The village of Franz Josef, on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, only has a population of 400, but up to 2,700 daily visitors can flood its main street during the high summer season.
I had booked a guided hike up the valley to a viewpoint where we could see the face of Franz Josef Glacier, one of two very accessible glaciers in New Zealand (the other being Fox Glacier, just 23km away).
This is one of the wettest places in the world, with the town getting up to five or six metres of rainfall each year. This makes for a strange environment of contrasts – the snowy peaks of the mountains form the backdrop to acres of densely-packed, tropical, Jurassic forest teeming with native birds like the kea and the kereru (a sort of native wood pigeon which is extremely important, being the only bird in the country capable of digesting and dispersing the seeds and berries of many native flora), while the sun beams down in that highly concentrated way it does here.
Then, amongst all this forest, you have the glacier: blue, mighty, retreating fast enough almost to be observed with the naked eye.
The walk was really easy, and we were blessed with incredible weather – azure skies that remained completely clear for the whole trip, despite the fact that clouds usually gather in during the afternoons.
The glacier itself is only safe to get to by helicopter, but that costs a lot of money. If you don’t have 400 New Zealand dollars to spare (about 200 euro), I’d recommend the valley hike very much. You don’t even need a guide; it’s perfectly possible to walk up to the glacier face by yourself. It’s well signposted and free.
Included in my guided tour ticket was entry to the hot pools at the Department of Conservation building. These aren’t geothermal springs, but are still really relaxing and luxurious after a sweaty day walking. I went with some girls from my hostel and stayed for a few hours. For such a small town, there’s a lot to do in Franz Josef- as long as the weather holds.
The forecast was clear and sunny for the next day, too. Unable to believe my luck at having landed here, unplanned, on such a fabulous weather weekend, I went in search of something else I could do. I booked a morning kayak tour with Glacier Country Kayaks and had a beautiful, tranquil tour across Lake Mapourika, just 10 minutes’ drive from Franz Josef.
The lake itself is very deep, known as a kettle lake, because it is shaped like an old English kettle with very steep sides dropping to as deep as 80 metres.
We cruised around in double kayaks while our helpful guide, Will, told us all about the local fauna, efforts to conserve the smallest species of kiwi that resides in the forest, and the fact that producers of Jurassic Park considered this region for the location of the film due to its abundance of authentic Jurassic forest – before deciding the weather was too rainy and unreliable.
Spending a weekend in Franz Josef is well worth it. If you’ve got a car, even better – you can visit nearby Fox Glacier at the same time. But even within the small village, there are lots of activities to be done and, as I keep finding in New Zealand, plenty of nice people to talk to.