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Deep within the lush rainforests of Westland Tai Poutini National Park lies one of New Zealand’s most celebrated glacial treasures. Throughout the decades, Franz Josef Glacier has become a bucket-list site for many hikers exploring the geographically diverse UNESCO World Heritage area that makes up part of the South Island’s spectacular West Coast region.
Franz Josef is a 12-kilometre-long (7.5 miles) temperate maritime glacier that descends from the elevated peaks of the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres (980 feet) above sea level, terminating some 19 kilometres (12 miles) from the Tasman Sea. Its famous counterpart, Fox Glacier, resides 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Franz Josef Glacier and follows a similar trajectory. One of the key differences between the two is that Franz Josef is slightly steeper (in fact, it is one of the steepest glaciers in New Zealand) and a little harder to access.
Glaciologists keep a close eye on Franz Josef Glacier because of its rapid activity. The glacier is famous for moving up to 50 centimetres (20 inches) per day, though some of its main ice sections have recorded peak distances of up to four metres (13.1 feet) per day.
The changing nature of these glacial surrounds means that no single trip to Franz Josef is quite like the next. On a good day, hikers might be exposed to various features like ice-carved crevasses, caves and tunnels.
A good level of fitness is required to hike on the glacier – and one can only access the ice via helicopter. This is meant to protect Franz Josef Glacier from rapid recession as well as keeping visitors safe from any impending hazards that might emerge from its ever-changing daily activity.
If you’re happy just watching Franz Josef Glacier from a respectful distance, there’s an easy 5.4-kilometre (3.4-mile) loop track just south of the Franz Josef/Waiau township that you can explore. The self-guided valley trail passes through the forest, contouring the Waiho riverbed and venturing past Trident Falls as it leads its visitors into a viewing platform that provides optimal views of the glacier’s terminal face and the beautiful landscapes all around it.
Alternatively, the Sentinel Rock Walk also offers some great views of the Franz Josef Glacier and the Waiho River. This route is much shorter, steadily climbing up the bush-clad rock formations for some 20 minutes before the glacier emerges from the distance. Sentinel Rock was actually carved from the depths of Franz Josef Glacier in 1865 and is one of the best examples of how the ice activity has melded and shaped this environment over the centuries.
Those eager to propel themselves right to top of the glacier have two options at their disposal: a guided heli-hike or an epic ice-climbing expedition. The former begins at the base of Franz Josef Village, where you’ll be given your glacial hiking equipment (boots, crampons, etc.) and will go through a safety briefing before setting off. You’ll likely be on the ice for a minimum of three hours upon landing – as such, remember to bring some light snacks and a small bottle of water to keep you fuelled and hydrated throughout the day. Also keep in mind that you’ll need to wear warm, waterproof clothing and you should bring some additional layers with you; don’t turn up in jeans or any other clothing that are likely to get soaked during the day as this can make for a very uncomfortable journey.
Franz Josef Glacier Guides is the village’s main tour operator. The company’s guides are trained to find the safest possible routes to navigate, and will also offer plenty of expert knowledge about the area’s history as they cut through the ice paths and point out the various scenic features that emerge along the way. So a guided trip is definitely recommended if you want to get some firsthand knowledge about the area at large.
Glacial climbs are also organised by the same company and operate in a similar manner to the hikes: all equipment is provided, and you’ll be given a full briefing before flying onto the glacier. Again, no single journey is ever quite like the next: these tours are confined to very small numbers so that guides can tailor them according to each person’s individual experience level. Novices and experts alike will be taught the skills they might require to climb and conquer this stunning glacier; on these trips you’ll usually be hiking and climbing for up to five hours at one time. Definitely an epic – and memorable – challenge for those who are up for it.