Some time ago (mid Feb. 2007) we had a big story on TV and in the newspapers about incredibly stupid tourists at the glaciers. As many others they had climbed over the ropes which should keep you out of the danger zone, and ignored the warning sign, and then they walked directly to the terminal face of Franz Josef glacier, one even going into the ice cave. He only survived by miracle.
Three tonnes of ice crashed down and lucky him only buried his leg, and he could free himself and struggle his way out of the cave. Then he nearly slipped into the 1°C cold river in which he would have survived for about 3 minutes. Alarmed by the cries for help some of the glacier guides ran to the scene and saved the man from slipping into the water.
Franz Josef is actually advancing half a metre per day. Ice crashing into the river under the glacier is normal. One cubic metre of ice weighs a tonne. So you can imagine what kind of weight could hit you if you think you should have a close look.
The mentioned tourist had to get surgery at Greymouth Hospital. If you do not want to end up there - or, if you are unlucky, in a coffin, do not ignore the warning signs. They are there for a reason.
When this tourist was better again he said he had thought he could get so close to the glacier as he saw people walking on the glacier. Yes, they were walking ON the glacier, and the guides had led them up there on a safe track from the side. The pressure at the bottom of the terminal face is extremely high and chunks of ice crash on a daily basis.
Also the valley floor changes all the time. Heavy rain some months ago (300 mm in one day!) flooded the valley and washed rocks, gravel and mud over the tracks. The water filled the valley! DOC have removed two bridges to discourage people from walking to the terminal face without guides. I think this is exaggerated, but you should always check the conditions. They often take side tracks which you would not spot. Do not risk anything near the terminal face, do not climb over the ropes there!!!
As we had to rescue two parties within 24 hours when driving on the West Coast I think it is adequate to give a special warning to drivers about the special dangers on the West Coast.
The first thing is that you should not drive too far without sleep or a break. Many people who travel north start in Wanaka or even Queenstown, make a glacier walk in Fox or Franz Josef, and head further north to spend the night in Hokitika. Such a traveller rolled over several times in front of our eyes in his van, with eight people on board, some kilometres before Hokitika. The party had started in Queenstown, and while staying alert on the winding stretches of the road, the driver fell asleep on the long straight stretches further north. Lucky them we were four to come to their rescue, and nobody got seriously hurt - and lucky us that we did not have to pull out dead bodies of the van.
The second problem is that many people underestimate the dangers of gravel roads. When you have to brake abruptly they can become as slippery as ice, and the car can also slide if you drive too fast for this tricky surface in a curve or if you move the wheel too abruptly. Still we were surprised to find a Dutch couple beside the gravel road to the Oparara Arch, north of Karamea, because they had slipped from the track when driving uphill... Well, everything can happen... But had they slipped 100 metres further up or down the hill they would have fallen down very far and rolled over. As we had no towing rope we took the Dutchies back down the hill to the first farm. The farmer told us they were used to such emergency actions, they have to pull out tourists' cars from the ditch on a regular base...
Last but not least: Even if a narrow gravel road is not wide enough for two cars and you do not see around the next curve, do not drive in the middle of the road but stay on your side, and slow down. The chance is much bigger that you get around the other car somehow, even if it appears quickly, and you can brake without slipping if you do not race.
Remember to fill up your gas / petrol tank before leaving Westport, heading to Greymouth. This is the last fuel stop... you don't want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere calling for help. It'll take a long long time!!
58 Cron Street, Franz Josef, 7952, New Zealand
Good for: Business
The staff was very friendly and helpful! The rooms were big, comfortable, and clean with a good...more
State Highway 6, 30 km north of Haast, Lake Moeraki, South Island, 7842, New Zealand
Good for: Business