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Exploring New Zealand


Mark Brownlow - February 8, 2007

Franz Josef was one of the longer-serving Austrian emperors, and the name of the glacier is entirely appropriate given the majesty of the sight that awaits you at the foot of the Waiho river valley just short of the Tasman sea.

View of Franz Josef Glacier from the lookout point

As glaciers around the world retreat ever deeper into their mountain holds, Franz Josef is an exception. It's currently advancing down toward the coast and is remarkably just a couple of hundred meters above sea level. On a given day, it can move close to a meter along its path.

This dynamism is due to a series of fortunate geological and meteorological coincidences that allow the glacier to snub its frozen nose in the direction of broader climate change.

But before you get so far as to visit the glacier itself, first stop off in the town of the same name, located a couple of hours' drive south of Hokitika on the South Island's west coast.

The town's visitor center is the ideal resource for mugging up on glacier-related information. It's also where you can learn which of the access paths are open and which are best suited to your available time and energy.

Although the glacier does reach down to the bottom of the valley, it's still a wild and treacherous environment. So take heed of any path closures and travel advice. Don't worry, though, you can get excellent views of the glacier from vantage points serviced by decent paths. It's just that overzealous visitors can easily forget that this is still mountain territory and it pays to respect the advice of the local park services.

The town itself is full of places to buy supplies and services for a proper glacial experience, and the variety of ways to enjoy the ice mass are enormous.

Path leading to Franz Josef Glacier lookout point

Those with brief staying power can take a short and simple walk to a viewing point. Those with stronger constitutions (and the right clothing and footwear) can hike right to the edge of the glacier itself. Others can enjoy guided ice climbing tours or a trip in a helicopter or plane.

The actual face of the glacier is located a few miles outside Franz Josef. You can catch a glimpse from the town itself, but to reach it you need to take a short drive south on the main exit route.

After you cross over a long one-way bridge there's an access road immediately on the left which takes you to a large car park. The road is suitable for cars and campervans, but unpaved. So in a dry summer, passing vehicles kick up dense clouds of dust. Keep the windows rolled up if you're sensitive to bad air.

The car park has toilets but little else; this is the west coast, after all, not Disneyland. What you do get is access to well-marked paths and tracks leading to scenic vantage points or to the glacier itself.

We took two, short, 15 minute walks to viewing points looking across the valley to the glacier face. The first and shortest walk took us up a fairly steep path through dense native forest before emerging at Sentinel Rock, which has superb views over and across the valley floor.

View of Franz Josef Glacier from the lookout point

The second "Forest Walk" was further, but flatter, and took us to a viewing platform lower down the valley. Although both paths are under tree cover, the viewing points are understandably exposed. So bear that in mind if you're traveling in bad weather or bright sun.

Both points offered breathtaking views. The wide riverbed is flanked by dense vegetation and sheer valley walls, replete with outcrops and small waterfalls, drawing the eye down to the frozen mass that is the glacier. In summer, the stark contrast between the greens and browns of the mountains and the white glacial ice make for spectacular photos. Even at a distance, you get a deep impression of the latent power within the glacier as it muscles its way between the rockfaces.

Impressive as these views are, it's still worth getting a closer look if you can. Apart from gaining a better appreciation of the true scale of the glacier, you also get to see that it's not a smooth tube of packed snow and ice, but a craggy, crevice-ridden monster with brilliant blue colors within the white exterior.

Warning sign, Franz Josef Glacier

If you do choose to walk to the face, heed all warning signs and information displays. Wear clothes appropriate to the season and ensure your footwear is sturdy and suited to hiking conditions. Most importantly, respect path closures. Tracks are roped off for good reason and not on a whimsy. Falling rocks and ice, floods and water surges are real dangers at particular times of the year and the paths down and across to the glacier are opened and closed accordingly.

There are numerous guided climbing and hiking tours organized from the town and these are a must if you want to go onto the glacier itself. And take plenty of photos. Not for nothing is this region a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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