New Zealand | Franz Josef: May 16-17, 2013

May 16, 2013

Driving to Franz Josef Glacier

This day was going to be our longest drive to date and we were already feeling quite weary from our travels around South Island (two nights here, a night there, packing, unpacking, cooking, driving, etc.) But we had heard that this drive was going to be even more amazing than anything we had seen so far, so we were looking forward to it!

We left in the direction of the Glacier country, only to head back 10 minutes later to town so we could burn a CD of some of Kaelen's favourite music tracks (that Andeen had uploaded to a Dropbox for us the day before... Awesome!). We found an Internet cafe and Karthik went to burn the CD, coming back a fair bit later due to their slow speeds and even slower CD burner!

We were finally on the road, and the drive was really scenic in no time! We were driving through Mt. Aspiring National Park and there were all these layers of mountains ranging from lush green to patchy brown to grey to snow-capped all juxtaposed behind each other in the same frame, with the reflection perfectly mirrored on a pristine lake at their feet. More winding roads and we took every opportunity to stop by lookout points along the way. Kaelen came out for a couple of them, but some of the spots were bug-infested so we hightailed it out of there!

The drive then headed off into lush rainforest and evergreen glades all mixed up in the same place as we went through some really winding roads past and through a mountain range, back onto plains, and back into the mountains. And then, all of the sudden, near a place called Haast, flat! It was so stark in contrast to what we had just been experiencing that it felt alien! This was coastal scenery, with palm trees and short shrubbery and the feel of seawater in the air and mountains way back in the distance from where we came. Nutso stuff!

But, sure enough, we had reached the Tasman Sea coast and we could see the ocean here and there past thick vegetation on the coastal side of the road, with the other side being thick rain forest. We stopped by a few lookout points as this was nothing like anything we had seen in NZ so far! The beaches were littered with dead tree trunks, debris and all sorts of sticks and stuff, evidence of a violent coastline (our Milford Sound cruise captain had told us of how the Tasman Sea coast off the South Island has some of the craziest tempests as there's no major landmass to brace the force of major storms before it hits NZ).

Kaelen had been sleeping throughout most of this part of the trip, but he woke up and we stopped by one of these beaches where we could see some of the crazy trees that Penny absolutely loves lining the entire beachfront! We have to find out what kind of tree it is (we've posted some pics). Then, we started to get bit again and we all rushed into the car and sped off, opening the windows and killing bugs in a spree.

We could then see mountains again, some of them snow-capped as we were approaching Glacier country. So, the two prominent glaciers here - Fox and Franz Josef - are known for being the only glaciers so close to sea level and to be surrounded by rain forests! So it was neat that we could see them without having to be in the middle of an alpine mountain range or at a crazy altitude. We saw signs leading us to Fox Glacier and as we were going to stay at the Franz Josef Glacier township, we continued on the 20km or so distance between them. This felt like the longest 20km as we drove through some of the most winding roads yet! We were basically coming on to the other side of Mt. Tasman, as each glacier flows down opposite sides of the Mt. Tasman from the massive Mt. Cook-Mt. Tasman snow field.

We finally made it to our destination, and it certainly had been one of the more interesting and varied drives to date here. The next day, we actually plan on walking as close as it is allowed with a toddler to the terminal face of the Franz Josef glacier. We were also contemplating a helicopter ride on top of the glaciers, however Penny had started to have some doubts about the enclosed nature of the helicopter cabin and whether she would want to do it as well. She urged Karthik to go ahead in spite of her decision, however after reading some forums about flying in helicopters and any associated fears being mostly to do with heights, she felt more confident of doing it. So, we could potentially all be going up in a helicopter to witness this snow field and one or both glaciers.

May 17, 2013

Franz Josef Glacier

A rainy day today. Blah! But it was supposed to let up later in the morning, which would be our window to go on the glacier walk. At around 11, it slowed down to a drizzle, so we packed up and drove to the access road to the glacier. Picturesque all around, with mountains and a large riverbed being fed by the glacier with some water gushing along because of the rains. We parked and put Kaelen in the stroller and began our trek. It was supposed to be a 1.5 hr return trip.

We walked through some rainforests and it was raining a bit, so we used the huge umbrellas we borrowed from our hotel to cover us. It stopped raining just as we came upon the massive river valley with a view of the glacier. Immediately, it was a striking view and just as the rain stopped, a couple came by us and said we might as well just walk back from here as the view of the glacier at the end of the trail isn't more impressive; it was actually less so! Hmmm... What to do! We thought it wasn't raining and we had come all this way, so we might as well walk a bit further and see what's what. From where we were, we could see the top of Mt. Tasman, the thick snowfield and the Franz Josef Glacier making its way down, but the glacier at the foot of the mountain was all covered in dirt and debris. Not as impressive as the pictures would have you believe, but still a sight to look at nonetheless!

We walked further along the riverbed path, riddled with stones, when another couple said we wouldn't be able to use the stroller for much longer. More obstacles, literally! So, as the going got tough, the stroller had to be abandoned and Karthik put Kaelen on his shoulders and on we went!

Although we could see the entire path to the glacier, it was much, much further away and the fact that the people near the end of the path looked so tiny from where we stood was good evidence of that! We continued walking, stopping here and there to take a break and let Kaelen indulge in his rock fetish, collecting small and medium sized stones, always black and white to please him. It was a tough trek with this toddler, but we managed through to the end of the path, when it began to look more dangerous. There were warnings of rock falls and areas cordoned off to protect the hikers, and the path climbed steeply beyond which we couldn't see how much further we had to walk.

Near us, we could actually see ice jutting out from what appeared to be a large hill covered in dirt. It was all ice! And we could see the glacier pretty up close going all the way up the mountain to the snowfield that fed it. We finally made it to the end of the path, but we were the only ones there by this time. It didn't feel too safe, especially with Kaelen acting up and wanting to cross barriers and not listen to us. So, we took a few snaps and started to make our way back. On the whole, it wasn't all that impressive, which was a bit disappointing mostly due to the bulk of the glacier near the viewpoint being covered in dirt. Only much further up could we see the mix of blue and white that is the hallmark of glacial ice and snow. That at least was cool, no pun intended!

On the way back, more of Karthik piggybacking Kaelen here and there all the way to the stroller, which seemed like eternity to arrive into our sights. We started talking about if it would even be worth it to take a helicopter up to see the glaciers, finally deciding to pass it for better opportunities later down the road, perhaps when we visit Patagonia or Alaskaa... Or even Antarctica! 

So, with stroller back in possession, we made it back up the trail we came, saying bye to Franz Josef. We contemplated driving to a lookout point where we could see Mt. Cook, New Zealand's tallest peak, but we really were tired and called it a day!

We then just came home, chilled, ate, updated our travel blog, and after Kaelen woke up from his nap, went out to check out the Glacial Hot Pools directly across from our hotel to relax our tired bodies. We got into the coolest of the three pools tucked away amidst dense trees, lit by multi-coloured lights and covered by white canopies. There were pools that ranged from 36 deg to 40 deg and it was a neat experience at first, seeing the steam rising from the pool and feeling generally relaxed in the warm water. Kaelen was being good in the beginning, but then started getting a bit out of hand drinking the water and sticking his tongue in it and all! We too were getting a bit bored just sitting around, so we were done with the hot pool experience.

We came home, had some dinner that Penny made (no more cooking for her for the rest of the trip, hopefully), and apart from some disappointments, are now looking forward to our next leg, Sydney. We drive a long way again to Christchurch here in the South Island and then fly off to Sydney on Sunday.

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