Off We Goooo

Franz Josef

May 08, 2017 | 12 Minute Read

After arriving in Franz Josef we decided to check out prices for the “heli hike”. This is so-named because a helicopter takes you atop the glacier, from which point you can hike. In previous years, hikers could get up to the glacier from its base near the river, but the glacier has receded so drastically in the past decade that the only way to get on it is by helicopter now.

So, I mentioned earlier that the benefit of traveling in the off season is the lack of tourists. The downside? Well, it’s very obvious when there are tourists, such as Loïc and I.

The town seems to have re-arranged itself since the last time Loïc and I were here, so the heli hike which I did with the Stray bus was no longer in the place I expected. This meant that I dragged Loïc up one end of town and around another in several circles. Some guy in a rusted old car seemed to have taken notice of us, and pulled up next to us in a rush, rolled down his window and blurted out, “You lookin’ for helicopters? Scenic flights? I got a deal!”

We were so taken aback all we could do is just pause and stare at him… well, him and his whole get-up. The guy was smiling with all his teeth, had a spattering of brochures in the passenger seat, and a sleepy, droopy-eyed yellow lab lounging in the back, struggling to keep its head up. It was surreal.

He talked to us at a million words a minute, in a thick kiwi accent no less, talking about his friend or brother or something who owned a helicopter business and could take us up for cheaper than anyone else around here. I told him thanks, that we were still looking for the place I had gone with two years ago. He quickly handed us some brochures and nearly begged us to think about it, warned that the weather was going to be “no good” tomorrow and to call him straight away to book something for today. We said thanks, then he sped off and around the corner.

Loïc and I looked at each other in disbelief, then checked out the brochure he had handed us. All the prices were slashed out in regular ballpoint pen, and his name, Marcus, scrawled at the top. “Marcus, eh?” I said. “Marcus and his sleepy dog.” We shrugged off the whole thing and continued looking around.

The strange thing (to me) about the businesses we checked out, is that when I mentioned the business I used before they all kindly gave me directions on where to find them. It seemed weird to me that businesses would be happy to give directions to their competitors. That feels uniquely New Zealand-ish to me! People here tend to value helping where they can before serving themselves.

The place I had been to before relocated to a sort of side street, ironically across from the backpacker I had stayed at before. Their new building was massive, modern, and sleek, and was combined with the DOC services and the hot pools spa as well. We walked in and talked to them about the deal and prices; The discount I got with Stray was, in the end, a bigger discount than I realized, plus the particular package they offered two years ago was no longer available. The cheapest experience that would offer both the helicopter up to the glacier and the hike itself was nearly $500 each. They also repeated that the weather was uncertain tomorrow, but it was too late to book for today. So, we thanked them for the information, and decided to think about it.

Loïc wanted to do the walk nearby, which I had never done myself, and which would offer us a glimpse of the glacier from the ground and a chance to think about going up there. So we set off in that direction, when suddenly, barreling down the street in his gray, rusty car, came no other than Marcus! Again! He quickly rolled down the window, grinning a full-faced smile with all his teeth, asking how it went and what we thought, and if any of the packages on his brochure sounded appealing. All the while his sleepy dog was in the back looking at us with half-shut eyes and lazily wagging his tail. I had to fight the urge to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

So, sadly, we told Marcus that we didn’t think we’d go up today, and were going to go on a walk to think about our options. He seemed to take the hint and gave a final sales pitch before speeding off down the road again. Once he was out of sight I busted out laughing. To think he had been roving the town, spying on us, waiting around the corner for us to leave the building and then pouncing on us as soon as we exited, to sell his brother’s helicopter rides. That weird sleepy dog in the back just made the whole package for me.

Sorry, Marcus! I’m sure your helicopter deal is fantastic, it just wasn’t for us.

With plenty of time to do the valley walk to the glacier’s terminus, we set off. It was beautiful with the glacier slowly revealing to you but at times hiding behind some trees and it was surprisingly warm, which is not something I was expecting given our destination!

Beautiful waterfalls along the way.

I was more impressed than I expected to be with the valley walk, having done the heli-hike two years prior myself. I figured, nothing can beat being on the glacier itself! Thankfully for us, that’s only partially true.

The valley walk leads you through a bit of bush and along the valley carved out by the glacier. You hug along the mountainsides in the forest, only crossing over the rocks and glacial flow when absolutely necessary; As they warn you at the beginning of the hike, the conditions and flow can change on an hourly basis, so each day the walk is inspected and new markers placed down on where it is safe to walk. We lucked out with a beautifully sunny, calm day, and were able to walk around with ease, enjoying the mini waterfalls along the way.

The glacier terminus.

I was initially unsure about the heli-hike given it is worth a pretty penny, but it looks like it would be a rather unique experience so let’s do this! Back in town, we register for the next morning at 8:45am. Our campsite is a bit out of town so it will have to be an early start but it will be worth it. Well only if it actually happens as they have some concerns about the weather forecast.

