10th Jul 2012
Franz Josef - lots of ice, beer and hot pools! The BEST day EVER!
As if sore heads weren’t enough torture, we faced some winding roads en route out of Lake Mahinapua but on the plus side, we passed through yet more stunning scenery which I managed to enjoy while Chris passed out in the window seat! But it wasn’t long before we made a breakfast stop at quite an unusual but very Kiwi place – Pukekura, home to a man called Peter and his Bushmans Café.
Lauren warned us that this place is not one for vegetarians or anyone who has a slightly weak stomach as it pays homage to Pete and his adventures as a hunter of pretty much most animals in the neighbourhood! Deer, possums, goats and anything that gets in his way! But aside from that, as a career man Pete used to roam the countryside in his Robinson helicopter capturing wild deer which were causing havoc, and depositing them at deer farms across the region. But Pete being the crazy Kiwi bushman that he is, would literally jump from his helicopter on top of the deer to capture them as they ran like hell away from him! You had to see it to believe it and we were lucky enough, or perhaps stupid enough, to visit his own little museum complete with a video showcasing his hunting antics. It was hilarious and a little scary too but what a true insight to local life. And the museum was brilliant; deer heads and stuffed animal body parts hanging from the ceiling, guns and ammunition, traps and even a couple of live possums! These guys are lucky enough NOT to have been made into pie yet…yes, Pete does cook up and sell his own brand of possum pies but unfortunately for us he hadn’t been out hunting recently so they were off the menu. But we enjoyed a big cooked breakfast instead and a plain coffee. It was an amazing little place and such homage to the Kiwi way – straight-talking, down-to-earth, slightly gruesome but 100% real life. The coffee menu sums up what Pete is all about – check it out in the pictures! Thank god Lauren told us not to order lattes, apparently the last person to order a latte was thrown out the door literally! To Pete, coffee is coffee!
Anyway, with that experience over and with very full stomachs, we continued the journey to the very small village of Franz, making our way deeper into the Southern Alps – a dramatic backdrop of huge mountains dotted with snow, stretching down to wild forests and numerous lakes below. Gorgeous! But it’s not just the views that draw visitors to Franz – it’s the MASSIVE Franz Josef glacier which winds its way across the mountain range and down into a deep valley for 12km, finishing at only 300m above sea level which is pretty low for most big pieces of ice. And we were going to hike on it!
Well, we had hoped to hike for a whole day over the huge glacier starting at the base but unfortunately, because of a very angry Mother Nature, the front of the ice form fell off in April creating a huge void which is no longer safe to pass through or around. So thanks to global warming which has caused the lower part of this natural glacier to melt so dramatically from the inside out, we had no option but to skip the long, treacherous, slippery walk up to the top and take a helicopter instead and enjoy a more leisurely 3 hour exploration of the glacier in all its glory. What a shame!!
But before we get onto that adventure, first to Franz Village itself… We arrived late afternoon and checked into a very nice lodge in the centre of the very small town. It was a beautiful place, hugged on all sides by huge mountains and bright green forest – gorgeous! Having checked in, we took a wander down the one main street and decided the best plan was a coffee, sandwich and then beer in the very quaint log cabin bar attached to our hostel. And we bagged the cosy sofa seats by the huge open fire – a perfect afternoon! And to finish it off, we planned a fajita and film night with our mates, choosing the classic Anchorman movie to end a very lovely but hungover day.
The next morning, and we woke up bright and early to catch our flight up to the mountain! But first we headed to the Franz Josef office for a full and thorough briefing with our guide Sam. We were kitted up with over-trousers, jackets, bum-bags (or fanny packs as our American friend Vivienne said!) gloves, hats, boots and crampons – suddenly it was feeling very real that we were going to be walking over very thick ice up on a very cold mountain, but we were all buzzing. But before I could get too excited, I had a meeting with the medic to check out how serious my old knee injury was. As is the case with slightly dangerous activities, you have to tick boxes if you have any specific problems and injured ACL’s were on the list but the medic felt happy that I was fit enough to go although had the full day hike been available, he told me I wouldn’t have been allowed to take part so thank you Mother Nature! However, I was told that I had to stay at the front of the line and close to our guide at all times – I love being a cripple!
