Day 8: The Tallest Mountain and the Rarest Kiwi

Today was our favorite day of the trip! We woke up early, me still groggy from bugbite-induced lack of sleep, had some toast, checked the car’s fluid, and started heading north. Small as Haast was, it soon became clear that it was a major metropolitan centre compared to the rest of the region, where even farmhouses were few and far between. What the West Coast lacked in human habitation, though, it more than made up for in scenery.

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Rocks off the West Coast.

We were headed to the next town (major or otherwise) of Fox Glacier. This town, and its nearby sister Franz Josef Glacier, exist mostly to provide a base for exploring the two respective glaciers. These impressive natural features are on the slopes of Southern Alps, descending into valleys only a few kilometers away from the towns. This makes these glaciers some of the most accessible in the world. Tough you can walk to the face of the glaciers in an hour or less, the best way to see them is by helicopter. The West Coast is notorious for its bad weather and a helicopter had even recently crashed because of it, but today was only blue skies and gentle breezes.

We had booked a helicopter tour in the afternoon, and by the time we arrived at Fox Glacier town and checked in, we had about an hour to kill before the flight. Wanting to see the glacier we were about to fly up and land on, we drove to the trailhead for the glacier face walk as helicopters zoomed by overhead.

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A glimpse of the Fox Glacier.

It turned out that we could see the glacier from the parking lot, so instead of walking all the way up to the face, we took some pictures and headed back to town for lunch (cheese sandwiches and satsumas again). Finally it was time for our flight! We loaded into a van with another couple and were driven slightly out of town to the helipad. There was a small-looking helicopter sitting on the pad, but it turned out that we were waiting for another one to get back from the tour before us.

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Waiting to fly to those mountains.

Before long, the helicopter arrived, executing a perfect landing on a small grassy landing pad. Without even turning off the rotors, the previous group exited and we loaded in; lucky M got to sit in the front! We quickly rose through the air above the fields and headed into the valley. The sheer cliffs seemed very close and the glacier was even more impressive from above, with all the ripples and rifts in the ice clearly visible.

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You can see why glaciers are called rivers of ice.

Sadly, the glacier also seemed small. On the drive up to the face, signs indicated where the glacier would have been in certain years and the walls of the valley showed signs of past ice. Yet today, the glacier seemed to just lay on the valley floor, nowhere near its former glory. A certain cycle of expansion and retreat is natural in glaciers, but the retreat of both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers is seen to be extreme. Thanks global warming!

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It doesn’t quite fill the valley anymore.

After cruising past some Southern Alps peaks, the helicopter landed on a flat and crevasse-free section of the glacier and we got out. The snow made our feet a little cold, but otherwise we were fine in shorts and t-shirts as we admired the stunning surroundings. It was really special to be in a place that is usually so inaccessible.

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Untouched snowfields.

We got a picture with the helicopter and M threw a snowball at me, and then it was time to get back in for the quicker flight down the valley. The next group was already waiting, ready to take our place, as we got back into the van and headed into town. The whole operation was a bit impersonally efficient, but getting so close to the glacier and mountains was definitely worth it!

We’d seen one glacier but not the other, so we drove on to the bigger town of Franz Josef Glacier. They also had a gravelly access road to a trailhead for the hike to the glacier and after a quick stop at the fancy visitor centre, we headed that way. The trail was an hour and a half return across the flat valley floor, with no respite from the sun. Since it (surprisingly) hadn’t rained in a while, the track was also dusty. It was a long, hot walk to the face of the glacier, but it was nice to be able to see them both.

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The face of the Franz Josef Glacier.

By the time we got back to the car, dusty and thirsty, it was the late afternoon yet we had one more activity to go! First, we drove to our motel in Whataroa, a tiny town about 15 kilometers beyond the glaciers (in the height of summer, we couldn’t find anywhere to stay in the two local towns). We enjoyed a shower and a surprisingly good burger from the local grocery store/takeaway shop, then headed off to another small town, Okarito. We were going out to see a kiwi!