Fast forward to the next morning, the sky is clear and is believed to stay so for most of the day, we will definitely be going onto the glacier. But before that, a quick security briefing is required. Our guides Khan and Ross introduced themselves, Khan an experienced guide who works in Ruapehu in the winter and Franz Josef in the summer (you can never have enough snow I guess) and Ross from Detroit who is just starting his training on the icy trails of the glacier.

Serious guide, fun guide; the guide version of good cop, bad cop.

If I’m obviously quite excited for the walk, I’m also looking forward to the ride in helicopter, something I’ve never done before. It’s incredible how it can be noisy but smooth at the same time, making it both an aggressive and soft experience. Similarly to the valley walk, the glacier slowly reveal itself to us, but the closer we get, the clearer it becomes that there is nowhere for us to land, except maybe that little square not much bigger than our mattress at the back of our van. Is he really going to land us there? Apparently…

Breathtaking view from the helicopter.
Please come back for us.

Back on earth, or should I say ice, we quickly set up our crampons because it’s otherwise impossible to walk and get going. This is overall much easier to walk here than it was on the Tongariro Crossing in the winter, but is still a little bit more involved than normal walking, not to mention you have to stay vigilant. While our lovely guides keep us on a safe path, we are still walking on some “unstable” ground.

We're on a glacier!

I don’t know how Khan and Ross do it, but everywhere I look looks the same. I can tell we’re moving but that’s about it. Our progression is steady and embellish with various explanations of the different ice formations we witness.

A sideview of the glacier.
A 180º view of the glacier.
The surrounding mountains slowly disappearing in the clouds.

The glacier is always changing so no two tours are the same and they can’t guarantee what you will see but we are lucky enough to be able to go through a short tunnel but also down a crevasse which they filled the bottom with snow so we can walk into it. It is relatively steep and narrow at times so you have to go sideways but it is beautiful. I can’t even describe it and will leave you with a some pictures which hopefully give it justice.

Our little group going down the crevasse.
Looking up from the bottom of the crevasse.
It's just some ice close-up. I don't have a joke for this picture sorry.

Probably one of the best parts of the glacier walk, for me, was seeing the kea! As soon as we landed, a flock of kea came soaring down and parading all over the equipment and lines. They’re loud, and playfully curious! We could get up very close to them as they’re near fearless of people and eager to steal a chance to look for snacks in people’s bags. Our guides explained that, while cute, they were quite a nuisance as they would untie their ropes and guidelines. If it meant I got to see and hear the kea, that was fine by me!

The Keas approching us.
The Keas messing up with the ropes.
Hiking the beast.
Loïc looking like he conquered the glacier.
It can get pretty narrow sometimes.

The other thing that was great about this hike was it was much longer than the one I did last year. We got to go at a better pace, see more of the glacier, and actually see part of the glacier calve off! This was actually very spooky… The part that calved was far away at the top of the mountains, but you could clearly see huge chunks of ice and snow collapsing into the rocks below, as the sound rumbled and echoed all over the valley. Later, as we were making our way through a tunnel that obscured the view of the rest of the glacier, we heard the distinct rumbling again. It made me incredibly nervous, but the guides played it off as no big deal.

The weather was constantly changing but was never a threat.
Khan telling us everything about the glacier.
Inspecting the tunnel.
It looked safe enough.
The remains of an old tunnel about to collapse.
People for scale.

The hike done, we wait for our turn for a ride back to the valley. About half way through, the pilot tilt the helicopter forward which surprised Dana a bit as he did not warn us about it. Or maybe he did, but we couldn’t hear the radio that great.

We almost went to the spa the day before, but keeping it for after the walk was definitely worth it, not to mention that it was actually included in the heli-hike bundle. We had no idea and while nothing stops you from going two days in a row but it would have been a bit lame to pay for it, just to realise the day after we could go for “free”.

Anyhow, as we say in French “Après l’effort, le réconfort” (which means after effort comes comfort) so we jump into the pools, from the coolest one (36ºC) to the warmest one (40ºC) for a smooth transition, and back before leaving.

The spa was incredible! I never thought I could use a hot tub so much after hiking on a glacier. The pools are sort of clover-shaped, so it’s easy to get your own semi-private spot. There were three pools with different temperatures to choose from; We tried them all! The pools are all lined with ferns and trees to feel ‘natural.’ The effect seemed to work, as Loïc and I slipped into relaxation easily.

We were among only a handful of people when we arrived, so it was calm, quiet, and fairly exclusive. After several long minutes, though, a whole bus-load of tourists arrived and loudly argued about which pool to go in and who knows what else, so we took that as our cue to leave. Still, we got to enjoy a very long and refreshing time at the pools, plus a much-needed shower, so no complaints here!