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Epic Franz Josef Heli-Hike


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Travel writer, Liz Lyons shares her glacier heli-hike experience, regarding it as one of the best things to do in Franz Josef, hands down. 

While touring New Zealand’s West Coast, we spent two nights in Franz Josef. A mid-morning booking with operator Franz Josef Glacier Guides meant an early departure from Greymouth, 2-hours north on the day of our tour. Rousing two teenage sons before midday is a tortuous ask. Luckily the prospect of ice-caves, a high-speed helicopter ride and a steak’n’cheese pie, perked them up enough to tumble into the car.   

The day had dawned misty, with low cloud and a tour cancellation risk if conditions deteriorated. Luckily the weather brightened, and we were greeted with the constant buzz of silver helicopters as we arrived at the village. A good sign given heli-hiking was number one, on our Franz Josef things to do list!  A quick check in saw us competently fitted out with everything we needed; a warm hat, gloves, waterproof jacket and pants, shoe crampons for ice walking, and a small waterproof bag for phones. We’d dressed warmly, heeding the pre tour advice.  

Besides us, our group of ten consisted mainly of young international visitors. We were the only Kiwi’s, which the reservation agent remarked on when booking the tour. She kindly provided a ‘locals only’ discount for our family of four. 

The short helicopter ride was exhilarating, especially as they put the elderly (me) in the front seat, alongside the pilot. The glassed cockpit provided a bird’s eye view under my feet of the valley’s sheer cliff faces, boulder strewn riverbed and changing terrain. The constant radio chatter through the earphones failed to distract me from the stunning Alps and glacier views as we swooped higher. A snow landing, sudden rush of icy air and crouching exit below the spinning rotor blades, added to the James Bond thrill of the experience.  

The next two hours were spent in the company of our expert guides. Our group was split in half, and after attaching crampons, we scooted our way along the ice. What followed was an informative commentary on one of the most active glaciers you can climb in the world and the damaging impact of climate change. The flow rate on Franz Josef is about ten times that of your typical glacier, and because of this, no one hike is ever the same. Each day the guides undertake an early inspection of the route, cut in step-lines and evaluate the glacier face for hazards, before the first tour group lands. 

On our tour, we squeezed through blue-hued frozen ‘alleys’, hiked up ice walls and crawled through igloo-style tunnels. The kids jumped on a short, steep icy slide to emerge at the end of a cave. At the highest point of the hike, we enjoyed views of the 12-kilometre-long Franz Josef glacier silently creeping down through the valley to almost sea level. We saw chasms, glacial rivers, and rock falls; a visual reminder of the changeable alpine territory we were privileged to visit. 

While the free and accessible Franz Josef Glacier Valley Walk provides a great taster, it’s no match for flying up into the Southern Alps, landing on a high-altitude glacier and walking through bejewelled ice forms. Heli hiking Franz Josef Glacier is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially for New Zealanders. We are blessed with beautiful glaciers, natural wonders in our own backyard. Just do it Kiwis, before they melt into oblivion! 

Heli-hiking top tips:  

  • Book a 2-3 night stay in Franz Josef as the heli-hike tours are often cancelled due to weather conditions. Give yourself a day’s wiggle room as there’s plenty of other beautiful walks in Franz Josef to enjoy. 
  • Take a zip lock bag to keep your phone and car keys dry in the supplied bum bag.   
  • Pack a lip balm due to the wind chill.  
  • Conserve your energy while glacier hiking. You may feel tired due to the higher altitude and thinner air.  
  • Enjoy a rejuvenating thermal soak after the heli-hike. (The 'Franz Josef Glacier Guides' tour includes admission to the Franz Josef hot springs, right next door.) 

Ask the Bella Vista team for ideas on things to do in Franz Josef, rain or shine. They can not only advise the best local experiences, but also book tours directly to save you the hassle.