It’s 43 degrees in my kitchen, so I’m sitting under the air-conditioner in the back room and reminiscing about cooler times.
I guess it’s no surprise that my July 2011 trip to New Zealand is one of the first that springs to mind. I was there to learn to snowboard but, well, that’s a story for another time and place. A hike on Franz Josef Glacier ended up being the most active thing I did on that trip. Actually, the only other thing I did that could be considered active was my drinking arm bicep-curls.
Anyways, I wanted to share these photos with you so that you might share in my sighs and mutters…
After about an hour of tramping our way through dense ferny forest, we emerge at the Waiho River and Franz Josef’s terminal face. Every part of me itches to leave my slow-walking tour group behind and run, arms wildly flailing, toward the ice. I restrain myself and hang back, enjoying the many waterfalls that decorate the valley walls, and taking in the guide’s spiel about how quickly the ice is thinning and the glacier receding. This is depressing stuff, but I decide to just be grateful that I’m here while there is still something to see.
We take a closer look at the glacier’s toe, where meltwater has formed a large ice-cave, before climbing a rocky moraine and donning our crampons. We’re given minimal advice on how to fit them and use them, but once we’re on the ice I quickly find my rhythm. Hiking out onto the glacier is a little unsettling considering I’ve never even been this close to one before. Our guides speak of the glacier as if it is a living thing. I can kind of feel that. It has a presence of its own.
There are whispers amongst the guides that we might be able to check out a small ice-cave in the glacier, provided the conditions suit. Before long, they’ve led us to a cave entry. I’m shitting myself, but far too curious to say no. We make our way inside and find that it quickly becomes just big enough to crawl through.
It takes some maneuvering to get my shoulders through some sections. At times I struggle to find any traction with which to push myself. Obviously I’m not the only one, as I’m constantly dodging the spiky crampons of the person in front of me. It’s slow-going with 10 or so people squeezing through one after the other, and the nervous and frightened cackling of a group of young ladies in my tour group is deafening. After a very long half an hour we emerge, soaking wet, from the other end of the cave. Before I’ve even found my feet I’ve asked one of the guides if I can go back and do it again.
We continue on a large circuit over this section of the glacier, at a couple of stages crossing icy chasms on tiny, temporary bridges. Walking on the wooden structure in my crampons is tricky, and the slightest misstep would most likely be the end of me, so I’m glad that at their longest they’re only a few steps across. Before long, our time on the ice is over and we return to our tour bus by the same forest track. Considering the total walking time has only been three hours, we all agree that it was extremely exhausting.
Not only has this been the most satisfying thing I’ve done on my trip to New Zealand, it’s up there in the top ten most awesome things I’ve ever done.
Need to know
The tour I’ve recounted here is no longer available due to the receding of the glacier (I took it back in 2011). Hiking on Franz Josef Glacier is now exclusively heli-hiking. On the upside this means you’ll get to see a much more remote part of the glacier.
One of the more affordable heli-hiking tours can be booked via Experience Oz + NZ for $395.25 per adult (or $367.35 per child). Prices valid at the time of writing and may be subject to change.
After a scenic flight over the icefall you’ll land on the glacier and hike for 2 hours. All necessary gear is provided. The length and time below relates to this tour, rather than to the tour I’ve recounted above.
Length (km): approx. 4 – 5 km
Time (hrs/min): 2 hours
Grade: Moderate fitness is required
Region: New Zealand’s South Island
Park: Westland National Park
Closest Town: Franz Josef
If you’re not up for heli-hiking, there’s so much more to Franz Josef than just the glacier…
This is Franz Josef from Franz Josef Glacier Guides
Have you visited Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier in New Zealand? Are there much better ones that softcore people don’t get to see? Tell us about it in the comments section below.