After Wanaka it got cold. Those who know me know that I don’t like snow nor being cold, so it’s unusual for me to choose a destination where it’s pretty much a certainty that it’s going to be chilly, even in early spring. But I’ve heard that you can’t come to New Zealand without seeing at least one glacier. So here I was, on my way to Franz Josef, a small township named after an Austrian emperor and known today as the gateway to glacier country.
The first evening, I walked through the township, trying to decide how I would spend the next day. Having already done the overnight cruise on Milford Sound and with more than half of my trip still left, a glacier helicopter tour was beyond my budget.
Plus I had never been on a helicopter and somehow the idea scares me … I didn’t want to pay out all that money and then end up chickening out or being sick … And to be honest, whenever I think of helicopters the first thing I think about is that episode of ER when Dr Romano loses his arm because it gets caught on the helicopter propeller. So: no helicopter tour for me.
Glacier Valley Walk
I eventually decided on a glacier valley walk and the tour I booked included entrance into the glacier hot pools. The tour also included hiking boots, jacket, waterproof trousers etc for anyone who needed that.
Franz Josef glacier is about 5km from the township, so you can walk to it, but the tour I booked included transport to the car park at the entrance of the national park. From there it was about a 40 minute hike to the point for viewing the glacier.
The beginning of the walk took us through dense rainforest and the guide was able to tell us a lot about local plant life.
We emerged from the rainforest into the valley and waterfalls cascaded down from the sides of the mountains. It reminded me a little of the temporary waterfalls I had seen in Milford Sound. The landscape was very grey and had this whole “misty mysteriousness” about it. Similar to what I had seen in Te Anau and Milford Sound, it made me think of ghosts and otherworldliness.
We met just one other group during the walk and a few people hiking by themselves. It was never quiet though, with the almost constant sound of helicopters.
As we made our way across the valley, the glacier started to come into sight. Our guide explained that the ground upon which we walked had once been glacier, as Franz Josef used to stretch much further into the valley. But due to the effects of global warming, it is receding more and more every year. This is also what makes hiking too close to the glacier so dangerous. At regular intervals signs warned of accidents. This is why it’s so important to heed these warnings and not get too close. Local guides know the terrain better than any visitor, so it’s a good idea to book a tour if you want to get a good view of the glacier.
We all took a moment to take pictures once we reached the closest we could get safely to Franz Josef.
All in all, this was an easy hike for the moderately fit. It only took a couple of hours there and back with plenty of stops to take photographs.
Glacier Hot Pools
Once the bus dropped us back in the township, I went back to the hostel to get my swimsuit and headed to the glacier hotpools for a relaxing end to the day.
The glacier hot pools are located ouside within a mini rainforest created for the resort. I had a lot of fun trying out the three pools with temperatures ranging from 36 to 40 degrees. The resort also offers massages and other treatments if you want to pamper yourself!
Other things to do in Franz Josef
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre, where you can see baby kiwis. That will definitely be one for my next trip, if I get back there again one day.
Apart from that, there is not a whole lot to see and do in Franz Josef and so I just stayed two nights. As I arrived early evening and left early in the morning on my last day, I basically had 24 hours there. But it felt like enough. It was time to head somewhere warmer…
Have you done the glacier valley walk or did you prefer the helicopter ride? Let me know in the comments below!