Together with the Fox Glacier, 12 miles to the south, it is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 980 ft above sea level, amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest. The Waiho River (which means “smoking water” in Maori) leads away from the glacier and flows into the Tasman sea just a few kilometers distant.
Early Maori called the glacier Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere – The Tears of the Avalanche Girl. The legend tells of a girl whose tears froze to form the glacier after her lover fell to his death from one of the peaks.
Scientists and ecologists today recognize that glaciers and their movement are one of the most sensitive indicators of climate change as well as a major source of variation in sea level.
As I noted in my journal:
“Finally we arrived at Alpine Glacier Motor Lodge in Franz Josef. This very small town looks like what I imagine a Swiss town to be. But the town itself is not the gem; it is the glacier to the southwest that captures our attention and our photographic awe.
“Words cannot express either the grandeur of the glacier nor the sense of sadness at how much it has retreated (melted) over the past years. Where once it was nearly to the town, now we drive 4 km [2.5 miles] to get to the parking lot so we can walk another 1 or 2 km to be near (but not upon) its foot. Majestic and sad were my two thoughts.”
Signs at the head of the trail provided valuable information about trail conditions and the amount of time needed to enjoy the walk. A portion of the walk from parking lot to glacier foot was wheelchair accessible.
As many travelers have noted, travel offers the opportunity not only to see and experience other cultures and landscapes, but also to feel a connection thereto. And, perhaps, a desire to care for and preserve that part of the planet.
As noted above, a wheelchair user could travel along a portion of the path, and would be able to enjoy a distant view of the glacier. Due to some inclines and the natural roughness of a well-packed dirt trail, traveling with a companion who could push the chair would be the best.