Travel

Cross “Climb a Glacier” Off Your Bucket List in New Zealand

The views will take your breath away.

franz josef glacier heli hike

Since I arrived in town, I’ve had one thing on my mind¸—the Franz Josef Glacier. I drove around town, looking for it. I didn’t find it. I drove to the next town, Lake Matheson, hoping to get a glimpse of its blinding white reflection. Still nothing. The only way to see the glacier was by helicopter, so I boarded a helicopter. I thought for sure I would be able to see the glacier from the helipad—still nothing. The pilot informed me it was just around this mountain, pointing at a monolith mountain in the distance. At this point, I was questioning the size of the glacier. Doubts settled into my thoughts. I’ve seen photos of it. I know it exists, but I wonder just how magnificent this glacier is. The helicopter lifts, floating us to the top of the mountain. We sweep by it, getting a glimpse of its waterfalls, trickling down the crevasses like tears down a cheek. A thin layer of cloud hovers over its middle section; not even the clouds can touch it. Then it appears in the front window, the magnificent white glacier. As soon as I saw it, I realised something this raw and beautiful couldn’t be seen from just anywhere. You need to climb out of your comfort zone and see it.

franz josef glacier heli hike
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Climbing out of my comfort zone is something I’ve been doing a lot recently, diving into shark-infested waters in Port Lincoln. Although, this time, I was literally climbing. Hiking a glacier requires some strength, a moderate level of fitness, and an open mind. My first steps started at the Franz Josef Glacier Guides base in town. Here, they fitted me with a pair of waterproof pants, a jacket, and a big pair of heavy-duty boots. They handed me a small red bag for my personal items and crampons. “Think of it like wearing a pair of high heels,” said the guide. “Toes first, then heel.” A harness was then strapped to my legs and tightened around my waist. I was slightly uncomfortable, but safety comes first. After a quick safety briefing, we were escorted to the helicopters for our thrilling and quick five-minute ride to the top of the glacier. The helicopter landed on a patch of grey rocks, packed together to look like a helipad. Two guides ushered passengers off one by one while the helicopter rotors spun above our heads. The wind, the noise, it’s all daunting at first, but the moment I caught my breath, the stark reality I was standing on the edge of a gigantic mountain settled in. The path to the glacier is uphill and windy. At the top, our guide helped us strap crampons to our feet, handed us our poles, and showed us how to attach our D-clips to the safety rail.

READ MORE: The Best Stargazing Experiences in New Zealand

The lady was right; walking with crampons is like walking in heels. You must dig your toes in the ice with every step, especially when using the steep icy stairs. It’s difficult to recall just how many steps there were overall, but it was enough to make my muscles ache the following day. I recall my guide shouting to the rest of the group, “Don’t worry, this is the hardest part,” he said, referring to the steep climb up to the glacier’s base.

I was halfway up the staircase, about to clip on my secondary safety clip, when a rumble of thunder rolled through the valley, only it wasn’t thunder. Franz Josef Glacier is the steepest and fastest-moving glacier in New Zealand. According to Kane (my guide), the glacier moves up to four metres daily, which is a substantial difference considering the average glacier moves around 50cm daily. I turned around to see where the noise was coming from. Chunks of ice had broken off from this sheet of pointy ice, rolling down the side of the mountain. “Don’t worry; we call that bowling alley, said Kane. “It happens more often than you’d think.”

franz josef glacier heli hike
Bowling Alley Photo: Natasha Bazika

We reached the base, clambered our way over steep, narrow cracks, squeezed between ice walls, and climbed a few more stairs. Kane, ice pick in hand, was carving stairs as we manoeuvred our way through the glacier. He stopped the group at a clearing, pointing to an example of blue ice. The thick boulder of ice looked as if it had been cracked in half and dug out to create a glowing blue portal. Kane explained the ice wasn’t blue. Instead, the red part of white light is absorbed by ice, and the blue light is transmitted and scattered, which is what we see. The longer the path light travels, the bluer it appears. He pointed to an example in the distance. It looked like white snow had fallen on a large glass sphere. If someone were standing on the other side of it, we would be able to see them clear as day. Sometimes, there are ice caves you can explore, but because the glacier is always moving, no two climbs are ever the same.

Franz Josef Glacier (Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere) was first known to be explored by local iwi (Māori Kinship Group) and in 1865 by geologist Julius von Haast, who named it after the Austrian emperor. The glacier is five kilometres from the town of the same name, which spans one street lined with restaurants and tourist operators. Nearby, visitors can take advantage of the natural attractions of rainforests, waterfalls, and lakes—all reliant on the glacier, like a lifeline.

