Apart from a few intrepid mountain climbers, there is only one reason that visitors flock to this inconspicuous town, and that is to see the giant slab of receding ice that is the Franz Josef glacier.
To visit the glacier, you can either take a one-day hike up the glacier face, a half-day walk, or as I had decided to do, splash out a bit, and take a heli-hike. I was a little nervous, never having been in a helicopter before, and waiting in the little departure lounge I made some chit-chat with a fellow would-be passenger. So are you looking forward to going up the glacier, I asked the girl waiting next to me. "You wouldn't believe it. This is my fifth attempt to see the glacier. Every other time there's been heavy clouds set over the mountains and they cancelled all the helicopter trips because they can't see where they're flying." I recalled Ken's grisly tales of helicopter crashes, but the weather was looking clear, and it looked like today might be our lucky day. Helicopter Girl carried on, "Last time I came to Franz Josef to see the glacier, I was driving with friends when some bloody lunatic pulled out, right in front of us. We swerved to miss them, and flipped the car over, there was blood and glass everywhere" Good grief! I was beginning to think Helicopter Girl might be jinxed, and with that thought, our helicopter returned from its previous excursion, and we were called to collect our spiked boots and waterproofs and pick-axes.
Carrying our boots to the chopper, the rotor blades spinning overhead, our small group boarded amidst the terrible noise and I placed the chunky 1980s headphones over my ears. Almost immediately the helicopter's tail lifted up, tilting us all head-first into a near vertical position before lifting into the air. The take-off was graceful and seemed effortless, as we headed towards the mountains. Flying over town, we banked near to the valley walls, hugging the cliffs closely, as the glacier came into view. The view and the experience was exhilarating. Descending to take a closer look the icy waterfall was covered in ice pinnacles, crevasses and sink holes. The pilot brought us up to the peak of the glacier - the 'neve', and back a short distance, settling to land about two thirds of the way up the glacier. We each disembarked quickly, with our heads low, in fear of decapitation from the swirling rotor blades. Slipping about precariously on the icy surface, I pulled on my ice boots, their spikey metal teeth, or 'trikes', providing a satisfying crunch underfoot. A stray sock flew past, propelled by the air currents from our helicopter taking-off. Its owner, an embarassed middle aged Japanese businessman looked utterly aghast as our guide chased after the runaway footwear.
On closer inspection, the glacier seemed grey and gritty, covered in rocks and debris from the surrouding mountains. Yet a transformation took place as we followed our guide, crawling through the glacier's ice tunnels and pot-holes. The ice refracted the light in a brilliant blue, surrounding their visitor in an extraordinary crystal world. Our guide told us how the ice sculptures were all the more impressive for being temporary, the glacier constantly reforming and rebuilding itself. In only a few short days they will have disappeared into the ice before being remoulded by fresh water currents into new formations.
Our enthusiastic guide, a young Kiwi with spikey hair and a passion for snowboarding, explained that the glacier was constantly on the move. "Global warming is causing old Franz Josef to recede at an average of a metre per day, and sometimes up to five metres. If I'm not careful, at his rate I'll be out of a job, eh!" So who was Franz Josef, a voice from our party asked, and why does he have a glacier named after him? It was a good question. It is unusual to find a place in New Zealand that wasn't named by either the Maori, the English or the Scots. The man responsible for the naming of the glacier was a German explorer called Haast, who has the dubious distinction of the town of Haast named after him. Haast 'discovered' the glacier, and named it after the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, a man who amongst his achievements, ruled a large part of Europe for half a century, survived numerous assasination attempts which claimed his wife and much of his family, and declared war against Serbia thus instigating the First World War. Yet his lasting achievement has been to have a large lump of receding ice named after him. History, it seems, is not without a sense of humour.
Treading carefully in my spiked boots, and using the ice-pick like a walking stick, we took turns to pose in front of strange ice formations for the camera. Framed photographs hanging in the café toilets back in town showed Victorians ladies and gentleman making their own excursion up the glacier. Over a century later, and very little had changed, except that the men are no longer wearing top hats and the women were without their bonnets and ankle length dresses.
The volume of sound on the glacier was striking, this strange world of ice certainly wasn't a quiet place. As well as the occasional rumble of a distant avalanche, if I stopped quietly I could hear the underwater currents, beneath my feet, beating a steady rhythm against the ice like a drum. It sounded like a heartbeat, as if the glacier was alive, which in a sense I suppose it is, the ice constantly shifting and moving.
Returning to our pick-up point, the helicopter came in to land. Flying through the glacial valley, 'Dire Straits' was blasting through the headphones and our pilot confidentally flew us directly towards the cliff face, manoeuvring the helicopter over a rocky outcrop at the very last moment. He clearly knew the valley like the back of his hand, but I don't think mine was the only heart to miss a beat.