FRANZ JOSEF, NEW ZEALAND — We woke up to the sound of whirring engines overhead. The cool way to see Franz Josef Glacier is by helicopter, which drops you on top of the glacier for a guided hike, and apparently the low clouds weren’t keeping anyone away.
Torsten had seen a video of the Heli Hikes and really wanted to go on one, but the $449 price tag, as well as the clouds, kept him grounded. Instead, we drove 4km out of town and walked a little spur to glimpse the lumpy, blue-tinted glacier in a cleft of the mountains.
It’s shrinking, of course. It would have reached us in the 19th century, when it was named for the Austro-Hungarian emperor by German geologist Julius von Haast, apparently the forerunner of today’s Teutonic hordes.
You can walk onto the glacier with guides, but we weren’t that interested. There’s another glacier near neighboring Fox Glacier, a town that seemed a little more dapper than Franz Josef.
The rain started as we drove down the coast, stopping for lunch at Salmon Farm Cafe. Beth made an epic mistake by ordering the whitebait sandwich, which she thought was a local fish but turned out to be a rubbery slab of fish-flavored fried egg between two slices of Wonder bread. Torsten ordered the smoked salmon pasta, which would have been delightful if either of us actually liked smoked meats. At least we ordered ahead of two tour buses full of tourists.
Now that the Kiwis are home from holidays, the roads are filled almost exclusively with tourists. Most of them are in campervans of many brands — Britz, Apollo, Mighty, Tui, Wendekreisen and Maui, a Mercedes favored by Germans; plus Happy Camper and its graffiti-splashed cousins, Hippie Camper and Wicked Campers.
The most commonly seen, or at least noticed, ones are the orange-and-green Jucy campers, which display a pin-up girl in a come-hither pose and the slogan, “Don’t play hard to get; be hard to forget.” We hope their customers get a discount to compensate for the embarrassment.
There were a few soggy bicyclists , too, and they didn’t look as if they were having fun. Once, we thought we’d like to bicycle through New Zealand; now, we know we wouldn’t. Why? Endless hills, no shoulders and fickle weather.
When the rain stopped, nearly all of the tourists also stopped for a walk through forest to the Blue Pools on the Blue River. There was a suspension bridge over bright-turquoise water, and a beach full of beautifully striped cobblestones, but the black flies drove us back at a fast clip.
There was even an interpretive sign about the “Dracula of the west coast rainforest.” Turns out the flies like the colors black and red, which we were wearing, but not so much white, yellow or green. Remember that if you go.
We ran into the Stray bus driver we met at Abel Tasman National Park again, parked in front of our car, and he waved when he passed us farther down the road. Two maniacs in a Nissan Tiida screamed past us on a curve, and when we came upon a crash, we thought it was them. It wasn’t, but whoever it was likely didn’t survive in the overturned compact car at the base of a sheer cliff.
We stopped for cappuccino and hot chocolate in Makaroa, and then the sun peeked out for our drive down Lake Hawea to Wanaka. We’d read that Wanaka was a less-touristy version of Queenstown, but while it was attractive on its hillside above Lake Wanaka, it seemed cramped and crowded. We made a quick pass through it and drove on through orchards and vineyards to Queenstown.
It’s the jetboat, rafting, bungee-jumping, parasailing, canyoning and skydiving capital of New Zealand, maybe the world, with a downtown crammed with shops selling pricey adventure packages. It left us cold — though it was kind of fun watching the parasailers land in the field next to our hotel.
And it does have a beautiful location on Lake Wakatipu. We felt a lot better about the town after a walk along the lake through Queenstown Gardens, which includes a disc-golf course, bowling green, rose garden and some magnificent sequoias and yellow pines. Two scoops of gelato improved our attitude even more.