No queues, just views
Like most glaciers in New Zealand, Franz Josef is retreating fairly quickly. From the valley floor, it is now impossible to get a sense of the sheer enormity of it. And the price of a helicopter flight isn’t within everyone’s budget. Fortunately, there is a way to freely view the glacier. But, it will cost eight hours of your day and an uphill puff of over 1000m. A small enough cost for priceless views with no queues.
The track to Alex Knob is 2km along the glacier access road, just south of the township, where its beginning is shared with the Lake Wombat Track. It’s a well-maintained path lined with many exquisite ferns which leads hikers through the lush forest. After approximately 1km, a sign points to the beginning of the Alex Knob path on the left.
Immediately, it changes from a walking track to a tramping track. The gradient steepens, the track width becomes tighter and underfoot it becomes much rougher. For the next 90-minutes, the track charges upwards through and past native podocarps like rata and kamahi. At times, hikers may find they have to use a bit of upper body strength to pull themselves over fallen trees and large boulders. Exposed tree roots usually offer reliable hand and footholds. This steep and challenging zigzagging section is the most demanding, but friendly fantails and inquisitive tomtits provide good company.
Eventually, a small clearing in the trees appears. Rata Lookout provides the first glimpse of Franz Josef Glacier and the valley below. For some people, this may be enough of a walk but it’s just a small teaser of what‘s to come. Christmas Lookout is another hour’s walk but at a slightly more gentle gradient. Like Rata
Lookout, this spot provides some spectacular views of the glacier and is a good place for a short rest before pushing on to the summit.
The final hour of the hike is much the same. The trail switches back and forth through the subalpine forest before reaching the bushline. From here, the track heads up through tussock to the 1303m summit.
Lunch always tastes better after a 4hr uphill battle and walkers may even be visited by keas, which often swoop down to investigate. There is a plane table at the summit pointing out all the surrounding peaks, including Mt Elie de Beaumont, New Zealand’s most northern 3000m mountain.
All the hard work is worth it as the views from here rival those seen from many of the more popular and overcrowded hikes around New Zealand. Franz Josef Glacier is a truly spectacular sight, but so too are the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea which together create an epic 360-degree Alps-to-ocean panorama.
Looking down on the distant village really puts into perspective the accomplishment of the climb.
The weather here can change suddenly, and snow can be found well below the summit during the winter months. It’s worth getting an early start, to be on the summit by late morning, for often cloud will roll in after midday and obscure the views.
There is a lot of helicopter activity around this area, which can be irritating, but once on the summit, hikers will be at an altitude higher than the choppers fly at, and it’s much more peaceful.
Return down the same track, it will be a bit quicker and easier but there will still be a few sections that require time and caution.
– Hami Tangiora