The Franz Josef (Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere in Māori) is a 12 km long glacier located in Westland National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island. Together with the Fox Glacier 20 km to the south, it is unique in the fact that it descends from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres above sea level amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest. It is also one of only three glaciers to come so close to a coastline.
The first European mention of one of the western-coast glaciers, believed to be Franz Josef, was from the steam ship Mary Louisa in 1859. The glacier was later named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer, Julius von Haast in 1865. The Māori name for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere ('The tears of Hinehukatere'), arising from a local legend: Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Tawe, to climb with her. Tawe was a less experienced climber than Hinehukatere but loved to accompany her until an avalanche swept Tawe from the peaks to his death. Hinehukatere was broken hearted and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier.
Having retreated several kilometres between the 1940s and 1980s, the glacier entered an advancing phase in 1984 and at times has advanced at the phenomenal (by glacial standards) rate of 70 cm a day. The flow rate is about 10 times that of typical glaciers. Over the longer term, the glacier has retreated since the last ice age, and it is believed that it extended into the sea some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
This cyclic behaviour is well illustrated by a postage stamp issued in 1946, depicting the view from St James Anglican Church. The church was built in 1931, with a panoramic altar window to take advantage of its location. By 1954, the glacier had disappeared from view from the church, but it reappeared in 1997. This is due to the highly variable conditions on the snowfield, which take around 5-6 years before they result in changes in the terminus location.
There have been some incidents of jökulhlaups (outbreak floods from water-filled ice tunnels) at the glacier, with one destroying a bridge on the access route in 1989.
As the walking part of any tour up to the glacier takes a long time, and ends at the first icefall (a sort of frozen waterfall, showing a natural dip of the land underneath), numerous tourists book helicopter tours from one of the several local airlines, which usually drop their guests between the first and second icefall, for a guided 1-2 hour walk through the broken ground atop the glacier. Though the glacial landscape changes almost daily with the glaciers unusually fast flow, and some walks include passages through ice tunnels, they are still considered quite safe and only somewhat strenuous.
Franz Josef township is a little service village (approximately 270 inhabitants) located approximately 5 km away from the face of the glacier on State Highway 6. It has a small but busy heliport, numerous tourist accommodation options (with up to 2,000 people overnighting during the main season) and a number of restaurants and shops..