NZ10+ : Day 17 : FRANZ JOSEF

Riding in style, taking a helicopter to the top of a Glacier. Our ‘alpine’ adventure is finished off with by drinking an unintentional round of chilli-vodka shots.

Wednesday 02/04/08

(Writing on the 3rd)

After waking the others up in time for their hike and seeing them set off still absolutely hammered, I had a wee lie in before setting off for my own hike – in a helicopter! Breakfast was a gigantic but not so nice sausage roll. I think it put me off food for the rest of the day. Anyhow, after being weighed, I was piled into a small helicopter along with some German tourists. The flight itself was rather short and sweet, but the views were amazing. We had to wear the boots and socks provided by the guides, which were a little uncomfortable, but were designed for the ice. We landed about 1000ft up I think, quite near the top of the glacier. The top looked very alien, like Krypton. You could almost imagine the rocks rearing up over the top when you weren’t looking, with huge spikes roaring down. It was a very epic, and rather humbling, landscape. Our guide, Troy, was a very enthusiastic fellow who helped us get into our crampons…

(Writing on the 5th)

Writing about the glacier must have exhausted me, and/or there was too much stuff going on as I try to write. I am now on the Milford Explorer Bus heading to Milford Sound. Funny how the moment I am on my own that I find the sudden need to write in my diary - like it is an old friend or something. So much has happened since Wednesday, but I will try and catch up and write things down in order.

So, back to the Fox Glacier.

Walking in the crampons was fairly easy, but a tad uncomfortable. We started off on a fairly easy ‘track’ with a gentle slope. Looking down the small random holes in the ice made me freak out a little, I was imagining falling or slipping into a bigger hole and being a gonner. The path started to become a bit more rugged and if you slipped at any point, you would end up sliding into or onto another hill. All this was ticking over in my mind and slowly wearing my nerves down. At one point, my left foot broke into a small ice pool and I thought that I may get stuck, but I was fine, and the boots were watertight luckily. But following that, Troy took us up and through a small gap in the ice with only tiny stairs carved into the path. Steps that are big enough for one boot, and that were freshly cut into the ice by Troy. He and another guide who joined us (a very enthusiastic girl from Bristol) pushed onwards, leaving myself and the German tourists to tediously squeeze through the paths they made.

There was a crevice to squeeze through that was uncovered (no roof), but it still hit a few of my claustrophobia buttons. I just wanted to get back to the chopper after that, which is a shame on one hand, but I genuinely wasn’t enjoying the more difficult terrain. Once we were back on the gentler slopes, my earlier sense of wonderment did return, and I was better able to enjoy the short flight back.

The rest of the day was spent buying food as I was planning to cook a pasta. Instead I ended up carrying the ingredients in my bag until the next day, as I wasn’t hungry enough to make it after all. So, my bag was smelling of garlic for a while! Also, putting on a second wash in another failed attempt to get rid of the sulphur smell from my trainers didn’t work. Mark suggested lemon juice, but I think I’ll just swap the insoles completely once I find a shop in Queenstown.

With nothing to do, and with me wanting and wondering if the others survived their full day hike in their drunken state, I ended up playing on the PSP in the bar. I think the others recovered and started their usual routine of drinking in their room. Although I only really knew Mark there, he and I agreed it was better to stay out and potentially meet new people. A game of killer (Pool) was organised, and I really should have joined in, especially seeing as how the prize was a free bungee jump.

Eventually, the others turned up back at the hostel, and we proceeded from the bar to the nearby “Blue Ice Cafe.” The others had been in there the night before, and I think it did have a “local” flavour to it. In fact, the barman tactfully left/gaveaway a couple of free shots, hoping that us backpackers would drink them - which of course we did. Niall had one given to him, but we left it alone thinking it to be pure Jaeger or Chartreuse or something...

Meanwhile, Tom and Steve were looking ill and it took us a while to realise it was because they had already had one of the free shots each, and Steve had been throwing up. Turns out the drink was ridiculously hot… which roused my chilli curiosity. Niall had a sip, and he nearly exploded. I did the same, and it was a world apart from chilli vodka or anything like it – never had anything that hot before!