So with our gear on and after a safety talk from Sam, it was off to catch our helicopter darling! Today did NOT feel like backpacking – this was flashpacking in all its glory! I can’t really remember having been in a helicopter before so I was SO excited especially when I was allowed to sit next to the pilot at the front with Vivienne! WOW! What a feeling as you lift off and what stunning views as we climbed over the mountains and headed for the long, thick, white tongue of ice that stretched down the valley. It was amazing but quite terrifying at the same time as you realised just how much of the ice had fallen away earlier in the year. And as has been the way so often in NZ, we had lucked out with the weather – it was PERFECT! Gorgeous blue sky and no wind! Very lucky considering that the guys who were booked to do the tour the next day were forced to cancel because the weather turned VERY bad overnight!
It was a very short 9 minute ride to the top of the glacier before we touched down on its icy surface. And then it was GO-GO-GO as we had to jump out of the helicopter quickly and head over to the safe-area to attach the crampons. This was a little tricky as you had to balance on the slippery ice while trying to wedge them onto the boots but after a few attempts, I was all spiked up and feeling a lot more sturdy. Sam checked us all and gave the thumbs up to begin our hike. Here we go…
I say hike, but it was really a slow walk as we made our way across the huge glacier. And what I didn’t realise was how changeable the ice is here – Sam would literally run ahead sometimes to check which route we should take and would often have to re-carve out steps for us to walk down using his massive axe to help us avoid sliding down the steeper parts. It was incredible and such an amazing feeling to be walking on ice which has formed over thousands of years, and once upon a time started right at the top of the glacier 9km away! And Sam was brilliant, telling us all about how the glacier formed over time and how it advances and retreats naturally each year. He even explained how 10,000 years ago the Franz Josef would have reached all the way out to sea! WOW!
So we continued our slow walk stopping A LOT for photos and occasionally for water and biscuits which we had snuck into our ‘fanny-packs’. But the fun didn’t stop there as Sam took us to some out-of-this-world ice formations – tunnels, holes, pools, cliffs, pinnacles and a very thin ice passage called Virgin Blue. This area was so strange as you walk through a small corridor with huge ice walls rising up on both sides, and it gets thinner and thinner as you walk through so that by the end you have to walk out sideways! It was incredible and amazing to realise just how these forms are created over time. The ice itself was beautiful, sparkling blues and whites of all different shades! We even had a go at crawling through one of the tunnels, emerging out of a deep hole at the other end. Although me being me got stuck half way, had a slight panic as Sam said I would be able to get out when the ice melts away (i.e. never!) but finally managed to wiggle free. Hilarious afterwards!
And so our journey over the ice continued as the sun shone down – it did actually get quite warm up there so our biscuit and water breaks got a little more frequent! But it was an awesome day and so amazing to share it with our bus buddies. The walking itself was ok and not too strenuous although by the end, Sam was making me sit on my bum to shuffle down the steps and steep bits because he was worried about my knee – bless him! But with the final very steep and roped area completed, we were back at the make-shift helipad and waiting for our ride home. What an awesome and very unique experience.
But our flashpacking wasn’t over for the day as our tickets included free entry to the Glacier Hot Pools in the centre of Franz village. A beautiful forested area complete with 3 pools fed by pure glacier water and then heated to either 36, 38 or 40 degrees. It was so relaxing and such an indulgence after a basic life of backpacking for 6 months! Amazing! We literally spent about 3 hours in the different pools chatting away and chilling out before heading back to our favourite fireside sofas for beer and pizza!
So Franz absolutely lived up to and exceeded expectations. The village and scenery was gorgeous, the Franz Josef glacier walk was out of this world, the helicopter ride was such a buzz and the hot pools were the perfect end. And how lucky were we as the weather the next morning was cold, wet and miserable as we left on the bus for Lake Wanaka! Perfect!