The West Coast of New Zealand's South Island is known as Te Wāi Pounamu – ‘The greenstone waters’. The 2.6 million hectares is a UNESCO World Heritage site and covers almost 10% of New Zealand’s total land area. The area contains four National Parks: Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland.
Franz Josef Glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, and is one of the main tourist attractions of the West Coast with around 250,000 visitors each year, and up to 2,700 per day.
Franz Josef Glacier is a temperate maritime glacier that is currently around 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) long and ends just 19 kilometres (12 miles) from the Tasman Sea. It’s sister glacier, Fox Glacier, sits just 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the South and is around 13 kilometres (8.1 miles) long.
These glaciers are in a cyclic pattern of advance and retreat. It is believed that 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, Franz Josef would have extended all the way to the Tasman Sea.
Between 1893 and 1983 Franz Josef was in its last major retreat where it receded 3 kilometres. Between 1983 and 2008 it advanced again almost 1.5 kilometres after heavy snowfalls, but since 2008 it has receded almost 500 metres again, as well as with the ice thinning by about 70 metres behind the glacier terminal.
Over recent years, there have been "ice quakes" recorded - which is the ground shaking as a cavity is formed beneath the glacier, eventually causing its surface ice to collapse in. In January 2012, a hole had formed in Franz Josef which put and end to guided walks up to the glacier. Now to see it you need to be flown onto the ice by helicopter.
So we jumped in a helicopter, and up we went – straight to the top! You can do a Heli-Hike where you take a scenic flight over the glaciers, then land on the lower end of the glacier and partake in a guided tour for 2 – 3 hours through the amazing ice formations. Although this would have been great, it was pre minor back surgery so I was not in a position where I could do this. BUT… it gives me something to look forward to next time – watch this space!
Now there is a Māori myth of how these glaciers were created and it’s a love story. Yes, like all of the great love stories, it involves tragedy.
As the story goes, there once was a strong an fearless snow maiden named Hinehukatere. She met a man at the foothills of Aoraki (Mount Cook) named Tuawe. Hine and Tuawe fell madly in love, but they were destined to be star-crossed lovers. Tuawe’s touch melted the skin of Hine, and Hine’s cold touch would instantly freeze Tuawe’s skin. Regardless of this, they pursued their love.
Hine loved to climb mountains and persuaded her lover Tuawe to climb with her one day. Hine was a faster climber and, in her excitement of having her lover climbing with her, raced ahead of Tuawe. An avalanche hit the mountain and Tuawe was swept from the peaks to his death and to his final resting place in the valley bed below.
Hine, heartbroken and distraught, climbed to the top of the mountain and cried, and cried for her lover. This resulted in rivers being created from her tears.
The Gods, seeing these rivers of tears flowing down the mountain, froze them as a reminder of her grief and aptly gave Franz Joseph Glacier the name Kā Roimata o hinehukatere – ‘The Frozen Tears of Hinehukatere’ and Fox Glacier the name Te Moeka o Tuawe - ‘The bed of Tuawe’.
So it's a sad story.... but in its own way, kind of beautiful too.
For more information or to book your tour visit: www.franzjosefglacier.com
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