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The Franz Josef Glacier is one of only four glaciers in the world located in a temperate climate zone.


WHERE THE ICE MEETS THE SKY It’s not until I feel the ground swaying beneath me that I look down and realise we’re already three metres in the air and rising rapidly. The trees below shrink into little green scale models, and we’re off, headed towards a completely different type of landscape, one made of pure ice.

A crack in a chunk of ice reveals the glacial blue inside.


’m in a helicopter heading towards the Franz Josef Glacier, and already the tiny town of Franz Josef, on New Zealand’s South Island, has disappeared behind us, giving way to the huge snow-capped mountains that tower over the town. With the help of the helicopter, my fellow passengers and I will be able to hike a virtually unspoilt part of the glacier that most tourists see only in photographs. A creek of glacier run-off water appears below us, and then we come around the mountain and the glacier itself appears, snuggled in between two mountains. From here, the craggy peaks of ice look small enough to easily hike through, and I wonder how tall these peaks really are. From this height, it’s impossible to tell. The pilot points out the “black hole,” a sheer cliff face on the mountainside near the top of the glacier that’s too steep to be covered in ice. It’s only then that I notice the first helicopterload of hikers already waiting for us down below. They look like tiny specks of pepper on this strange white landscape, and I realise that these peaks and crevices in the ice must be enormous, many times bigger than I had guessed. Before joining the other hikers, the pilot takes us up over the top of the glacier, then turns the helicopter around so that we can see the view looking down. It is incredible: mountain and valley and blue sky and impending clouds, and more ice than I’ve seen in my life, choppy and craggy beneath us. But it’s hard to focus on the amazing view, because the dips and turns and tilts of the helicopter as it manoeuvres to show us every angle are making me feel very nauseous. I’m glad that my travel partner, Michelle, remembered that we should take motion sickness pills before starting our trip, but I wish we’d taken them a bit earlier. We head back down towards the spots of pepper, who grow into people as we approach. A make-shift helipad has been created by further flattening an already flatish area of ice. As with the take-off, the landing is so smooth that I wouldn’t have noticed we’d touched down if I hadn’t been watching. We slide out of the helicopter and take careful steps towards the area where the other hikers are waiting, and one of the guides demonstrates how to attach the crampons we’re carrying with us to our boots. The company has provided us with all the gear we need — crampons, boots, socks, a jacket and a hip pack. They would have given us overtrousers too, but although we’re surrounded by ice, the day is too warm to need them. Franz Josef is one of only four glaciers in the world located in a temperate climate zone. From here, the views are equally amazing. The enormous chunks of white ice, blown up to their full size now that we’re on the ground, shine bluish in some spots, and are striking against the solid blue of the sky above the glacier. Out the other direction, grey clouds are creeping in, a reminder of how lucky we are to be up here right now. Michelle and I waited three days for this blue sky, each day the weather report promising sun and delivering clouds or even rain.

The enormous chunks of white ice, blown up to their full size now that we’re on the ground, shine bluish in some spots, and are striking against the solid blue of the sky above the glacier. The Helicopter Line helps hikers to explore areas of the glacier most visitors never see.

