Ice explorers: the Franz Josef glacier

Posted by Katie DeRosa on Wednesday, January 23, 2013
There’s something about walking on a 12-kilometre long glacier between the mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps that makes you feel very small. The helicopter that just deposited me onto this block of ice zips away dazzlingly close to the tree line and within seconds it looks the size of a bee against the landscape. I look up and waterfalls are cascading down the cliff face, feeding into the lush rainforest. 

The Franz Josef is one of hundreds of glaciers in New Zealand but it gains its popularity because it’s the faster moving glaciers in the country. Because of climate change, it’s dramatically retreating and other smaller glaciers are quietly disappearing. Some scientists have predicted that by 2100 the Franz Josef glacier could be depleted by 40 per cent, others have adjusted that — because the earth’s temperature rose one degree — positing it could be gone completely. 

Which is why Franz Josef Glacier Guides runs tens of thousands of tours a year, giving anyone with a little sense of adventure a waterproof coat and ice spikes so they can appreciate the natural wonder.

The company used to offer guided walks from the bottom of the glacier but due to a rapid melt that left a precarious looking ice bridge over the river, the town council early last year deemed it unsafe for walking. Now the company offers heli hikes for $290 (about $100 cheaper than their competitors) which allow you to explore the swirling ice caves, peaks and crevices, which are dynamic and ever-changing. Our guide is Sam, a 27-year-old Kiwi who deftly wields an ice pick to slash stairs and foot holds into the side of the ice so we can clamber up and down like a frozen jungle gym. With just a rope for support, I step down into a four-metre deep ice cave, where the ice transforms from a pale white to a deep blue, indicting how dense it is. On my hands and knees, feeling the freezing water against my bare palms and knees, I crawl down through a tunnel and emerge into a cove of ice, which tints my skin Avatar blue.

Out the other side, the sun is somehow even brighter, blinding me as it reflects against the sea of white. We reach a little stream of water and Sam invites us to drink the pure glacier water. It’s cool and refreshing against my throat, parched from navigated the ice for the last two hours.

Fraser Leddie, the company’s general manager, said tourists from all over the world flock to Franz Josef to see the ever-changing glacier.

“I think it’s a must do. We’re not in the business of saying ‘come and see it before it disappears.’ But there is a view nowadays in eco tourism that things aren’t guaranteed to stay the same," Leddie said. "It’s an experience that changes people to a certain extent because that whole dynamic environment, you feel quite small. I think it puts things into perspective.”


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