When I first arrived in New Zealand some years ago, the first thing I did was hop in a campervan and head straight to New Zealand’s wild West Coast.
I knew very little about the West Coast at that time, and was only heading there as I had landed a job at local tourist retreat. Little did I know, the South Island’s West Coast is perhaps one of New Zealand’s most iconic areas. It’s a wild place, an untouched place and a very, very wet place. The West Coast catches the brunt of any weather system coming off the Tasman Sea, and this results in inches and inches or rain falling on the West Coast each year – about 78 inches to be exact.
Last month on my road trip from Auckland to Queenstown, I headed to the West Coast for the same reason that thousands of tourists do each year – I went to see and experience the Franz Josef Glacier.
The Franz Josef Glacier sits in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park – part of the South Westland New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage area. Nowhere else in the world do glaciers come so close to the ocean, and the Franz Josef glacier is only one of three glaciers in the world that terminate in the middle of a temperate rainforest.
There’s something you need to know about the Franz Josef Glacier – its retreating. Quickly. Is this part of its natural cycle? Is this because of global warming? I don’t know. What I do know is that as a result of this retreating you now can’t hike directly up onto the glacier as you could only four years ago. The downside to this? In order to experience hiking on the glacier, you now have to shell out $325 instead of $160 as you did four years ago. The upside to this?
That’s right, because of the instability of the glacier’s face, a quick heli-hop from the village is required to get onto the glacier. I don’t know about you, but I think helicopters are bloody awesome machines, and I jump at any chance I have to get in one.
Helicopter Arriving on the Franz Josef Glacier
New Zealand’s early Maori knew the glacier not a Franz Josef, but as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere. This means, “Tears of Hinehukatere.” As legend has it, Hinehukatere and her partner were climbing in the mountains when her lover fell to his death. Hinehukatere was of course broken hearted, and her tears of sorrow froze and turned into the glacier.
There must have been a lot of tears, as the glacier stretches 12 kms from high in the mountains in its accumulation zone to the valley floor. It stretches about 500 metres less than it did when I first experienced it years ago, but it’s still a stunning site nonetheless. Follow this link to check out panoramic photo of the glacier (note it’s a 10mb file size) – just EPIC.
After getting kitted out in Franz Josef with your ice crampons and your warm/waterproof clothing from Franz Josef Glacier Guides, it’s into the chopper and up onto the ice. Your guide then proceeds to show all around the glacier; over the course of a couple hours you’ll explore crevices, climb steps and learn about the history of this ancient piece of ice.
The day before I arrived to Franz Josef, I drove all the way from Picton and down the West Coast. Along the way it rained, it snowed, it hailed and there were gale force winds.
When I went to bed the night before my hike at the Rainforest Retreat, I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that’d I’d be getting in a chopper the next morning – but alas, the clouds cleared and we had pristine conditions: clear blue skies, no wind and perhaps best of all – the glacier was covered in a beautiful, soft layer of snow.
Assuming you’re not into skydives and bungy jumps, this will likely be one of the most expensive things you’ll do in New Zealand – but in my opinion, its worth every penny.
Thanks to Europcar New Zealand for the wheels that got me around New Zealand on my road trip, and thanks to Franz Josef Glacier Guides for hosting me. Book your Franz Josef Glacier Ice Explorer trip on Planit NZ.