Landing on the Snow and Ice

New Zealand: Day 13 – Franz Josef Glacier

Log Cabin Lodge
Log Cabin Lodge

“Log Cabin”

As with every place we have stayed, this morning’s breakfast at the lodge featured unexpected views. These mountain views were not obstructed by any clouds. Today was a sunny day.

I absolutely love the bar soap this lodge uses. It’s called Palmarosa, Patchouli & Poppy Seed Soap and is made by Jaymar Soap and Body.  The poppy seeds in the soap exfoliate, and the oils in the soap smell masculine and fresh! I have to put this on the list for holiday gifts!

The proprietress told us that when the Haast Pass road was closed for several weeks because of the terrible slide, the road closure resulted in a complete lack of business in the town of Franz Josef Glacier. The Haast Pass is the only road from Queenstown to this entire area of New Zealand. She had to file an “Interruption of Business” insurance claim, and an all out fight ensued before the insurance company relented.

Glacier Walk

Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier

Today was an incredibly busy day! After breakfast, we were off for a 3 hour glacier walk. Now, I had duly informed Steve in no uncertain terms that this glacier walk was to be nothing like our glacier walk outside of Tromsø. Fortunately, it was a leisurely stroll in an amazing place. During the heat of the day, the temperature probably rose to about 12ºC, which actually resulted in my sweating!

Sarah was our guide. She’s a young 20-something, is from Colorado, and is here on a temporary work visa which has just been extended because her company is sponsoring her. And I was right. She said this is a rain forest! In fact, this is one of only a couple of rain forests in the world that are at the base of glaciers. She reiterated how lucky we were to have a cloudless day for hiking the glacier. During the summer, it will often rain 3 of the 4 weeks a month.

Parking Lot

Sarah noted that the parking area had recently been moved. Two giant boulders came crashing down into the former parking lot a few months back. Luckily, they landed between parked cars or the cars would have been crushed. The tour company decided to close the parking lot and move it further out. No sooner than this was done, a large avalanche fell and completely covered what had previously been the parking lot. There would have been no survivors! Good move on their part.

Receding Glacier

The Franz Josef Glacier was actually growing until 2008. In the past 6 years, the glacier has dramatically receded. You can easily see where it had been. The glacier has gone through periods of growth and recession over the past hundred years, depending on the balance between rain fall (snowing on the glacier) and high temperatures during the summer. Never before has the lack of snow fall combined with the rising temperatures cause this sudden a regression of the glacier. At this rate, many fear the glacier will completely melt in the not too distant future.

The Trident Waterfalls

One of my favorite features of the area was a waterfall that fell from the mountains high above then split into two waterfalls that then split into three waterfalls: the Trident. I shot several pictures of it. This waterfall was beautiful and second only in water volume to last waterfall we saw in Milford Sound, which did not fall as far.

Fern Trees

I totally love the fern trees. When our gardener planted them in Sausalito, she said they would not grow as large as they do in New Zealand. I had no idea what she was talking about. Now I know! These things are stunningly gorgeous and are now my new favorite plant! Sarah noted that these are not truly trees because they have no secondary growth (leaves and branches from a trunk). They are merely tightly woven frawns that keep growing higher and higher just like palm trees, which are also not really trees.

Predator Traps

The tour company has placed traps through out the area to capture predator animals (possums, stoats, rats) that kill the flightless birds. The birds had no natural predators before man brought these other animals to New Zealand. Now, many of the birds are extinct or endangered. Also of interest, New Zealand has no poisonous snakes and only a few mildly poisonous spiders.

Glacier Valley

The rocks in the glacier valley are usually covered with orange or green algae. The algae begins breaking down the rocks’ nitrogen stores, providing nutrients for larger plants. A poisonous bush then begins to grow in glacial valley. That bush is the first and only thing to begin to grow that actually looks like a “plant.” The bush then further breaks down the rock for even larger plants to begin to grow.

You can actually see the various stages of where the glacier was at different times based on the notable changes in the plant life: from none, to the algae area, to the bush area, to the other bushes, to the ferns, etc. It’s as if the plants are growing in sections and each section is a period in the time of the glacial retreat.

Ice Pools

Another bizarre thing I had never noticed before. Large pieces of ice break off from the glacier and travel down the melting river before getting trapped. Once trapped, rock debris collects around it and builds up a rock ledge around the ice. In time the ice melts and forms a perfectly round pool of water. Some of them are rather large. Sometimes the water later evaporates leaving a large round rock circle around an indented area. These formations look puzzling until you know what they are.

Dead Ice

The Franz Josef Glacier has a large (as in enormous: multiple stories high) piece of “dead ice” out in front of it. It gets covered with rocks that flow down from the melt. Eventually the “dead ice” melts. The term “dead ice” refers to large chunks of ice that have become detached from the glacier. We walked atop the huge piece of dead ice covered in rocks of all sizes. I also noticed ice and rock falling all around this area.

The base of the glacier is totally unstable. The force and pressures here are immense. I didn’t hear this glacier making groaning and cracking and exploding sounds as I have heard other melting glaciers do.


The entire glacier valley was a lake at one time. The lake was formed because the ice flow pushed so much rock out in front of it that it formed a natural dam. In the early 1900’s people would canoe across the lake to explore the glacier in their long dresses and suits and shoes with nails through them for traction (early crampons??). However, large (as in immense) pieces of ice trapped under tons of rock at the bottom of the lake would unexpected break free and rocket to the top of the lake, catapulting canoes of unsuspecting tourists to harm or death in the icy cold water. The practice was stopped as a result. Then, the only way to get to the glacier was through a treacherous path along the top of the valley’s steep rock cliff.


Another thing that really interested me. The country of New Zealand has made a huge cash settlement with the native land owners. The tour company we used, and for which Sarah works, is a result of how the native Maori chose to invest some of their part of those funds. They now own a variety of tourist industries in the country.

I also learned that the population of Chinese visitors to New Zealand is quadrupling every year. Again, China is growing millionaires the way the deep south in the US grows kudzu in the summer.

Landing on the Snow and Ice
Landing on the Snow and Ice

Steve Was in His Element

My favorite part of the day was our helicopter sightseeing tour of the glaciers: Fox and Franz Josef. We also saw Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring, and the west coast along the Tasman Sea. This was breathtaking. We landed atop one of the snow capped mountains and walked around shooting pictures and sinking a foot or so into the fresh snow. Yes, Steve was in his element atop the world of snow and ice. I believe our pilot said the snow and ice was about 300 meters thick at that spot.

Wildlife Center
Wildlife Center

Rowi Kiwi

We ended our very busy and active day by visiting with 2 of the 375 Rowi Kiwi that remain alive on this planet. These are such cute, bizarre, and harmless birds. They can not fly. They were about the size of chickens and sort of walk around the same way chickens do.

As they are nocturnal creatures, we saw them in a very, very dark setting. But one of the Kiwi walked within 4 inches of me drinking from his water pan. These were young birds, adolescents of about 10 months. Adorable!


Numerous photos will appear later, after I’ve downloaded them from my camera, post processed them, and then uploaded them to my blog. Stay tuned!