Frozen giants – The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers

Back once again with the renegade master.

Turning out the LED spotlights in our van, we lay in absolute darkness, the darkest night we’ve ever experienced. Parked next to giant Mt Cook, you could now and then make out the rumble of distant avalanches crashing down the mountain. A scary sound to hear in the dead of night. But then the rain started. Pretty loud on a metal roof and kept us up all night long. By morning Mt Cook had disappeared under cloud, I’m so pleased we’d done our hike yesterday when it was clear and dry. It was still hammering it down and the unsealed gravel road that was our only way out of the little town of Aoraki was starting to sink under streams flowing over it. Time to leave!

We headed back towards Wanaka where the road splits and heads west towards glacier country. Today was going to be one of those wet, slow days sat in the drivers seat, avoiding land slides and Pukeko crossing the road (birds that seem to love the wet weather). The rocky mountains turned to lush green wild forest and the flat valley roads turned into steep winding ones. We were now on the Haast Pass and things had gotten pretty wild. Andy always wanted to see fiordland in rainy weather with roaring rivers and crashing waterfalls. Well I guess this was the next best thing! We stopped a few times to take pictures of the craziness around us, it looked so amazing! We drove around an avalanche – ripped tree roots, mud and rock covered our side of the road and we wondered if it had just happened. After 300km of draining driving, I was done for the day and Andy had a wicked curry planned for dinner, so I thought it best to stop and camp in Haast and let him cook it for me 🙂

The curry was amazing, thanks Andy, but the constant hounding of thousands of pesky biting sandfly was not. Before being able to sleep we’d spent two hours killing the bastards in our van, squishing them with our fingers against the windows and clapping our hands together. It was a red sticky mess after. Why does the prettiest part of the country have to house the shittest animal ever?! After a night of mass sandfly massacre, the next day was clear and sunny, great conditions to go and explore a glacier or two! 🙂 We drove through more incredible forest with calmer looking rivers and waterfalls today. The native giant wood pigeon were swooping around the tree tops and the sound of Bell birds was everywhere. We arrived in the little town of Fox glacier, a quaint looking place with a few shops and tour agents dotted around. After reading about the differences between Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, we decided to visit both but in very different ways. We booked onto a heli-hike of Franz for the next day and also decided to do a valley hike straight away to the front of the Fox (for free!).

Driving towards the glacier we kept passing signs stating where the tip of the Fox used to be in past years. In a hundred years or so it has retreated several hundred metres but apparently now it is advancing again. We drove to a carpark by the milky river flowing out of the bottom of the Fox, full of ice cubes and icebergs  We knew we were close and so started our hike up the gravel path on the side of the valley. Gravel turned to shingle, shingle turned to rocks and rocks turned into boulders. This was a fun walk, jumping over stepping stones in rivers and winding round land slides. The ground we walked on was a mix of bronze and gold sparkling rock (known as schist) which sparkled like Edward Cullen’s naked body in the sunlight (a Twilight thing). Hmmm beautiful. The rock was nice too 🙂 After climbing as far as we could, or as far as the DOC (department of conservation) would let us for safety reasons, we were now standing above the grand Fox glacier, right by the front.

I wouldn’t describe the Fox as the cleanest looking glacier since the ice was dusted and mixed with rock, giving it a rather grey appearance. But the cracks and crevasses were jaw dropping and all the time you were aware of rumbles of crashing ice at the mouth. At one point while I was filming the front, an overhanging section of ice decided to fall into the river below, making the craziest booming noise that echoed through the whole valley. Scary! We then decided to climb down to have a closer look of Fox’s face. Here you could see how thick it was, deep blue and dripping in the heat of the day. Again we got as close as the DOC ropes would let us and for a good reason too. We’d already just witnessed how the rock and ice are always moving and crashing down. Turns out every year people die here having ignored the signs, climbing over the ropes to get a better view. You’ll either be crushed to death or fall down a huge crack in the ice, found years later when the ice thaws and they pull your preserved body out with a woolly mammoth’s!

After an awesome hike of the Fox glacier valley we were now super excited about getting into a helicopter (something the pair of us have never done before) and stepping onto the ice of the Franz Josef glacier. We decided to camp in Franz Josef town for a couple of nights, a busier place compared to Fox. We enjoyed visiting the Monteith’s pub there as well as the Speight’s, and treated ourselves to a pounamu (New Zealand greenstone/jade) necklace each from a local shop. Its everywhere here in NZ, a sacred material for the Maori that was used for making clubs and chisels plus jewellery that everyone proudly wears. We spent an hour in there talking to the lovely Maori lady who ran it, chatting about how she grew up on the North Island in a non-English speaking village which was amazing and blew our minds. She radiated love for her people and her country, and had no hatred towards how New Zealand/Aotearoa had changed. She only remarked on how species of animal and plant needed more attention in the way of conservation and we agreed.

Getting dressed the next day for our heli-hike was interesting since we were told not to wear jeans (our warmest piece of clothing!) as once they get wet they don’t tend to dry out. Hmmm what to wear then? A bikini?! So rocking up to the heli-pad in a men’s pair of board shorts over three quarter length leggings, you can imagine I received a few curious looks from people:) Ha ha! We were all weighed then given warm jackets to wear plus boots with woolen socks, so we were pretty snug. It was time to fly.

We were placed into teams of 6 and given certain seats within the helicopter. We were with a bunch of Irish which had us in stitches the whole time. I swear there’s something in the Guiness they drink, aye to be sure! Anyway, I somehow bagged the front seat next to the pilot and had an absolutely awesome view. We effortlessly took off and were high in the sky within seconds. Much more graceful than an aeroplane. We swooped over the streams of melt-water below, skimmed the sides of mountains and then the glacier itself came into view. Franz Josef was huge, bright white in most places with dark deep cracks and a massive waterfall off to the side, disappearing under the belly of the beast. It was breathtaking! After one loop around the glacier, we landed on the ice next to our guide and were told to tread carefully in case we slipped over. I was pleased to get my crampons on (spikes for your boots) as they stabilised every step you took.

We spent the next 2 hours hiking up and down crevasses, valleys and cliffs of ice, all glittering in the midday sun with a mix of blues, whites and greys. It was magical. We could hear dripping all around us and sometimes the roar of rivers below when passing drain holes in the ice. Our guide used his pick axe to cut out steps for us all on steep climbs and now and then he’d find a tunnel or two for us to climb through on our hands and knees. Insanely cool…literally! He even handed out crystals to everyone he’d found in rock deposits, so I have a wicked souvenir of Franz Josef that will last longer than the ice will – as it is apparently retreating so fast, it might disappear within 40 years!! Better go and visit it now people!

Check out the photos, they are incredible and they mark the last crazy excursion we were to do in NZ. For us this was a very sad thought as it meant our time here was coming to an end, but we still had Nelson to visit with its crazy craft beer scene! Yay! I’ll let Andy the future brew master take it from here…

Emma x


1 thought on “Frozen giants – The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers

  1. Thank you very much. I have enjoyed all the photos [and the cards] . You have made an old man ever so slightly jealous

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