, enough; I abandoned the arrows and their contrived logic. The afternoon was wearing on and there was still the matter of hitching to Wanaka.
Only when I looked over the summit did I realise how often things had disappeared and reappeared that day, but only because I hadn’t paid them enough attention. This was not the Fox River. This subdued dribble, barely reaching my knees, was hardly an estuary. Over the summit it fell down and joined the real river—a giant torrent tens of metres wide and the same icy, detergent blue as it was under a suspension bridge at the start—now here cutting the plain in two and completely divorcing me from the road. My diversion had been pointless. There was no choice but to turn back and resume along the old track.
Some hillwalkers abide by an unspoken rule that you should never turn around until you reach the top, so that the view is altogether fresh and more rewarding. When I turned around and looked the way I came I was faced with a territory immediately alien to me. The pink arrows were nowhere to be seen. Within seconds I knew I was lost.
Two points, at this juncture, to better illustrate the scene: first, I was wearing an old pair of holey trainers, and not because I didn’t own walking boots, but because forgetting to take them out of your rucksack before you’ve buried them under your tent is a real drag. Second, I bought a coffee in town before walking and was yet to find a bin—the cup was pinched in an outer compartment of my rucksack and I was constantly stopping to pick it up.
No maps, nothing. Not even water. It hadn’t occurred to me to think of what was missing until the possibility that those things might encompass my entire lot for the foreseeable future came to the fore.
I was not only lost, but an idiot.
I walked a little while with no sense of where to go.
The initial panic is difficult to describe. Your entire imagination is shortened to the most immediate of circumstances; all you can think about is getting to a state of being not-lost, to a point you do not give yourself any time to think about just how exactly you’re going to get yourself not-lost. In a sense the problem overwhelms so much, you do not even have time to really panic. All you know is you have done something terribly, terribly wrong and can find no way to consolation—the truest definition of hell there is.
Even once the initial trauma fades, you find you’ve lose faith in yourself at a time when trusting your own abilities is the only thing that will salvage your situation. Instead you look for something else to depend upon, like the goodwill of your surroundings to keep the weather nice, or not get dark too soon, or to give you a sign, any kind of sign—say, a pink arrow—that will correct the terrible mistake you and only you have made, the very mistake that makes you sceptical of none but yourself in the first place.
The estuary was the only logical thing to follow, but even this proved an unreliable chaperone in the way it meandered and broke off into a dozen other identical streams, which I followed and backtracked along an equal dozen times. An attempt at deviating from the water led nature to absorb my foot up to the ankle in a patch of grey sludge. Once yanked loose, nature acquiescing with a gentle ploop, I buckled down on my haunches while the life of me fell back down from heaven. With life restored I bent over, picked up my cup, and dared not doubt the estuary again.
After a disregard of all guidance and closed experience, now all I wanted was to be guided; in a desire for freedom I had entered the heat of the moment with my thoughts on ice. But no romance here; getting lost is a horrible thing. What makes it so terrifying is precisely what makes spontaneity—a rejection of planned outcomes, an embrace of impulse—as equally emancipating. Thus where only the present exists, and you get lost there, you are lost forever.
Or for at least slightly over one hour, when finally the estuary took pity and presented me with what looked like the distinct, bushy islet marking the start of my diversion.
From the other side of the islet the pink arrows returned, with which I made it to the wall of thicket, inside which I drove blindly through and reached, not the same part of the path as before—there were no wooden steps—but another part, if not a different path entirely. But that was okay, for all that mattered was the return of the good old orange arrows. I followed them with the fervent devotion of the newly converted.
I came to a car park. Not the glacier base car park as hoped, but another on the opposite side of the river. Stepped back enough on a high plateau with an especially carved out viewpoint, the spot gave the keen observer a chance to take in not only the glacier, but also the wider natural habitat in which it sits; I had overshot my target by a good many kilometres. I did not search for the viewpoint.
In the end though there was no need. One solitary, single track gave access to the car park, down half an hour of which I caught my first and only glimpse of the Fox Glacier, framed within a rhombus of trees to the top and valleys to the bottom; a shiny uncut opal, embedded within the crown of the earth. The view was soon broken by a car of Japanese tourists stopping for photographs.
The desire to reach a state of not-lostness took longer to abate than the actual reality of being lost, and I carried on down the track with the same urgency of feeling and myopia as along the river. Thus I didn’t stop to consider the nature of the pink arrows. Practical joke? Bureaucratic oversight? If nothing else, ironic metaphor: presenting the offer of alternative, when in reality just another form of guided experience, only without the act of guarantee.
Another hour passed by the time I reached the end of the track and emerged on the Haast Highway. To the right was a suspension bridge going north back to Fox Glacier Town. To the left the road carried on south to Mount Aspiring National Park, and Wanaka. The afternoon was getting on but regardless it remained a beautiful, warm blue day—I toyed with the idea that to have gone to so much effort and still not reach the base of the Fox Glacier was akin to giving up. Maybe there was time to walk or hitch back and see it; maybe fulfilling the plan as intended would make it all worthwhile.
Before I could make up my mind a car appeared over the suspension bridge. Instinctively I stuck out a thumb, and smiled.