New Zealand: Entry 7

25 March 2003: Queenstown, New Zealand

Subject: New Zealand

Franz Joseph Glacier

The Southern Alps have quite a lot in common with the Patagonian Andees, especially in terms of their climate and vegetation. Lots of wetness arrives from the West and dumps loads of snow over the mountains, and leaves the land on the East side very dry in comparison. All that snow - the equivalet of four to six metres per year both in Patagonia and here - slowly oozes down the sides of the mountains as glaciers that almost get down to sea level.

I saw plenty of these low-altitude glaciers in Argentina and Chile. Here they're not quite as huge but they're still quite spectacular, and lots of tourists are attracted to the two most accessible ones, the Franz Joseph and the Fox. I spent a couple of nights in the township of Franz Joseph and spent a day hiking up the hillside above the glacier.

Mountaineers had been coming to Franz Joseph for many years. In the local information office they have some nice old photos of Edwardian ladies dresed in huge skirts, clasping ridiculously long ice axes, high up on the glacier. And out the back they have preserved an old corrugated iron hut, used by climbers on their way up to one of the peaks wanting to get an early start.

But it seems to me that this mountaineering activity is all in the past. The hut was removed from the mountainside in 1978, and another one on the opposite side of the glacier is now preserved as a purely historical structure. Today's visitors seem to want to experience the ice and the mountains without going to the trouble of exerting themselves climbing up them. We are now in the age of the Heli-Hike.

Franz Joseph township has about half a dozen helicopter companies and the place is constantly buzzing with the noise of the machines as they put down one load of passengers and pick up the next. But of course the noise is not limited just to the town. As one climbs up what should be an idylic alpine hillside with just the noise of a few wild birds and maybe odd creaking noises from the ice below, there is an almost constant drone of helicopters, and the odd plane, overhead. The place is quite ruined by it.

There were also helicopters in Tongariro National Park, and when I was in Punakaiki there were petitions out in many of the cafes protesting about a proposal to helicopter people around the Pancake Rocks. I believe that they need to be authorised by the Department of Conservation, who seem to have quite strict policies in most other respects. So why they allow this intrusion I do not know.

Anyway, I did a walk up to "Roberts Point", a viewpoint overlooking the glacier. It is an interesting path view a few bridges and these very well made steps to get up a practically overhanging cliff face:

Here is the view of the glacier from the end of the path. Actually according to my GPS this wasn't Roberts Point at all - that was another few hundred metres around the corner. I guess that the last bit of the path has been closed for some reason.

It seems that the helicopters from Franz Joseph, Fox and the town of Mount Cook on the other side of the range cover pretty much the entire of the Mount Cook National Park between them. So I have given up on that area and come further South in the hope that the slightly more remote Mount Aspiring National Park will be more peaceful - more of a National Park and less of a National Playground. I will let you know how I get on.