A friend told me one of the best things he had done in his life was to Heli/hike on Franz Josef Glacier. So I recently planned a roadie from Queenstown to the West Coast. While it’s essential to make bookings in advance, this is where I came unstuck. Our trip, unfortunately coincided with the recent West Coast storm where a month of rainfall fell in a weekend, causing widespread devastation.
Queenstown to Franz Josef
We left Queenstown after several blue-bird days and headed towards Wanaka. Climbing over the Crown Range, the highest main road in New Zealand, we came down the other side and approached the Cardrona Pub. Despite being on the road for only a short time, a mandatory lunchtime stop was needed for their excellent seafood chowder. The pub was very busy, pumping with hungry skiers, fresh from the slopes.
Back on the road, much later than anticipated, we drove around the shores of Lake Hawea before cutting across to Lake Wanaka. At the closest point the two lakes are approximately only a kilometer apart and I found myself wondering if at some stage they had been joined. However, the scenery was spectacular, with the native bush reaching the waterline. It is possibly one of the most beautiful drives I’ve done in New Zealand or anywhere in the world.
The next part of the journey was through the Haast Pass, a mountain pass in the Mount Aspiring National Park. The road winds through rainforest and unbelievably beautiful mountains, with stunning waterfalls and river vistas. There are great places to stop along the way, including the Blue Pools, home to some of the South Islands most crystalline water.
At the end of the pass is the tiny town of Haast, not surprisingly famous for its dramatic landscapes. With the evening fast approaching we continued onto Franz Josef through thick coastal vegetation shaped by the prevailing westerly winds and dense rainforest cascading down from the steep mountains. The countless bridges we crossed gave testament to the colossal annual rainfall in this part of the world.
Arriving at Franz Josef, we were keen for dinner and an early night as I had an eight am start for my Franz Josef Glacier expedition. Staying at the Rainforest Retreat in the heart of the town, we dined at their restaurant, ‘Monsoon’. Naively I thought it might be Indian, but in the heart of the West Coast rainforest, it was anything but! Roast pork and crackling hit the spot on this very chilly evening!
I checked into The Helicopter Line office in the main street, excited to get on the glacier. They had bought our trip forward by several hours as the inclement weather was coming in.
I was warmly greeted by one of the guides, Jon, and checked in. Recording my medical history, the guide critiqued it and kindly explained walking incorrectly with crampons could irritate my repaired ACL (anterior, cruciate ligament). He then questioned my fear of heights showing me photos of folk harnessed to a rope high on the glacier. No one else seemed to be getting this VIP treatment, but then everyone else was 35 years my junior!
The next phase of the check-in procedure was to gear up with waterproof clothing, a harness and crampons. We headed out to the helicopter, knowing there was uncertainty about the weather. Still, I was gutted when we were told the expedition had been cancelled as the front was moving faster than anticipated. But I will be back at the end of the summer when the weather is more predictable.
Small tourism businesses like the Franz Josef Glacier Guides have taken a hammering with Covid. Talking with guide/business manager, Jon, I understand the distress they are going through. Pre Covid 250 people per day, with 40 guides, visited the glacier. Today, 10-20 people with four guides visit the glacier.
Over 60 per cent of their business is from Australia and another significant chunk from central Asia. So, I asked the obvious question, ‘Where are the Kiwis’? Jon said this sort of experience doesn’t suit the New Zealand market. I have no idea why. You would pay huge money to have an experience like this in Alaska, so why not do it in our backyard.
We spent the remainder of the day walking around Lake Matheson, a glacial lake near Franz Josef, before heading to Hokitika. The lake is famous for the mirror reflection of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. The walk is an easy 4.5 kilometres and is a beautiful experience.
After we walked around the lake, we drove to the look-out point for Fox Glacier and got a peep of the mighty ice river. Then we followed the gravel road for 25 kilometres to the untamed Gillespies Beach. This secluded, wild West Coast beach is beautiful and offers a glimpse into our gold mining past.
In 1865, gold was discovered in the area by a miner called Gillespie. It soon became a bustling township, home to several hundred people, but by 1920 it was a ghost town. Nearby is a tiny graveyard, the miners’ cemetery. Hidden amongst the bracken are the headstones of the miners, mainly from Ireland and Scotland. It was a sad reminder of the hardy men and women who lost their lives in the quest for gold.
Hokitika’s fame comes from the beaches and rivers once rich with pounamu or greenstone. Hence, it is known as ‘Jade Country.’ One of the great attractions of visiting Hokitika is watching the masters carve at work at one of several jade studios in town.
We opted to stay in the old Hokitika Fire Station, now five boutique apartments. Each apartment is named after one of the local fire chiefs. This fire station is the fourth built on this site as, ironically, all previous fire stations have burnt down. It has been suggested maybe there were more whiskey drinkers than actual firefighters back in the day.
The West Coast is beautiful. Despite not achieving the Franz Josef Glacier heli/hike the trip was a winner. And we managed to get home before West Coast was isolated from the deluge of rain.
Another South Island experience well worth visiting, click to read the blog: