The Franz Josef Glacier hike is one of New Zealand’s most unique experiences and, for me, provided a second chance.
It was only eight months earlier that I’d been in Argentina visiting another glacier – Perito Moreno. Despite rave reviews from everyone I met who’d been hiking on it, 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.
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!
GETTING SET UP
On arrival at the centre, you’re provided with a set of glacier gear to put on. This includes 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.
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 this does mean that tours sometimes have to be postponed.
People are split into groups of five or six, given a quick safety briefing and shown to the aircraft.
ON THE ICE
You’d think it would be hard to beat a helicopter ride, but once on the ice, the tour just gets better. The various tunnels and fissures are unexpectedly complex and beautiful.
Although described as a ‘hike’ this tour is more like an assault course. At times you get to squeeze through narrow passageways or slide down smooth surfaces, and they encourage you to throw snowballs at the other guides. You also have to keep your wits about you, though, and listen to the guide’s instructions because glaciers are constantly changing shape and not all sections are stable.
One of the aims of the glacial hike tour is to increase awareness of the impact that global warming is having on glacial structures around the world. As a break from clambering over the ice, each guide gathers their guests to show them a line where the mountain forest stops some 100 metres above the ice. This represents how high the glacier was in 2008. They also warn that at this rate of retreat, there would be no glacier at all in 30 years’ time.
WAITING FOR THE RIDE BACK
If you’re not assigned to the first helicopter, you might have to wait a short while alongside a worn path. The good news is you can pass the time building natural slides or snacking on glacial snow.
Back at the centre, goody bags are handed to all participants. These include a DVD about the glacier, a very tasty chocolate bar, a bottle of water and sunscreen for your body and for your lips.
In addition, your wrist bands give you free access to the Glacial Hot Pools in town.
GETTING TO FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER
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. Use the search tool below to find specific journeys or click through to the Intercity home page for information about multi-journey savings, day trips and activities.
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.