Kane led us to a lookout of sorts, where we could safely sit on the slope of a hill on the Glacier, giving us a direct view of the plunging valley below and beyond. Here, we stopped to take photos, walking poles and ice pick in hand for some— as if we were about to plant a flag as a symbol of our conquest. We turned the corner and came face to face with the famous features you hear about: tunnels, seracs, crevasses, and giant pointy daggers protruding from the Glacier. Now, I can see why the Franz Josef Glacier is the third most visited spot in New Zealand—with a record 700,000 visitors a year (pre-pandemic).

franz josef glacier heli hike
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Kane interrupted my thought. “German explorer and geologist Julius von Haast named the glacier after Franz Joseph I, the Austrian emperor, back in 1865,” he said. “But legend has it…” He continued to recall a Māori legend, where the Glacier bears the name Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, which means The tears of Hine Hukatere. Hine Hukatere loved climbing in the mountains and convinced her lover Wawe to join her. One day an avalanche swept Wawe to his death. Hine Hukatere was left broken-hearted, and her tears flowed down the mountain and then froze to form the Glacier, solidifying her love for him forever. I prefer this creation story.

We continued our journey through the 7,000-year-old Glacier, carving through its glossy white surface when needed. At some points, the towering mountains in the background faded, leaving a sheet of white as far as the eye could see. Then you enter a narrow tunnel; ice is on either side, curving around you like a frozen wave, framing the rocky mountain in front. Every five steps revealed a new awe-inspiring scene. The one constant is the awareness of being surrounded by the blinding white ice, feeling its frigid temperature pinpointing any slither of exposed skin. I touched the ice; I breathed in its air and, with it, the ice age, its history, and its present, which remains unclear.

franz josef glacier heli hike
Photo: Natasha Bazika

From 1865 to 1985, it gradually thinned and retreated, with some minor advances. From 1985 to 2006, it generally advanced and thickened, with minor retreats. Although, analysis by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research revealed that from 1977 to 2014, a third of the permanent snow and ice was lost from the Southern Alps. A new analysis of more than 200,000 global glaciers found that those in New Zealand showed record thinning of 1.5m a year from 2015-2019—a nearly sevenfold increase compared to 2000-2004. Scientists expect the Glacier to be lost by the year 2100 if global warming continues at the rate it’s going. A grim reality, but rest assured, hiking the Glacier does not contribute to its melting. Instead, other human activities, such as carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, are to blame.

After three hours on the ice, we descended the same staircase we first climbed. I had just unhooked my D-clip and stepped on the rocky granite when the same thunder rolled through the valley. This time, I witnessed pieces of thick ice roll down bowling alley, tumbling over each other as if they were in a race to the bottom. We unwrapped our crampons, boarded the helicopter, and floated down the valley, leaving the Glacier behind us. It will always remain a vivid memory in my mind—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will never disappear.

franz josef glacier heli hike
Roadside lookout Photo: Natasha Bazika

Plan your trip

Franz Josef is a scenic five-hour drive from Christchurch—without stopping. We suggest planning an entire day for the road trip as you will want to stop more than once. There are scenic lookouts along the highway and small towns, such as Arthur’s Pass Village and Hokitika, to grab a bite and stretch your legs. You can take two different routes on this road trip, but the best one takes you through Castle Hill Conservation Area, home to world-famous limestone rock formations. After exploring the caves and crevasses, and climbing the rocks, jump back on the highway, which will take you through Arthur’s Pass National Park, an extraordinary landscape laden with shingle-filled riverbeds, beech forest, gorged rivers, and dense rainforest. The road trip itself is an engineering marvel, with viaducts, bridges, rock shelters, and waterfalls redirected into chutes. Add the Viaduct lookout as one of your unmissable stops.

After Arthur’s Pass, the next major town you will drive through is Hokitika, home to the Hokitika Sandwich Company, where you can wrap your hands around the best sandwich on the South Island. The beach is mere steps from the shop and a great place to enjoy your sandwich. Don’t forget to take a snap in front of the driftwood Hokitika sign. If you have some spare time, stop into Bonz n Stonz studio to check out the hand-carved Pounamu (Jade) jewellery. Continue along the highway, winding through palm trees, before the landscape changes to the alps, where towering mountains are blanketed in snow, and glacial rivers flow.

Where to stay

Franz Josef is a small town spanning one street. There are select accommodation options, but if you’re looking for something cosy and romantic, you can’t beat a room at Westwood Lodge—a prime example of alpine lodgings, with wood-panelled rooms, in a charming bed and breakfast setting. The expansive lounge and communal areas encourage guests to interact and bond over a roaring fire and a pink sunset. It’s a five-minute drive to town, but far enough away to elude to a remote setting surrounded by dramatic mountains and dense forest.

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Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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