The World Around Us

Weeping Franz Josef

Country: New Zealand by Lisette


97-Franz-Josef-GlacierWI was looking forward to seeing – and more than that, being on – a glacier, and Franz Jozef is the most famous one. The glacier is 12 kilometres long and on the South Island’s west coast. It is a unique glacier for it is located less than 300 metres above sea level and amidst a temperate rainforest!

As with my most of my other New Zealand blog posts, I will attempt to explain the European and the Māori name. The glacier was discovered in 1865 by the German Julius von Haast and named it after Emperor Franz Josef I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The original name is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, has much more meaning in my humble opinion. The translation would be “The Tears of Hinehukatere”. As is often the case, the name is derived from an Māori legend. Hinehukatere loved climbing and persuaded her loved Wawe to come climbing with her. Unfortunately, he was less experienced and fell to his death. Hinehukatere was overcome with grief and the atua (gods) froze her tears as an eternal memorial of her love. A more elaborate version of the legend can be found here.

After talking to other tourists and tour operators, I found myself wanting more than an expensive 30-minute helicopter flight. You see, with my background of suffering from vertigo, that was a huge deal in itself. A couple of months earlier, I experienced a hot air balloon ride and surprisingly loved it. So in my mind, the next step was to continue hiking on high grounds and experiencing a helicopter ride for the first time.

98-HeliWI sometimes say I was talked into a heli-hike. Yet, I really wasn’t – I just wanted to get the most out of this experience. As I was getting ready for the hike and slipped on rented hiking boots with crampons, I started feeling a bit… queasy. Unsure if I could go through with this adventure, I stared at my crampons as I waited with the rest of the group for the helicopter.

Suddenly excitement kicked in – the helicopter came swiftly down the helipad and we had to get in while the blades continued rotating. I loved the ride, and thought the 6-7 minutes were way too short to enjoy the green, lush nature and the opposite grey, cold glacier. As soon as the helicopter got ready to land and we saw more of the rugged glacier terrain my earlier doubts were swept aside my newfound fear. No way I would be walking, climbing and crawling through ice tunnels!

I talked to the guide who tried to calm me, “it really isn’t that bad, this area is for newbies and we will all be together.” I wasn’t convinced by his easy manner and slightly uninterested voice but followed him nonetheless.

Even the smallest steps and short tunnels could not persuade – I was starting to freak out. Not ready to go through another ordeal as I experienced at the Tongariro Crossing a mere two weeks ago, I made the best decision in my life: I quit and want to go back to the helipad. I knew I might get cold and be alone, but I would feel safe enough at this tiny flat area.

99-Franz-Josef-GlacierWI think I may have waited for 45 minutes, but I never got cold. The sun was shining and I made sure I stayed wrapped up. I actually rather enjoyed the quiet time where I thought more about the facts I had learned about the glacier. The glacier goes between retreating (1940s – 1980s) and advancing (1985 till present). Yet, people were certain a rapid phase of retreat would happen through global warming.   

Afterwards I heard the excited stories and though most said it was pretty easy-going, several also mentioned they got scared when going down on a rope. In hindsight, I made the right decision to return to the helipad. Back in town, a little village of slightly more than 300 people, I loved coming back into the hostel and enjoyed the new, hot sauna.