Meet Franz and Fox - Glaciers Extraordinaire

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November 11th 2014
Published: November 11th 2014
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Meet Franz and Fox - Our Glaciers

So we leave Greymouth and make our way to glacier country, just about a 2.5 hour drive away. We restructured our trip so that we were chasing the sun instead of the thunderstorms. We saw that the storms were headed South to the Fiordland, so we elected to do Wanaka and Queenstown and the glaciers first, and then Milford Sound after.

FUNFACT: Fiordlands are carved out by glaciers, and Sounds by rivers. So Milford Sound is actually a misnomer,

We drive first to Fox Glacier, the smaller of the two glaciers. We have good weather for the drive, but have to don our raingear for the hike. I'm quite the vision in my bright yellow poncho and floral umbrella. At least we weren't like the fools we saw on the trail who started out when it was sunny and were absolutely drenched and unprepared as we passed them in our ridiculous get ups. The glacier was really cool. One can't walk onto it like in the past because it has retreated so far, but the views are still spectacular. It's an environment I've never experienced before- a ground of shale rock and sediment which used to be the glacier bed before it's retreat, in a low valley surrounded by white capped mountains and waterfalls. The weather cleared, so we did another hike after. We drove through a land of pastures and a herd of cattle ultimately to Gillepsie's Beach. The hike is remote at the end of an I paved road and we only encounter one other couple. We saw an old shipwreck having something to do with the gold rush, and then walked along the beach to some massive waves and driftwood up to a lagoon, and down through the rainforest to Seal Cove. Rumor has it there are two seals currently spending time in the cove who will actually eat out of your hand. The weather holds more or less, but the trail is super wet and my shoes have both been sacrificed at this point. About 15 min from the cove we come to an impassable river and...turn around. Cest la vie. No seals, but the trail is still nice. My feet are thanking me anyway.

We get back and go to a bistro for dinner and all of the women there are Spanish speaking. Quite a fun little pocket of unexpected culture in a sea of glaciers and Kiwis. We have a decent meal (the ambiance definitely beat the food) and make plans to fly to Franz Joseph glacier the next day.

Initially I hadn't wanted to do the formal glacier walk and helicopter ride. I'm working on a pretty tight budget, and one can get great views of the glaciers just from the hikes. However, Anjali convinced me and very kindly fronted me the money until I start getting pay checks again. We met some helicopter pilots at the bar and they also convinced us it is worth it. Turns out you can only see a third of the glacier unless you are in the air.

So the next day our glacier tour gets delayed because of weather, and then ultimately all tours get cancelled because of the wind. It seems a futile feat, as the weather the next day doesn't look more promising. But we sign up for the first tour of the next day. For better or worse, the day turns out to be beautiful, so we were able to get some really nice hikes in. Franz Joseph is much bigger than Fox. We hike along the glacier and get some great pics. We then head to the wetlands of Okarita and do another hike there. The town of Franz Joseph is small, but Okarita is just a blink of a village. The hike is nice, and the views are panoramic of the wetlands. We head back to the a Rainforest Retreat for my big birthday night. We got Montieths beers and a really awesome curry and were in bed by 10. Big partiers.

We got up early and there's a gentle rain, so we are pretty convinced we won't be making it to the glacier. However, conditions are deemed passable, so we gear up at the office and head to the launching pad. The tour group supplies us with everything - warm gear, bags, crampons, really hot glacier guides (just sayin). It's my first time in a helicopter and it's exhilarating. I can't believe how powerful the gusts from the propellers are. The movies all make sense. The views are already insane, and then we land on top of the glacier. It's just surreal. We disembark and get a lesson in how to put in the crampons. We get a long diatribe on how many ways we can injure ourselves or die as well. And then we are off for 3 hours of journeying on top of the ice. There are cracks, crags, crevasses, waterfalls all surrounded by the mountain peaks. Our guide, Jagged (real name, his parents let his brother name him), carves out our path with a pick axe. He says the glacier changes daily, and each trip is different and the route has to constantly be changed. There are pockets of turquoise ice, which I find out is actually freshly uncovered ice which is densely packed and not yet oxidized. The light therefore is deflected at a different wavelength, emanating blue. I'm toast. I never want to leave.

When we left on the copter, I felt a physical separation, and a knowledge that you just don't have those experiences often, and I may never be on top of a glacier again. I had fleeting thoughts of being a part time glacier guide and part time surgeon in the sleepy town of Franz Joseph. Maybe even more than fleeting thoughts. The pilot has his fun with us and makes some intentional drops as we say goodbye to the glacier. Best birthday present ever. We grab some lunch and eat famous Saturday doughnuts in celebration, and take off for Wanaka via Haast pass.


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