Franz Josef

Fabio made us all scrambled eggs and bacon on toast for breakfast before we left Lake Mahinapua, even though he was apparently still drunk from the night before. And then we were off to the tiny town at the base of Franz Josef Glacier.

We stopped for an hour or so at the Bushman’s Centre on the way, to learn of the valiance of those who used to jump from helicopters to tackle deer (I’m not making that up), which were then bred and farmed. Deer were among a number of species introduced to New Zealand that have wreaked havoc. They were culled and sold for their meat, but when both the culling and the venison business proved successful, they had to be farmed instead. You can also get a possum pie at the Bushman’s Centre, but I can’t comment on how it tastes.

I expected the Franz Josef glacier hike to be the South Island equivalent of the Tongariro Crossing, at least as far as my particular trip was concerned. Walking over a glacier requires more expertise and specialised equipment, though.

Some of the group balked at doing the full-day hike, and chose instead to do the “heli-hike”. This apparently involved being helicoptered to a point high up on the glacier and walking around there for a couple of hours, as opposed to walking to and climbing up the terminus. Unfortunately for them (as I discovered later), the heli-hike was cancelled due to bad weather, and those people were taken on a normal half-day hike instead.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, the bad weather at the top of the glacier was still bad at the bottom of the glacier. Nonetheless, we set forth from the carpark in multiple layers of clothing, as advised. These included boots, jackets and overtrousers supplied by the tour company. The first part of the walk took us through the rainforest near the base of the glacier, and before long I had to take off two of my three layers.

Our guide showed us how to fix our crampons onto our boots, and then we were clambering over the dirty front-end of the glacier. The dirt and rocks piled up on part of the ice were apparently the result of a “jökulhlaup”, where (as far as I understood the guide’s explanation) an eruption of water from beneath the glacier brought the rocks to the surface. We past this debris after a few minutes, but the glacial ice had particles of dirt throughout it anyway.

I replaced one of my layers – the jacket – when the weather started to close in, and close in it did. The jacket kept out the cold, but we all eventually realised it wasn’t exactly waterproof. After a short time on the glacier, we were all soaked. In parts of the walk we were actually inside the cloud. In other parts we were being rained on, but there were stretches that offered us spectacular views. The cloud blew around and off the surface of the ice. The ice itself was covered in rivulets – some combinations of rainwater and melt water – which converged and eventually disappeared into holes that (as I understood it) led right down through the ice to the river underneath.

We stopped for quick meal breaks three times on our way up the glacier. Unfortunately, each time it was pouring with rain.

Crampons make walking on ice fairly straightforward, but there’s still a risk of twisting your ankle, which I almost did on a couple of occasions. Our guides hacked away at the ice with picks to try to prevent this, and to construct stairways to get us around and over large obstacles.

As the guides promised, coming down was easier than going up, and for a time the weather seemed more favourable. As we approached the terminus, though, the weather really closed in, and we battled through heavy showers and paths turned to rivers all the way back to the car park. All the things in our bags were as soaked as we were. We celebrated the New Year back at the hostel in the Monsoon bar, whose slogan (doubtless appreciated by many) is “It rains, we pour”.