January 30, 2013 by Deborah Cicurel
Every day in New Zealand, whether I’m sitting on the coach staring out of the window at snowy mountains, taking a quick morning walk around a beautiful lake or sitting on a glorious beach, I seem to say ‘Wow’ at least once an hour.
One of Kiwi Land’s best-known sights is the imposing Franz Josef Glacier, shrinking with the years but still colossal – and thankfully accessible to tourists, from experienced mountaineers to lazy backpackers.
Due to falling rocks, the only way to get up there is by helicopter (Tourist Companies: 1, Backpackers’ Bank Balances: 0).
For a bit over a hundred pounds (gulp), most people on our Kiwi Experience bus purchased a three hour tour of the glacier, which also included return helicopter rides, all gear and entrance to the hot pools in Franz Josef, which normally costs 23 dollars.
This last part was a great sweetener for the following day, when we lolled about in the boiling baths massaging our poor feet. You’d be surprised how much you miss baths after three months of standing in hostel showers praying that a) the temperature will somehow stop veering wildly from freezing to scalding and b) the couple in the shower next to you will somehow manage to be a bit less vocal about whatever they’re doing in there.
Laura, a boy from our bus and I were put into a group with a friendly Korean guy and a group of people about our age from Taiwan, who, on the duration of the hike, beat a world record, managing to take even more photos than me. Our guide, Ryan, was kitted out in shorts and a T-Shirt, which made me feel a bit foolish for putting on all the gear I could handle before we set off: a thick hoodie, waterproof coat and trousers, two pairs of the most amazing socks my feet will ever encounter, a nifty red bag and a thick pair of boots.
We clomped across Franz Josef’s one main road to the helicopter, where we eagerly waited to board. None of us had ever been in a helicopter before, so as we strapped ourselves in and listened to the pilot’s commands over fashionably oversized headphones, we took in the awesome views around us as we swept over the town and mountains while feeling only the tiniest bit nervous about how noisy the flight was.
We casually landed on the ice and skidded out onto our feet, somehow not falling over. It was then time to get our crampons out of our nifty red bags and attach them to our boots. These would help us get more grip on the ice. I kind of wished I could take a pair home for the one day of snowfall London gets per year.
Obviously I had picked up nothing at all from the demonstration Ryan had given us, because in a flash everyone in our group had got them on and were taking their first tentative steps around the ice, while I was sitting on my bum getting colder and colder and trying to figure out how to even open them.
Finally Ryan tired of watching me fiddling around with them and did my crampons up for me. I felt as if I was six again, learning how to tie my shoelace, but our next task made me forget my embarrassment as we learnt to walk downhill on the ice, bending our knees and trying to keep our balance. I think it’s fair to say we were all equally terrible at this.
After we’d all stumbled, sworn and giggled enough to satisfy Ryan that none of us were going to leap into a crevasse, it was time to begin our hike.
We walked up the glacier, all the while Ryan telling us all about it, how it had formed, how it constantly changes in dramatic weather conditions. Geography was never my strong subject at school but somehow being in such impressive surroundings made me somewhat desperate to ask questions about rock formations and nodding along as if I understood any of the geography behind it. I preferred the Maori legend: that the glacier formed from the tears of a woman whose lover was swept away by an avalanche. That’s a hell of a lot easier to understand than meltwater and freshwater and all that jazz.
It wasn’t only walking uphill – there were tiny corridors of ice that we squeezed ourselves into, ledges to climb down, small tunnels we had to squeeze through on hand and foot. And best of all – the incredible view of waterfalls, blue ice and rolling hills all around us.
Sadly, after three hours of saying ‘Wow!’, it was time to return back to the small town of Franz Josef. And we did it in style – hopping back onto our helicopters. I could get used to this – who needs the Tube?
- Glaciers in New Zealand (gorentals.co.nz)
- Day Twenty-five – to Franz Josef Glacier – Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (travelpod.com)
- Punakaiki to Franz Josef – Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (travelpod.com)
- Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers – Fox Glacier, New Zealand (travelpod.com)
- Franz Josef: Ice and Sky (walkabouwsema.wordpress.com)
- TranzAlpine – New Zealand’s most scenic railway journey (gorentals.co.nz)
- Glaciers still open despite highway closure (radionz.co.nz)
- Bum advert removed from bus (nzherald.co.nz)
- Extra Effort (ireport.cnn.com)
- Cut off Coasters and tourists soldiered on (stuff.co.nz)