Glaciers galore in the South Island!

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Friday, December 16, 2011

In Franz Josef we stay at Glow worm Cottages which wasn't quite as cosy as the name suggests but a decent hostel in any case.

For our first day, we’re up early as we have bright blue skies and go to see the Franz Josef Glacier.  We walk along the valley floor toward the glacier face (the valley is where the glacier used to be but it has since receded) and walk up to the edge of the glacier.  We’re probably about 100m from the face and it’s harder to see as some of the rock fall covers the ice but it’s impressive all the same as the ice piles up down the mountainside.  This glacier is a valley glacier and so looks a bit different compared to Perito Moreno and flows into a river that has grey-white water.  The snow that makes the part of the glacier that we can see is only 5-10 years old and so quite new compared to Perito Moreno which had snow hundreds of years old.  There are plenty of activities to do on the glaciers, guided walks, ice climbs and heli-hikes – tempted by the heli-hike as you would see much more of the glacier higher up in the mountain but having already walked on a glacier in this trip we opt for the low budget option – our self guided walk along the valley hillside for a different view of the glacier.  Little did we know what our walk held in store. 

We walk to Douglas Swing Bridge – a rather flexible bridge across the glacier river and then on to Roberts Point track which is where the path turns into more of a clamber along stream beds, over rocks covered in moss, across rivers on stepping stones and with a couple more very unstable swing bridges stuck in for good measure – one had a max capacity of 1 person!  So the walk is pretty tough – we probably should have paid more attention to the sign that said for experienced trampers only but that only mentioned wearing shoes (it is necessary to say that here).  Plus we met several other people less prepared than us wondering if this trail will ever end.  There are several viewpoints along the trail of the valley down below but we have no sight of the glacier yet.  We’re trying to get to the view point for lunch but with all the climbing, I hit a sugar low and need something to eat.  Unfortunately I struggle to eat my biscuit using one hand and remember to hold onto Jonny’s jacket with my other hand at the same time.  The biscuit won in my list of priorities which means Jonny’s jacket tumbles down a moss covered rock face but luckily gets stuck in a bush and so it’s up to Jonny to shimmy down the rock to retrieve his jacket.  He managed to and so this means a slightly cheaper day for me as I don’t have to go and buy him a new jacket.  I did enjoy my biscuit though if that helps.  After another hour of climbing some more – I’m not a fan of scrambling up hillsides so was hoping the view is worth it, we get to a platform.  We’re so tired we don’t even look up until we’re up the steps and turn around, there’s the glacier right there.  We can see the groups trekking on it and the glacier in fine detail – definitely worth all the hassle, and makes our walk very worthwhile.  We enjoy the view for a while and try to recover for the return journey – scrambling down river beds and rocks.  Our way down takes about the same time as to go up – as it’s not the easiest to retrace our steps and also not slip on the wet rocks.  We manage to retrace our steps but not to avoid falling down, we end up with two falls each, the bottom taking most of the impact.  I think I win for best fall as I slipped on a rock, then slid down the rest of the rock and landed in a puddle – all this only 30 mins from the car, which is usually when my falls happen – so close to getting back dry!

After that ordeal, we do the only thing we can do.  Find a beer garden and have a drink in the sun – me in my wet clothes still.  A perfect way to finish off our day. We then head back to the hostel for free soup, have steak and red wine for dinner – all part of the recovery process of a hard day’s hike.

The next day we visit Fox Glacier.  We’re pretty determined to have an easier day as a bit sore from yesterday’s climb – even my arms hurt so must have been doing some good climbing.  Again we walk along the valley floor to the glacier edge – this time we’re allowed 80m away from the glacier and it feels a lot closer.  This one seems a bit more unstable surrounded by rockslides and warnings to not cross the barrier.  We feel a lot closer to this glacier and so we can see the ice formations better but overall I think Franz Josef wins for the New Zealand glaciers.

Despite promising ourselves an easier walking day we take another three hour walk to see the Fox Glacier from a different angle, it involves another swing bridge but only one steam crossing by stepping stones and an actual path so in no way as traumatising as yesterday.  And it’s worth it to see more of the glacier form down the mountainside – it doesn’t look as unstable now when you realise the amount of ice behind the terminal face.

Our final visit of the day is to Lake Matheson which looked more like a big duck pond to me but was formed by the glaciers a long time ago.  On a calm day you’re meant to be able to see the mountains reflection on the pond.  We didn’t see this but we did see an eel that lived in the pond and came up to the surface when you put your fingers in the water.  Also there was a good cafe and we finally tried hummingbird cake - a New Zealand speciality of banana cake with passionfruit and pineapple icing.  It was very tasty.
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