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Franz Josef Glacier and the beautiful Maori legend


Justine Tyerman learns about Franz Josef Glacier and the beautiful Maori legend of Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere: The Tears of the Ice Maiden.

Franz Josef Glacier is stunning at any time of the year but a crystal clear winter’s day with fresh snow on the Southern Alps is the primo time to visit.

Franz Josef Glacier New Zealand

The mist cleared to a perfect sunny day

We took a thrilling helicopter ride from Franz Josef village to a landing site at the “Pinnacles” where the ice fractures and tumbles in massive chunks over the edge of steep terrain. The panorama was literally breath-taking.

After a thorough safety check to make sure we had our crampons fitted correctly and knew how to use our poles and the fixed lines, we followed our guide Tim Bluett along deep crevasses the colour of blue-white marble, between sharp peaks like stiffly-whipped egg white and up steep staircases chipped into the ice. Along the way, Tim shared his vast knowledge of the glacier with our international group of eight.

crampons fit onto the boots

Guide Tim shows us how the crampons fit onto the boots

Guide Tim on Franz Josef Glacier

Guide Tim doing track maintainance

Justine on the Franz Josef Glacier

Justine following guide Tim up a steep set of steps

Franz Josef Glacier

Our team heading up the glacier on the Ice Explorer expedition

Franz Josef Glacier

Inside a narrow crevasse on Franz Josef Glacier

The Franz Josef Glacier lies in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The area is part of a Unesco World Heritage site, Te Wahipounamu – the Greenstone Waters.

The glacier is an 11-kilometre river of ice which descends from 3000-metres high in the Southern Alps, to 350m in lush rain forest. Moving at a rate of 1 to 2 metres a day in the winter and 3 to 4 metres a day in the summer, the Franz Josef is the world’s steepest and fastest-flowing commercially-guided glacier.

New Zealand’s fourth largest glacier, it’s also one of the most accessible on the planet, terminating just 18km from the sea. The glacier is only five kilometres from the township of Franz Josef so you can hike/bike there or take a guided walk to a look-out where you can safely view the terminal face.

Franz Josef Glacier

The chopper ride took us up the glacier to the “Pinnacles”

Despite advances in 1983 and 1999, overall, the Franz Josef has retreated about three kilometres since the late 1880s. Since 2008, the glacier has been in major retreat mode, losing 800 metres in length. In 2012, a dramatic change occurred. A hole in the ice resulted in the loss of over 250m from the terminal face in just over 12 months leaving it unstable and unsafe for hiking.

Helicopters are now the safest way to explore this awe-inspiring natural phenomenon with its maze of crevasses, caves, peaks and curious ice formations.

Franz Josef Glacier

Sharp pinnacles on the glacier

Maori name of Franz Josef Glacier

At the highest point gazing down the valley with the Southern Alps towering above us, Tim also told us the legend behind the Maori name for the glacier – Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere: The Tears of the Ice Maiden – a beautiful love story handed down to him by Ngai Tahu, the kaitiaki or guardians of the land.

Long before the Europeans came to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the days when magic ruled, there was a young woman named Hine Hukatere who loved to climb mountains. One day, when she was climbing a steep slope in the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri o te Moana) using magical ice tools carved from pounamu (greenstone), she struck a rock and her ice axe shattered into pieces.

Hine climbed down from the mountains and walked along the valley to the seashore hoping to find pounamu that she could craft into a new axe. A stone-carver named Wawe was walking along the beach and stopped to introduce himself. He offered to help Hine find some pounamu and make a new axe for her. They spent many weeks together and fell in love.

Although Hine was happy with Wawe, she longed for the fresh, crisp air of the mountains and the cry of the kea (mountain parrot) so asked him to go to the alps with her. Wawe agreed to go with Hine but there was doubt in his mind as the terrain above the snowline is tapu (sacred) to Maori… however his love for Hine was stronger than his fears.

Hine was so happy to be climbing in the mountains again, she was overcome with “summit fever” and left Wawe far behind. He became afraid of what might happen because of breaking a tapu from his ancestors, and in a panic, he slipped and fell.

The angry weather god Tawhirimatea seized the opportunity and used one of his strong winds to push him off the rock he was clinging to. Hine heard Wawe’s screams as he tumbled down the rock face landing with a fatal bone-crushing crash on the valley floor.

Hine was so distraught, the valley where Wawe’s body lay was filled with her tears.

The gods took pity on Hine in her distress and froze her tears into an ice coffin to protect Wawe for eternity. This is why Franz Josef Glacier is called Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere – The Tears of the Ice Maiden.

The helicopter returned just as the sun began to slip behind the mountains. As we flew back down the glacier, I thought of Wawe buried deep beneath the ice and Hine Hukatere still grieving for her lost lover.

The helicopter on Franz Josef Glacier

The helicopter arrives to take us back to Glacier Base

Back at NZ Glacier Guides’ Base in Franz Josef, a delightful treat awaited at the spa and beauty centre. Masseuse Nikcola administered a sublimely relaxing massage after which my husband Chris and I spent a dreamy hour soaking in a private pool at Glacier Hot Pools. According to Maori, the waters revive your tinana (body), hinengaro (mind) and wairua (spirit)… a blissful way to end a perfect day.

The hot pools at Glacier Base in Franz Josef township

The hot pools at Glacier Base in Franz Josef township

Glacier Hot Pools at Glacier Guides base in Franz Josef

Glacier Hot Pools at Glacier Guides base in Franz Josef


A relaxing massage after a day on the glacier was bliss


  • Franz Josef Glacier Guides run the four-hour Ice Explorer; three-hour Heli-Hike; five-hour Heli-Ice Climb and three-hour Glacier Valley Walk year round except for Christmas Day (depending on the weather).
  • Admission to the Glacier Hot Pools at Glacier Base in Franz Josef township is free with the Ice Explorer and Heli-Hike experience.
  • Glacier Guides provide jackets, over-pants, woollen hats, mittens, socks, boots, crampons and a carry-bag.
  • Justine Tyerman did the four-hour Franz Josef Glacier Explorer heli-hike expedition and visited Glacier Hot Pools and Spa courtesy of Ngai Tahu Tourism who own Franz Josef Glacier Guides NZ. JUCY Rentals provided land transport. Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Queenstown.

About Author

Justine Tyerman is an award-winning New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor with 18 years' experience in newspaper and freelance work. She has worked as a news reporter, feature writer, designer of an award-winning Newspapers in Education programme and sub-editor on local, national, business, education and international desks.

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