Our round the world trip (21): Franz Josef Glacier

We have now been travelling for three weeks – the longest of any previous holiday together – but we still have a week or so to go on what is now Day 22 (Tuesday). In a sense, the day began sooner than we could possibly have imagined when, about 4 am, Roger was woken by a call on his mobile from a reporter on the magazine “Utility Week” in London where it was 3 pm. It was 6 am when our alarm sounded and the group set off once more at 7.30 am.

After all the flying and all the driving on this holiday, we now had our first (and last) journey by train. KiwiRail run a TranzAlpine tourist train across the middle of the Southern Alps, a mountain feature which runs for 720 km down the spine of the South Island. So at 8.15 am we left Christchurch heading north-west and Vee & Roger sat with Americans Ric & Mary from South Carolina. At first, the terrain was flat as we passed through the North Canterbury Plain.

However, after a brief stop at a place called Springfield, the geography changes suddenly and dramatically and beautifully into mountains and gorges. This section of one of the most famous rail journeys in the world is a photographer’s dream and there is an open air carriage to enable you to take the best shots. The trouble is that, as one composes a brilliant picture, all at once the rain goes into a tunnel (there are over a dozen) and you do not know when they are coming. You could lean your head out to see, but you would then lose your head as well as the shot.

Our guide explained that we had a long coach journey when we left the train, so it was best to use the toilet on the train, even if we felt that we did not need it at the time – as he put it so elegantly: “Try for results.” Our group left the train at the highest point (737 metres) which is called Arthur’s Pass (after a guy called Arthur Dudley Dobson), but the train actually goes on into an 8.5 metre tunnel and on to Greymouth on the west coast (we were assured that the scenery in this segment was not so interesting).

Back on our coach, a so-called “rotation system” now took effect. Each seat had a number and each couple had to take the seat with the next number from one day to another, so that nobody was favoured by the seating. The seat numbers were scattered around the coach according to some mysterious algorithm.

The weather was drizzly with mists shrouding the mountain tops as we made our way down the Otira Gorge and headed west to the coast where at a town called Kumara, we had our first view of the Tasman Sea. Hugging the coast, we drove on to a town called Hokitika where we stopped for lunch at the “Clock Tower Cafe”.

Leaving Hokitika, we continued along the coast as far as the town of Ross when we headed inland along the twisting road as the weather became bright and then sunny. This meant that, when we finally reached Franz Josef village at 3.20 pm, the weather was perfect for those who had chosen to take a helicopter ride which was eight of us out of the group of 38, including Roger & Vee.

Franz Josef Glacier was first explored by Europeans in 1865 when the Austrian Julius von Haast named it after the head of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. The name given the glacier by the Maoris was Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (“Tears Of The Avalanche Girl”), a reference to a legend about a local girl losing her lover. The nearby Fox Glacier is named after a former Prime Minister of New Zealand. These are not the largest glaciers in the country but the lowest and the most accessible.

We took the 30 minute ride in a Eurocopter Squirrel AS 350 P2 which seats six, but Roger & Vee were the only passengers (the six others took a longer and more expensive flight). Vee sat in the front with the pilot Andrew, while Roger sat behind and took the photographs. It was truly spectacular to see the ice formations and we literally zoomed and weaved right up the rock faces. First we flew up the Franz Josef Glacier which is 10 km long and then we went over to the Fox Glacier which 13 km long. We landed on the Fox Glacier for about 10 minute where Vee threw a snowball at Roger and our pilot Andrew took his own photograph of us.

By the time we reboarded the helicopter, Andrew was offering us a little pack about the glaciers complete with a photograph of us on the Fox in front of the copter. How on earth had he done that?!? We asked and learned that, at the back of the craft, there was a machine that had printed the picture while we were prancing around on the snow. The flight cost us NZ$ 295 each and the photo was another NZ$ 20 – a grand total of NZ$ 610 (£333) – but it was an absolutely thrilling experience that we will never forget.

Dinner was included in the tour and held in the hotel. Both Vee & Roger had the Canterbury lamb shank which was the tenderest lamb we had ever tasted.

One Comment

  • Trish Hughes

    Hi guys, you sound as though you are truly enjoying NZ, the south island is amazing and so much more ruggered country then the north island, very beautiful though. You will need a week of rest when you get home to recover from the pace of this holiday. You picked a great time to be away from the UK, bloody freezing your sister tells me Vera. Love reading all your adventures, stay safe love to you both. Trish xo


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