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Justine Tyerman is a New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor. Married for 36 years, she lives in rural surroundings near Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand with her husband Chris. In this article, Justine visits the Dart River in the Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.

Shuffling along inside a deep crevasse on a glacier moving at the rate of one to two metres a day is not for the faint-hearted… so I wondered what the heck I was doing there. The crevasse was so narrow our booted, cramponed feet had to master the pinstep – taking tiny steps, moving one foot forward and then bringing the other one up behind it, not ahead of it – while rotating the upper body 180 degrees to be slim enough to squeeze along the gash in the glacier.

It was a surreal and slightly unnerving experience, exploring Franz Josef’s chilly blue-white marble intestines.

The occasional distant cracking sound did nothing to allay my fears of becoming a human sandwich inside two enormous slices of ice.

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Hikers dwarfed by immense size of Franz Josef Glacier. Photo: Justine Tyerman

But Tim Bluett, our guide on the Glacier Explorer heli-hike expedition, was a safety fanatic who constantly checked our crampons, redrilled ice screws, tested fixed lines and kept us strictly to the track so he inspired my confidence.

And as we climbed higher on the glacier, I was so mesmerised by the maze of crevasses, caves, bizarre ice sculptures and sharp peaks like stiffly-beaten egg whites, I completely forgot to be nervous.

At the highest point of our climb, 700m, we reached "the Pinnacles" and could see into the most dramatic, active part of the millions-of-years-old mighty river of ice as it strained and fractured, grinding its way down the valley.

Apart from his impressive prowess at wielding a hefty ice axe and shovel, Tim was also a veritable font of knowledge. As we gazed at the dazzling landscape bathed in winter sunshine, he told us all about the Franz Josef, the world’s steepest and fastest-flowing commercially-guided glacier.

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Inside a deep crevasse on the glacier. Photo: Ngai Tahu Tourism 

It descends from a height of 3000m above sea level to 350m in as little as 11 km, moving at a rate of one to two metres a day in the winter and three to four metres a day in the summer.

The Franz is New Zealand’s fourth largest glacier. It’s also one of the most accessible glaciers on the planet, terminating in lush rainforest at 350m above sea level just 18km from the sea.

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.

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The mist cleared to a perfect sunny day. Photo: Justine Tyerman

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 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 see 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 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 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.”

We also learned that glacier guiding is New Zealand’s oldest adventure tourism industry, pioneered in the early 20th century by brothers Peter and Alec Graham of Franz Josef.

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Justine following guide Tim up a steep set of steps. Photo: Justine Tyerman

After a spectacular afternoon on the ice, the throbbing sound of chopper blades filled the valley. We lifted off as the sun began to fall from the sky and the snowy peaks turned pink and gold in the sunset. Below us, I could see a team of guides below preparing tracks for the next day.

Within five minutes we were back at Glacier Base where we soaked in hot pools surrounded by rainforest and birdsong, the perfect finale to an unforgettable day.

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.

Related links:

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Hiking and jetboating the beautiful Dart River

The best place to fly-fish in New Zealand