I have no shame in admitting I’m an opportunist.
When I see the possibility or chance of doing something epic, something awesome, something once-in-a-lifetime-that-might-not-be-there-if-you-wait, I take it. Well, better put I grab onto that chance with both hands and never let go, Jack Dawson-style.
Life is short, take chances.
But I digress.
Now if there is one South Island activity that I have heard UNIVERSALLY lauded, hyped up and praised from the top to bottom of New Zealand, it’s flying and hiking at the Franz Josef Glacier.
Literally, every single person I talked to who traveled around New Zealand, told me not only that I must do it, but also it was their favorite activity.
I had never really hiked on a glacier before nor ridden in a helicopter so I was game.
Tucked away on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is the world-famous Franz Josef Glacier, one of only 3 glaciers in the world that drop down into a temperate rainforest. It’s a long story about WHY I know that, but I’ll let you guess.
Bets are involved.
Since 2008, from what I understand the glacier is receding which means that you can’t walk up onto it anymore, especially with an unstable facade. Instead the only way onto the ice is by helicopter!
Any hike or tour that starts with a helicopter ride is fine by me. I like to arrive in style, how about you?
Armed with all the essentials, chocolate, water and all my camera equipment – priorities people! We climbed into the helicopter for a quick zip up to the glacier.
Bundled up in matching gear, as soon as we got on the ice we strapped crampons to our thick boots.
As someone who aspires to be a great mountaineer but who is afraid of the big mountains (making it an unlikely dream) I was excited to try out crampons for the first time in a moderately safe environment.
I love getting to try new things and this was by far one of the most unique activities I’ve been lucky enough to participate in.
Reflecting back, I think my first impressions (obviously) were of the ice.
Gray, white, blue, turquoise, all interspersed with marble swirls of silty brown and gray. To me, the ice seemed to change color every time a cloud passed by or we turned a corner. How can so many different shades exist for one thing?
In a bizarre way I wanted to dig with my hands or with Pete’s (our guide) ice ax just to see if it did indeed get bluer the deeper you delved.
Forgive me while I tangent.
If I were to give a color to New Zealand (since I have a weird knack for assigning colors to places), it would have to be blue. No matter where I go from top to bottom of the country, I always seem to end up somewhere blue.
From the neon blue geothermal lakes in Rotorua and Tongariro to the turquoise dolphin and whale infested waters off Kaikoura to the alpine lakes around the Southern Alps, there is no shortage of blue to be found in New Zealand. In fact, you can’t escape it.
And Franz Josef was no exception.
Here the soft shades of the blue ice contrast with the stony slips off the green mountainsides, juxtaposed with some adventurous souls in bright blue raincoats led by Pete, all in red.
I really don’t think there exists a more picturesque place than Franz Josef.
Wobbling around with our thick boots, we learned about anything and everything about the history of the glacier and what makes it so special.
Franz Josef Glacier in Māori is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which means “The Tears of Hinehukatere).
Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Wawe, to join her one day, even though he was a less experienced climber.
Either falling or swept away by an avalanche, Wawe died on the mountain. Brokenhearted, Hinehukatere cried so many tears that the eventually formed the glacier.
Why do so many Māori legends end with someone’s lover dying and tears? Why?!
It was fascinating watching Pete hack and dig new paths around the glacier, knowing that the ice moves and shapes itself so drastically every single day.
Gimme the ice ax!
Of course that’s is also what makes glaciers so dangerous and unstable, and why it’s so important to follow the guides while on the ice. As one who tends to wander off and take photos of random things, I had to be extra careful to behave and pay attention that day.
It’s hard to chose a favorite moment from exploring Franz Josef, but I think one thing I enjoyed the most was getting to climb down into an ice cave, National Geographic style.
Ok, I’m guessing those explorers don’t already have a rope railing nailed in for them, but still. I waited to go last so I had the place to myself. Listening to the water dripping off the bright blue ice with the occasional creak and groan in the distance is not something I’ll soon forget.
I hate to be predictable or follow the crowd, but I can’t help but agree with all the other New Zealand travelers before me that a glacier hike on Franz Josef is not to be missed. Don’t forget to add it to your trip!