It was only eight months ago that I was in Argentina visiting one of the world’s most impressive sights – Perito Moreno Glacier. I’d been travelling for half a year through South America by that stage, and keeping to a budget meant I had to think carefully before signing up for guided tours. Despite rave reviews from everyone I met who’d been hiking on the glacier, I decided not to splash the cash and, instead, to observe the immensity of the glacier’s cliffs from a boat.
I wasn’t going to pass on the experience a second time. As soon as I arrived in Franz Josef, on the west coast of New Zealand, I signed up to explore ice crevasses and caves with Franz Josef Glacier Guides as part of their Ice Explorer tour.
A particularly exciting aspect to the Ice Explorer tour is that the only way to reach the glacier is by helicopter. This means that a 5-minute ride each way is included in your ticket. One factor the company sadly can’t control is the weather and, on my first afternoon in town, they had to turn me away as the winds were too strong to fly.
The next morning, I had better luck and they gathered our group together to dress us up in all our glacier gear. They have high-durability rain jackets, waterproof trousers, hats, gloves and boots for you to climb into at their base. They also hand you a small shoulder bag containing your crampons and you have to put any belongings you want to take with you inside this too.
Packing list: There’s not much you need to take, but I’d definitely recommend sunscreen. Sunglasses are useful too as the glare from the ice in the afternoon can be blindingly strong. Some people took snacks and water, but you’re only up there for a couple of hours and if you get thirsty, there’s a fresh supply of water all around you!
We were split into groups of five or six for the helicopter ride and, after a short safety briefing, boarded the aircraft. I’d never ridden in a helicopter before and was surprised to find how smooth a journey it was. As a nervous flyer, I barely noticed we’d left the ground until I peered down over the valley floor and approaching glacial formations.
The hike itself was incredible. I couldn’t have imagined that such intricate tunnels and fissures would be created by natural erosion. Everywhere we turned was another photo opportunity, to the point that I think our guide Pete was getting sick of waiting for us.
Once we’d all gathered around, he told us a bit of history about the area, including some astonishing facts about the glacier.
Pointing to a line where the mountain forest stopped some 100 metres above the ice, he said that this was how high the glacier had been in 2008 – just 5 years earlier. At this rate of retreat, there would be no glacier remaining in 30 years’ time.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. As we meandered our way along ridges and through natural passageways, Pete encouraged us to throw snowballs at the other guides. ‘Just be sure it’s snow,’ he warned. ‘Last week, someone was hit in the face by a chunk of ice and it caused an uncontrollable nose bleed!’
As we waited for the helicopters, some of us snacked on glacial snow, while others made natural slides, and then, with heavy hearts, it was time to board the helicopter back to town.
If the fun had ended there, I would have been more than satisfied. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable experiences of my time in New Zealand. But there were two more treats to come. First of all, we were handed a goody bag back at the office, which included a DVD about the glacier, a very tasty chocolate bar, a bottle of water and both regular sunscreen and the lip variety.
We were also told that our wrist bands would give us free access to the Glacial Hot Pools in town. The same evening, I spent 2 hours turning myself into a prune while relaxing in the 40-degree water and reflecting on what a fantastic day it had been!
Getting to Franz Josef
Intercity Buses provide services to Franz Josef from the following popular destinations (rough times in brackets): Greymouth (4 hours); Wanaka (6.5 hours); Queenstown (8.5 hours). Further transfers are available from these locations. See the Intercity website for a full list of their services and bus pass options.
Where to stay
For a relaxing stay just across the road from the Glacial Hot Pools, you should look no further than Rainforest Retreat. Immersed in forest is a wide selection of accommodation to suit any budget, including hostel dorms, motel rooms and private lodges, tree houses and huts. There’s a spa, sauna and massage therapist on site if you’re aching after your hike, or you can fill up on food and booze in the Monsoon Bar, where the slogan reads ‘If it rains, we pour!’
I was a guest of Franz Josef Glacier Guides. They did not request that I write a favourable review and any opinions expressed here are my own.