Franz Josef glacier

Franz Josef glacier
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Quiet street with mountains behind
Franz Josef on a sunny morning.

Last up, first out. I’m always impressed by the youngsters getting up early in the dorms, then disappointed that if they’re not up for transport, they’re not up to much – just as capable of taking an unaccountable amount of time getting dressed and eating breakfast as older people.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t up till after 8, but had had breakfast and started my first walk before 9. The glacier is left out of town, I headed right, just a few hundred metres along Cron Street to the Taheru tunnels and Gorge walk. The former is 1h20m return, the other 40 minutes one way, which looks odd, but makes the point that they are not on the same route – the path branches after several minutes walk – and is also because the gorge used to be just the starter for the Roberts walk, now closed due to a landslip.

Rocky landscape, glacier retreated to the far end and looks small
As close as you get. Without a helicopter ride

Both walks are along well maintained gravelly tracks, through forest. The morning had a nip in the air – it feels icy around here, even though the glaciers are retreating – but walking made me a little warm. It gets very cold at night, such that I wondered if I had warm enough clothing, but it was warm enough even though it warms up slowly. The walk to the tunnels was up and down but then all of a sudden there was the entry to the tunnel. I realised at that point I hadn’t brought a light; not that my tiny light is the most brilliant object ever, but it did see me through the Abbey Caves. I hadn’t really expected the walk to end quite in quite such a dead end, but lots of the walks here do, though partly because so many used to be longer and have closed as the landscape has shifted. The Terrace walk, just 100m out of town, is now a short 30minute (at most) walk to a barrier, but used to go all the way to the glacier, a good 6, 7, 8km away.

Still, I was at the tunnel, and might as well go in. My iPod’s flashlight was effective enough, and I picked my footing carefully to avoid wet feet. The surface is water covered, avoidable for the first 30m or so, then it is a few inches deep. I stopped there, a bit of a cop out given that I could still see light from the entrance, but I wasn’t sure I was going to find much in any case.

Backtracking I found one fellow early walker out, heading the other way. I got past the fork and swerved onto the wide track, realising it was a road when a truck came barrelling down towards me. Plenty of room to move over, just as well because he wasn’t slowing.

Lake Wombat, trees all around
Lake Wombat.

After a few minutes I reached the site from which the truck had come and took a smaller track. The route was climbing now, fairly steep in places, and I was glad I hadn’t saved these routes for a run. After a while the track turned down, twisting through the forests until, finally, it reached a suspension bridge. I stepped happily onto it – the instructions are to NOT cross the bridge, but the barrier is at the far end, so here ‘cross’ means ‘stepping off the bridge at the far end’. Only once I was a few steps on did I realise that this was a wobbly bridge. A little disconcerting in a lonely spot, but of course it was safe enough. The grey river rushes underneath the bridge, meandering away to one side while on the other the landscape opens out onto the hills in the distance.

Quite something. By 10.30 I was back at the hostel, setting off again after 11 once I’d picked up some food for the afternoon. Just out of town is the original church, built 30m from the river and with a view of the glacier. Originally, that is. The glacier has retreated out of sight, though the view from the picture window at the front of the church – unusual in itself in that context – is still beautiful. During floods, the river was only a few metres from the church, which was at risk of tumbling, though the banks have now been shored up. The walk to the glacier takes you back over the bailey bridge and along the side of the road and river for a few kms, till the path veers away from the road and through trees for the last part of the 4km walk to the car park. The options are more limited than they once were, with the 5 hour Roberts walk closed, so I did all but the 8 hour Alex Knobb scramble walk. First the forest walk, an approx 1.5 hour walk through the valley floor to the safe viewing point. I took the optional side path to the scenic hill viewpoint, which is worth a look. Not far, with a sharp climb near the end, and it sets you up nicely for all the out and back routes you’ll be doing. At the end of the longer trail it is still a few hundred metres to the glacier, which is way above you. Just over a hundred years ago, this spot was under piles of ice; more easily grasped, even in 2007/8, the ice would have been right in front of this spot. There are dire warnings about crossing the rope barriers, illustrated with news stories of two 20 somethings who were crushed by an ice fall in 09. I contemplated the glacier for a while then walked back, along the moonscape of the valley floor and past several tall, thin waterfalls.

Back at the car park, I took the Douglas walk, another 1.5 hour trail, passing Peter’s pool, in which the densely wooded hillsides are reflected. This route winds through the trees before ending up crossing the track I had already walked, back on to the path to the car park. There’s a crosspaths there, with the 1.5 hour (now I think about it, these three walks are conveniently similar in time, allegedly – one would be right to be suspicious) Lake Wombat walk on the other side of the crossroads; left goes back to the car park, right to town.

Pool in the foreground, mountains behind are reflected in the pool
View from St Peter’s pool.

Emboldened by being a little nearer to town, I covered the lake walk too. It’s a small lake, but a nice enough walk. Again it’s undulating and winding, but everything was a pleasure on a sunny day.

After retracing my steps from the original walk, following the path between road and river, and admiring the landscape, my eyes filled with tree lined skyline, blue sky and rushing grey water, I was back at the hostel at 3.30. The place has a spa, so after I’d sat for a while I eased aches in there, before the weather completely turned, raining from 5 right through till after I’d gone to bed. People hunkered down, sitting in the communal spots where the wifi is free, catching up with the rest of the world and listening to rain drumming on the roof. Those who were here just for that night would have had to walk to the glacier in the rain, assuming they’d arrived on the bus after 4; those staying longer were hoping for better weather the next day.

Reading: Gary Gibson, Stealing Light.

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