Our journey from Greymouth to Franz Josef was one full of the kind of sights that made us pull over every few kilometres for a photo or two. This included rivers, mountains and spectacular coastlines – all increased in potency by flawless weather and the anticipation of seeing the most iconic glacier in New Zealand at the end of the drive.
We were worried that we might not find accommodation in Franz Josef as we had not booked ahead (we rarely do) and it’s a popular tourist attraction, but on arrival it seemed that there was nothing but accommodation in town, so there were no problems there. We found a nice (and expensive) motel with good views of Mt. Cook towering above, and nice and close to the shops and other amenities in the tourist town. A quick scout of the town revealed a few shops and a place to buy not-so-cheap groceries. We also managed to book ourselves onto a half-day tour on the glacier itself – this involved getting right up on the ice with crampons on our boots and a guide to get us around and give us a bit of the detail on the glacier. We couldn’t wait!
Waiting paid off, because it was great. We got on an extremely hot non-air-conditioned bus which carted us and about 30 other people off to the glacier. It was such a roasting hot day, and as we had not yet actually seen the glacier I half believed that all the ice must have melted and there’d just be a rocky valley left behind. Not so, as we stepped between the trees into the glacial valley and saw the ice snaking down the mountainside towards us. It was truly immense looking, and even at a distance of 2km it looked very close owing to it being so large. We started to hike across the flat and rocky valley which the glacier had snaked along less than a century beforehand towards the ice.
On the way the ice got closer and closer, and soon we were walking alongside a murky looking river with bits of ice floating along it. This was the water flowing down off the glacier. Our guide explained to us that the glacier was a lot shorter now than it had been a couple of hundred years ago, but it was currently growing due to increased rainfall. It turns out the large amount of rain and snow that falls at the top of the mountain range causes the glacier to grow, and it melts mainly only at the bottom. In addition to the water coming out of the bottom of the glacier, there were also several waterfalls coming off the wall of the valley along the way. The falling water was beautiful and impressive, and it showed just how much water was locked up in the mountains.
There was a great sense of anticipation as we locked the crampons onto our boots and started the slow but steady climb up the rock-covered wall of the glacier. We were told to hold on tight to the rope running along the path which we did. I was surprised to find how well my crampons dug into the ice - even though it was melting and slippery looking, I didn’t slip once. About halfway up the back-half of the group stopped. We waited for them to catch up, and it turned out that one man had had a chunk of ice drop on his head. He had blood running down his head and onto his shirt! It was a bit scary and reminded us that we had to be careful, but he was able to carry on so it was ok!
We got to the end of that path, which also marked the end of the rock-covered portion of the glacier. We stepped onto the pure, white and blue melting ice. The view from up there was amazing – we could see for miles.
We climbed further up onto the ice, right up to our highest point. The view from the highest point that we visited was even better, both up and down the glacier. On the glacier itself we were able to get a better perspective as to how big it was – we barely scratched the surface in terms of ascending it, and the glacier seemed to snake up into the sky. The details up close were amazing – caves and windows dotted the ice, and everywhere water was dripping and running as the glacier melted.
On our descent, we took a more interesting path. The path angled down through some crevasses, some of which got pretty tight. Put it this way, I had to squeeze through, so I think a pretty unfit person would have some real trouble getting through. The squeeze through made me pretty uncomfortable and claustrophobic. It was cold and wet too, which made for some pretty chilly squeezing! Mahmoud, however, seemed to really enjoy it!
When we got back to the bottom we felt a real sense of achievement. I think we would have both liked to have been on the ice for longer as the two hours we were up there went really quickly, but it was still a great experience which we would happily do again.
The following day we headed off in the direction of Queenstown, but as the drive was a long one we planned to break the journey up by staying overnight in the small town of Haast. Along the way we stopped at a couple of interesting points. The first was the next glacier along – Fox Glacier. We stopped at the glacier and did the short 30 minute return walk to the base of it. Not quite as visually impressive as Franz Josef glacier had been, it was nevertheless an amazing sight to see the ice marching slowly down the mountainside, and melting at the bottom into a stream.
Further out from Fox, we stopped at Lake Matheson. This lake is famous for it’s pristine reflective views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. Given the perfect weather, there were perfect views, but it seemed we were there a bit late in the day for the reflective views on the water of the lake. Even so, it was a good walk around the perimeter of the water, despite it being a hot and very humid day. I did manage to get munched on by sandflies!
We made it to Haast in the late afternoon. It was an odd little place, and on arriving we didn’t really want to stay. It basically consisted of a few motels and shops, and not much else. Still, we didn’t really have much of an option – there was nowhere else around for miles. We did end up staying and had a pretty non-eventful night. It was worth it though – there were great things ahead in the next day’s drive, and our next destination – Queenstown!