Frauleins in Wanderlust at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier

Among other major sights in New Zealand’s Westland, Michi and I visited the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers – which are about 20km apart. Having seen numerous glaciers in Switzerland, Iceland and Alaska before, I did find both of these New Zealand ice structures quite particular: They are surrounded by green rain forests, aren’t particularly elevated and do level out near to the shorelines of the sea.

Julius von Haast – a German explorer – named one glacier after Franz Josef I, an Austrian Emperor, back in 1865. This reminded me of a conversation I overheard here in New Zealand while sitting in a bus a couple of weeks ago. Some (retired?) British tourists were very excited to visit one of “their own” historical homeland. There, I realized, that I probably was considered a second class tourist, since I’m a non-British foreigner. But my inferiority complex quickly faded, as soon as I visited the place called “Franz Josef”. Now that’s definitely not a very British name. For once, I was the one who knew how to pronounce properly a city name.

Franz Josef Glacier

Surprisingly, and in contrast to Australia, the Kiwi’s keep a lot of names – starting with their country name – in the original context. This reflects he true extent of European heritage and settlement history – which was also influenced by the Dutch, French, Spanish and the Germans.

However, European heritage does not not cover the full picture of New Zealand. Obviously, the local tribes (Maori) owned the land before the colonisation. Somehow, it looks (at least to my humble visitors eyes), that the New Zealanders have better managed the process of dealing with past injustices following the Treaty of Waitangi. This legal document – signed between settlers and the Maori back in 1840 – would deal with the ownership of land and sea among the Europeans and the Maori. Obviously, the local tribes were on the loosing end back then. Compensation processes to rectify this situation did begin in the 1960’s and are still ongoing. Aside of land restitution and monetary compensation, it is the integration of the Maori people which strikes me.

For instance, when walking up to the Franz Josef glacier, we encountered elderly Frauleins from New Zealand. They would reply our casual greeting with a keen “Kia Ora” (“Hello” in Maori). Although they were clearly not of Maori descendant, these women were proud of their country’s heritage, which includes the Maori culture. This is in complete contrast to Australia, where Aborigene heritage seems to interest uniquely to the native people (and tourists).

Fox Glacier

Another important integrations fact is the restitution of place names. Consequently, many sites (including Franz Josef) do carry their names in Maori language. Some sites don’t even have any European sounding names anymore. Therefore, it is almost impossible as a tourist to avoid getting used to certain place names, such as Tamaki, which is the Maori name for Auckland.

Having all this linguistic knowledge in our Rucksacks, we did set off for the Franz Josef Glacier, very early in the morning. Our preferred route, the “Roberts Point” track is closed since 2007 due to a walking bridge which washed away. Maybe it’s a bit cynical, but we wondered whether the number of professional tour operators in Franz Josef – who get money for hauling groups through this area – would have affected the efforts in fixing the hiking trail.

Nevertheless, our next sensible choice for a good day’s hike was the “Alex Knob” track. It is being advertised as 8 hour return tramp (starting from the car park 4km away from Franz Josef village). As usual, in European speed, this means a 5h30 from downtown Franz Josef (including the hike to the car park).

Despite the shorter walking time we needed, we found the track to be quite strenuous. Moreover, we were very lucky weather wise: As we enjoyed the view from the top, overlooking Franz Josef glacier and the southern Alps, some dense fog started to develop.

View towards Fox Glacier

By the time we finished lunch, temperatures had dropped slightly and the views were completely gone. While we climbed down, other people – staying in bed late that day – were making their way up the mountain. We felt really bad for them, because there was nothing to reward them after a challenging climb. By the end of the afternoon, however, the fog was gone again. We enjoyed a beautiful spring sunset, having a beer on a pub chalet terrace and relaxing our tired bones.

Next day, we continued another 20km by Intercity bus to Fox Glacier village, where we immediately started another tramp after storing our bags at the local backpackers. Again, the weather was very friendly and some of the hikes took us through lush green forests, which looked like the film set for “The Lord of the Rings“. Fox Glacier was definitely beautiful as well, a bit smaller than Franz Josef – but worth the extra stop.

As usual, I handed out to Michi the Swiss lookalike cities names for Franz Josef and Fox: The villages reminded me of St. Moritz and Celerina.

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