If the two previous stops felt like the lemon sorbet refreshing your palette between courses, then Franz Josef was definitely the main meal.
New Zealand is renown for it’s varying landscape and environmental diversity, nonetheless, I was utterly stunned when the views from the bus transformed before my eyes, from rocky mountains, to lush rainforests to the snowy mountain top of Fran Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.
Considering we were headed to a Glacier, I was under the inaccurate impression that Franz Josef would be a cold place. I pictured a little town, where people go to ski, or snowboard or you know…see a glacier! It wasn’t until I arrived that I realised I could stop planning which tank tops I could layer up for maximum warmth - to my surprise Franz Josef looked more like a tropical village in Costa Rica and less like a ski resort in the French Alps.
The Kiwi Experience bus stays here for two nights and as usual most of us checked into the same hostel - Rainforest Backpackers
It was a nice hostel, possibly one of the nicest we have stayed in so far and only across the road from the Franz Josef Glacier Tours Office.
The main activities available in Franz Josef were a Skydive (deemed to be the second most beautiful skydive in the world) and Climbing the Glacier. Having done a Skydive already I signed up for the Glacier Heli Hike. It is probably one of the priciest activities (if not THE priciest) offered on the Kiwi Experience, however, it ticked off two items on my bucket list 1) Going on a Helicopter Ride 2) Climbing the Glacier, so regardless of the price tag I was determined to not let this opportunity pass me by.
We were divided into small groups and given our group times for the tours. My group’s check in time was at 8:15 am the next day. That evening we were also given the option to buy a ticket for $18 to an 'All you can eat Pizza Party' at the hostel. Needless to say I turned the offer down…obviously just kidding! who would ever refuse a Pizza Party! So between getting to stuff my face with carbs and excitedly awaiting my Glacier Trip, the evening was a real success!
The next morning I was up bright and early to conquer Mount Everest (that is what it felt like anyway), I headed over to the Tour Office, grabbed a coffee and waited for my group to be called up. We were greeted by a team member who explained what would happen on the tour, got us to sign a waver and showed us to the changing rooms. You are provided with everything you need: trousers, jacket, socks, boots and a big fanny pack/cross shoulder backpack (which is the only backpack you are allowed because it is designed to be worn inside the helicopter). You are encouraged to wear sunscreen and sunglasses and to take water and snacks.
Once we were all geared up, we took a few cheesy group photos and were guided to a nearby field where multiple helicopters were landing and departing every couple of minutes. I must admit, as we patiently waited for our turn to fly I was a little nervous because a) there had been a fatal Helicopter crash a few months prior b) we had been given a whole speech before departure about how careful we had to be, the glacier is constantly changing, making every trip different and meaning that although our guide would show us the best path to follow, we were at risk of seriously injuring ourselves or even dying….Obviously didn’t tell my mum that bit (mummy if you are reading this, don’t worry, clearly I survived!)
The Helicopter ride was so damn cool, it is a strange feeling to be in a little metal bubble which sets off into the sky without gaining speed. The views were once again unbelievable, with the white/blue Glacier standing out in stark contrast against the green background of the tree covered mountains. It was almost like looking at a single bright star in a dark sky - I had to pinch myself.
We landed safely on the glacier, were given our clampons (Spikes which you attach to the bottom of your hiking boots) and began the ascent. Walking on the ice took a while to get used to, you have to trust that your boots have enough grip to keep you from falling and as our group was one of the first ones to go up that day, the ice was ‘fresh’ and therefore harder to walk on. We were asked to form a single line, walking one behind the other. Initially I was right at the back, forcefully stomping my feet left right and center, to be EXTRA sure my spikes were firmly planted in the ground before taking my next step! In hindsight, the instructor clearly thought I was a liability, because I was asked to move to the front of the line..most likely so he could keep a close eye on the spastic of the day!
So with the possibility of breaking my neck looming over me and the pressure of the group’s eyes lingering behind me, I had no choice but to ditch the Bambi walk and pretend I was Lara Croft. ‘Come on Lara - You can do this!’
We made it all the way to the top, with no broken bones RESULT! Had a little break, took some snaps and were then ready to turn around and do it all again, this time going downhill! Going down was harder than going up because some of the steps are quite steep, thankfully the ice was starting to soften making it easier to walk on. Step after step we made it back to the Heli pick up point.
On the helicopter ride back to the base I was extremely thankful that everything had gone well and really pleased to have added this experience to my now growing list of amazing memories.
The rest of the day was spent doing backpacker things at the hostel and getting ready for the next day’s early departure.
I had high hopes for Franz Josef and it certainly didn't disappoint!