Raindrops are pounding on skin like bullets on armour. The vagaries of Franz Josef’s weather are at work again, and the onset of rain sours hopeful glacier hikers yearning to see the town’s blue ice up close. Nestled at the base of the Southern Alps, Franz Josef gets five metres of precipitation every year. The inclement weather means twenty-three-year-old glacier guide Nathan Russell has to trade his ice axe for a spiffy quad bike. Before long he is zipping through a rainforest teeming with kamahi and southern rātā trees, his clients trailing him and also operating the all-terrain vehicle.
Through zigzagging and very bumpy paths the drivers ride. The vehicles plunge suddenly into deep pools of rainwater married with mud, sending adrenaline pumping as a breakneck rollercoaster slide would. When the drivers emerge from the rainforest, the glorious Waiho River, whose stream is fed by the meltwater of the Franz Josef Glacier, comes into view. The riverbed is filled with trentepohlia-mottled rocks. The algae stipple the grey rocks with a red-brown colour, and breathe life into an otherwise drab-hued place. In a short span of a thousand years, a rainforest will, by nature’s meddling, grow here. But for now, it is Nathan’s playground to roam freely.