The roots of the town are steeped in fire and ice. Local legends narrate that the glacier is the frozen tears of a certain indigenous girl, mourning the accidental death of her lover on the treacherous icy paths. The blinding white and ice-blue of the glacier clashes brilliantly with the surrounding verdure of the rainforest, which is said to be the source of the precious legendary jade-coloured stone, Pounamu, sacred to the indigenous of the land. Snapping back into the real world, the town itself is less than two centuries old, having been established during the great Otago Gold Rush of the late 1800s.
Love, loss and legacy made for a heady mixture as we arrived in the quaint township of Franz Josef one late January afternoon. Known as Waiau in Māori, the quiet town lies smack dab in the middle of New Zealand’s glacier country in Westland Poutini National Park. From what I’d gathered from multiple brochures and travel blogs, it seemed that just about every tourist wanted to indulge in ‘heli-hiking’, ‘kayaking’, ‘quad biking’, or hop onto a chopper to see the views from above. I shook my head in disbelief; according to the town’s history, the only adventurous (and utterly dangerous) activity up till a hundred years ago was to weather the treacherous 12-hour journey across the rainforest to get to almost inaccessible Franz Josef.
My husband and I put the brochures back in place almost at the same time.
20 minutes later, we’d stepped out on the street armed with a map of the town given by our very friendly receptionist. We saw some of the hotel staff hopping on to their bicycles. Great, I thought sardonically. They get to cycle to work. Back home, we took eons to traverse small distances in the concrete jungles. ‘We’ll just walk around today. I wonder how long it will take us’ I say, glancing at my watch. ‘How big is the town?’ I ask the receptionist.
She smiles and points to the only two streets I can see ‘You’re looking at it.’
Franz Josef’s gilded history is somewhat lost in the short-sighted craze of adventure tourism that the multitude follows. Two centuries earlier, the solitude of the southland wilderness was broken only by the discovery of gold, which fuelled the frenzy that gripped the region. While the gold eventually ran out, the town stayed, changing tracks in order to survive. Even 200 years later, I felt the hint of feverish anticipation in the air which must have fed the imaginations of prospectors who would have travelled from far, hoping to find gold in the remote rainforest country. In the present, we stood outside the venerated Tatare gorge, where gold was first discovered. Even in the mid-morning atmosphere, the image of the dark forbidden depths of the gorge hidden by the rainforest was chilling. I imagined the miners brandishing pans, kneeling knee-deep in the slush hoping to strike it rich, and my respect for them went up by several notches.
The town has legacies hidden away in the most unimaginable of places, I thought. The Fern Grove Four Square supermarket on the main road, where we stood examining the aisles like gourmet cooks, is the only supermarket in the 300km stretch between Hokitika and Haast on the west coast. We decided to pay homage to Franz Josef’s heritage and skipped eating dinner out that evening, whipping up a delicious dinner of spaghetti, soup and garlic toast in our kitchenette. An hour later we set the table and gazed at the lofty peaks of the Southern Alps, enjoying a hot homemade meal.
It was a beautifully intriguing misty third morning when a miserable duo made their way to an earlier than usual breakfast. After two days of kicking back, we’d felt the need to jump from a plane, only to have it cancelled due to bad weather. Flopping down on a table right next to the French window of the hotel restaurant, we gazed sadly at the mountains in the distance, fervently praying for good weather in Queenstown.
Several minutes later, we were tucking into a delicious breakfast of eggs and pancakes, talking nineteen to the dozen with our British-born waitress. As she set our food down, she asked what we’d been doing in Franz Josef. I liked that the most about New Zealanders – wherever you go, people ask you what you’ve been doing in town. It gives you a warm, fuzzy something feeling.
She laughed when we told her about our cancelled skydiving activity ‘Oh, don’t you fret, loves. You’ll have another shot at Skydiving in Queenstown. While you’re in Franz Josef, you’d rather slow down than speed up.’
‘Where are you from?’ we ask her.
‘I’m from London’ she said, slipping into familiar territory ‘I’ve been in New Zealand for 18 months. I stayed in Dunedin before this and came to Franz Josef just three months ago. I’m a local now’ she smiled.
‘How’s that?’ I asked her, my mouth full of syrupy pancake.
‘We have a very dynamic population which is not more than 450 at a time’ she said ‘So anyone who lives in this town for 30 days is considered a local.’
‘Huh’ we looked at each other. ‘We’ve been in Franz Josef for two days’ I say.
‘Well’ she beamed ‘You’re already 1/15th locals.’
As is with most travel junkies, she was extremely excited to know that we were from India and asked us to recommend a bunch of must-visit spots in the country. we sidestepped all the usual spots and jotted down a couple of offbeat destinations that a worldly traveller like her would enjoy. She was thrilled and bade us a warm journey onward.
Thinking back, the only tourist stuff we’d done in those two days was walk up to the face of the shifting glacier which, after all the hype and hoopla, is quite a let-down – it is now merely a fading remnant of a once-gorgeous ice and snow flush. As we left Franz Josef two hours later, I wondered if the town would have survived after the fallout of the gold rush if it hadn’t been for abominable community spirit that is still fresh even after all these years. Speaking as someone who’s become 6% of a Franz Josef local, I was moved by the intriguing glacier town and enjoyed it for what it made me feel, rather than what it was famous for. Today the glacier retreats at an alarming pace and most of the mountain activities are being stopped. However, it is anything but the end of the town and its spirit. It will live on, as it has lived on through changing eras and times.
Sitting at home today, the feeling of also belonging to another town 7,500 miles away is indescribable. Never did I imagine that two days of not being a tourist in a diasporic, former Gold Rush settlement would end in us becoming ‘almost-locals’.