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Fox Glacier Franz Josef Glacier

26th January 2012

A Revisit to Fox Glacier and Enjoying the Salt Air on a Gold Miner's Beach

Fox Glacier from the Valley
    The promised morning drizzle hadn't arrived in the morning, so I took myself up to the Fox Glacier Valley walk, closer to the base of the glacier than my vantage point yesterday.
    It involved a one hour hike which I shared with half of Japan. Do they have glaciers in Japan I wonder. It was a pretty easy walk which brought me up to within 200m of the foot of the glacier. The ice was incredibly blue, not a reflection of blue skies above since the skies were grey. Huge blocks of ice stood precariously balanced, poised to sheer off at any moment. To the side, amongst the lateral moraine, huge chunks of rock the size of houses lay in a jumble, testament to the tremendous power of the glacier and its ability to rip such monsters away from the bedrock and carry them down the valley.
    A large party were being led off up over the lateral moraine, no doubt undertaking one of the guided glacier walks. The pace of some of them looked painfully slow, a tad disconcerting if I was to be limited to such a pace for six hours on my proposed hike in the morning.
    Once I'd absorbed the beauty, power, and grandeur of this magnificent old river of ice, I headed off for a complete contrast.
Compare the Size of the Rubble on the Lateral Moraine with the Tiny Figures
    Gillespies Beach was 15km away, mostly over gravel track. During the gold rush era, gold flecks were spotted in the black sand along this stretch of coast. That was enough to trigger a flood of miners to come to seek their fortunes. All but 50 had left within a year.
    A new technology had been introduced to the gold mining industry at the beach, the suction dredge. In its original form, the "Try Again" suction dredge began operation here at Gillespies Beach in 1891. The dredge is an example of a technology initially thought to be ideal for the extraction of gold from black sand. However, its universal failure meant that it was converted about one year later to the more reliable design of the common, bucket dredge. At Gillespies Beach, even the "reliable" bucket design proved no guarantee of success. The rusting remnant of the Von Schmidt dredge lying near the beach is the only sand suction dredge of its type remaining on the West Coast. It is thought to be the only one left in New Zealand.
The "Stirrer" End of the Suction Dredger
    In the late 1800s, Mr F. Graham, representing three mining companies, visited San Francisco and noted that the Von Schmidt suction dredge had been successfully excavating channels and raising spoil in the bay area. He returned accompanied by Von Schmidt (designer) and a Mr Higgins (patent owner), and after initial testings, a contract was entered into with a company based in Christchurch for the construction of a 12 inch Von Schmidt dredge in 1891.
    Things went wrong from the beginning. The dredge was shipped to Gillespies Beach by the schooner Prince Rupert, which became grounded while it unloaded the dredge machinery.
Driftwood on Gillespies Beach
    The dredge started operation in 1891 and almost immediately it was discovered that the suction pump was unable to cope with stones and timbers in the beach sands. The machinery regularly became blocked, and suffered significant wear and tear.
    Only a year into dredging at Gillespies Beach the company collapsed. They had expended �5000 and had not passed a single ton of sand over their gold collection tables. The dredge was sold to a party of twelve men, who proceeded on site to convert it into a light bucket dredge. There was some small success with this venture, but it too eventually failed. A large investment with no return.
    Today, the beach was a windswept expanse with large breakers crashing onto the black sands, turning the surf grey. Rounded rocks and pebbles stretched up and down the coast, all of a myriad colours and patterns, no doubt output from a glacier at some time. I picked up fist sized chunks of pure quartz, ground down to opaque, white potato shapes. I admired their beauty, and cracked one open to look at the shiny crystalline interior, before tossing it back into the sea for a regrind.
    The upper reaches of the beach were covered in a vast array of driftwood, a graveyard of gnarled, weather-beaten, bleached timber. Spray down the shore gave distant views an ethereal appearance.
Upper Reaches of Fox Glacier from Gillespies Beach
    Looking inland, I was treated to a stupendous view of the middle reaches of the Fox Glacier through a break in the cloud cover. Indeed the view was more stunning than the close-up view.
    It was a delight just to stroll along the beach, filling my lungs with the salty air again. Instead of charging along the beach trying to find all the mining relics I could, I was content just to stroll and feel the spray on my face, and occasionally toss a pebble into the surf. Rushing across the horizon towards me were grey clouds with curtains of rain draped below them. I got back to the car just before they hit.
    Despite the rain, I went to visit the small miner's graveyard close to the beach. Here a gathering of white gravestones marked the final resting places of men and sons who had died in this remote location, and one or two wives. Most were Irish immigrants, the one exception being Scottish.
    I headed off to the Franz Josef Glacier in the downpour, the 25km drive winding its way up hill and down dale through dripping wet rainforest, eventually reaching the village in a torrential downpour. My first objective was to check out with the glacier guides what the weather forecast for the next day was. "It will carry on raining through the night, and there should only be showers in the morning, but cloudy all day," said the girl at the desk. I pondered on this for a while, hiking over ice in the rain may not be fun. But there again I have travelled all this way, and an opportunity to walk across a glacier should not be turned down lightly. Free use of one of the thermal hot pools afterwards swayed me, so I took the last place available on the 08:15 hike.
    All I had left to do now was find somewhere to stay for the next two nights, and once accomplished I was done for the day. The campsite was right by the bush, in fact it was part of the bush. A neat set of winding trails had been carved into the bush, with little "alcoves" leading off at regular intervals that served as camping spaces. It really did feel as though I was living in the bush. Torrential rains had driven most of the campers into the communal kitchen cum TV room. I joined them to type up more blog. There wasn't much in the village to serve as a distraction.

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Fox Glacier Franz Josef Glacier

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Last updated 6.2.2012