In ancient times, so the Maori story goes, Hinehukatere just loved to go climbing in the mountains of South Island and she often persuaded her lover, Tawe, to venture into the mountains with her. Tawe, though, was not as experienced in the ways of the mountains as Hinehukatere and one fateful day he was caught up in an avalanche and swept to his death. Hinehukatere was inconsolable in her grief and the tears poured from her eyes as she mourned the loss of her lover. The trickle of tears became a stream; the stream a river and as her tears flowed down the mountainside they were frozen in the cold. And thus the Franz Josef Glacier was formed, in Maori still called Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere (‘The tears of Hinehukatere’),
Descending from the Southern Alps on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Franz Josef Glacier is about twelve kilometers long and is one of the few glaciers that approaches so close to the coast, ending about 19 kilometres from the sea and dropping to less than 300 metres above sea level before the terminal edge melts and becomes the Waiho River. The Franz Josef moves many times faster than the average glacier, sometimes reaching as much as 70 centimetres per day.
Now a major tourist attraction, the area enclosing the Franz Josef Glacier and its neighbour, the Fox Glacier, has been declared a World Heritage Site that attracts many adventurous souls every year. In February 2007 Jane and I joined this pilgrimage and spent a wonderful day walking on the glacier.
We joined a group led by a guide christened Dale, but known to all as “Donkey”, and were quickly kitted out with protective gear appropriate for the conditions we would encounter on the ice. Gortex jackets, hats, gloves, boots and crampons. Before starting the walk we stopped to strap on the crampons. Nearby was a sign warning of the “Extreme Danger!” of proceeding; I was immediately reminded that our travel insurance expressly excluded the cover of injuries sustained while walking on glaciers. Charming.
The walk towards the glacier was totally awe inspiring. A river of ice snaking down the mountainside with quite lush vegetation on either side. The contrast with the desert landscape of Namibia couldn’t be starker.
Walking on ice in crampons takes a bit of getting used to! We started gingerly, but grew in confidence as we found ourselves to be quite secure, although the surface was far from level. The ice seemed to have been formed in waves, some many metres high, and we moved forward slowly in total wonder at the sights that presented themselves.
We edged our way through narrow clefts in the ice, through tunnels, past standing waves of ice and over tumbled blocks. When faced with steep inclines or even vertical faces of ice Donkey used a pick to quickly and efficiently cut steps to provide us with safe passage. Because of the ice tumbling and melting and continually moving, this cutting of steps had to be repeated each day.
It is quite a strenuous walk, with a lot of climbing over the ice, but the pace is leisurely and there are plenty of stops to admire the scenery, to have a snack or just to share the moment with the other folk in the group.
Much of the ice was dirty, but there were many areas of amazing translucent blue ice that made the effort of getting there more than worthwhile. Every step seemed to lead to scenery more spectacular than that just left.
A wonderful experience!