We arrived at the Te Waonui Forest Retreat and were welcomed by the manager and two Maori dressed in traditional clothing. Road Scholar has been trying to shake the "hostel" image of dormitory accommodations for years, but we don't normally encounter a hotel quite as lavish as this one. Our guides said that the group usually stayed somewhere more modest. I'm not aware of any complaints over the upgrade!

The hotel had been carefully constructed to minimize the impact on the surrounding bush. Plantings of native varieties filled in what inevitably had to be disturbed. It was like living in the rain forest. Good food. And free wi-fi too -- an incredible luxury in New Zealand!

Southern Alps

Unlike the European alps, the mountains here come right down to sea level, so they are mostly forested.

When Sir Edmund Hillary was asked how he got such extensive mountain experience growing up in New Zealand, he pointed out that although Mt. Everest may have a peak elevation of 29,029 feet, it has a rise of only 11,431 from the base camp located at 17,598 feet. Mt. Cook, on the other hand, has a peak of 12,316 feet with a base camp at 2,500 feet -- a rise of 9816, almost as much. He asserted that climbing Mt. Cook was more difficult than Everest -- except for the lack of oxygen.

(Denali has the highest rise at 18,000 feet.)

More glaciers

The spiky trees are not palms, they are cabbage trees, so named because their tender heart tastes somewhat like cabbage when cooked. It was a staple food of the Maori.

Waiho RiverThe Waiho River, a typical braided stream, has its source in the Franz Josef Glacier. Its bed has been built up by rubble washed down from the glacier so that the township is below the level of the river. Levees keep the river from overflowing the town, but there have been talks about relocating to higher ground.

The water is filled with glacial silt (or "flour" as the Kiwis called it) to give the milky color.

In very rainy weather or if an ice dam within the glacier gives way, the river can rise dramatically to fill this entire riverbed. Don't believe it? Check this YouTube video. The bridge in the video is the one seen here.


I had not been aware that fuchsia was a native New Zealand tree (this isn't it -- check the link).

It is one of the few deciduous trees native to the country.


The small yellow bird is a Silvereye.

Birds are really amazing creatures. These little songbirds naturally spread from Australia to New Zealand in the mid-19th century. The colonizers flew over 1000 miles across the Tasman Sea.

That seems impossible until you think that the tiny hummingbirds that come to our feeders in Virginia fly to South America for the winter.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

This was our first glimpse of the glacier. It has retreated dramatically in recent years. The grey scars along the lower mountainside show its former extent.

Glacial Valley

The young forest we walked through has grown up since the Little Ice Age ended in the late 18th century. Past the forest we reached the valley of the Waiho.

The scale can be estimated by the tiny figures of hikers on the trail at lower right.

How glaciers work

Our guide with Glacier Valley Ecotours is explaining how the mountains were created and how glaciers are formed.

This area is the interface between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. The massive Alpine fault, equivalent to the San Andreas Fault in California, runs right through the Franz Josef township. The displacement along this fault when it slips is impressive.

It is due for a major slip any moment now. (Really!) A talk given in 2007 summarizes what might be expected.

Fault lines

This crease marks the line of a smaller subsidiary fault. It continued across the river valley and into the mountains on the opposite side.

New Zealand is sometimes called the "Shaky Isles" and it is easy to see why.

Alpine Flower

And yet in the desolation of the river valley, there are delicate flowers that colonize the barren rock.

These were usually white; this is the only pink one that I saw.

It may be a willow-herb.


There were many waterfalls, but this was the most impressive.

It is called Trident Creek Falls.

There are a couple of tiny people in the bottom of the picture that show its size.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

We are getting closer to the foot of the glacier. I was surprised at the folks who yearned to touch the ice. (We weren't allowed to get that close.)

Jim & I forget how privileged we have been over the years. As skiers we have had plenty of glacier experience.

From this point on the trail got pretty steep and rugged.

The red on the rocks is from algae.

Glacier Valley

Another explanation of the surroundings and what they signify.

A rain shower is moving up the valley and I thought we would get wet, but it turned out to be only a mist for a short while.

Everyone had come prepared with jackets although it was a warm day.

Danger, falling rock, ice, etc.

We are climbing up onto the glacier, although it may not look like it.

It seems odd that the sign would warn of falling ice when there is no ice to be seen...

Ice Cave

But that entire "hill" is actually residual ice left by the glacier's retreat. The layer of scree serves as insulation. The danger is not so much from ice falling ON you as from ice falling out from UNDER you!

The cave here shows that the ice is melting from beneath. There was the constant pitter-patter of small stones as they rolled down this steep face.

The path we followed was on terra firma ... I think.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

This is the closest we got to the main glacier. The meltwater river can be seen pouring out from underneath the ice.

This is the bitter end of a glacier. Anyone who was thinking of white snow fields and blue crevasses was disappointed.

There are helicopter rides that take passengers onto the upper glacier, weather permitting. The following day a group of German tourists staying at our hotel was on tenterhooks awaiting clearance for their helicopter flight. They eventually got the green light.

The way out

Now that we've achieved our objective, it's a long walk out of this valley. Plenty of opportunity to ponder the intersection of barrenness and inexhaustible life as lichens, mosses, and plants recolonize the rocks.

New arrivals

Some new arrivals.

Rock breakers

In a spot where the forest has been more firmly established, these trees are inexorably making big rocks into little rocks.

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