The one thing I desperately wanted to do before we even left the UK was to do a helihike on the Franz Josef glacier. For that reason we stayed in Franz Josef longer than we otherwise might have done to try and ensure that we got good weather for it. However, this meant that we also had time to do some walks, including our favourite hike to date.
The Franz Josef glacier is one of just three glaciers in the world that are found in rainforest. We were able to walk on it, fly over it and enjoy the view from a distance so we definitely got to make the most of it whilst we were in the town.
The helihike was certainly worth waiting for – it has been the highlight of the trip so far and although it’s expensive, it’s worth the money!
A five minute helicopter ride takes you up onto the glacier, and off the glacier again at the end of the walk. Seeing the glacier from above gives you an excellent view, but it’s also a good way to see and appreciate how the glacier has shaped the valley. I was particularly lucky to sit in the front of the helicopter both ways, giving me the best possible view.
Once we were up on the glacier we had about 3-4 hours on the ice in total which was plenty of time to soak up the experience, see different areas and take photos. We were in small groups so there was plenty of opportunity to ask our glacier guides any questions we might have. We were provided with all the equipment we needed, including crampons and poles, and were allowed to keep our woolly hats at the end. The guides had further equipment to help carve the path through the ice as the ice is constantly moving so the areas which are safe change. Apparently during winter once they have cut a path they can keep using it for a couple of weeks, whereas in the summer they might have to change the path on a daily basis.
The thing that I was most surprised to see was one of the first things we saw when leaving the helicopter. A Kea hopped across the ice in front of us. A Kea is the world’s only alpine parrot and is a bit of a mischievous bird. Whilst we were on the ice we saw one trying to undo the knots on some climber’s ropes, and apparently they regularly try and steal the guides’ lunches.
Entry to the glacier hot pools was included in the ticket price for the helihike and helped make the day feel even more special. It was a very relaxing place and there were three main pools which were all a slightly different temperature which you could choose to sit in. We also paid for an upgrade which meant we had the use of our own private pool and changing room facilities for 45 minutes.
Robert’s Point Track
Our glacier guide had told us that the best view of the glacier in the valley was from Robert’s Point and it was a track that we’d already picked out of our book to attempt. As we started the walk we passed warning signs telling us that three people have died doing the walk which was slightly off-putting but we were confident we had the right equipment and the weather was going to hold so we were looking forward to the challenge.
The path wasn’t always obvious and was not as clearly or regularly marked as some of the walks we had done previously, however usually when we needed a marker for guidance there was one. A lot of the walk involved scrambling over rocks and tree roots, as well as crossing streams and waterfalls so it was quite slippy in places. Not one to do after a rainfall! Whilst going uphill was tough, I found coming back down much harder and was pleased to only fall over once.
The walk gets harder as it goes along so if you are finding it too tough to begin with then it’s advisable to turn back then. It’s only one to attempt if you feel able as it’s certainly the most challenging walk I’ve done to date. However the view of the glacier was fantastic so it was definitely worth the effort. We both really ached for the next day but were really proud we’d managed it and had thoroughly enjoyed it.
We also completed a series of smaller and much less challenging walks around Franz Josef. The Callery Gorge walk was quite a nice gentle walk which is particularly beautiful at the end when you can see into the gorge from a swing bridge. The water looks very blue (due to the rock flour suspended in the water and reflecting the light) and the gorge looks quite dramatic. We also walked up to the tunnels on the Tatare Tunnels walk. Apparently you can see glowworms in the tunnels but if you are going in either wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet or take some flip-flops to change into as the water gets to about ankle depth and it is very cold.
The day we walked to Lake Wombat and to see the glacier from Sentinel Rock. It was quite cloudy so it wasn’t the most beautiful of walks although we enjoyed watching the birds around Lake Wombat for a time. The view from Sentinel Rock was quite good and is really easy to access from the glacier car park.
When we visited Franz Josef it was my favourite place that we had visited up to that point. It’s a very small town which is entirely reliant on the tourism that the glacier brings, but when the clouds cleared it was beautiful. I definitely feel most at home amongst the mountains! I’d recommend booking a few nights here to try and make sure you see it whilst it is clear, but also so you can fit in more than one activity.