Franz Josef Glacier
February 3, 2018
While having breakfast at a cafe yesterday morning, Sarah and I stumbled across an article that named the recent storm up north "the worst in Nelson history." That description, perhaps on the dramatic side, reaffirmed our decision to bail out of the backcountry yesterday.
Left Hanmer Springs last night around 1730 and hitched as far as Reefton where we freedom camped. Caught a ride down to Hokitika this morning, then discovered that the road south to Franz Josef was open - it had been previously closed due to slips and damage caused by the aforementioned cyclone - so we hitched south around 1600. Some other hitch hikers had gotten the prime spot out of town, but we scooted in when they caught a ride, which didn’t take long at all. In fact, we caught our own in under 15 minutes, though he only got us about 10 of 140 k’s, dropping us on a corner in the middle of nowhere with very little through traffic. I was starting to second-guess our choice to inch along when a camper van pulled over. Theo and Stacy were headed to Franz Josef too, and they got us the rest of the way. I was kinda surprised, and a lot excited, that we made it all the way from Hokitika given our late start.
Sarah and I lingered around town waiting for dark, then headed over to the Terrace Walk, a short return hike that features glow worms. Those tiny bioluminescent creatures are almost staples in NZ and AUS, apparently a dime a dozen. I’d never seen anything bioluminescent before and was both thrilled and disappointed. I’d imaged the glow worms being a centimeter or more in length. The ones we saw were just a few millimeters long, though they shone bright through the dark foliage. Still incredibly cool, just hard to capture with a camera, which is obviously a major consideration in my “that was cool” scale. Walking along the path and seeing patches of the bright green glows flash as we weaved in and out of overgrowth was surreal. Almost felt like strings of blinking green Christmas lights hanging in the forest trees.
Headed beyond the town limits to find a place to freedom camp, and planning to start up the valley to the glacier early tomorrow morning. So stoked, and hoping the weather clears up a bit for us.
February 4, 2018
Unfortunately my overall experience of Franz Josef has been disappointing. The glow worms were a special site, and they weren’t what I’d imagined and built up in my mind. (Expectations are dangerous things, y’all.) The Glacier was fantastic, the ice a beautiful blue tint, but the upper reaches (and the incredible peaks around it) were obscured by thick clouds that never lifted. As they moved through, I caught near glimpses, but nothing substantial. It was a total tease, and incredibly frustrating. I endured over 10 hours of chilly winds and intermittent rain waiting for a break in the weather to capture photos of the impressive glacial valley, but ultimately gave up hope and returned to town. Before doing so, I hiked to an overlook above the glacier, which was awesome, though the hike to the base of the glacier was closed due to trail damage from the cyclone.
(Dang...to read that, you might think I’m totally miserable.)
Had it not been for Sarah’s company, I’d have counted the trip south a total bust, which is really just a testament to my “Wilderness Privilege,” meaning that I’ve seen so many incredible things, and had such exceptional fortune in the outdoors, that I’ve developed an unhealthy sense of entitlement in the wilderness. Not ok, and something I intend to build more awareness around, and ultimately to shift entirely back toward gratitude. For starters, I’m grateful that Franz Josef has been the catalyst for my newfound personal work. The Wilderness is, and has been for over a decade now, one of my greatest teachers and mentors.
Totally stoked, grateful, and humbled for the accommodations tonight. Sarah’s relatives own a hotel in town, and they had a vacancy, so they’ve put us up for the night. A bed and a hot shower- what a treat!
February 5, 2018
On the bus bound for Nelson today, and going to start the Abel Tasman Coast Great Walk out of Marahau tomorrow! Should be brilliant weather up there on the north coast. (The Nelson area is famous for its 300 days of sunshine each year, in fact the polar opposite of Franz Josef and the lower West Coast region.)
I learned today from the bus driver that the West Coast is a rainforest ecosystem. Makes sense, as there is a lot of thick, green vegetation. Apparently the first land mass west of New Zealand’s South Island is Tasmania, which gives the eastbound low pressure systems something like 3,000 k’s to build momentum before slamming into the mountains that run north-south along the inland of the South Island. When that happens, they just dump their payload of moisture right there on the coast, yielding 270 days of rain annually. That means that it rains in Franz Josef three out of every four days, so really the weather could’ve been worse.