Franz Josef Glacier and Town, New Zealand

A Very Big, Dirty Snowball

The town of Franz Josef, like Queenstown, has a love affair with adventure sports. For $350 you can take a flight in a single-engine Cessna to view both the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, landing on the glacier for a bit of ice hiking in the middle of the flight. You can also do this in a helicopter for slightly less money. Or, if flying is not your thing, for around $225 you can strap talons (metal spikes) onto your shoes and do a half or all-day hike on the glacier, following a most-excellent guide who will carve steps in the ice with a pick axe so you can clamber up the sheer faces of the glacier. You can skydive over the glacier, kayak down the icy rapids spawned by the glacier, or go rock climbing on the walls of the glacier-carved valleys. And on and on, ad infinitum. None of this was for me. Instead, I decided to avail myself of the many hiking trails that the Department of Conservation maintains in and around the glacier.

The previous night I had taken a short trail to the top of Sentinel Hill for a distant view of the glacier, as well as a second ‘End of the Forest’ trail that took me to the edge of the river valley leading to the foot of the glacier. Although the information sign at the trail head indicated that this was also the access to the ‘Foot of the Glacier Trail,’ when I reached the river bank my way was barred by a fence with a sign, warning that only experienced hikers or persons with guides should proceed further. I asked the shuttle driver about this and he explained that the trail had been washed out by flooding in places, but that it was perfectly fine to climb through the fence and hike to the glacier. So I did.

Twin waterfalls on the way to the foot of the Franz Josef glacier New Zealand

Twin waterfalls on the way to the foot of the Franz Josef glacier

I have seen glaciers before. In Canada I visited the glacier at Jasper National Park, where we were driven onto the ice floe by the bus load and allowed to walk around within a small roped-off area – a hundred people at time slipping and sliding into each other in the freezing cold. But I have never experienced anything like the Franz Josef Glacier. I reached the barrier and dropped my pack on the opposite side, clambered through the rope fence to the other side, and picked my way down the boulder-strewn riverbank. I saw no hint of a trail, so I just headed for the glacier, making my way along the wide and desolate riverbed. Within minutes, the fence I had climbed through was out of sight and I was in a wilderness, with only the sound of rushing water to accompany me. I rounded a bend and discovered the source of the sound – directly in front of me two waterfalls thundered from above, parting to the left and right of a large cliff that blocked their way and spewing torrents of water into pools at my feet. I dipped a toe in one of the icy pools, letting their spray mist my glasses.

Walk right up to the foot of these waterfalls in Franz Josef New Zealand

Walk right up to the foot of these waterfalls

Glacier melt river water is grey from the rock powder it carries in Franz Josef New Zealand

Glacier melt river water is grey from the rock powder it carries

Red algae and green moss stained boulders litter the river bed in Franz Josef New Zealand

Red algae and green moss stained boulders litter the river bed

Along the way I met the occasional hiker – I saw perhaps a total of a dozen people the entire day. But at that moment I was all alone, bundled up against the cold with a pack on my back, feeling like a frontier woman on a journey of discovery. I thrill to this stuff. I have always believed I was a cowboy or an explorer in a previous life and I think this is why I am so drawn to this type of solitary activity.

Ethereal valley in the Franz Josef glacier river valley New Zealand

Ethereal valley

I continued on my trek, using the glacier as a spotting point, rounding cliffs, scrambling around giant boulders, and crossing streams rushing to join the river spawned by the glacier. I surprised myself. Normally I detest hiking on rocky surfaces, especially when they are wet, because I am not terribly sure-footed. But whether I have been doing so much of this or because I have lost so much weight that I have better balance, I skipped over the rock-strewn riverbed like a gazelle, even confidently hopping from rock to rock as I crossed half a dozen rushing streams without difficulty.

Each corner I rounded offered up a different, exquisite vista. In places, lime green moss grew on red algae- stained rocks, providing an other- worldly frame for my photos of the black basalt cliffs and glacier ice.In other places, still pools of meltwater reflected the mountains and glacier. Within an hour I was quite close to the glacier. Here I encountered a second fence and signage with even stronger warnings.

