Down the West Coast of New Zealand along the Tasman Sea we arrive in the village of Franz Josef, the starting point for glacier walks on the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are also located at a spot greatly affected by the shifting of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, so these glaciers generally shift anywhere from one to five meters per day. The way the Southern Alps and mountains are formed in this area, coupled with forceful winds coming off the nearby Tasman Sea, also contribute to the formation of the glaciers, which, oddly enough, are within walking distance of lush, rainforest vegetation.
Get ready, get set, get up on that glacier
Professional guides lead the glacier walks. At the Franz Josef Glacier Guides check-in, you get a little drawstring knapsack, a raincoat, a pair of thick, woolly socks, and a pair of glacier boots (with ice grips) in your size. A group of 35 or so gets split up into three smaller groups at the base of the glacier: slow, slower and slowest. We each pull up a rock and switch into our woolly socks and glacier boots. The rain starts again so we don our generic blue raincoats with the big FJGG letters on the back.
A bus takes us within a few kilometers of the base of the Franz Josef Glacier. From there we begin our hike over glacial debris (lots of rocks) to get to the base. A glacier is basically formed when heavy snowfall occurs and the snowfall exceeds the summer melting. The snow turns into ice, and as more snow falls and builds up again the ice shifts down (advancing glacier), and more and more layers build up, ultimately forming thick blue ice.
Now when they say glacier “walks” I have this picture in mind of just getting up there on that glacier and walking around. WRONG. When we finally do reach the base, I look up at this monstrous mass of ice and snow and realize we’re gonna be climbing. I opt into the “slow” group, feeling reasonably fit and thinking, how hard could it be? Our guide soon takes off, hacking away at the ice steps, which have to be maintained every day with an ice axe. Each step requires a steep haul, starting with your boot (always stepping on the ball, not on the heel of your foot) about the height of your knee, so every step involves pushing from your butt and quads all the way down to your toes.
The going gets tough—and we’re just getting started
Some minutes later we are already looking far down below and behind us yet I realize we’ve barely started. The so-called walk is about three hours long. We pass little freezing pools of water and icy caves that we tunnel through. Soon we round a bend to see the entourage in front preparing to climb a ladder straight up a wall of ice from a ledge bordering a scary ravine.
“Don’t stand there mesmerized by what the person in front of you is doing,” says the guide. “As soon as one person goes, the next one goes.” He didn’t mention that it’s probably a very bad idea to look down as you’re placing each clunky boot on each metal rung, hands gripping tightly, eyes focused on the boots above you, wondering how you could’ve misinterpreted the word “walk.”
From time to time, the guide stops to allow everyone to catch up, encouraging us to stick close together and not get too far behind. The reason being, if you miss seeing where the person ahead placed their feet, you don’t know where to step for sure footing.
Somewhere along the way we pass a wooden box of ice poles (walking sticks with metal spikes on the bottom). We each grab one and keep going up. We are fully on the glacier now, and it is BIG, I mean massive, and we’re still going up, hopping across deep crevasses that drop down into nowhere, taking timid steps on ice shelves which barely fit my boot, shuffling left to right in a passage formed by two big ice walls, up and up and up, and all I can think about is the fact I’m gonna have to go down again.
By TedPNYC at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper., Public Domain
What goes up the glacier must come down
We’re all wearing shorts, by the way, recommended for less restrictive movement, and it’s not alarmingly cold, though with the rain and the disappearance of any afternoon sun, my skin begins to turn red and raw as cold droplets of rain drip down my legs. The climb takes us a tiny fraction of the way up the glacier, but looking down the glacier at the tiny figures making their way up from below, it’s unfathomable that there are still huge ridges further up. The glacier actually widens above and beyond our own view from here. On this trek, we’re only going as high as the first ridge and we soon catch up to the guide and rest of the group, just in time to take a quick look around before being led back down a parallel route.
If you’ve ever been on a horse, tripping and stumbling downhill, you know that feeling of powerlessness when any sudden lurch makes you feel as though you’re going to go tumbling down over his head. Only on the glacier, there’s no horse, just you and your equilibrium and a stick. More than a few times I lost track of the person’s steps in front of me and found myself standing helplessly, staring down at a maze of icy bumps and impressions. One set slants downward toward a crevasse. On the other side of it across from where I stand, the muddy tracks of the other hikers seem to come up out of nowhere. The girl in front of me is standing at a higher elevation and points out where she has just stepped. The man behind suggests another good option from the side where we are standing.
And down I go, having to deal with all those nasty steep steps again. Most every time my foot sets down I take a leap of faith, as it never feels quite like I’ve got my footing and balance. In the middle of one steep descent, I have just taken two big steps and am about to take the third, most daunting one, but my pole keeps sinking through soft snow and into air. As I make the step, I slip and fall rear first right down to the bottom, providing a fine example of another, less desirable way of getting down.
After a few more tricky descents, all I can think of is getting off the damn glacier, the end of which looks tauntingly near. If we were walking on a flat surface it’d take less than five minutes. But we’ve still got to ditch the poles in the box and climb backwards down that ladder on the edge next to the ravine.
