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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.