Poking his head back around, he adds, “this is a path I cut out the other day, you’ll never guess what’s at the end of it”.
Several things cross my mind. After all, the landscape surrounding us is strange to say the least. Having hiked up Franz Josef Glacier for several hours, we’re stood on ice that is 70m deep and moving at a pace of somewhere between one and five metres a day.
Our entire world is made up of strange bubbly walls and bottomless holes. It’s how you’d imagine a sub-zero foam party on Superman’s planet Krypton would look, if, er, that’s the sort of thing you think about.
So I’ll be honest, when asked what was at the end of a secret tunnel built into a surreal world which looks like it’s made of shaving foam, the answer seems obvious. Ice gremlins.
Luckily I keep quiet. I even consider a couple more of my “what’s the craic” and “this is so cool” puns, but remember the sighs they were met with last time. Instead, we just follow Brendan and soon discover he’s not wrong. We absolutely love it.
Squeezing sideways through the gap in the ice, using the crampons on our boots to give us leverage, we ease our way into the path. At the end of the recently axed ice is a perfectly-formed, brilliant blue tunnel spiralling upwards.
Its walls are impossibly smooth so we slip and slide as we eagerly clamber up, one by one to enter the chamber. Once inside, the clarity of the colour and purity of the ice is breathtaking.
I’ve never seen anything like it before and by the time we all pop out the other end, Alice in Wonderland-style, we’re all grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Once we’re all out and done with our excited chattering, we really take in the view and realise that a transformation has taken place.
Cold as ice
Since the moment we’d woken for our full day glacier hike, we’d endured torrential rain. Now, this shouldn’t be entirely surprising of course, considering we’re in a part of the world that gets a staggering amount of rain dropped on it, across 200 days every year… But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great fun being completely soaked through.
However, we suddenly realise that the skies have gloriously cleared. The valley spans out to the right and we can see the lush green mountain-sides that frame the glacier, their steep edges being the reason why these glaciers move 10 times faster than most others in the world.
Down at the bottom we can see the point to which the glacier extended in the last ice age, 15,000 years ago, at a time when the town of Franz Josef itself would have been up to 60m under ice.
While on either side we are confronted by towering waterfalls, in front of us is another ice tunnel, sloping downwards in a slide, like some kind of ancient geological playground.
We had already been having fun, despite the weather, getting to grips with our crampons until we could hop across the ice like carefree arctic bunnies, but with the skies clear and with enough altitude to be able to explore the genuinely stunning features like the tunnels, it really struck home just how beautiful our surroundings were.
And it was no doubt that beauty which inspired the Maori legends behind both the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, which are linked forever through the tale of Hinehukatere, who loved to climb mountains and one time persuaded her beloved Tuawe to join her.
However the expedition ended in disaster and Tuawe was killed by an avalanche. Where he finally came to rest became known as Te Moeka o Tuawe, meaning ‘the bed of Tuawe’, but has since been renamed Fox Glacier after an early Kiwi prime minister (who, incidentally, had nothing to do with mints).
Take your pick
A broken-hearted Hinehukatere, meanwhile, was devastated. She cried so much, the legend goes, that her tears eventually froze to form Franz Josef Glacier, or Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, to give it its Maori name, meaning ‘the tears of Hinehukatere’.
In a land of such awe-inspiring geology, where the Earth’s power is on show like few other places, it’s easy to understand how such romantic tales can capture the imagination.
And for me, taking in the sheer scale of the glacier around us, it was clear that it had been worth signing up for the full-day hike. Having previously done a half-day hike, the difference was notable, and no, not just because it lasted half as long.
On the half-day trip you basically walk up the ice a bit, and then walk back down. It’s a great taster for what scaling a glacier feels like, but essentially you have to head back to base just as it starts getting interesting.
Those extra few hours on the full-day hike, in comparison, make all the difference. The deeper into the glacier we get, the more extreme the terrain becomes.
Soon, we’re sidestepping past huge crevasses, having to use ropes to pull ourselves up ice walls and, of course, exploring the surreal world of the ice caves, while the whole time Brendan is a few steps ahead of us, hacking out our path like a crazed ice pick-wielding woodpecker.
Our time is eventually up, however, and we have to start hopping our way back down to the valley floor. But while we’re all tired, aching and absolutely soaked, there’s no doubting we’re all as content as a bunch of ice gremlins with a new Mr Frosty machine.
What the heli!
Walking up the glacier is great, but if you’ve got cash freezing a hole in your pocket, then the heli-hike is hard to beat.
I’ve driven around the mountain to Fox Glacier this time and, after a nervous night worrying about the weather, I wake up to a crisp blue sky. We’re in action.
Before I know it, I’m kitted up and jogging, head down, towards the chopper.
Almost immediately the helicopter is up and away, zooming towards the glacier.
With my helmet on and the pilot chatting away in my ear, I try to play it cool (after all, this is as close as I’ll get to being Ice Man from Top Gun… not counting the occasional game of homo-erotic beach volleyball of course).
It’s not long before the ice field is directly below us and, as if that pesky Maverick is trying to cut us off, we hug one side before suddenly banking sharply to the left, crossing the glacier to take a closer look at a giant waterfall crashing down from the cliffs above.
From the air, the glacier doesn’t actually look that big. That is until I spot some tiny dots. It quickly becomes apparent that those dots are people and the glacier is in fact massive.
Before I know it, we’re tearing down towards them and it turns they are the other half of our group who came up in the first chopper.
There’s no landing pad here and rope ladders, it seems, aren’t an option, so we just crunch straight down onto the ice.
Twice as ice
With the chopper’s blades spinning at a deafening rate, we touch down just long enough for us all to jump out and join the others bang in the middle of a giant ice field. It really does feel like we’re in the middle of a lunar-like warzone… or at least a Hollywood version of one.
We’re ordered to crouch down and cover our eyes from the ice being blown everywhere by our transport. I manage to resist the urge to stand up defiantly and declare, “Ah, I love the smell of ice in the morning.” Maybe next time.
Instead I make do with joining my group while humming the tune to “Take My Breath Away”.
From there we get our spikes on again and set off to explore for a few hours, marvelling that not only is flying in helicopters just about the coolest way to get around, but that thanks to being dropped off halfway up the glacier, we’re away from the crowds and right by some of the most exciting caves and tunnels.
While admittedly far from the cheapest trip you’ll ever do, the heli-hike is like a two-for-one deal, as you get the best glacier walk possible, with an exciting scenic flight thrown in for good measure.
Many travellers rate it as one of the best things they’ve done in New Zealand, and I’m inclined to agree.
Photo: New Zealand Tourism, Getty, facebook.com/FoxGlacierTPG