After driving down the beautiful west coast highway of New Zealand’s south island, we arrived in the tiny town of Franz Joseph, home of the Franz Joseph Glacier and not far from the almost-as-famous Fox Glacier. Who is Franz Joseph? Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Croatia, and King of Bohemia from 1848-1916. It was named by the German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865.
This is the busy season in New Zealand, and like the rest of the country, accommodations in such a small town were limited. We booked about a month in advance, and still all that was left were beds in a dorm. And so we stayed for three nights, with three sets of four roommates rotating in and out. Sleeping in a room full of strangers isn’t an experience one gets to have much as an adult but I’d fully recommend it. People are generally nice and it feels kind of like summer camp. This particular hostel also had free wifi, free popcorn, and a nice big kitchen. Travelers’ bliss.
With two full days to explore, we spent one day at each glacier. Franz Joseph can be reached easily by a short, flat hike from the main carpark, but we wanted a bit more of a challenge – and we got it on Robert’s Point Track. This 12km advanced hike was tough, slippery, and steep. We didn’t get even a peek at the glacier until we reached the platform at the end and turned around, but it was a stunning place to eat lunch!
Being in hostels, we are always surrounded by people. So I went for a walk to get some quiet time in the evening and stumbled upon a beautiful little church, Our Lady of the Alps. It was empty but the door was open, so I enjoyed the dark silence and wondered at the Christian pioneers who built this place 65 years ago.
The next day, we hiked an easy, short tramp around Lake Matheson, the best place for some views of the formidable Mounts Tasman and Cook.
We continued on to Fox Glacier and did an easy, straightforward 45 minute hike to see it up close.
Seeing these glaciers was fascinating, but even more interesting was learning about how far they have retreated in the recent decades. At times along the trail, photos would show where the glaciers were in the past, and the contrast was always surprising. Franz Joseph Glacier was advancing until 2008 when it began a rapid period of retreat, caused by global warming.
We had a five hour drive to our next destination, Wanaka. We’ve become used to seeing several hitchhikers trying to catch rides whenever we’re leaving a town, so we picked up a middle-aged Frenchman for the journey and were off. We stopped at several places along the way, and it was fun to experience them with a new friend.