Franz Josef glacier: Big icy tongue of the rainforest

“The Franz Josef Glacier is so singularly beautiful, so beautiful indeed, and centered amongst such vivid, exceptional, and picturesque surroundings that if it were situated in any other country than New Zealand it would have long ago been acclaimed ‘The Most Beautiful Thing in the World'”

–E.E. Muir (1929)

Don’t look now, but in New Zealand there are currently two icy tongues lapping their way through the jungle.

While we have previously reported on the unique experience of taking crampons and ice axe to New Zealand’s Fox Glacier, I’m here to illuminate the other shifting sea of ice that’s currently licking the forests of Aotearoa’s soggy West Coast.

At 7.5 miles long, Franz Josef Glacier–named in 1865 after the emperor of Austria-Hungary during a time when naming glaciers after nobility was apparently the thing to do–is perhaps one of the world’s most scenic crumbling blue spectacles.

While I’ve witnessed glaciers calving into the sea in Alaska and watched the sun rise over them in Nepal, what makes Franz Josef so unique is the ability to stand in front of a massive sea of ice whilst entrenched in a setting that is literally temperate rainforest.

At Fox and Franz the flora doesn’t consist of sub-alpine scrub brush or tundra, but rather, it consists of dense green ferns. The waterfalls that streak down the walls of the vertical canyons are raging in strength due to the 7000mm (273 inches) of rainfall the west coast of New Zealand annually receives, a sum that bests many parts of the Amazon rainforest. On various summer days it’s possible to be standing in front of Franz Josef glacier in nothing but shorts and t-shirt, a wardrobe better suited to watching the sunset on the beach that lies just 10 miles to the west.

So why are there glaciers tumbling their way through the jungle in the first place?Both glaciers have their névé, or snowfield, tucked nearly 8,300 ft up into the alpine terrain of the Southern Alps, an elevation high enough to receive copious amounts of snowfall. Seeing as the mountains explode out of the Tasman Sea at such a steep grade, however, the glacial tongue is allowed to plunge down to only 950 feet above sea level towards the coastal region below, hence, there now being glaciers in the rainforest.

In fact, it’s believed that at one point Franz Josef glacier extended all the way to the sea.

Though both Fox Glacier as well as Franz Josef are popular for glacial trekking and scenic flights, for the casual day tripper just wanting to get close to the ice Franz Josef is the undisputed winner. While those trekking the valley floor at Fox Glacier are currently required to maintain a distance of 600 meters from the melting blue ice, at Franz Josef it’s still possible to walk nearly up to the cusp of the beast–close enough to hear it crack and moan and melt into history.

Ambling amongst the valley floor, it’s difficult to convey the sheer magnitude of the valleys that have been bulldozed when the ice is advancing. To describe the trickle of human beings plodding their way up the canyon floor as a trail of ants would be horribly clichéd, yet it’s such an accurate representation of the size-scale that I’m going to say it anyway.

As one of those ants slowly plodding onward, the vertical stone walls on the right side of the canyon call to mind the limestone slabs of Thailand‘s Railay Beach, while the misty ridge lines on the left side of the canyon cast the same dramatic shadows of Oahu‘s Ko’olau mountains. More than humbling, it’s the type of place you come to feel small.

Of course, all of that rainfall means that catching Franz Josef on a clear, dry day can always be somewhat of a challenge, and many times, such as the afternoon in which I visited, the heavens unleash a torrent of rain incubated in storm cells rolling off the tempestuous Tasman Sea, a weather phenomenon which does little good for someone sleeping in their van.

Wet, muddy shoes and rain crashing on a metal roof are a poor epilogue to a story as grand as glacial viewing, which is why it’s time to turn the old Toyota Lucida northwards and eastwards to drier, more agreeable climes….

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.