The Franz Josef township is another testament to the value of tourism in New Zealand. It was what I had expected to find at Milford Sound. The short main street was lined with every variation of accommodation, souvenir shops, cafes and restaurants, a petrol station, and glacier tour ticket offices. There was nothing else. The only reason there anything at all is because of the glacier.
We were booked in for an ice explorer experience at 12:30pm. There was plenty of time to do something else in the morning. We did nothing. We went in to each of the souvenir stores to look at the same gifts with the same price. No prizes for guessing who was frustrated with the amount of time we’d spent browsing gift shops. We had a coffee and a slice of cake to burn through the remaining time until we could check in.
The first part of preparation was a weigh in. I had no idea what purpose this might serve. Was there a certain weight simply too heavy to walk safely on the ice? We earned some tickets for tour group lottery. Half of the people booked in to take the ice walk had so far failed to turn up. Would our good fortunes continue and land us on the ice with a group of just 5? Sadly not, the rest of the people had driven all the way from Milford Sound that morning and had just made it on time. Maybe having time to spare isn’t so bad after all. There was plenty to do before we would be going anywhere. I was beginning to wonder just how long we were going to be spending up on the ice. Our package was booked through Franz Josef Glacier Guides and expected us to be walking on the ice for up to three hours. The more time passed in preparation, the more I considered the emphasis on “up to”.
First things first, boots with matching crampons. Next up, or before we put the boots on were to slip into some delightfully warm woollen socks. If this was merino I might have to stop complaining about visiting souvenir shops and pick up a pair. A blue waterproof, windproof jacket and finally a hat and some mittens, I scored one adult sized, and one child sized. Once everybody was kitted out, we walked across the township to have a safety briefing about how not to behave like an idiot around helicopters. When it was time to fly, my brain had one of those relapses brains tend to have after you’ve been told not to do something. Walking under the rotating blades, I heard an inner voice say jump. No brain, not today. Not like this.
We were guided in to evenly spread our weight, time spent on the scales suddenly made sense. Headsets on, seat belts on, we were off up into the valley. I had the rewarding feeling of knowing we’d made the right decision. Franz Josef glacier was by far and away the most impressive specimen we’d seen. The ice had the now usual hint of blue, the surface was white sprinkled with grey and black granite dust. The helicopter descended on to the ice sheet. I could see the excitement on everyone’s face. We were ready to begin our trek.
Our guide’s name was Lauren, or Goofy to her colleagues. She pointed up the ice. “We’re gonna head up to that bit that looks like a frozen waterfall where we’ll be hanging out for a while.” she said.
I had no idea which bit looked like a frozen waterfall. I wasn’t keen on hanging out either, I wanted to explore! It turned out this was what she meant. We cruised about on the ice for almost three hours, climbing further, higher into the valley.
The crest of the wave of ice at the top of the valley looked like a jagged set of crooked teeth. They were almost constantly bathed in sunlight, backed by a bright blue sky. Looking back down the valley, out towards the Tasman Sea, thick grey clouds had fallen over the mountain tops and lingered in the valley.
The Maori have a story for how the glacier was formed. The avalanche maiden Hinehukatere, the holder of the greatest job description of all time, fell in love with the mortal Wawe. Hinehukatere climbed the mountains with Wawe, she was much better at it than he was. She raced ahead having a wonderful time until an avalanche struck. It killed Wawe and Hinehukatere was devastated. She cried and cried way up in the mountains. The gods are supposedly a soft touch when it comes to true love. They froze her tears to form the glacier.
Our journey began on grey ice, littered with chunks of rock, scattered with black sand. Small rumbles would be followed by tiny avalanches as the glacier continued it’s gradual march to the sea. It was like a penny-arcade. The weight of the stones slowly building on the edge of a ridge, patiently waiting for the slightest nudge to send everything tumbling over. The ground beneath our feet was constantly moving.
Thick slabs of ice cracked, the deeper I could see the darker the shades of blue became. It was like being on top of a giant Vienetta after someone had taken the first slice. The surface rolled and twisted, the once perfect grey and black rock and sand looked like shattered chocolate. We climbed steps of slush-puppy ice, occasionally stopping to wait as Lauren hacked more stable foothold into the surface with her pick axe.
We stepped over deep crevices, looking down into the endless blue ice below. It was another opportunity for my brain to panic. Do not drop your phone here. It really would be gone forever. I kept a firm grip. We descended into cracks so narrow it became a challenge just to place on foot in front of the other. I reached a hand out for support to find the unwelcoming burn of cold ice crystals. I drew back in surprise. The same thing happened when we crawled through caves and tunnels. The water dripping from the frozen ceiling was numbing. It was easy to forget we were walking on a glacier.
I found myself experiencing the same feelings I usually do when in the shadow of mountains enhanced by the glacier. All around us were the tiny black specs of other tour groups exploring the ice. The glacier is is retreat. Before and after pictures from the last 10 years show just how dramatically the landscape has changed and yet it is still massive. 10,000 years ago it descended as far as the sea. We had walked in a loop in around three hours and had seen only a fraction of the accessible features of the glacier. I wondered how long long it would take to reach those jagged teeth at what appeared to be the summit. Even walking across the width must take a few hours. I wasn’t alone. Every time I spoke to Mum, Dad or Lisa they all had the same look of amazement on their faces, the voices were filled with excitement. Everybody was smiling.
It seemed strange to be trekking towards a waterfall. A real one, not frozen. A huge hole under the ice allowed for masses of water to pound into the side of the glacier. With all of the ice around, it’s also easy to forget how hot it can be. Evidence of the melt was all around us. Trickles of water cut gorges and holes. Streams ran into pools where holes no bigger than a pin sucked the water under the ice’s crust. Everything was constantly in motion, ever changing. It was, after all, a frozen river.
We returned to the helicopter and flew back through the valley. The timing was good. I had no complaints about the amount of time we’d spent exploring. At this point I was ready to chalk it up as a good day. There was one final thing left to do. Included in the price of the ice explorer was access to the local thermal baths. After trekking around on the glacier, a nice hot bath is definitey towards the top of the list of good ideas. I realised as I stepped into the warm waters it was only my second bath since I last saw my family.