Eventually, our drawstring knapsacks with our own shoes and dry socks are in sight at the bottom. Hopping down the last few steps, my feet hit solid ground again and I am thankful for the woodstove and hot shower waiting for me back at our chalet. At the finale of our glacier walk, we each receive a certificate of achievement. Though it’s just a piece of paper, it feels justly earned and well deserved--a reminder of a not-so-small victory.
I awake at 4 in the morning to the rhythmic chanting of the devoted being called to mosque for the first prayers of the day. It’s Christmas Day in this predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia and I’m preparing to leave Cibodas, a mountain village some distance from Jakarta. After a cold shower and breakfast, I get a ride down to the main road. There is no direct bus to Bandung because it’s Christmas Day (yet nobody I've met so far is actually celebrating it), so I get on a bus for Cianjur (pronounced Chianjur), where I hop another bus for Bandung. Finally I’m on my way to Pangandaran, a beach town situated on the South Java Sea.
Prize awaits at Pangandaran
We wind for hours and miles through tropical mountain ranges and deep, green gorges followed by lush green valleys of banana and palm trees—vast expanses of totally unspoiled, undeveloped land, touched only by the people who farm it. We ride through a mid-afternoon downpour but the sun comes out again as we get closer and closer to the coast. When we finally ride into town, I haul my heavy pack off the bus and hire a becak (trishaw) to take me to my guesthouse. (Mind you, this is in the days before searching online and booking ahead. I’m going purely off my Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook and the author’s recommendation of a place called Delta Gecko run by an “eco-groovy Aussie” named Kristina.)
Gateway to Pangandaran Wikipedia/Michiel1972 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
After pedaling a short while, my driver starts to realize how far I’m asking to go. "It's seven kilometers!" he protests, and tries to persuade me to go to another place for the same price per night. "I'm meeting a friend there," I lie, realizing I should’ve just taken a motorcycle taxi from the bus station. He keeps pedaling, and when we got within two kilometers or so I tell him I'll walk the rest of the way.
Where the trishaw comes to a stop, we’ve just turned right down a long dirt road that hugs the South Java Sea/Indian Ocean. The wind is whipping through the palms and the waves crash on the beach as the sun begins to set. I’m struck by the drama of the scene and inwardly grateful to have to walk the rest of the way, just taking it all in. Up the road a way, I see a sign over the entrance of Delta Gecko Village. I duck under a bamboo archway and ivy-covered trellis, soon entering an enchanted world of two-story bamboo and thatch-roof huts built on stilts in an enclave of trees and gardens. I find my way to the office and am met by Kristina with a lit Djarum dangling from her lips and a hearty welcome. "You're just in time for Christmas dinner!" In that moment, all my weariness, tinged with a touch of self-pity and loneliness, dissolves. I feel as though I’ve been chosen to arrive at this special place.
The beach at Pangandaran By Kondephy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
My bamboo hut: Bed, bath and beyond
I settle into a dorm-style hut with one bed up and two down, our own mandi (a toilet hole in the floor and a well of clean water in the corner to pour over yourself and down the hole). There’s no electricity but all the huts and gardens are lit by the soft glow of kerosene lamps in the evening. My roommate is Milly, a dynamic 29-year-old Australian girl. When I ask her how long she's been on the road she replies matter-of-factly, "Five years." She's done Africa and South America, and has just returned from five months in India. I inundate her with questions about traveling alone as a female and she says she wouldn't have had it any other way. People look out for you and always want to help you if you're traveling alone. I realize I've already experienced some of that on my way there.
Christmas dinner includes traditional Sundanese dancing and martial arts. Gathered around three large dining tables are about 30 people—foreign travelers and Indonesian friends and neighbors—being served a huge buffet of Indonesian food, under a bright full moon on Christmas Day. Kristina tells us the next full moon on Christmas wouldn't be for another 100 years. I allow the profundity of the moment, this time and place and my being in it, to sink in.
Feasting on Javanese and Sundanese culture
She goes on to explain the first act of the evening, a traditional Sundanese dance. Pangandaran officially marks a divide between Sundanese and Javanese, two entirely separate ethnic groups with different languages and related, but distinctly unique cultures. With apologies to the Dutch in the audience she talks about the Dutch occupation of Java and how the Sundanese had been the main victims of oppression. During a period of several hundred years, the Sundanese were not allowed to practice their traditional martial arts so they disguised it as a dance (similar to slaves in Brazil who developed kapoera to disguise fighting techniques, so they could continue their martial art tradition). A young Indonesian girl performs a beautiful dance followed by demonstrations of the martial art itself, called pencak silat, fluid and rhythmical movements accompanied by beating drums and flute music.
After dinner we’re invited out to the beach for a bonfire. Milly performs a flame-throwing demo and the Indonesian guys sit around strumming their guitars, singing Bob Marley. “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing, gonna be alright.”
Indeed it is.