Mirror image of mountains and glacier in melt-water pond on the way to the foot of the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

Mirror image of mountains and glacier in melt-water pond

Warning to hikers in the river valley leading to the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

Warning to hikers

Based upon the advice of the shuttle bus driver, who is also a guide, I climbed through this fence as well – his only warning was not to get any closer to the glacier than 150 meters. I crossed another stream – this one the largest yet – and rounded the final barrier of giant boulders to see the actual foot of the glacier, with its yawning ice cave from which the meltwater generated river flows.

Near the foot of the Franz Josef glacier, boulders turn to big chunks of ice

Near the foot of the Franz Josef glacier, boulders turn to big chunks of ice

River flows from yawning mouth at foot of the Franz Josef glacier New Zealand

River flows from yawning mouth at foot of the Franz Josef glacier

The immediate face of the ice was one big dirty snowball but further up the glacier the ice sparkled in many hues – from dazzling white to turquoise blue, where the weight of the ice pack has so compressed the ice as to make it translucent. The ground where I stood was littered with ice boulders in addition to rock boulders.

Behind me, late afternoon fog was descending, so I started back, concerned I would not be able to find my way if the river valley became socked in. Back at the beginning of the ‘End of the Forest Trail,’ I found I had about an hour to kill before the shuttle bus would return so I decided to take the Douglas Trail, a path leading through the sub-tropical vegetation that co- exists with the glacial ecosystem.

Sub-tropical vegetation along the Douglas Trail Franz Josef New Zealand

Sub-tropical vegetation along the Douglas Trail

Ferns on the Douglas Trail Franz Josef New Zealand

Ferns along the Douglas Trail

Sub-tropical vegetation on the Douglas Trail Franz Josef New Zealand

Sub-tropical vegetation on the Douglas Trail

Here palm trees waved in the breeze and giant Boston fern spread their lacy fronds across the forest floor. Moss and lichen coated every tree trunk. Wherever the hillside had been cut to accommodate the pathway, white-streaked schist boulders, scraped smooth and round by their glacial journey, poked their heads out from the glacial scree. At the trail’s midpoint I came to Peter’s Pool, a still lake of meltwater ideally situated to reflect the mountains and glacier.

Peter's Pool in Franz Josef New Zealand

Peter’s Pool

Peter's Pool in Franz Josef New Zealand

Peter’s Pool

Back at the car park I sat cross-legged atop a boulder, serenaded by hundreds of unseen birds while I awaited the shuttle. It was near sunset, so I asked to be dropped off at the river bridge just outside of town, where I watched the day’s last bleeding rays of sunshine silhouette the mountains above the turquoise Franz Joseph River.

Sunset over mountains and river in Franz Josef New Zealand

Sunset over mountains and river

Sunset over mountains and river in Franz Josef New Zealand

Sunset over mountains and river

With the possible exception of Antarctica (and I’m not likely to go there) I can’t think of anywhere else on earth where I could have such an up close and personal encounter with a glacier. Everywhere else on earth seems to have been barricade or have limited access due to damage and concerns over liability. I fervently hope that New Zealand will remain open for this type of natural experience. There is such beauty in this place and all of it was totally accessible for the cost of a $10 shuttle ride.

6 Comments on “A Very Big, Dirty Snowball

  1. Hi Barbara!

    Stunning photos! I’m about to head to the north island in a few weeks, and I am now adding Peter’s Pool to my bucket list!

    • So glad you liked my article Nancy. You’ll love Peter’s Pool, and if you continue to the end of the main trail, you can also follow the river bed to the mouth of the glacier.

  2. Thanks very good for report, I follow your blog:-)

  3. I too was blown away by the lichen and then again, the incredible photos of the sunset. I had always thought that the most beautiful sunsets in the world were in Manila Bay, sitting beside the bay and watching the entire world turn pink — until today that is. Wow! Thanks again, Barb, for sharing all this with us. It is awesome!

  4. Gorgeous photos, the lichen blew me away. Looks like something from outer space.
    Keep up the good work and stay safe and healthy.
    L&L

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