Moving south along the Wild Coast, we saw the famous Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki, a curious limestone formation, and moved on toward Fiordland National Park for our scheduled walks in Milford Sound and Routeburn.

The Wild Coast must have been named for the size and ferocity of its waves. All up and down the coast seems like a surfer’s paradise, if not for the deadly rocks and breakers that litter the water to the horizon. (Who knows, maybe it is anyway. But we’re here in the off-season.) Waves coming in rows like battalions six or seven deep, six, seven, eight feet high, crashing into the rocky shore, sometimes right along the road, so that it seems stormy and dangerous on even the most peaceful days. It’s spring here, yes, but the beaches still seem strangely deserted.

This place resembles nothing so much as Washington State, or some parts of British Columbia, with obvious differences in flora and fauna. Imagine the San Juans with palmettos … or the Hoh Rainforest with parrots … and better, longer beaches.

Along the way south we stopped in Franz Josef Glacier, a tiny hamlet at the base of – you guessed it – the Franz Josef Glacier, but insistent rain precluded any hikes. Later we spent my birthday on a heli-hike at nearby Fox Glacier, which is far less visited but just as amazing.

The two glaciers sit near the west coast halfway down the South Island and are the only glaciers in the world that are advancing: As global warming worsens, all the rest, all over the planet, continue to recede. Fox, where we spent half a day clambering clumsily around the ice dunes, advances about a meter a day but loses 80 centimeters of that, making its total gain miniscule, negligible. Effectively a standstill. It is between 135 and 350 meters deep and 13 kilometers long.

I’d never been in a helicopter before, and I’d never been on a glacier, so it seemed like a decent way to spend my birthday. As many of you know, I just turned 25. It was of course very costly – the equivalent of US$200 for each of us. I’ve been called a cheapskate and I don’t mind, because for that kind of money I like to know I’m getting good value. Some gold soup, or a bionic limb. Or a good old-fashioned human hunt – something like that. But in the end I had no complaints.

They have 200 wet days a year at Fox Glacier – “like England, only wetter,” according to one of our guides – and this is the wet season, so it was extremely fortunate that we got a good, mostly clear, day to go up. Our chopper pilot was a bit of a showoff, zooming close to the canyon walls that enclose the glacier, giving us a close-up of a fleeing chamois  (mountain goat, introduced in 1908 and flourishing) and dive-bombing the spectacular Victoria Falls that empties into the glacier’s northern edge. Okay, I thought, there’s my money’s worth.

We landed on a “helipad” amid the moulins and pillows and spires and plinths of ice and were given crampons and hiking sticks. Our lead guide, Andy, has been doing this sort of thing five days a week for three years, so we were in good hands. Before that he worked as a guide on nearby Cook Mountain, New Zealand’s highest. He led us around several cracks and crevasses of deep turquoise that streaked the endless ice, through a couple ice caves shaded a similar greenish-blue hue, and to Victoria Falls, where snowmelt from the high rock wall that makes up the glacier’s northern enclosure pours over a bed of scree onto, and under, the ice. Great ramparts of ice on the edge of the falls are constantly breaking loose and crashing fantastically into the rocks. Red rata trees and a mantle of temperate-rainforest scrub cover the steep-sided walls that have been scooped out by the glacier; a seasonal curtain of fog hangs over the top of the cliffs, hemming us in like a blanket, obscuring views of the snowy peaks beyond.

The only sound besides our panting: the trickle of melting ice as rivulets and streams and waterfalls fill pools of turquoise crevasses. Glacial water is of course the purest on earth: we had many mouthfuls as we went along.


Never enough time. Before we knew it we were back on the road, zooming across yawning pastoral valleys, past muddy furrows of farmland, homestays and farmsteads and coffled cattle, sheep, deer, horses, goats, more sheep, chugging uphill under the shadow of cloud-shrouded Mount Tasman. Through tiny townlets like Haast, Makarora and Maungawera, curving along highlands roads, Trey on guitar, one Scenic Reserve after another. Past vast sweeps of beech, oceans of kiekie, glacial rivers light blue like swimming pool water, soaring kea, swooping tui, the singsong trill of invisible birds, galumphing in poor groaning Melba across plenteous one-lane bridges and whining uphill again. And just around the next bend will be a placid icy mountain lake just like – and totally unlike – all the ones we’ve seen before.

We think of the people on those “Kiwi Experience” buses and have a good, long laugh.