Next on our epic New Zealand road trip itinerary with Maui Motorhomes was Franz Josef. A place I hadn’t seen for 14 years and with a very special tourist attraction. The Franz Josef Glacier, one of the south island’s amazing glaciers that reach almost sea level thanks to the insane amount of precipitation this area receives every year.
Trekking to the Glacier
Coming to the pretty little town of Franz Josef is all about one thing, seeing the glacier! Whether its by foot or by air there’s plenty of accommodation and food options here to get you ready for your glacial adventure. As we’re travelling with a little one and on a tight budget we opted for the easy trek to the glacier just a couple of kilometres out of town. I last did this in 2001 so I knew how easy it is to park up fairly close and take a very easy walk for 45 minutes to the glacier terminus. 14 years ago the glacier was still advancing, mostly due to the high levels of snowfall the mountains receive. With all the talk of global warming over the years I fully expected it to have changed and was ready to compare the difference with my last visit. We drove our lovely Maui Campervan to the glacier car park which had plenty of space for our huge vehicle, there’s many others in New Zealand doing the same as us which definitely gives you more confidence on the roads. The walk starts in lush woodland with moss growing on virtually everything around you. You can tell just how wet this place is nearly all year round by how thick and moist the vegetation is, and as luck would have it the rain began to fall as we tramped along the footpath.
I was so shocked when we finally came out of the vegetation and in to the glacier bed where the glacial river flowed past us. Back in 2001 the glacier front was clearly visible with its shimmering blue and white terminus and large cave like opening where the melt-water ran out of the glacier. Now there was just black rock in piles and a path leading on in to the distance beyond them. I’d expected it to have moved back but not out of sight! We walked on with our 1 year old toddler in a sling. The trek is a bit long for toddlers to walk but she’s always happy in a sling with her mum. She loved looking at the waterfalls along the route and was clearly very content as she fell asleep long before we reached anywhere near the terminus.
The glacier really has changed a lot, and not only that but changed quickly too. If you ever want evidence of the massive increase in global warming just come to Franz Josef Glacier. The terminus was still visible in 2008 and you could walk right up to it, much like you could when I visited in 2001. But after 2008 things changed rapidly, a reduction in rainfall and snowfall coupled with milder springs and hotter summers has sped up the glacier melting at an astonishing rate. In the 7 years since 2008 it’s moved back so far its now impossible to reach the terminus by foot. We finally reached the end of our trek in somewhat damp conditions, around 250 metres or more away. The path ran out and the terminus could be seen half way up the mountain side.
The view was still pretty spectacular with the mountain valley carved by this enormous ice beast but it was a little sad to see it retreating so much. Also quite surreal to be walking where once a mighty glacier had stood crunching the rocks in to small stone fragments.
For the best views of the glacier and ice fields it really is best to fly over the top. There are plenty of options here too with helicopter and plane tours taking you right over the both Franz Josef and Fox glacier. Prices aren’t cheap of course but if you’re looking to make the most of your trip I’d probably recommend one of these now. The walk is easy but you can’t get anywhere near the terminus. So be prepared for a 90 minute round-trip with limited views.
Exploring Franz Josef town
Back in town we stopped for some lunch at one of the many cafes. There’s some great eateries with decked areas outside to enjoy the fresh mountain air and friendly tourist atmosphere. The town has little over 350 residents but an average summer tourist population of 2,000 so there’s no shortage of jobs in the tourism industry here. It’ll be interesting to see if the glacier’s further retreat changes that in the future, I do hope not. There’s ample place to park for free right by the side of the road, even with a big Maui Campervan and if you want to book a scenic flight or heli-trek then you’ll find lots of shops right in town. They’re all geared up ready to take paying punters to the Glacier.
West Coast Wildlife Centre
We picked up a leaflet in the cafe at lunchtime telling us we could meet real live Kiwis! These nocturnal birds are hard to spot at the best of times but the Rowi, the rarest of them all, is seldom seen anywhere due to their dwindling numbers and poor defences against predators like the Stoat. We couldn’t resist the opportunity to see one of these little fellas up close so we walked through town to the West Coast Wildlife Centre. Its easy to find just off the main road with its bright green building, its also the only place in town with an ATM if you need to get some cash out.
The Wildlife Centre is more museum and cafe than anything else and with a very steep price tag of $35 per adult its probably no wonder the place is fairly quiet. Never-the-less if you want to see a kiwi this is one of the best places to do it. Our 1 year old got in for free thankfully and there’s a great video presentation before entering the habitat currently home to 1 mother and 4 baby kiwis. You have to let your eyes adjust for a while as its very dimly lit inside, orange and red spot lights do a great job of creating a twighlight setting with sound effects of tweeting birds and plenty of vegetation for the kiwis to roam about in. We spotted the mother almost straight away and the glass panelled fencing made it very easy for us to see. In fact our daughter spotted her first and enjoyed crouching down right by her side to watch her hunt through the undergrowth. We also found one of the babies scuttling about and managed to catch a glimpse before it ran in to one the small houses at the far end of the enclosure. The rest of the museum tells you more about the Franz Josef Glacier, how it was formed and more on local history too. You don’t get much for your $35 but the chance to see a real Kiwi and its babies was too good an opportunity to miss out on!
Top 10 holiday park
We stayed at the Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park which is just a short drive out of town along the main highway. Its a rather primitive setting with just a small games and TV room and a couple of kitchen areas. There’s no need for an outdoor play area for the kids here as the inclement weather will keep you indoors most of the time. You’re here to see the glacier (and maybe a Kiwi) so this holiday park really had everything you needed to get a good nights sleep and get you to the glacier the next day. Easy and functional. For more information check out top10.co.nz/parks/franz-josef
Be sure to follow our adventure in New Zealand with Maui Motorhomes by searching for the hashtags #GoByCamper and #MauiMotorhomes. Follow us on twitter @travelwithamate and be sure to check out our awesome sponsors @MauiRentals too.