From Nelson we drove south-west, up and over the top of the Southern Alps. We had some glorious sunshine and were very contentedly enjoying our exploration of the West Coast of the South Island. We pulled into the fairly dull town of Greymouth for lunch and then continued down the beautiful coastal route to Franz Josef.
Franz Josef is one of a pair of large glaciers about halfway down the South Island (the other being Fox Glacier – about 15km south). It is remarkable in that you transition between the cwms and corries classic to a glacier to rainforest below the terminal moraine – before the streams and rivers that flow from its meltwater carve their way through the valley floor down to the ocean. And if that sounds beautiful, well, we didn’t see any of it as it was chucking down with rain and our trip up onto the glacier was cancelled.
Faced with the decision to stay an extra night in Franz Josef and hope the weather held – while sacrificing time further south – we decided to stick and give it a go for the next day. Fortunately the weather brightened up and shortly before noon we found ourselves climbing into a helicopter for our trip to the ice.
I’ve never flown in a helicopter before and they really are marvellous machines. The pace of landing, embarkation and takeoff is quite incredible – and admittedly necessary given the number of people wanting to travel up! As we soared up the valley and swooped in for our landing we saw the craggy ice for the first time. Fortunately, shortly after landing we donned crampons and spent the next 3 hours enjoyable stomping up and down the glacier, over waves and through crevasses. Some were particularly tight, one member of our party (not me) got stuck and had to be pulled out by our guide – a pickaxe-swinging kiwi who eats six meals a day and hunts his own venisons. Quite a guy.
After all that ice clambering, it was time to relax in the local hot pools, before we loaded up Shadowfax for the trip down to Queenstown.