While we were still getting over our exposure to the chilli-shot, Tom brought a guy over who he must have met previously and said “I dare you to drink that.” Before we could warn the new guy, he swallowed the whole lot. He only had it in his mouth for over a second, before the arsehole spat it back out, and onto Tom, who got some of the stuff straight in his eye… Looking at the glass, we could now see that the bottom half was full of chilli powder and tabasco sauce. So, while Tom was rinsing his eye out and making sure he didn’t go blind, this other guy was nearly kicking off, spoiling for a fight. I said it was his own fault for taking drinks as a dare – it was fairly obvious it wasn’t a normal shot by that point. Tom being Tom though, apologised to him, which did defuse the situation, but it got my back up a bit.

SOUNDTRACK: “Cold as ICE.” Foreigner / Cover by M.O.P.

This is quite a horrendous diary entry that needed a fair bit of grammatical correction just to make it read even slightly coherently! I must have been speed-writing or particularly lax that day. Apart from still carrying around my smelly trainers, two major things to unpack about this day – the Heli-Hike up to the top of the Franz Josef Glacier, and then chilli-based drinks nearly causing a fight and some blindness.

It occurs to me that I did not bother to explain what a glacier actually is during any of this entry, and I seem to remember at the time not knowing myself what one was. In short, imagine one side of a mountain, with another ‘layer’ of mountain lain atop of it, only this second layer is made of Ice. This ice melts a little every day, and then refreezes, the overall effect of which is a landscape which changes daily, yet still just too slow for our dull human perception to understand. A time-lapse camera would show just how much the landscape can change over the course of 24 hours.

The Franz Josef glacier itself is a big one – the fact that riding a helicopter to land on top of the damn thing should convey a sense of scale! Reading back on my notes, and recalling my own memories, the glacier somehow managed to make me feel claustrophobic, even though this was an incredibly open outdoor space, very, very high up. It was because the landscape was dotted with hundreds of tiny ‘rabbit holes’ – melted parts of the ice made by warmer running water, that created an ever-changing labyrinth of micro tunnels within the ice-flow itself.

Though the holes nearest us were ‘rabbit sized’ as far as I could tell, it did not take much of a leap in imagination to fear stumbling across a larger one, and slipping into a shadowy uncharted abyss. Indeed, Troy told us that not long ago, a “mummified body” of a climber from the 1900s, who had fallen into a hole at the ‘top’ of the Glacier, had finally washed up at the bottom, in 2008. Yeah – I was starting to get wigged out after a while after hearing that! Looking back, it was quite a lot to take in. Being weighed for the small helicopter, lathering myself in sun cream for a walk on glaring ice, sticking metal spikes to my boots, imagining falling into icy depths for 100 years, and watching our guides literally carve a fresh path for us to walk on (“I made one yesterday just here, but it’s gone!”) –so much to process! Eventually though, I started to feel a bit better, just started to take in the landscape, and to enjoy the fact that I was getting two helicopter rides in that day!

It seems I made, and then abandoned, plans to play Chef that day. Amazing how much daily thoughts revolve around food – I am a creature of habits and home comforts. So, what about the later adventure in the ‘non-backpacker’ bar? The bar itself was not labelled as being unfriendly to tourists in any way, but it did have a ‘local’ vibe to it, and evidently the barman was used to spiking his patron’s drinks with chilli-infused madness – I doubt that we were his first victims. If the diary entry is too chaotic to make clear what exactly happened, I will try to describe it below a little more precisely.

It starts with ten backpackers going into a Bar. We order a typical backpacker-round of “ten Jaeger-bombs” please. But eleven shots turn up. The Barman says “My bad, keep it, it’s on the house.” Sounds good. We take eleven shots back to table, and drink them. One of our number quickly runs to the toilet, but the rest of us don’t notice. Another round follows, and again, eleven shots turn up. “My bad” says the Barman, “On the house.” The nine of us still left at the table, drink - and a second member of the party also disappears to the loo, feeling very poorly all of a sudden. The remaining eight (me included) finally figure out something is wrong, and we quickly ascertain that the eleventh shot in each round is something way too spicy for human consumption. So, though we have worked out that the eleventh shot is a chilli-bomb of sorts, we have not yet realised this has all been a deliberate setup by the Barman.

