For two towns heavily reliant on tourism activity due to the nearby glaciers, it’s really quite sad to think that there may not be all that long left for the industry in Fox Glacier and Franz Josef.
Walking to each glacier, there are signposts en route to indicate where the terminal face was at certain points in time. And, despite being two glaciers which seemingly did grow for a period in the early 2000s, the amount each has receded in the past 30 years and the rate of acceleration of movement in each is eye opening.
As it stands, the terminal face of each glacier is still visible from a viewpoint along the walking track but given the rate of the ice disppearing, it feels like both will disappear from view within a short space of time.
I mentioned that both towns rely heavily on glacier tourism and that’s probably an understatement. They exist because of glacier tourism – the combined population of the towns is a little over 600. Visit either and much of the main street is businesses set up to sell helicopter flights to the glaciers, or to fly over them and around Mount Cook. Naturally there are bars, restaurants, cafes, and a much-needed petrol station, but it’s pretty obvious why people are stopping off in the area.
Rather than staying in Franz, we opted for accommodation around three miles outside of the town and it’s one of my favourite Airbnbs I’ve had. It was a hand-built cabin, just the right size for two, and with full-length doors opening to a great view and the afternoon sunshine. It was over Christmas and felt scorching hot in the afternoons and evenings.
Sitting there one afternoon, on Christmas Eve I think it was, having seen quite a lot in the morning, provided one of those amazing moments: relaxed, with a beer, beautiful weather, thinking that I have absolutely nothing I need to do for the rest of the day, no responsibilities, no pressure. I love moments like that.
A whistlestop tour of the area is a straightforward one. There are two glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – and each has an easy walking trail to get to a viewpoint a reasonable distance from them. While they are easy walking tracks, don’t be an idiot and attempt it in high heels like the lady we saw at Fox.
There’s Lake Matheson – which has an easy walking trail all the way around, and which is a lovely area. At the far end of the lake are flax plants which seem to attract tuis, and which we stopped at for a while to watch a few of them. Lake Matheson provides a great view of Mounts Cook and Tasman, and also attracts people chasing reflections, although how much of that is a real opportunity and how much is a tourist draw I cannot comment on since we saw none over the two visits. We walked around the lake a couple of times and, despite it being a tourist draw, it was a lovely place.
And there are the helicopter flights. These will cruise over one of the glaciers and can take in a view of Mount Cook or a route around it. They all seem to land on one of the glaciers as well, which makes for an interesting stop and photo op. We asked a couple of companies about a “doors off” photo trip – similar to the Kauai helicopter ride – to which one chap replied “our helicopters have doors, sir, and we like to keep them on”. Point missed spectacularly. Despite the doors being on, the photos were reasonably free of reflections of yours truly, which would completely spoil an otherwise cracking view.
We landed on Fox Glacier after a quick view of Mount Cook and despite it being a relatively short flight – 25 minutes in the air, I think – it was worth the money and was great fun. Flying over the Hooker Valley track was a bit similar to the odd feeling of Glenorchy being so close to Key Summit. The road network means it’s a long drive to get from one to the other, but it’s a route that could be covered in a ten-minute helicopter flight rather than the eight-hour drive.
That pretty much sums up the main draws in Fox and Franz.
Given that neither Eva or I celebrate Christmas, I was a bit nervous about where we would be spending the festive period. There was always a chance of ending up in a hotel which made a big deal of it, had Christmas dinner laid on etc. but opting for a little Airbnb in Franz Josef turned out to be a great idea. It was glorious sunshine, not a decoration to be seen, and if it hadn’t been for an archaic law preventing me buying a couple of beers at the supermarket, I wouldn’t even have known it was Christmas. Seriously, though, why stop someone buying a drink to enjoy at home on Christmas Day? Get a grip, NZ. The most Christmassy part of the day was a video call to family in Scotland, including the new puppy and my two awesome little nephews (both of whom were too preoccupied with opening presents and playing FIFA to acknowledge much else!)
For all that Fox and Franz are really touristy areas (something which was a theme in New Zealand for much of the trip) they are really quite awesome places to spend a few nights.