Now That’s “Cool”
After the amazing road trip from Abel Tasman to Franz Josef in the previous blog, it was time to check out the pretty “cool” sites of this iconic glacier in the South Island of New Zealand. I can safely say it was one of the highlights of my travels this year and everyone I was with on the adventure tour would probably say the same. Let’s check it out 🙂
Franz Josef Glacier
The Moari name for the glacier is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere, which translates as “the frozen tears of Hine Hukatere” [Source]. The Moari legend describes the love Hine Hukatere had when climbing these mountains and she convinced her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Even though Wawe wasn’t as an experienced climber, he loved climbing with her. Tragically, Wawe was swallowed by an avalanche and met his maker, leaving Hine Hukatere broken-hearted with her many tears streaming down the mountain and freezing to form the glacier [Source].
Of course, when western civilisation made its way over to New Zealand, the name had to be given by the first explorers here. In this case, German explorer Julius von Haast named the glacier after the Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in 1865 [Source], which is the name we all know it by today.
State of Retreat
The glacier is quite a spectacle even when you look at it from the town of Franz Josef and it was advancing up until 2008 but since then it has started retreating and rapidly, following a big collapse of the terminal face in 2012 [Source]. Our tour guide said that it may not be around much longer and they think by 50 years time (2070) it will be mostly inaccessible so if you want to visit it, now is the time.
Nowadays, the only way to get to the glacier is by helicopter, which is paired with a hike around the glacier, hence the phrase “Heli Hike”. We went with a company called “Franz Josef Glacier Guides” for a price of $479 NZD. This may seem expensive and I was a bit hesitant but actually, you get a LOT out of it.
A short walk through the native forest where the glacier was originally gives you a real sense of just how far the glacier has retreated. Then you get a breathtaking helicopter ride to and from the glacier and around 3.5 hours on the ice which is even more spectacular. Once you have been on the hike, you get a chance to relax in the hot pools at no extra cost (otherwise it would be $30 NZD if you didn’t do the heli hike). So you get quite a lot!
As you fly over, you’ll notice just how shear the rock faces are of the mountains. Franz Josef is one of the steepest glaciers in the country, descending from a height of 3,000m above sea level to 240m over a distance of only 11km [Source]. When you get off the helicopter and take a moment to have a look around, you’ll certainly feel insignificant in the awe of nature.
On this tour, you do get all the gear you need from the company such as hiking boots, crampons (spike fitting for the hiking shoes on the ice), fleece, gloves and a beanie. It’s strongly advised you bring sunglasses and wear a thermal under layer as well because…you know… ice! So, now that we’re here on the glacier, the tour guide, armed with an ice axe, will show you around.
As you can see from the picture above, there are many steep sections, lots of steps and lots of crevasses that you probably wouldn’t want to fall in to! The advice from our instructor was simple, “If you think you will fall, you will probably fall! So, walk normally, hold on to the rope and you’ll be fine!” I have to admit, I was a little nervy going down this first stair case…
One thing that is striking about the ice is that it is SO blue, you really can’t believe it. Why is that though? Is it because it’s reflecting the sky? Well, that can’t be true because as you can see from the pictures above, it was pretty cloudy and white. In fact, it’s blue because the dense ice absorbs every colour of the visible spectrum except blue, which gets reflected. So there you go!
Looking back at these pictures, I’d say that if you’re claustrophobic, you may be a little intimidated by the steep, narrow paths that are carved out as the ice does tower above you but you are only in there for a minute as you keep walking through. We had some people that were claustrophobic on the heli hike but they all came through unscathed.
As we walked along the top for a little bit, we could see how the shape of the ice changed quite dramatically from slightly more smooth and regular to the bluer jagged shape towards the top. This is due to the fast moving ice up there which is constantly changing and creating these features at around 4-5 metres per day compared to around 50cm per day where we were walking. So the landscape really does change every day… BANG!
What was that?! My heart started racing as I feared the worst… is that the beginning of an avalanche and our impending doom? A deep rumbling and a really loud crash echoing around in the distance struck fear in to everyone but thankfully, we were safe here. This was in fact a giant ice block falling away due to the large movements that occur and they happen often so don’t be alarmed if you hear a loud bang!
Obviously, you can’t go up in to the jagged ice region because it really is too dangerous due to the fast movements and the ice below you can give way at any moment. So this is the peak of the glacier hike! Now we have the task of having to get back to the helicopter – or, if you like your Arnie movies, “BACK TO THE CHOPPER!!”
Franz Josef Town
We stayed at the Rainforest Retreat for a couple of nights. It’s effectively a lodge hostel but me and Jan had a bit of trouble with our rooms as the first one had a horrible sewage smell in it, the second one had a bit of blood on one of the sheets but the third room was finally fit for purpose. However, the group also had troubles in that other residents stole our food and breakfast so I’d probably recommend staying in another hostel or accommodation in Franz Josef if you’re visiting. Good points are that it was right next door to our Heli Hike start point, has it’s own hot tub and the staff did get us a good room in the end.
Another good point about the accommodation was that it had an all you can eat pizza party restaurant and bar which you paid $20NZD for and that included a drink whilst sitting outside next to the roaring fire.
If you like Asian food, a good option is a lovely Thai restaurant called the “Snake Bite“, which is where we went after our Heli Hike. There is a wide selection of Asian dishes to choose from here and it costs around $20-25 NZD for mains.
Really though, there aren’t many places to choose from as Franz Josef is a tiny alpine resort with a mini supermarket in the form of 4square!
So there you have it folks, Franz Josef Glacier, one of the many wonders of New Zealand and I’d highly recommend you go due to it being in a rapid retreat. The town of Franz Josef is a small resort town so would advise two nights there if you’re just looking to do the main attraction of the Heli Hike. Other things to do include the Wildlife Reserve (but those in the group that went on it weren’t too impressed and called it a tourist trap), walking along some of the trails and skydiving if you’re feeling super adventurous!
I hope you enjoyed this navigation through the glacier and see you again soon! Take it easy
PHC Top 3 – A Chance To Win From A Growing Prize Pool
Well, whilst I’m here, I might as well take the chance to tell you about a new contest that I’ve been a part of with the Power House Creatives called @phctop3. All you need to do is tell us what your top 3 favourites for a chance to win from a growing prize pool – more info here.