We were lucky to have booked this guided trip in advance: when I called to check in with Ian, the guide, he said that many other people had also contacted him trying to get on tonight’s tour. Unlike the helicopter tours, the kiwi-spotting tour is a small, personal affair. We and the six other people on the tour met up at Ian’s house, where we all introduced ourselves and he talked about the kiwi in the area and what to expect. The kiwi here are the Okarito brown kiwi which are found only in this area, making them the rarest species of kiwi. Though he has a radio tracker, he explained that we’d all be helping to find the kiwi tonight. Radios, flashlights and mosquito hats were distributed, then we headed off to a nearby marsh to start looking.

When we arrived, it was still a bit light outside; since kiwi wake up at dusk, we still had a few minutes before they started moving around. Out of the three kiwi pairs Ian tracks, we were focusing on the territory of BZ, the male, and Beaumont, the female. Ian was excited because they had been hanging out near the road lately, risking both the kiwi and the kiwi-spotters being run over by cars, but the two had just that day moved away from the road and into the bush. We walked down what looked like an old service road, bending some overgrown ferns out of the path as per Ian’s suggestion. In the mud on the side of the track, we even saw a kiwi footprint (the only thing that night that we were allowed to take pictures of):

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This was the clearest print.

After about a kilometer, we stopped walking and started to practice our kiwi-spotting maneuvers: we were to stand and travel in a tight, single-file line. We had to read Ian’s body language: if he started to focus on a section of the bush, and especially if he crouched down, red flashlight at the ready, we were to turn 90 degrees and line the path, standing shoulder to shoulder. Ian explained that this allowed everyone to see the kiwi fairly and wouldn’t scare it by ten people trying to move for a better view. He put on the earphones for the tracker as the first part of the drill, then paused, whispering that the kiwi were closer than he’d thought. We moved as quietly as possible down the track, then stopped again. We were about to start the kiwi-spotting drill again when we heard a clear crunch in the bush. It was the kiwi, moving around ahead of schedule!

It turns out that kiwi, as an animal that evolved with no natural predators, don’t really care how much noise they make. As a result, they stomp through the bush almost as noisily as a human would. It hadn’t rained much recently, so the bush was especially dry and crunchy. We lined up along the path, listening to the kiwi, who Ian told us was BZ, rustle around in the bush. Mosquitoes started to swarm around us and we were extremely grateful for the hats, as no one wanted to move an inch. Our hope was that BZ would cross the path, allowing us to see him, but he was taking his sweet time in the bush. He even came right to the edge of the path, so close that we could see the ferns rustling as he passed. All of a sudden, he burst out and ran down the path, giving us a great view of his tailless bum and wobbly legs disappearing around a bend in the path. His gait was so funny that we all giggled once he’d gone out of sight, but our kiwi stalking wasn’t over yet!

Based on Ian’s tracker, BZ was heading in the direction of Beaumont, his mate, as apparently kiwi do not nest together during the day. We followed him down the track and were rewarded with more crunching noises in the bush. At this point, it had gotten quite dark, but Ian managed to get his red flashlight on BZ just as he poked his head out of the bush, barely three feet from M and me! Luckily kiwi have poor eyesight, so we watched in awe as BZ started probing his beak into the ferns next to the path, then wander past us into the bush again. It’s one thing to see a kiwi feeding in an enclosure at the zoo, and another to see it in the wild, totally not dependent or concerned with humans. The wild kiwi had one more treat for us: just as Ian indicated that Beaumont was also close by, BZ started calling, a loud shrieking sound that must have carried for kilometers. All that noise seemed unnecessary as we heard Beaumont come up to greet him. The two started making quiet, snuffling sounds, which Ian described as them catching up with each other, asking about their day. On that sweet note, we walked back out of the swamp, excitedly discussing what we’d just seen and heard. It was a truly extraordinary end to a wonderful day.

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