Get up close to the Franz Josef Glacier
This blog is written by Sophie
I have no shame in admitting that I love an epic adventure. Whenever there’s an opportunity to hike a mountain, jump off a bridge, get up close and personal with a volcano or scale a Glacier for that matter, you can count my camera and I in.
Having grown up in Auckland, I didn’t get the chance to explore the South very much, until now. The Franz Josef Glacier is a 12 km long glacier and if you find yourself here, it’s for this one reason only. The village was built for and around the glacier and is a cosy tourist settlement with all the necessities – bars, cafes, gift stores, a cinema, friendly locals and hot pools for when you’ve got some down time. The west coast is known for its wild weather, and should you find that mother nature’s not co-operating, there’s plenty of relaxing activities to keep you entertained.
Roughly 18,000 years ago, the Glacier itself stretched all the way to the ocean. Since then it’s advanced and retreated, and scientists believe that in the next 80 years or so, it will retreat about 40 percent. A small reminder that if you have the opportunity to witness this incredible work of nature in your lifetime, you really must.
Getting to the Glacier Region
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are located on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The glacier region sits on the west side of Mount Cook, the towering 3,700 meter high mountain and descend down from the Southern Alps.
Franz Josef is a four and a half hour drive north of Queenstown, or a two hour drive south from Hokitika. Whichever way you choose to drive in, you’ll be spoilt with the most stunning of drives. Through wetlands, transcending mountain ranges, waterfall covered cliffs and quiet roads, it’s a place where you can’t help but stop to appreciate your surroundings and the fresh air. Be sure to make time for photo stops, any and all fish and chip shops and necessary espressos.
I flew from Auckland to Christchurch, and then over the Southern Alps into Hokitika airport where I picked up a rental car and started making my way through the wetlands to Franz Josef Village. Whenever flying around New Zealand, I suggest flying during daylight and to always ask for the window seat. There’s nothing better than snow drenched mountains from above.
If you’ve got the time, just outside of Hokitika lies the Hokitika gorge which is a 15 minute return walk from the car park and a good stretch for the legs before the car drive. It’s a turquoise blue oasis that looks even better to the naked eye.
Seeing the Glacier
You have several options to get your eyes on the Glacier. Located only at 300 meters above sea level, there’s hikes, helicopters and walks which will get you up close.
There’s an option to suit every adventure level and price budget. Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are located 30 minutes apart and at both you have the opportunity to hike towards the glacier from close by car parks. From here, you’re granted magnificent views of the foot of the glacier.
If you’re pursuing adventure, the only way up is by helicopter. The Helicopter Line offers scenic flights that soar over both glaciers which features a snow landing, a unique experience for those wanting to stay mostly seated.
If you started this article nodding courageously at the thought of scaling a glacier, a heli hike is calling your name. A three hour hike takes you in-between the ice pinnacles and puzzle of ice valleys which are constantly moving and changing every day. If there’s ever been a time where I’ve felt like I was walking through a National Geographic magazine, this right here was it.
It’s here that the ice age is well and truly alive. The landscape of the glaciers can only be described as dramatic. The blue glacial ice which spans the mountain is almost turquoise and is formed because the dense ice of the glacier absorbs every other colour of the spectrum except blue.
From the helicopter, you might catch a glimpse of Almer Hut, an isolated iron clad mountain hut located at the very peak which is owned by the Department of Conservation. If you’re game enough, a stay up here is first in first serve. You won’t find a check in desk up here.
With temperamental weather, to make the most of the Glacier Region, be flexible with your days and keep a tight eye on the weather forecast. If you’re planning a trip to the South and you have the option, have a flexible itinerary that can be changed to suit the weather. Fast changing conditions, fog, rain and cloud cover can affect Helicopter schedules. Luckily, Queenstown is just a few hours drive away and is the South Island’s best playground.
In the town and around the region
After a day on the ice, the only thing on your mind will be a hot meal and a good wine. Thankfully, you’re in New Zealand, and this is what we do best. Dig in to all the Kiwi classics at one of the restaurants in town and then melt away at the hot pools around the corner.
Spend the night at the Franz Josef Oasis, located just outside the main village. This newly refurbished hotel has everything you need and is also home to the Andris Apse Art Gallery – showcasing work by one of New Zealand’s top landscape photographers.
Closely located nearby is Lake Matheson, a one and a half hour return walk which on a fine day, clearly mirrors the backdrop of the Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in the water and can be seen on nearly all postcard stands in New Zealand.
A three hour drive away is Lake Wanaka where you can guzzle all the very best Otago wines that you can fill your glass with. Don’t you dare leave without snapping a picture of that wanaka tree, arguably the most photographed tree in the world.
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