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Franz Josef Glacier: a masterpiece in ice

Thick aqua blue sheets of ice exploding out of the valley, lush rain forest bordering the glacier, and the undulating surface of the mountain making the ice crack and shoot off in different directions. Instantly you realise why everyone recommends Franz Josef when travelling to New Zealand.

Franz Josef is on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island and the glacier that dominates the valley is one of the country’s top tourist attractions. The 12 kilometre sheet of ice stops 19 kilometres short of the Tasman Sea and is surrounded by rainforest, making it one of only three glaciers of its nature in the world.

What’s on offer
With so many activities on offer in Franz Josef, it is a great place for people of all ages and budgets. From fantastic rainforest walks over swing bridges that allow you a different perspective of the glacier and often introduce you to some of New Zealand’s wild life like the Kereru (native wood pigeon) to eco tours, kayaking and cross-country quad biking the options for fun and excitement are endless. Still, the reason most people come to Franz Josef is for the glacier. According to both the locals and the tour companies the heli-hike is the one and only way to fully admire this frozen masterpiece.

Heli-hiking involves exactly what the name suggests – a helicopter flight then a hike. The helicopter flies over Franz Josef township, up the Waiho River that flows from the glacier, over the top of the Fritz mountain range and finally lands on the glacier. Admittedly, the helicopter ride was quite brief and I felt we could have been shown a bit more of the spectacular landscape.

Glacier Experience
After landing on the glacier we were greeted by our guide Andrew, given a run down of our equipment and safety tips, and shown roughly where we would be walking. It is not until you are standing on top of the huge sheets of ice that you begin to truly appreciate the glacier’s beauty. Transparent aqua blue pools of water are everywhere. Small streams weave their way down to the Waiho River and large crevasses that can go as deep as 250 metres slice through the glacier. On a clear day you can see New Zealand’s two highest mountains, Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.

The walk itself takes about two hours and leads you all over the glacier. Jumping streams, climbing up walls of ice, and learning how global warming is slowly making the glaciers recede from the ocean. Andrew being a keen ice climber (like most of the guides) took us to an amazing crevasse he had discovered earlier in the week. The mouth of the crevasse was about the size of a small car and got narrower as you went deeper and the visual effects were overwhelming. Sky blue ice walls with ripples of ice carved into the ceiling bringing to mind a perfect swell rolling through the ocean. This was the most beautiful part of the glacier experience and completely made it worth every cent.

Post Hike
After hiking around the ice for a few hours, the body can really feel it. The best cure for this is the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef, this wonderful facility is located in the heart of town and is the perfect way to relax. There are three main pools and three private pools, all filled with pure glacier water ranging from 36-40 degrees Celsius. The pools are perfectly placed in the middle of New Zealand’s natural bush land, with tree ferns all around and the song of the tui (native bird) helping to synchronise an ideal recovery. If this is still not enough they have a massage centre inside where they can rub out any aches or pains and leave you feeling completely satisfied.

When we travel we are all looking for that place that will forever be etched in our memories. Franz Josef is a spectacular part of the world, and the adventures and discoveries you can have here will certainly stay with you. Don’t miss it!

Websites and prices

The heli-hike is $320 per person but if that does not fit your budget there are many ways you can set foot on the glacier. They range from a half-day hike, full-day hike, valley walks and ice climbing. Prices start at $53 per person and go up to $320 per person. Check out

For the Glacier Hot Pools check out for all prices and opening hours.

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