Franz Josef Glacier Valley - Open for Business
The Department of Conservation checks the Franz Josef Glacier Valley first thing every morning. According to Geoff Thomas a Visitor Assets Ranger “the process starts before you even go up the Valley. You get a feel for the weather and then take a look at the Waiho River.” The terminal face of the Franz Josef Glacier Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere is about 12 kilometres inland from the SH6 Bailey Bridge. Yet, the depth and flow, and the ice floating past are an indicator of what is happening to the glacier.
Inspecting the Glacier Access Road is also an essential part of the job. The flow of the side creeks or a blocked culvert can have dramatic effects during a downpour. We leave the DOC truck at the car park, and our first view of the glacier is at the yellow ropes at the end of the Forest Walk. The Waiho River can flow from valley wall to valley wall, with chunks of ice the size of Volkswagens surging past. After high rainfall, the safety barriers and hazard signage may be set up here.
It has not seriously rained for weeks and the ‘washaway’ bridges and green wooden markers direct our travel along the river bed. We pass Trident Falls and Champness Rock before reaching the rope barriers, fifty metres from the wall of ice.
The red danger signs, and pictograms of river surges, rock and ice falls show life-threatening hazards. Even if you are illiterate, or do not speak English the message is clear. Geoff explains that “a lot of time and effort has gone into trying to communicate the hazards, and make sure people have the right information to stay safe. During the rest of the day, the Franz Josef Glacier Guides will also look out for hazards.”
Geoff radios the DOC Visitor Information Centre to report that the “Valley is open to fifty metres below the Terminal Face.” I feel a complete sense of insignificance, standing before this shifting mass of ice, flanked by one kilometre high cliff faces. Knowing that most Saturday mornings I would be curled under my duvet; while someone in a DOC uniform is enjoying the view from the ‘office,’ and making sure this natural masterpiece is ‘open for visitors.’