If you’re not a diehard adventurer into extreme sports, one of the most extraordinarily exciting guided trips you can take is to Franz Josef Glacier along the west coast of the South Island. Available in half-day and full-day packages, the hike takes you onto the glacier itself, past crevasses and rivers of melting water pure enough to drink, and through excruciatingly beautiful and mysterious ice canyons and tunnels.
Weather in the middle of winter is so unpredictable that you’d as likely encounter rain as a clear day. To our relief and delight, we experienced the latter. The tour started out with an orientation and issuance of equipment (jackets, pants, mittens, boots and crampons), followed by a bus ride to the drop-off point. A half-mile hike through rain forest led to a broad, rock-strewn lateral moraine, stretching about one-mile in front of us, before we scaled the terminal moraine over an ascending path to the top of the glacier. The icescape changes so quickly because of the glacier’s rapid advance and retreat that tour guides are as busy preparing and grading the footpaths with axe and shovel as they are leading the tour. The passage through an ice tunnel was breathtaking, the walls of deep blue ice adding an element of mystery and magic. We also had an opportunity to walk through an ice canyon, in spots so narrow that we had to turn sideways to squeeze past. The sharply vertical walls reminded us of an American Southwest slot canyon.
The glacier is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The terminal face is one of the lowest in elevation anywhere in the world, only 300m above sea level. Another unique feature is that it brushes up against a temperate rainforest, one of the strangest juxtapositions I have ever witnessed.
Tours can be arranged in the township of Franz Josef.