What a day! Although the distance from Hokitika to Franz Josef was not great, just 130 km, we planned to get away by 8:00 am to allow maximum time for exploring the glaciers and surrounds. It was drizzling as we prepared to leave but we had hopes that the weather might improve as the day went on.
We got away on schedule so any thought we had of exploring the forest via the treetop walk just south of Hokitika was dropped because it did not open until 9:00 am, by which time we would be well down the road. As it happened we never did see any signage on the highway and would probably have missed it regardless of our intentions.
First stop was at Pukekura which claims to be the smallest town on the west coast with a population of just 2. Its claim to fame is the Bushman Centre which offers Pete’s Possum Pie and other road kill treats on its menu. The slogan is “You kill it, we grill it.” Unfortunately it was not open when we arrived so we stopped briefly for photos and drove on.
Some members of the group had expressed a desire to take a helicopter ride over the glaciers. As we approached Whataroa we saw signs advertising flights and decided to check the prices there before reaching Franz Josef. The deals there looked as good as any and the advice from the sales people was that the relatively fine weather we were experiencing by then might not last into the afternoon so those wanting to fly should do so while it was known to be possible. They also advised us that their helicopter seated pilot and 4 passengers, all with clear views out windows in contrast to the larger machines used at Franz Josef where at least one passenger would not have a window seat. Russell, Warwick and Colleen were keen to fly and Majella volunteered to make up the 4. Some of the others vowed they would not take to a helicopter even if they were paid large sums and a few waited to be persuaded by reports of the experience.
The regular helicopter launch point was about 5 km back up the road but because the machine was at Whataroa and they had a hunter client waiting to be picked up at the other point they bundled our fliers in immediately and the rest of us headed off in the van to the regular point to await their return from an estimated 18 minute flight. When we arrived there they had another couple of prospective passengers waiting to take one of the longer packages with a landing on the glacier. Because that would otherwise leave 2 seats vacant and unpaid they offered Jim and me a good deal to join that flight which we did. In the end there were already the maximum permitted 5 helicopters on the glacier when we would have landed so we missed that part but, since we had not paid for that extra, we were not perturbed.
The flight experience was spectacular. There was some low cloud but we went up the valley under that, passed through it, and came out above it into clear blue sky with close up views of the peaks, snow and glaciers. Our flight crossed the divide so that we saw the Tasman glacier on the east as well as the Franz Josef and Fox on the west side. I expect that was a once in a lifetime experience and well worth it on that basis. I have yet to work on the 100+ photos and the video that I captured and Majella also has some that I will need to look at. I’ll work on those and post a selection when I can.
Jim and I were landed in Franz Josef village. The others had driven down in the van and met us soon after we arrived. We had coffee in 88 Asian Fusion Restaurant and made a tentative arrangement for dinner on the strength of the good coffee and the excellent baked goods – carrot cake and muffins.
After coffee Russell, Norma, Majella and I drove out to JAG Escape Franz Alpine Retreat where Majella had originally booked accommodation for all of us through booking.com. Sometime in January we had a notice about a credit card detail that needed to be updated and discovered then that our booking had been mixed up. Jennifer at JAG and the booking.com people had worked it out so that 4 of us could be accommodated at JAG and the others would stay at Bella Vista. All of that was accommodated within the original price at which we had booked. Jennifer had also been very helpful with information about the local attractions and suggested a restaurant with a stretch Hummer limousine service to get us to and from dinner. She and David greeted us warmly. The restaurant she recommended was Blue Ice Cafe so we later cancelled the tentative reservation at 88 and asked her to confirm Blue Ice for 7:00 pm with a 6:50 pick up in the limo.
We drove back into town, collected the others, sorted out the accommodation at Bella Vista, and headed for the Fox Glacier which we had been advised was the one to see if you were able to manage only one. Fox was about a 30 minute drive south with an estimated hour round trip walk from car park to glacier viewing and back. We decided that we could manage that before lunch and headed direct for the glacier.
The first part of the walk was relatively easy. The path wound and undulated and was a bit rough in places but it was not until we approached the glacier that the climb came into view. Some took the low road to one view point while others opted for the climb and what proved to be the better view. Majella went first for the low road, saying that she would make do with that if it was OK. As I was leaving the top point she was nearing the top of the climb so I hung back and waited with her. As it happened the cloud began to lift a little at that time so I managed a little clearer view of the top of the glacier.
After our walk to and from the glacier it was after 2:00 pm. We were hungry so we found a cafe in Fox and ate lunch there before heading back toward Franz Josef. By that time some wanted a rest, Majella and Maria were intent on checking out the hot pool, and a few of us decided on a walk to the Franz Josef glacier to complete the double.
On the way back into town they dropped the 3 of us at the entrance to the track. It was 4:00 pm and we were allowed an hour for our walk before we would be collected. We managed to cover the estimated 90 minute return trip to the neared point to the glacier in just under the hour. In doing that we managed to get more than a bit damp in the rain that ramped up from a light drizzle to a steady trickle for most of our walking time. We made it back on schedule and were informed that dinner had been brought forward to 6:00 pm so we needed to scurry.
We were dressed, a little better than our daily standard, and ready when the Hummer arrived for us around 5:50 pm. Our driver was charming and made us very welcome. We collected the rest of the party on the way to Blue Ice where we enjoyed fine food and excellent service. Our meals ranged across venison, salmon, lamb shanks, duck, steak, and pasta. We washed those down with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and some Cabernet Sauvignon before enjoying mud cake or sticky date pudding for dessert. The Hummer service took us back to our respective accommodations.
It was an early night considering the full day. It seemed an appropriate way to celebrate Valentine’s Day the end of the first week of our travels.