Meanwhile, the Manc lads turn up to join us at the bar halfway through all of this, and they have been joined by another group of lads that we don’t know. Tom (one of our guys) seems to be getting a bit of verbal grief from one of the new larger and louder fellas. Tom is a big guy, physically, but a gentle giant – not at all into fighting, or frankly, being a Twat. The same could not be said for this new chap – who I will refer to as ‘Twat’ from here on in. Twat, clocking Tom’s big-build, must’ve figured he could have a go at Tom, and so set about trying to wind him up, yapping on and on and on. In fairness to Tom, maybe he was used to getting this aggravation to a certain extent, and so rather than buying into the verbal aggression and escalating it, Tom tries to defuse it all by saying “Let’s just have a drink” and then he hands the Twat the chilli-shot… To this day, I do not honestly know if Tom was aware of the chilli-contents of the shot glass, or if it was an accident. I do remember Twat being in Tom’s face, and so on the surface of it, Tom appearing to acquiesce and offer this guy a drink seemed to be giving the loudmouth what he wanted – the big man in charge who gets free drinks, right?

The next five seconds were mayhem, and I try here to break it down into slow motion. ONE: If not clear from the diary entry above, Twat or not, a few of us tried to interject before he could down the chilli-shot in one quick gulp. We failed - he downs the drink. TWO: His face explodes, as his body realises that it has downed a chilli-shot. THREE: His eyes furiously lock onto Tom, and he decides in an instant that Tom is the architect of this poison-drinking game. FOUR: Twat spits whatever is left of the chilli-concoction in his mouth, straight into Tom’s eyes. FIVE: Tom screams.

My memory remembers this as being quite dramatic, the diary downplays it a little bit. I do remember thinking Tom was in trouble – chilli and eyeballs do not mix. Tom was rushed to the bathroom, and whilst my description above makes me sound like a Primary School Teacher (“It’s your own fault for doing dares…”) I seem to recall some of “our gang” having to be a bit more physical in calming Twatty McTwat Face Down. I also remember the Barman finding all of this hilarious – until I went up to him and asked how it would go down if someone was to go blind in his bar, as a result of being served a drink that nobody had asked for. My memory could be playing tricks, but I am pretty confident in recalling the Barman doing a complete 180, suddenly being a bit wary of us, and maybe giving us some genuine chilli-free drinks on the house after making sure Tom was actually okay in the end.

Tom was far more gracious about the whole thing than I would have been. Regardless of whether Tom knew the shot was chilli-infused or not, the Twat had only been in the bar for 2 minutes, and most of it had been spent getting in Tom’s face. Being tricked into drinking a glass of fire, was a little bit of karma. But deciding to consciously spit that same fire into someone’s eye… Didn’t sit right with me. I still, to this day, don’t understand or get certain Male codes of behaviour. After all of this passed, nobody had punched each other (nor gone blind) and then Tom and Twat became thick as thieves. Best mates for the rest of the evening. Maybe it was just for the night, just to get through it on Tom’s part perhaps. If you can’t beat them, and don’t want to fight them, drink with them.

Apart from all of THAT… It was actually a brilliant night out. And to immediately contradict myself (and only just realising that my Kiwi Express trip to this point has been very male-centric) it was a brilliant “Lad’s night out.” Not a single one of the girls from our coach was out with us at the Blue Ice Café. This may have been true for multiple nights on the trip, but as this night was one of only two times that I nearly saw something come to blows on the whole trip, perhaps the idea of Male-ness, “Lads” and all that bullshit lodged in my memory somewhere.

As ever, mixed feelings on all things “Lads Lads Lads” - but that’s another story entirely, to be told elsewhere.