Saturday 30 November, 2013 by Uncle Spike
Ever heard of the Franz Josef Glacier? I certainly hadn’t, well not before I stumbled across it on my travels through New Zealand during the latter years of the 1980’s. At the time, I was travelling the length and breadth of the twin islands by motorbike. I had purchased a shaft-driven 750cc Yamaha to do the job (see picture below), and spot on it was too, even doubling up as a backpacker’s taxi (LINK: that’s another interesting story). Anyway, on the West Coast of the South Island, an hour or so south of Greymouth and just a little north of Fox Glacier, you’ll find the small hamlet of Franz Josef. It’s a small community which in these days was the point from where you could go explore this glacier, a mammoth chunk of ice still on the move.
I had spent a few weeks around the general area, up and down that part of the coast exploring off the beaten tourist track in search of adventure. Most of the time I based myself at the Youth Hostel which was convenient, cheap and a good source of camaraderie for a lonesome traveller. It was while staying at the hostel hat a bunch of us went on a rafting trip. It had been advertised on the hostel noticeboard by way of a hand scribbled advert, but when backpacking, the last thing that attracts you is some large organised commercial affair, so this looked intriguing.
We were right – it was as far from a large organised commercial affair as you could get. There was a tall muscular sort of chap in his mid-30’s who went by the name of Brian, and his wife (Rose I think), who owned a large inflatable raft, a Landrover Defender 110 and a sturdy twin-axle trailer. They lived in a small hut in the village, it wasn’t anything more to be honest, with an old 1960’s style caravan out back stuffed full of rafting gear. The deal was simple, and thankfully, cheap. They kitted us out with appropriately sized 3mm wetsuits, a rafter’s hard hat, gloves and a slightly faded orange lifejacket. We also had a safety briefing which was more about “do as you are told” rather than anything skills based. As I was to learn water on, that talk was actually spot on.
We then piled into the Landrover and set off for a 5km drive down the road, and then inland up a track that ran alongside the bubbling glacial Franz Josef river. Once parked up, the raft was unstrapped from the trailer, fully inflated to handle the near ice cold water temperature and then after a further briefing on what the hell we were gonna be expected to do (yes, we weren’t allowed to just sit and float down the river), we set off on our icy adventure. The water was indeed a tad chilly, perhaps just 1 or 2 degrees above freezing, the river having been sourced from the glacier itself! We encountered a number of rapids which grew in size, ferocity and ‘grade’ as Brian navigated us down the river. That particular adventure was mission successful; we all arrived safely downstream, met by Rose with a steaming mug f hot soup for each of us. We had indeed been soaked, terrified and exhilarated beyond expectation – so job done in my book.
Such was the fun; I went back for more 2 days later. Now most other people had moved on, but I was still hanging around, repainting some of the youth hostel as a matter of fact in return for nulling of my overdue accommodation and food bill (I had been here a few weeks by then). That trip was as good as the first and all who went down that freezing cold watercourse felt suitably numbed by the excitement, and the cold. After the trip, and back at the hut, I got talking to Brian and Rose. I was always on the lookout for work, not necessarily paid, but just as a way of meeting my daily living expenses. Now these guys weren’t loaded but we did come to a mutually agreeable arrangement – I would become their Assistant Rafting Support Employee ( 🙂 ) in return for 3 home-cooked meals a day and the old caravan to crash out in. Sure, we had to sort out somewhere for all the rafting gear to be stashed, but once that was done, the little old musty-smelling caravan was ‘home’ to young Spike.
We worked 7 days a week, the norm for all involved in the tourism industry, running 2 rafting trips a day. My duties were simple, but knackering. First of all I would ‘sell’ places at the hostel, on the premise that fellow backpackers would be more receptive to one of their own ilk. Second, I would welcome folk and help kit them out with the right wetsuit etc. – now as I was just I don’t know, 23 or so then, that was payment enough, you know, ‘helping’ the young ladies as a job, cool. My next bit was at the riverside, yes, I had to pump up the raft, and that obviously required far more muscles than I had – that was damned hard work! I then took my position in the raft, front right was my spot, with my role being to shout out any obstacles Brian may have missed, tell folk when to hang on for dear life, and to paddle like a deranged loony upon Brian’s hollered command should we need it to avoid getting into serious danger.
A couple of weeks into my stint, our teamwork and training briefings were put to the test. On one of the Grade 3 rapids, we had to negotiate right of a large boulder plonked neatly smack in the middle of the river. Needless to say, on that occasion we got it wrong, or rather, the team of novice thrill-seekers we had that day simply didn’t respond when commanded to “Paddle right hard! Paddle right hard!”. The raft hit the boulder broadside and promptly and unceremoniously ‘dumped’ the lot of us into the drink – and down the river we all continued, minus the raft! Thankfully, everyone had listened to one particular piece of safety advice; that being how to float down a white water river. The basic idea is to lie on your back using the buoyancy of the life jacket and make your way down river feet first – so you can push yourself off rocks and other obstacles. Within 3 minutes, all 10 of us had safely made it out of the river – unfortunately 4 were on the ‘wrong’ side and had to be rescued a short while later using a rope thrown across to them one by one, attached to 3 of us on ‘tother side.
With the rafters all safely recovered and now laughing about their little adventure over a mug of hot soup from the back of the mud-splattered Landrover Defender… However, the last ‘challenge’ proved to be just that. The raft was still well and truly stuck, wrapped neatly around that damned boulder. It took us 3 attempts, with Brian, who was built like a US Navy Seal, and wearing an extra-thick 7mm neoprene ‘rescue’ wetsuit to fight off the cramps from the near freezing water of this ice river. We eventually ‘landed’ him on the raft where he was able to deflate half of the raft enough that we could pull it off the rock and recover it intact. It was a brilliant couple of months work, always challenging, certainly rewarding and definitely a hell of a way to keep fit; rafting a glacial river twice a day, every day of the week for 2 months. Can’t believe just 2 years later I was working in a bank – what was that all about?