Like an imaginary land from a children’s fable — is New Zealand’s rugged west coast. Planted fortuitously between the wild Tasman Sea on its western coastline and the vast Southern Alps on the east, this is a mind-boggling landscape from the word go. It is an experience heightened by the fact that there are only a few places on our planet where one encounters glaciers so close to the sea. Driving into the town of Franz Josef, a place where one can be assured of an engagement with a glacier of the same name, I feel lost — both geographically and in time. Glaciers loom large. Water melting from the ice flows past. Everything is within a walking or cycling distance. People have time for you. 

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The more ways of getting into a landscape, the deeper the insight—and Franz Josef as a town makes this possible. I’m immediately confronted with a variety of options. Walk the valleys to the glaciers? Skydive above them? Horse trek across alpine vistas? Stroll along rugged beaches? I opt for a kayak journey around Lake Mapourika with Glacier Country Lake Tours.

‘Unique’ is perhaps a word grating in its overuse — especially in a story that involves glaciers, but the lake itself is a testament to the singular. A formation existing from the last Ice Age, this lake now collects fresh rainwater. The further I row, the more I seem to be heading to an ornamental placemat — a haiku of reflective water, panoramic icy scape and Jurassic rainforest trees — that look forged out of some deep subconscious. The committed guide (most guides who opt for these remote corners of our planet usually turn out to be being fiercely passionate) points out that the fresh rainwater that flows into the lake collects tannins from the forest floor, which gives the waters its distinctive brownish color. Fish thrive here in chaotic profusion, and the lake holds an abundance of brown trout and quinnat salmon.

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Like Robinson Crusoe and Girl Friday, the guide and I glide our kayaks along — by the banks, through hidden bays and into estuaries that border the Okarito State forest. For a forest that sprang up over the last ice age, it continues to be remarkably pristine. We find a place to dock and begin a hike past a thicket of some 900-year-old kahikatea trees. Birdsong replaces the ring of my mobile phone, and a slow de-programming from the scramble of urban living is set in motion. The ecosystem, being a mix of wetlands, farmlands, coastal and alpine forest, implies that the area is home to a variety of birds. Here a Tui. There a Bellbird. Everywhere a curious Kereru or wandering Pukeko. The area is also the protected habitat of the Rowi kiwi — one of the rarest of the kiwis on our planet. Being a creature of the dusk, I’m assured that he will come out to play when the sun falls. 

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There’s much with which to stay enthralled in the Franz Josef town — cafes, bars, winter-clothing stores aplenty, a remarkable museum, an alpine cinema and a litany of outdoor activities—like quad biking and see-the-kiwi night trails, activities that aren’t affected by the high rainfall that characterises New Zealand’s West Coast. However, most travellers make the pilgrimage here, with their lust firmly wreathed around the ultimate Holy Grail activity — doing a scenic flight with grandstand views of Mt Cook, the Westland forest and a seemingly-endless ocean. When I can’t fly that morning because of the moody weather, I understand more fully the implications of the word ‘disappointed’.

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Waiting for the weather to clear sufficiently to be up in the air, I book myself on a quad-bike ride. A little group gathers to follow the terse bullet-point instructions — on how to safely navigate the primal landscape. Ancient rainforest with plants growing into each other like an ossified orgy, glacial river, moody lake — fly by as we gingerly operate these monster vehicles. The rain comes down with evangelical zeal, but rather than taking away from what we see, the landscape appears renewed — as if by a special baptism.

To understand this gripping, wordless, and wildly-instinctive natural environment better, I visit the West Coast Wildlife Center. Built around thoughtful agenda, the exhibits tug me successfully through ideas of conservation, glacier formation, river and rainforest ecosystems. The center is also the largest, captive-rearing facility for the endangered Rowi Kiwi. Signing up for a backstage tour with a kiwi-ranger implies that one is led through every step of incubation and rearing. Oohs and aahs follow, at the instinctive tenderness that one feels, on getting a chance to view the kiwis as they scrabble about their protected staying area.

