New Zealand- Chapter 14 (Part1)- Above and On the Glaciers

After a long, mostly rainy day of driving the previous day, I woke up in the tiny hamlet of Franz Josef Glacier hoping to look out my window and see some clearing, instead I woke up to raindrops on the window and grey skies above. I checked Metservice, New Zealand’s weather page, and saw a whole day of showers in the forecast. 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I was willing to wait up to three days here to get the scenic helicopter flight over the mountains and glaciers that I had been thinking about since I booked the flight to New Zealand back in January. For someone who travels the way I do, at a pretty brisk pace, this was quite a sacrifice. 

I drove south of town the trailhead for the various hikes around the Franz Josef Glacier. It was raining fairly hard when I got out of the van, so I donned my rain gear and headed up the short Sentinel Rock Trail, to get my first look at the glacier. 

The views of the distant glacier from the top of the hill were great, as were the signposts explaining the Maori legend & name for the glacier, Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, or Tears of Hinehukatere. 

There were also information boards showing how far the glacier has receeded up the valley, especially in the last 100 years. 

I lingered in the rain at the viewpoint. I didn’t really know how I was going to kill time waiting for the possibility that the skies would clear sometime over the next three days. As I stood there, almost as an answer to a prayer, the rain first slowed, then stopped completely. I began to see some blue skies above me. I was at first skeptical, figuring this was a tease like I had seen the day before when I had less than half an hour of clearing upon first reaching the Tasman Sea.

Bridge over the Waiho River, downriver from the glacier

By the time I had made it down the trail and back to the van, the skies had almost completely cleared. I raced back into town, parking along the main drag and going from flight company to flight company looking for one that had a scheduled flight I could tag along on. I needed to tag along on a flight booked by someone else, since I knew the expense of booking a flight for myself would have been prohibitive. The first company had no flights scheduled, believing the weather would worsen. The second company had one scheduled, but not until the afternoon, which didn’t work for me because I had my glacier hike on Fox Glacier scheduled. Finally, on my third try, I found the office of Fox & Franz Heliservices, which had booked a flight for two people in an hour, and was more than happy to let me tag along. 

Since I had an hour to kill before I had to before the flight, I drove north of town to get some pictures of the mountains I would be flying over.

An hour later I found myself standing a few hundred feet from the helipad with the nice couple (An American from Boston and her Australian boyfriend) as the helicopter soared in to take us on our adventure.

As we took off, I was able to get a picture of tiny Franz Josef Township. 

We headed straight for the Franz Josef Glacier. I was able to get a look at the aqua-marine color of the ice, something I couldn’t see from the Sentinel Hill viewpoint I had hiked to early.


A few minutes later, we circled around near the top of the glacier, where it spills dramatically down the hillside and into the valley below. We also got a look at the massive snowfield at the top.


Carrying on to the south, we reached the snowfield on top of the smaller Albert Glacier, near the top of Fox Glacier, where we descended and made our snow landing. Most of the snow was hard pack, so we were able to walk around and take pictures of this most amazing environment. I wandered off a little bit and was immediately knee deep in snow. 

The landing was almost right in front of Mount Tasman, at 11476 feet (3498 meters) above sea level, New Zealand’s second highest peak. 

After a few minutes of taking pictures and frolicking in the snow, the pilot informed us that it was time to start heading back. Our return flight path took us right over the top of Fox Glacier.

We flew down that valley, the whole length of the glacier, and I was able to see from above the base of the Fox Glacier, where I would be hiking, a few short hours from then. 

As we turned and headed back toward Franz Josef, we almost immediately ran into a bank of clouds. Our original flight plan had included circling Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak and signature mountain, but the pilot informed us upon reboarding after the snow landing, that clouds from an inbound front would prevent us from being able to circle the peak. 

We spent a few minutes traveling through some pretty rough clouds before finally emerging in the open area just south of Franz Josef Township. The scene, with sunlight streaming through the ever-increasing clouds, was beautiful at this altitude. 

Five minutes later, we were on back on the ground in Franz Josef. As I walked back to my hostel, I looked to the south, towards the mountains I had just seen from the air, to find them almost completely covered in thick clouds. This made me reflect on how lucky I had been. Had the flight I had tried to take been scheduled 15 minutes later than I was, I would have never left the ground. Later that evening, I spoke to some travelers at my hostel who’d been scheduled on an afternoon flight that never happened. 

I was disappointed to have missed seeing Mount Cook, but that paled in comparison to the excitement of actually having been able to fly over the glaciers and mountains, something I thought about for so long. I told people I nearly floated back to my hostel, and as I sat down in my room to reflect on the flight, I couldn’t wipe that stupid, giddy grin off my face. 

 

NEXT: Photo Essay- Glacier Scenic Flight

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The New Zealand 2012 Series:

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  3. Cool Pictures, Erik! I've driven through Fox and Franz, and we contemplated doing the Glaciers, but opted not to that time, although a little part of me always wishes with had – and definitely now looking at your photos!