Finally, this morning, our last day in Franz Josef, we woke up to a brilliant blue sky, but already the clouds seem to be taking over. We wait for two more loads of hikers to be brought up, then are divided into two groups based on our comfort level on the ice. This is my first ice experience, so I go in group 2. The glacier is constantly changing, so the guides have to create a new route through the ice every day, one guide explains. The first guide looks for a possible path through the ice and carves rough steps with his ice pick for his group to take. The second guide follows and makes those steps bigger and easier to walk on. We start out over the fairly flat terrain, but soon we are surrounded by chunks of ice up to three times our height. Phil, our guide, warns us to follow the exact path he has taken. We move slowly, and I am surprised that the difficulty in this hike is not how physically strenuous it is, but how technically challenging it is at a few points. That is, my heart rate doesn’t go up from exertion, but it does go up a few times from worrying about making a misstep and sliding down into an ice chasm. I don’t slip or fall, though. The crampons do their job well. “The crampons make you feel like you could climb anything,” Sylvia Gray, a fellow hiker in my group, agrees. I do, however, have a bit of a shock when I attempt to climb a chunk of ice from a different angle than my guide did. Phil is the only person in front of me, and he’s managed to scamper up some ice that looks way too steep for me. I consider my options, and decide to go around the left side of the ice, less than a metre away, where the angle of the ascent looks more manageable. There’s a little bit of melted glacier water pooling on this side, so I carefully step on either side of it to keep my shoes dry. Then, THUNK! The ice breaks beneath me, and one leg plunges down into an icy pool. I experience a split second of pure terror, then realise what has happened: I didn’t follow instructions, and I have faced the consequences. I try to climb out of the hole, but when I put weight on the other leg, it too breaks through the ice, and I am now standing up to my knees in melted glacier water. It’s shockingly cold, but the weather outside is warm enough that it’s really not unpleasant. All I can do is laugh. Phil comes back to pull me out, laughing too, and for the rest of the trip he will make jokes about me being a fish. I understand now why Phil advised us to follow his exact path through the glacier. On the plus side, this has literally broken the ice — pardon the pun — amongst my group. The others were quiet and reserved before, and now they are laughing and talking to each other. I’m now much more timid on the ice. I view every melted patch with suspicion and try to steer clear, fighting my instinct to seek out the lower, flatter areas. Phil moves forward and, hesitant, I turn to Michelle. “Um, do you want to go ahead of me?” I ask. We continue to hike around on the glacier, peering down into deep blue cracks or climbing up and over massive mounds of ice. Before I know it, we’re moving downwards again, back towards the ice helipad. I can’t believe we’ve been out here for two hours already. The helicopter takes us back down the mountain in four groups, same as

it brought us up. Back in town, we have so many conflicting needs we’re not sure where to start. For now, we decide to ignore the wet, cold clothes and the drooping eyelids (I’m surprised at how tired the experience has made me). We go for lunch and a beer at the Speight’s Landing Bar, where we sit on the front deck and look out at the mountain that hides the Franz Josef Glacier from our sight. The mountain’s snowy peak is now hidden in cloud, and we’re thrilled that we caught some blue sky on our trip. It’s bizarre to think that just a few minutes before we were up at the level of those clouds, hiking through a strange Martian landscape that is constantly shifting and changing. I feel so lucky to have had such an unusual experience. A helicopter ride and hike on a glacier still sound unreal, even to me. “Guess what we did today,” I say to Michelle. We laugh and clink glasses.

If you go … The Helicopter Line runs heli hikes on the Franz Josef Glacier three times a day, weather permitting, for $395 NZD per person ($309 AUD at time of printing). Be prepared to wait a few days in case of bad weather — the weather is often completely different in town and on the glacier. The company also offers full-day and half-day guided hikes on the glacier. Food The Blue Ice Café serves up some of New Zealand’s most mouthwatering local cuisine. The melt-in-your-mouth Akaroa salmon fillet comes with a chorizo and green pea risotto, alongside delicious buttered spinach in an olive oil lime dressing. The New Zealand prime beef fillet is served on horseradish potato mash with a side of Portobello mushrooms and drizzled with a Jameson’s whiskey jus and topped with crisp chorizo. Mains range from $20–36 NZD ($16–28 AUD) and each lists a couple of recommended wines from the café’s large wine list. Desserts are equally decadent and beautifully presented. The upstairs bar area offers lower-priced meal deals, particularly pizzas. Lodging Rainforest Retreat offers a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from backpackers’ dorms at $23–30 NZD per person ($18– 23.50 AUD) to spacious standalone houses fitted with an LCD TV, dining room, fully equipped kitchen and laundry at $209–335 for up to seven people ($164–262.50 AUD). Rooms are clean and comfortable, and many are built into the rainforest. There is also a good on-site restaurant and bar. Other activities There are some great scenic walks near Franz Josef, ranging from 20 minutes to all day. Other favourite ways to see the glacier include a scenic helicopter flight or skydiving. Relax at the end of the day in the Glacier Hot Pools ($22 NZD/$17 AUD).

Where the ice meets the sky  

Travel essay about the Franz Josef Glacier heli hike. Published in the December/January 2010 issue of Tasmanian Life magazine.