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The museum’s Nocturnal House is another place to see these furry creatures go industriously about their business. Nature is clearly a most remarkable manager. The kiwi’s long beak for instance, is perfectly suited to foraging for insects and worms, roots and berries. There’s a cluster of instructions issued — on how to best respect these flightless birds — with their heavily-muscled legs, in their natural ecosystem. Keep your speed down while driving, for instance, in case you chance upon a kiwi. Dogs are prohibited in sanctuaries — and with good reason. All said and done, visiting these parts and not seeing these remarkable creatures, would be an altogether lonelier journey. 

The local inhabitants of the Franz Josef town (and you can count them on your fingers) have learned to adapt to the unpredictability of rain. They talk with optimism and dress with pessimism —a clever way to live in areas where the weather is temperamental. They know that when it rains, there’s nothing quite like a movie in the middle of the day — in the Alpine Cinema, or an afternoon spent luxuriating in the Glacier hot pools. The pools — of varying temperatures, ensconced in rainforest, are communal affairs. The soundtrack to the relaxation is birdsong. 

On the subject of birdlife, lovers of the hard-to-see brigade would do well also to drive half-an-hour north to the charming village of Okarito. It is here where the wild Tasman Sea kisses dramatic black-sand beaches, that kayaks and boats can be hired — to take you out in pursuit of feathered friends. In a landscape that looks like idealized romantic folly, put into place specifically to delight artists, it’s easy to see how the area (both Okarito and Franz Josef) is riddled with creative talent. The Andris Apse Gallery, which features good-golly-gosh panoramic prints — of this technically spectral landscape photographer, is a perfect case in point.

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When the scenic-flight finally does take off (two mornings later), it’s easy to see why it’s such a huge deal for many to make the journey up here. The tiny airplanes and helicopters belong to a form of a travel — where the journey offers as commensurate a reward as the destination. The pilot tells us, pointing out glacial formations, “Assisted by gravity, a glacier shifts owing to sheer mass, flowing like a very slow river, gouging a space in the landscape — illustrating once more, that water is the world’s greatest architect.”

For the traveller who’s bent on exploring the destination itself, hikes on the surface of the glacier for up to three-hours — can be arranged. The cold is a great equaliser. One dresses as a self-regulating eco-system in multiple layers to ensure that one doesn’t spend the rest of the day frozen like an ice-lolly. Crampons on feet, ice crunching underfoot — is the way to go. In the face of blue peaks and an icy maze of pinnacles and passages, one is once more reminded of being but a blip on life’s horizon.

As our flight lands, the pilot — with the cheerful good-naturedness that characterises people in the area, grins — despite the fact that he’s had to cut short part of the route, owing to the turbulent weather. Doesn’t the rain ever get to you, I say. He points to the remarkable scape around us, and shakes his head, “Heaven,” he says, “is loving what you have.” Looking at the setting in which he operates, I can’t help but agree.

Fact file

Getting There — Singapore Airlines offers one-stop flight options from New-Delhi to Christchurch. Return fares begin at Rs 85,000. From Christchurch (the gateway to the South Island) It’s a five-hour drive to Franz Josef.

Staying There — The Te Waonui Forest Retreat — comes with all the largesse that people who travel without carrying very much, require. Evenings here include a complimentary daily Haka Performance, which, for those who came in late, is the traditional Maori war challenge. (Double Rooms from Rs 31,000 per night). 

Scenic Hotel Franz Josef — If you’re on a budget and want a conveniently located stay, with all the comfortable basics in place, free wifi for instance, this one checks all the boxes. (Double rooms from Rs 5,400 per night)

Best time to visit

The glacier is open all year. In winter — between June and August — temperatures range between 6°C and 16°C. The effort of wearing an extra layer is compensated for by the fact that the weather is more stable than at other times of the year, the icy features of the landscape — crevasses and ice caves for instance — stand out more, and the chance of your flight-seeing not being postponed is higher.

That said, summer (between November and February) is the height of tourist season — with good reason. Warmer days, between 12°C and 25°C, imply good weather (if you don’t get unexpected rain) for being out and about — be it a forest you want to walk through or a beach you want to laze on. I’d budget an extra day in the area, however — in case the weather makes a sudden turn, and your scenic flight ends up being postponed. 

Don’t miss

  • A scenic flight over glaciers
  • A quad bike journey through rainforest, river and grassland area — all with a glacial backdrop 
  • A guided kayak journey on Lake Mapourika’s mirror-like water
  • A dip in glacial hot-pools
  • An exploration of the waterways of the Okarito Lagoon