Planning a trip to New Zealand’s ever-gorgeous South Island? You should definitely put a trip to Franz Josef on your to-do list. While most people make a bee-line for the action-packed activities on offer in Queenstown and Wanaka, it turns out Franz Josef offers one of the best adventure activities to be found in NZ; Heli-Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier.
If like me, you hadn’t heard of this amazing experience before, I’m here to get up to speed on why it’s so amazing and, hopefully, give you the inspiration needed to add it to the top of your itinerary.
WTF is the Franz Josef Glacier?
First things first, amigo, you need to know the glacier absolutely breathtaking when you see it. Like, really, really beautiful. The 12km long glacier was originally named Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, but renamed by German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865. The Maori name translates to ‘The tears of Hine Hukatere’ and the local story of the glacier is a beautiful one. It’s said Hine Hukatere was a beautiful woman who loved to climb high in the mountains. One day she persuaded the man she loved, Wawe, to join her. Being far less experienced than Hine Hukatere, he was swept away when an avalanche hit. Heartbroken, Hine Hukatere cried so many tears that they began to flow down the mountain and, in the cold air, froze to form the glacier.
That’s beautiful and emotional! Where is it?
You’ll find the Franz Josef Glacier near the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. It’s a 4 1/2 hour drive north of Queenstown or 5 1/2 hours from Christchurch, along the west coast of the south island. It’s the perfect spot to put on a self-guided road trip. You’ll pass some amazing scenery along the way, especially if you’re coming from Queenstown, like Wanaka, Lake Hawea, Haast and Bruce Bay.
What’s the best way to experience it?
That’s a very easy question to answer, my friend. The best way to see the Franz Josef Glacier is to join a guided Heli-Hike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. This is how I did it and, honestly, it was one of the best experiences I had on my New Zealand trip. It was completely unlike anything I have ever done before and so enjoyable I would do it all again, I had the best time.
I did the Heli-Hike with a few my tour mates, during our 24-day tour of New Zealand with Haka Tours (you can read about that here). We stopped in Franz Josef for two nights and signed up to take part in this amazing experience. On the day of, we walked from our hostel down to the office to check-in, where we greeted by the staff and talked through all the safety aspects of the day.
From there, we were kitted out with absolutely EVERYTHING we could ever need for the hike. This included hiking boots and crampons, jackets, pants, beanies and gloves as well as a small pack to carry cameras in. From here, we walked out to the Heli-Pad, climbed aboard the chopper and took off for a scenic flight over the area, out to the glacier.
As soon as you see it, you can’t help but stare at it in awe. The glacier is insane, it looks like a waterfall gushing between the mountains, except it’s frozen solid. Flying over it you get the best view imaginable and it adds an extra element of ‘this is so cool’ to the entire day. You come into land, shuffle out of the helicopter and take up a spot on the ice.
Ice, ice baby!
Even though you’re on top of the ice, you still feel warm and cosy inside all your gear. I was super snug inside all my warm outdoor/adventure gear and, after another safety chat and some insight on how to walk with the spike on our boots (crampons), we set off. Our guide was amazing, working away with an axe as we went, chopping away at the ice to create more stable walking space and pausing often to share a wealth of knowledge about the glacier.
The hike on the glacier was insanely cool. We walked up and over man-made stairs chipped into the ice, squeezed through snug spots, like hallways in the glacier, the ice towering up white and blue either side of us. All of a sudden we’d pop out at the top again, with stunning views of the glacier and mountains all around us, a few cheeky Kea parrots checking in on us from time to time.
I loved every moment we got to spend up on the ice and, if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I’m not the most passionate of hikers. This was different! It wasn’t your stock-standard, staring at trees kinda hike, it was a once-in-a-lifetime, traversing a glacier like a damn EXPLORER kind of hike and I was all about it, raving about it for days.
Do it. Do it. Do it. There are so many great adventure activities to do in New Zealand, but this is one of the ones you should definitely do because it’s unique and something you can’t do anywhere else. It’s the only Franz Josef Glacier and this is the only way to hike it. You get to pretend to be an explorer for a day, do something you’ve probably never done before and see something that is truly beautiful.
The only thing I felt was missing was a boom box, so I could put on Eddie Vedder’s masterpiece album for ‘Into The Wild’ and have it blast all around me as I get my explorer on. I should’ve taken some money up there to burn. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I suggest you download that album, buy yourself a nice bottle of red, find a comfy spot, light some candles and proceed to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.
I’ve gotten off topic. Sorry. In summary: it’s an amazing experience and I cannot recommend it highly enough! There are some great places to stay in Franz Josef and a bar that, I can attest, goes off! So, add a few days in Franz Josef to your itinerary and get yourself up onto that glacier.