On my recent trip to New Zealand, Franz Josef was the fourth pit-stop on our 12 day tiki tour of the West Coast of New Zealand.
While most road-trippers drive directly from Queenstown to Franz Josef, we decided to take it easy and had stopped over at Wanaka overnight so that we didn’t have to deal with the twisty roads of the Crown Ranges and only had a stretch of 286 kms to cover. There’s a lot to see on the way to Franz Josef such as the Blue Pools, Gate of Haast, Thunder Creek Falls and very little to eat such as the Grumpy Cow Cafe or the Salmon Farm Cafe and a LOT of one-way bridges so I truly recommend that you ensure your camera batteries are charged, your tummy is full and that you leave early in the day as these roads are not conducive to night-time driving.
We stayed in Franz Josef for two nights as we had our heart set on doing the helicopter ride and hiking the Franz Josef glacier. It is quite expensive at almost NZD350 per person but #BawiMummy had done the hike a couple of years ago and couldn’t stop raving about it. The heli-hikes are very popular are I suggest that you book your place from Queenstown itself preferably in an early morning slot.
Despite #BawaGroom’s guarantee that the weather would be as sunny as his smile, the weather turned sour on the say we had booked the Heli-Hike with no trips being taken for the next 3 days! It seemed a waste to drive 300kms and not see the glacier so we decided to walk the Franz Josef Glacier Valley trail which would take us to the terminal face of the glacier. This is also a great option for those that don’t want to spend too much money.
One can drive up to the start of the trail and from there it is a 5 – 6 km return loop which will take you almost 2.5 hours. The walk itself is moderately easy and is filled with great views from the blue ice of the glacier that looks like polished marble to the giant rock walls and the riverbed of the Waiho river. At the end of the trail is the terminal face of the glacier which is not unlike ‘The Wall’ in the Game of Thrones and is a sight to behold.
For me, the best part about visiting the Franz Josef glaciers though was what we found at the terminal face. I was wandering around trying the get the perfect angle for a shot when I stumbled along a plastic bag tucked underneath a big rock. Curiosity piqued, I lifted the rock and was surprised to find a pair of hiking boots with a laminated note that broke my heart. The shoes belonged to Will Keller, a young adventurer who had always dreamed of visiting New Zealand. Sadly, he passed away before his time and his friend had left his favourite pair of shoes here in the hope that someone would take them on a new adventure in memory of Will.
Climbing Mt. Cook, visiting Milford Sound or attending an All Blacks match – no adventure would be too small for Will’s boots and the only request was that the wearer take some photos and email them to Will’s parents. I am not a crier but my eyes teared up at the story and I quickly tried on the shoes in the hope that I could take them with me on my road-trip. While they didn’t fit me, I desperately didn’t want these shoes to be forgotten so I got talking to another traveller who was walking the same trail and convinced him to try on the shoes. Luckily, they fit and am proud to share that the next stop for Will’s boots was Milford Sounds!
After our trail, our tummies were grumbling loudly and we were verging on hangry-ness so decided to go into the quaint little main street of Franz Josef. Tucked into a small corner there is the Picnic bakery that’s run by a lady that got tired of corporate life in UK and decided to move to this little town. She serves up the most delicious pasties and hot chocolate so a stopover there is highly recommended. They also do donuts every Thursday and she tells me that they are sold out by 11am so if you’re there on a Thursday you know what to do!
There’s not much to do in Franz Josef in the evenings but a trip to the hot pools can be quite nice. You can follow this up with a nice dinner at King Tiger Eating House which has a lovely bar and a South & East Asian menu where we pigged out on butter chicken ironically!
In terms of accommodation, there is a wide variety available from hotels to motels and backpackers. The town is quite isolated from the rest of the world with residents having to travel over over 500km fortnightly for their groceries! This means that the shops in town can be quite expensive so I recommend that backpackers stock their food at Queenstown or Greymouth itself.
Despite my preference for a warm beach over a mountain and the bad weather, I found Franz Josef to be stunningly beautiful! Surrounded by the tall peaks and dark grey clouds of Franz Josef, I experienced a moment of humility and the pure pleasure of being alive to witness this grandeur of nature.