Franz Josef, New Zealand, population 330, is a small town.
Its remote location on the wild West Coast of New Zealand's South Island makes it the perfect place to hide away. It's one of the few places in the world where a glacier actually dips down to sea level. Not to mention, the glacier sits on the edge of a fairytale rainforest.
I find myself in Franz Josef for some time, stuck in the town and trapped by its nature. There are few places on Earth quite like it, with a beach 20 min away, a snowy glacier on the horizon, and a tangled mess of fern-filled forest that climbs up to the top of New Zealand's highest peaks in the Southern Alps.
There are heaps of loud, winged creatures in Franz Josef - the dragonflies rule the daytime, switching shifts with the moths around 9:00 p.m. - but, none of these are as loud, pesky, or prevalent as the helicopters, shuffling tourists above the icy mystery of the town's namesake glacier.
But, I'm not one to hold a grudge. Instead of being angry with the helicopters for ruining many peaceful afternoons on my hotel balcony and for their constant noise pollution, I decide I should get to know them better. I book a flight on the Helicopter Line to see for myself why so many people board so many helicopters every day in this small town.
I hop on the 6-passenger aircraft along with a German and a Brazilian couple at the helipad on the banks of the Waiho River just after twelve and head up into the sky. We follow the Waiho River out of town as it winds its way towards its source, the Franz Josef Glacier.
I catch a quick glimpse of the helicopter as we pass over Lake Wombat and glide above the subtropical rainforest into the foothills of the Southern Alps. The lesser peaks to the right, situated below Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook, are blanketed with ambling waterfalls. With the rata bush in full bloom, the mountainside is dotted with swaths of crimson red.
All of the green and red soon passes, and below is a gnarly city of glistening blue ice.
Viewing the glacier from the Helicopter is superb, but I what I really seek is to squeeze past the narrow alleyways, climb through the hidden caves, and cup my hand for a taste of the cold, crisp ice water below.
We land in a flat area about halfway up the glacier and take our first cautious steps onto the crunchy ice. Gathering at a safe spot, we remove crampons from our jumbo-sized fanny packs and, with the assistance of our guide AJ, attach them to our boots.
AJ is a short, nimble, wild-haired Kiwi with an obvious enthusiasm for what he does and where he works. It seems you can't get him out of the snow and ice. When I ask what he does in the winter, he replies, Mostly, I ski or I'm out here on the glacier.
AJ's job is constantly changing as ice slides down the mountainside at over four meters a day. Each day, new caves form as others collapse in on themselves. Loud pops further up the hill are constant reminders that the land is in a state of perpetual motion. My eyes dart up for the chance to see blocks of ice cascading down the upper face, but, alas, each pop is a false alarm.
It hasn't rained for two weeks and the ice doesn't have the lubrication it's accustomed to. Consequently, the ice is progressing at a slower pace and AJ has had a chance to scope out some of the more fascinating paths through the sharply-etched landscape.
Fashioning steps out of the soft ice with our picks, we set out into the vast glacier to explore the odd and unexpected.
Using the curved end of the pick as a handle, we poke our way through the glacier. Many of the surface formations are hollow, humming against my pick in a deep, lingering bass. I tap the various offshoots like ice chimes as I pass, signaling my arrival. Some, not able to handle the vibrations, crash to the ground, melting into water in search of the nearest stream. Perhaps, later that day, this very water will find its way down the glacier to the Waiho River rushing behind my hotel.
The German couple cannot put down their cameras, but who could blame them. They pose in front of every possible background in every possible way, utilizing the ice pick for maximum effect (ice pick as cane, ice pick as sledge hammer, ice pick as gun, ice pick as picture frame, ice pick fighting). Not wanting to feel left out, the Brazilians copy the good poses, but are pickier with the photography skills of the Germans, asking for re-shoots and specific zoom techniques. I hang close with AJ, laughing at the couples when we aren't talking about the glacier.
As we wait for the helicopter back, AJ rustles through several plastic tubs to reach his meager snack. When the Brazilian woman jokingly asks why he would go to such effort to protect his food, AJ offers, Oh, you don't know about the Kea Parrots? They're smarter than a seven-year-old human. It's true! I've got a five year old at home and I deal with these guys all day on the glacier.
These birds, we are told, have an amazing intelligence, with a resume of talents that include opening rubbish bins and ripping the rubber lining off car doors to get to the food inside. They are now a protected species, but at one time these olive green and yellow birds were almost completely eradicated by local farmers who shot them as they sat on farm animal's backs, chewing into their flesh.
The helicopter back to town runs late and the ominous clouds make good on their threat. Rain pours down and my shorts, T-shirt, and waterproof jacket are no longer enough to keep me warm on the icy terrain. When the aircraft finally arrives with the next group and a leggy girl in ultra-short-shorts steps out, we all look at each other and laugh through our chattering teeth. Shivering, I hop into the chopper and ride down the mountain, past my hotel balcony, to the helipad at the edge of town.
Back on the ground, I stand hot and sticky looking back towards the now obscured peaks in the distance. Dense, swirling clouds frame the Southern Alps in an appropriate grandeur. I realize that if all the people in all the helicopters that leave this small mountain town get to see the city of blue ice as I did, then I suppose a little noise pollution is okay.
Exploring such a dramatic formation, I got the opportunity to witness, in small scale, the ever-changing theater of life on a Glacier. From the childlike thrill of the crunchy snow beneath my crampon-covered feet, to the humming chimes of the blue ice, Franz Joseph Glacier, was truly a wonder to behold.
How to get to Franz Josef:
By Air: Fly into Christchurch and take a commuter plane over to Hokitika Airport. From there it's two hours south by bus or car.
By Train: Catch the TransAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth. It has been rated one of the world's great scenic railway journeys. From Greymouth, it's about two hours south by car or bus.
By Bus: Most tour busses on the South Island make Franz Joseph or nearby Fox Glacier a stop on their tour. Also, several other tourist busses like Naked Bus and InterCity stop through the town once daily.
By Car: Franz Joseph is about a six hour drive from Christchurch and six hours from Queenstown, the South Island's two main tourist hubs.
Want to learn about New Zealand's North Island? CLICK HERE