The hamlet of Franz Josef seems to exist for one reason – to service the hulking, icy behemoth after which it is named. It’s one of the those towns with just a couple of streets, where everyone knows everyone else and a car is unnecessary. Just as with most visitors to this Alpine town, my goal was to get closer to the great Franz Josef Glacier.
It was a two and a half hour drive from Greymouth to Franz Josef, skirting the Tasman Sea before ascending into the mountains on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. One of the many qualities that makes this region so unique is the fact that the mountains surrounding the glaciers are covered with mild rainforests. This is the only place outside Argentina where the combination of natural extremes exists.
Guests to the glaciers (Fox Glacier abuts Franz Joseph and both are part of a World Heritage Site) have a variety of options: guided hikes, unguided hikes (requires experience), heli-hiking and helicopter tours. Given my tight schedule, I was booked on a morning helicopter tour of the mountains and surrounding glacier.
Almost as soon as the Glacier Helicopters flight lifted off, Mt. Cook popped into view, a looming presence throughout the area. We skirted over the lush rainforest and before I knew it, we were on top of the glacier. It’s amazing really, the glacier looks exactly like a glacier should look. A vast, frozen river leading from the tops of the mountains to the valley below.
It was only my second helicopter experience, but I can’t imagine anything surpassing the thrill of zooming past the craggy glacial peaks, getting as close a look at the mammoth ice flow as any human can. After ten minutes, we landed at a snowy spot between the flows for an impromptu snowball fight and to gawk at the spectacular views.
The ride back included even more impressive views of the glacier and the flat plains below leading to the Tasman Sea. It really is strange to see the glacier adjacent to the mild valley below. There’s something surreal about it all.
Without exaggeration, the thirty-minute helicopter trip at Franz Josef is one of the best travel adventures I’ve been lucky enough to experience.