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.

First bar made of glacial ice opens in Patagonia, Argentina

The first ice bar in Patagonia, Argentina, opened last week, which also happens to be the first bar in the world created out of glacial ice, according to Paola Singer of The New York Times. Located just outside El Calafate, Glaciobar is the newest addition to Glaciarium, a new science museum focusing on the region’s hundreds of glaciers.

Glaciobar will provide patrons with gloves, hooded capes, and boots for warmth. For health and safety reasons, however, the maximum time allowed in the bar is 20 minutes. During this time, most people choose to sip on the house cocktail, a mixture of Fernet con Coca and Coca Cola.

Want to see for yourself what Glaciobar is like? Check out this video:

Tourists flock to erupting Iceland volcano

A recent volcanic eruption in Iceland has proven a much-needed shot in the arm for country’s tourist industry. The Fimmvorduhals Volcano in Southern Iceland began pouring molten lava late last month, Iceland’s first volcanic eruption since 2004. Although the initial eruption triggered evacuations of nearby residents, the event was minor enough to allow most locals to return home. A steady stream of visitors has soon followed.

The volcano, which lies approximately 125 kilometers east of the capital Reykjavik, has proven to be quite a sight. Not only does the lava-spewing eruption make for a dramatic show, it also happens to be set among two massive glaciers. The eruption has also triggered a stream of visitor activity in the region. A hiking trail leading the volcano was reopened, another company is offering bus tours, and the nearby Hotel Ranga has seen a surge in new bookings.

You can check out a photo gallery of the volcano, in all its erupting glory, here.

New glaciers discovered in European mountains

British geographers from the University of Manchester have discovered four previously unknown glaciers while on a recent expedition to the “cursed” Prokletije mountains of Albania. The discovery was published in the December issue of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, ahead of a full scholarly paper to be released later this year.

The newly found glaciers are located unusually low on the mountains,, beginning at roughly 6500 feet. But despite that, their existence has gone unnoticed for so long because the region has been embroiled in war and chaos for decades. Over the past decade some semblance of order has been achieved in the region, and it has allowed expeditions to explore the mountains more fully. The peaks are considered cursed by the locals, so few have ever ventured up their slopes.

The researchers from the university were completely surprised by their discovery. They suspect that other than a few local shepherds, no one else was even aware of the existence of the glaicers. They were also surprised to find them at such low altitudes and so far south. Glaciers at the same latitude are generally found much higher on mountains, but ample snow fall and cool temperatures all year long, help to feed these patches of snow.

By all accounts, the Prokletije mountains are said to be quite beautiful, offering good opportunities for trekking and backpacking throughout the area. The discovery of the glaciers is likely to make the region even more appealing to adventurous travelers looking to visit an area that has been mostly off limits for years.

Explore the Arctic with Hurtigruten Tours

Spitsbergen is the “last stop before the North Pole,” a cold, remote landscape of snow, ice, and arctic wildlife. And you can explore it with Hurtigruten, an adventure tour company.

While some of their longer tours may be prohibitively expensive for a lot of travelers (9-day tours cost around $5000 per person). they do offer a much more affordable 6-day Polar Encounters cruise starting at just over $1300 per person, plus airfare.

Passengers on the cruise will go ashore twice per day with an experienced guide, looking for glaciers, fjords, seals, whales, walruses, and polar bears. Stops include the towns of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Alesund, which vary in size for two thousand to less than two dozen residents.

Hurtigruten also offers cruises around Norway, Greenland, Antartica, the Baltics, and Western Europe.

[via Camels and Chocolate]