West coast cool: a visit to New Zealand’s glaciers

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, spring 2019, issue 112

There’s never a dull moment on a glacier. We arrive in Franz Josef at noon, our Inspiring Journeys coach pulling into the small west coast town in South Island to blue skies, sunshine and bad news. Thick cloud has enveloped the snow-covered mountains, stranding a group of hikers and grounding all helicopter flights.

We might still be in luck, says our seasoned journey director Katie Hunter, squinting up at the hulking mountains that loom large at the end of town. In the wild and wonderful ‘wet coast’, she tells us, the weather is as changeable as the scenery, and anything could happen.

West Coast Cool: New Zealand Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier from the top

I’m not overly disappointed. After all, the glacier flight was an optional extra on day three of our 12-day Southern Drift luxury coach holiday, a guided small group tour from Christchurch taking in less travelled roads as well as the show-stopping Southern Alps, Queenstown and Milford Sound.

Instead of flying skyward, I’m soon strolling in a rainforest mosaic of sunlight and shade in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, a short drive from town. The sun is warm on my back; birds twitter in the trees above, and there is a profusion of ferns and mossy greens at every turn. I catch the shimmer of a waterfall above the canopy of green and tune into its soothing thrum as it cascades down the mountainside.

We are only a short way into the rainforest when the path suddenly opens onto an astonishing glacial valley several football fields in length and spattered with a moraine of pale grey rocks. Above it all, flanked by green mountains, a glistening river of ice spills down into native rainforest like a frilled tuxedo shirt.

The German geologist Julius von Haast first clapped eyes on Franz Josef in 1865. He’d been tramping west across the Southern Alps when he came upon this rare temperate maritime glacier, one of only two in the world (the other is Fox Glacier, a 30-minute drive away) and promptly named it after the Emperor of Austria. Today it’s also known by its Maori name, Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. It lies within a World Heritage-listed wilderness scattered with snow-dusted mountains, mirror lakes, alpine forest, rainforest, and more than 60 glaciers.

West Coast Cool: New Zealand Glacier
Tree root system in the alpine rainforest

A hundred or so years ago, Franz Josef crept across the valley floor almost to the start of our trail. It then seesawed for as many years, before a swift 16-year advance in 1983. Thanks to global warming, Franz Josef will probably not be here within a hundred years.

There are three glacier trails leading to three different lookouts. We’re on the 90-minute Franz Josef Glacier trail, which crosses a rocky riverbed, ending within 750 metres of the terminal face. There isn’t time to do the entire walk today, and following a collapse of the terminal face in 2012, walks on the ice can only be reached by helicopter, but we still get close enough to gape at this wonder of nature and take a million snaps.

West Coast Cool: New Zealand Glacier
Walking through the rainforest at Te Waonui Forest Retreat

Te Waonui Forest Retreat is our hotel for the night. Set in rainforest minutes from town, the 100-room hotel has views of the snow-capped mountains and Franz Josef, and sustainability at its heart. Four accommodation wings link to a main building – housing the reception, spa and Canopy Restaurant -– via wooden walkways in native bush.

It’s next door to the Glacier Hot Pools, a small hot spring bathhouse with three main pools and three private pools fed by the mineral-rich glacier waters surrounding Franz Josef. Sitting in rainforest within the Glacier Base Building – the departure point for guided glacier hikes – it’s an inviting spot to thaw out in 36 to 40 degree temperatures after a day on the ice.

Back in town, I spot a conga-line of red and white helicopters zipping down from the mountains. Our glacier flight is back on.

After a safety briefing, we’re soon up and away, our Glacier Helicopters chopper tracing the line of forest and the Waiho River that flows from the glacier all the way to the sea, and up and over Franz Josef and its glittering 12-kilometre length. It’s an otherworldly landscape of dramatic pinnacles, vertiginous cliffs and endless blue crevasses surrounded by big white fluffy clouds.

Our pilot Craig points out Mount Cook in the distance, and tells us that Franz Josef is at melting point – shifting up to seven metres in a day. Like most glaciers, it is in retreat, having lost around 800-metres in the past decade.

Before long, we’re touching down on the vast snowfield measuring 20-square kilometres that feeds Franz Josef. Craig cautions us not to move too far. The snow might look solid, but it could easily hide a crevasse and swallow us whole. I heed his warning, staying close to the chopper.

We’re en route to Fox Glacier for the final circuit of our scenic flight, when a big mass of cloud, thick like smoke, sweeps in, swallowing whole the glacier and our clear path down its slope. Craig is already on the two-way to cancel any other flights – and turning our chopper back towards Franz Josef, our only path back to town.

In the land of the long white cloud, anything can happen and often does. 

West Coast Cool: New Zealand Glacier
Waterfall in Franz Josef glacier valley


Getting there:

Air New Zealand flies to Christchurch from all major Australian cities. www.airnz.com.au


Inspiring Journeys 12-day Southern Drift is a luxury guided coach holiday of South Island for small groups of twenty with optional experiences along the way. Onboard the premium coach, guests enjoy space and comfort, with leather reclining seats, large picture windows and Wifi. Prices start from $7,750 per person twin share and include airport transfers, some meals, an expert journey director and premium hotel accommodation. www.inspiringjourneys.com

Further information:

Tourism New Zealand: www.newzealand.com

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