Franz Josef Glacier then the TranzAlpine train

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 27, 2008

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Following our stop over in Queenstown and feeling rested and ready for more adventure we make plans to head to the Franz Josef Glacier on the west coast of New Zealand.  FJ (as it will be called as Franz Josef is far too long a word to type) was a good days bus journey from Queenstown so we left nice and early prepared for the 8 hour slog ahead of us.

Now I have to take a moment here to comment on the bus journeys in NZ.  They are more than just a bus journey - if you have National Express trip from London to Sheffield in mind then think again.  These are epic journeys.  First of all you have stunning, and I mean stunning scenery at every turn and corner.which definitely keeps you occupied.  Then you have the fact that there are regular stops along the way for refreshments and photo opportunities - these are more like tourist buses than commercial passenger buses. 
And then - then you have the drivers.  These are not just bus drivers they are sponges that have soaked up every single piece of information you could have ever  imagined about New Zealand and the area and they are more than happy to share, to force upon you, this information via the bus microphone and speaker system.  Now I like facts; I love facts but there is only so much interest I can maintain when it comes to dairy farms and the number of livestock; the New Zealand obsession (and hatred) with the possum; and annual rainfall in the area and how that compares this year with last and how it compares with places in South America that lie on the same latitude!!! I mean, come on. Interesting - yes. But to a point.  Plus the bus drivers range massively. Take for example our very first driver who we nicknamed Adele Hitler as she was so so so so so strict it was untrue. The first hour of the journey was spent with her listing of all the things we should not do whilst in her charge.  Then there was Keith who sounded exactly Des Lynam and was very very interesting and very enthusiastic; and then you get Maurice that sounds like he has been to the local library and loaned a tape of 'Top 45000 boring facts about New Zealand read to you by the most boring voiced man in New Zealand' and decided to play it over the coach speakers.

Anyway, I digress. So we arrive in FJ Village with a head full of glacier facts and figures (did you know that the glacier is one of only three glaciers like this in the world - the other two being the ..blah blah blah and the blah blah blah).
We check into the hostel and immediately book ourselves on the half day glacier walk the following afternoon.  There were a number of options including a full day hike with 5 hours on the glacier and even helicopter rides including a glacier landing.  Unfortunately our budget, and legs, could only stretch to a half day hike but it still got us two hours glacier time.
First job of the tour is to get kitted out - so in we go and get our over trousers, waterproof jackets, hats, mittens, boots and socks.  We then picked up our spikes that would be attached on our feet when walking on the glacier - COOL!! I felt like a proper expeditionist (or is it exhibitionist - not sure).  We pulled up at the car park and set off on the hour walk to the glacier.  We walked along the valley bottom along the river and got first sight of the glacier.  It looked so close but our guide reliably informed us that although it only looked, say, one kilometre away it was in fact three kilometres away.  As the sides of the valley were so steep and there was nothing to form a sense of perspective against then it just looked really close. Sure enough with eyes squinted we picked out some figures nearer the glacier and realised how tiny they were - wow - we were really quite far away. 

So, although I have just slated the bus drivers for their facts, I am going to give you a few interesting facts about the glacier.  It is unusual to have glaciers so close to sea level but this is due to the rain over the Tasman Sea and the amount of moisture that is lifted from the sea and dumped as snow in the mountain range. It is one of only three temperate glaciers (ooo, nice term.  Google it) in the world, one of the others is Fox Glacier just down the road.  The valley was formed during the last ice age twenty thousand years ago and then the glacier went right out into the ocean.  And the glacier has probably retreated due to those pesky possums gnawing away at the snow and ruining it like they have ruined the rest of the country (I made the last bit up by the way).

We soon approached the glacier and the first thought was - ew, it's dirty.  The rocks on top of the glacier are from the top and is known as moraine.  These rocks have probably been carried from the top as the glacier has slowly moved along down the valley.  Plus there are constant landslides occurring in the valley.  We stopped at the bottom to attach our spikes and then made our way up the glacier. It was brilliant - we really felt like Sir Ed and that we were conquering Everest (although the glaciers at Everest are not temperate...will someone please shut me up!!).  As we climbed further up we moved away from the moraine and got to see the clear blue ice and some of the huge crevasses formed in the ice - it is amazing to think just how thick this ice is and how long it has been around.  At points, nearer the top, the glacier is moving at a rate of four metres per day - that is some serious shift on.

As we looked further up we could see just how clear the glacier was and how blue it seemed shimmering in the clear sunlight.  I have never walked on a glacier before and it was definitely an experience I will never forget. It really is an amazing feat of nature and mind boggling when you think about the sheer mass of ice that exists and what it has carved along its way. It was way too soon before we were heading back down the glacier for the long walk back to the bus - feeling very happy with what we had achieved and seen.

The following day and we were on another bus (with Kevin this time and his pocket book of facts about the glacier that contradicted every single thing we had heard the day previous) to Greymouth where we would be catching the TranzAlpine train to Christchurch via Arthurs Pass.  Dubbed as one of the world's greatest train journeys we knew that we were in for a treat.  The journey would take 4 hours and would take us up over the Southern Alps via a series of viaducts and tunnels before spewing us out at the other end and across the Canterbury plains to Christchurch.  It was a beautiful journey (although the gobby English bloke next to us suggested it should be called the 'Trans Boring train - well maybe he should go home and take the world famous Nottingham to Leicester train journey instead).
Again we saw more of the unique and amazing scenery that NZ has to offer and which never fails to amaze - for a country so small they pack in a lot.  At the back of the train they had an open viewing carriage which was great fun as it gave the feeling of being in the Wild West and riding on top of a train (or at least it did for me and my over active imagination). Only problem was that all the dust and rubbish that the train threw up was landed squarely on your face so I came back in looking like I had just been to a Cure concert with my black eyeliner!!  Great train journey though and one I would recommend.
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