When I woke up to torrents of rain pouring down outside my motel room, I was irritated. My mood plunged to the depths quicker than I could bat a sleepy eye.
This is the wrong day for lousy weather conditions. I have come to view Franz Josef Glacier and I am staying in its namesake village.
Yesterday as the bus drove into town, I saw a glimpse of Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, and the one on which Sir Edmund Hillary trained for later climbs eventually leading him to conquer Mt. Everest. The snow-covered peaks dipped in and out of sight thanks to being surrounded by its own microclimate.
I am psyched to be in this part of the world.
Along with springtime winds come rain in the western part of the country, and it is the natural order of life here I am told by residents ‒ speaking of which, New Zealanders are the friendliest people in the world.
One fiber artisan in nearby Hokatika laughingly remarks that she reads lots of sturdy books and forgets about the slight inconvenience of the never-ending drizzle.
Franz Josef is a tiny town in the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand with a population of 330. The 7.5-mile temperate maritime glacier is named in honor of the Emperor of Austria and its terminal face is about 5 kilometers from city center.
Our motel is bustling with international guests and one language after another spills out in the dining room like a percolating coffee pot. It’s pleasant to hear the blending of sounds and laughter while each of us fortifies on a hardy breakfast. Over 250,000 people travel to Franz Josef each year for the glacier alone.
I vacillate between taking the three-mile guided hike lasting about two hours along the riverbed, or not. As of 2015, the valley walk ends at a lookout about 50 meters from the main terminal face of the glacier and the viewing is decent on clear days.
I’ve seen magnificent glaciers in Alaska. Each is quite a sight and not easily forgotten.
The length of the walk doesn’t concern me, and I have nothing to prove to myself.
Clothing is not the issue. My dependable hiking boots have demonstrated they are waterproof-worthy on numerous other adventures. If they could get me through Ireland, then they would function here as well.
Did I need to spend a couple hours in the rain sloshing through the uneven pathways? It could be very slippery, too, on the volcanic rocks scattered along the trail.
I am uneasy bringing my cell phone along for pictures. I should carry a waterproof pouch on trips for just such days.
On the other hand, it might be informative listening to the naturalist point out the geological history of the moving mountain of ice. The glacier was still advancing until 2008, but since then it has entered a very rapid phase of retreat. As is the case for most other New Zealand glaciers, which are mainly found on the eastern side of the Southern Alps, the shrinking process is attributed to global warming.
It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I climb out of bed and observe the view from the window. I can’t see beyond the road across from the motel. What’s the chance once I get to the viewing place that the glacier will be visible?
Back into bed I go for a few more minutes. I snooze a little longer before checking my email. Still I haven’t made a decision.
When I appear for breakfast the 14 others in my group are hemming and hawing so to speak, too. For various reasons most are going to start out, and see what the conditions might be further along the route.
I decide to give it a go. I’ll rely on an umbrella and a walking stick, although I realize that both will be cumbersome.
One thing I will not do is complain to others, or to myself, if I get damp, chilled and second-guess my decision.
As I start out in the wooded section of the walk, the knowledge I am hearing from the guide keeps me occupied. Well, I will admit I drift in and out of his words, and I blame it on the poor conditions.
After his talk the guide tells us to follow the path and finish on our own. The terrain is out in the open now and clearly marked.
What none of us realize is with the heavy rain, the river has changed course and our walk will turn out to be 5 miles instead. It’s probably a good thing I don’t check my pedometer.
I walk and walk. I join one or two others for a bit, and then go on my own.
Around the last bend a couple people returning tell me to don’t bother going further. I won’t be able to see anything. My immediate thought is that if I have come this far, I will do it to the end. That’s my nature. Almost is not good enough.
Over one last low hill, up over rise and I make it with an extra huff and puff.
For a brief couple minutes the rain lets up and the clouds open my view like an answer to prayer.
I am one of the few on our trip who sees Franz Josef clearly. It is worth it. Fortunately, I get a trip buddy to take my picture to prove it, too.