As we worked our way from the East coast of South Island New Zealand to the West coast, our thoughts were on one thing. Getting to Franz Josef to do some heli-hiking on the Glacier. Check one off the bucket list.
We began by spending the night in Franz Josef Township, a tiny town of a mere 250 residents. Located just 5 kilometers from the face of the glacier, we found a lovely campsite on the beach, enhanced by a fantastic sunset and great company from other travelers at the camp kitchen, but marred by the existence of approximately 1 million tiny, biting, no-see’ems. No matter, nothing could quell our excitement of the day ahead.
Earlier in the day, to further whet our appetite for glacier hiking, we drove to the face of Franz Josef and, ignoring the danger signs, enjoying a few miles of hiking among the dry river bed, scattered with a fascinating variety of rock formations.
I had previously taken rides in helicopter rides but Jim was a newbie, adding to his enthusiasm for our trip. We arrived at the starting point early, eager to get outfitted with our ice axes and crampons. The guided tours begin with an exciting flight over the unstable glacier face before landing further up the glacier on firm ice. After getting our “ice legs” and having a brief tutorial we headed out after our guide.
The tour involved two hours of hiking throughout the glacier, hearing the history of the area, and taking in the astonishing blue lakes set amidst the ice. Franz Josef is unique, in this time of shrinking ice the planet over. Having retreated several kilometers between the 1940s and 1980s, the glacier entered an advancing phase in 1984 and at times has advanced at the phenomenal (by glacial standards) rate of 70 cm a day. The flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers.
The scenery was other-worldly and we inched our way along certain ridges of ice, occasionally hitting a weak spot of ice and sinking in to our knees. In spite of the thrill of hiking on the glacier, we were always conscious of the fact that we were in a potentially dangerous footing.
Near the end of the hike our guide and several members of the trip striped down and jumped into one of the glacier lakes, a move sure to get the heart going! In a moment of potentially bad decision making we chose not to join in, something we’ve regretted several times since and yet, taking off most of my clothes to jump into glacier water was certainly not appealing at the time!
Days such as this don’t come cheap with prices currently running around $335USD per person. But, unlike the over-rated bridge climb in Sydney, the experience was worth every penny. From the helicopter ride to the ice landing to the aquamarine water, every minute was memorable. As the company logo says, “You can’t come to Franz Josef and not try this”. If you’re looking for a special, perhaps once in a lifetime experience, get yourself on a helicopter and check out a glacier!