Franz Josef/Waiau: Tears of the Avalanche Girl

October 15, 2021
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HEADING south from Ōkārito — which I blogged about last week — you soon arrive at Franz Josef, officially known as Franz Josef/Waiau.

From a display at the Franz Josef/Waiau iSite (public tourism information centre)

The Māori name for Franz Josef township comes from the river that runs past it, the Waiho River, also known as the Waiau.

In the following photograph, which I have also made as big as possible, you can see the township on the far side of the Waiho River, at the foot of the colossal mountains of the Southern Alps, which are also known in South Island Māori as Kā Tiritiri o te Moana.

Looking northward to Franz Josef/Waiau from Alex Knob. The township is on the far bank of the Waiho River, at the point where it meets the plains of the West Coast. Like many New Zealand rivers, the Waiho has a gravelly bed that is mostly dry when it is not in flood. Public domain image by Pseudopanax, 30 September 2014, via Wikimedia Commons. Image quality slightly tweaked for this post to make the township stand out more.

State Highway 6, the main road of the West Coast, runs through Franz Josef/Waiau and across the Waiho River by way of a bridge.

The Māori name for the Southern Alps means ‘those which are tossed by the sea’, a reference to a legend which holds the entire South Island to be an upturned canoe, the Southern Alps its keel.

The mountains account for the name Franz Josef, bestowed by German-speaking alpinists in honour of the second-to-last Austrian emperor, Franz Josef II. Whatever we call the neighbouring mountains, their foothills rise very abruptly out of the plains of the West Coast in a more or less straight line for hundreds of kilometres. I will explain why, a little further below.

After I hit town, in September 2021, I made a beeline for a modern attraction: the West Coast Wildlife Centre.

This is the most humanly accessible wildlife centre for kiwi that I have come across. The barriers betweent the kiwi and the people are only half a metre high, and you can get really close as they run about looking for bugs.

The kiwi were rowi, the rarest species of kiwi, classified as such in 1994. It was important to get the science right, because there is a similar-looking species called the little spotted kiwi that will interbreed with rowi if the two are mixed together in a kiwi sanctuary.

There were also iguana lizards at the wildlife centre, unusually for New Zealand!

Display at the West Coast Wildlife Centre

Franz Josef/Waiau is much more touristy and established than Ōkārito. The main attraction is the Franz Josef Glacier, by which the Emperor was originally honoured, even before the town was built.

Historic glacier-tourism display at the West Coast Wildlife Centre

Known in Māori as Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, the glacier is, along with the nearby Fox Glacier /Te Moeka o Tuawe, one of the few that descend into a temperate region of rainforest, advancing and retreating spectacularly. And, unfortunately, since industrial civilisation first began spewing out large amounts of carbon dioxide, mostly retreating.

There is an amazing interactive on the two glaciers, here. I also took some pictures of an information panel at the Franz Josef/Waiau iSite, which shows the glacier as a tongue of white ice descending toward the township.

Display at the Franz Josef/Waiau iSite

The melting and refreezing of the ice also has a tendency to make the paths up to the glaciers unsafe, slippery and crumbling, and it is usually necessary to stop well short of the face of either glacier, which is liable to suddenly fall down in any case.

There used to be guided tours on the suppposedly more stable parts of the tow glaciers but pedestrian access onto them was banned in 2012, a ban that is still in force.

The Māori name of the Franz Josef Glacier refers to a young woman named Hine (‘girl’) Hukatere who enjoyed climbing in the mountains.

Traditionally, Māori avoided the high mountains, fearing misfortune such as avalanches, which could easily be seen as the action of gods in their lofty abode swatting away humans as we would swat away a fly.

All the same, Hukatere persuaded a boyfriend named Wawe to join her in exploring Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, or in other words the Southern Alps, only to see him swept away by their weapon, the avalanche.

The tale finishes with the admonition that the glacier is made from her frozen roimata, or tears. The Māori name of the glacier is thus sometimes translated more freely into English as ‘tears of the avalanche girl’.

There are lots of local hikes as well, which you can see in the displays at the Franz Josef/Waiau iSite, and online too of course.

One popular local lookout is the Canavans Knob Walk, which gives you a view of the glacier, mountains and coast. Another local lookout is Alex Knob, from which the overview near the beginning of this post was taken.

Alex Knob. New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) image, from the information page about Alex Knob linked just above. CC BY 4.0.

There are lots of forest walks, and walks to small lakes, as well.

But also, Franz Josef/Waiau is also base for flights up onto the ice-plateau which lies between the foothills and Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. People can fly to alpine huts such as Centennial Hut and Pioneer Hut, and go skiing on the undisturbed snow after having been dropped off by plane or helicopter.

As to the nearly straight line which divides the West Coast from the mountains, it is created by the mighty Alpine Fault, which as luck would have it also runs through the middle of the township of Franz Josef/Waiau. I will include a video about the fault in next week’s blog post, which is to be about a hike called the Old Ghost Road.

But for the moment, here is a NASA image of the Alpine Fault and its environs, with the northeast toward the right. Franz Josef/Waiau is somewhere in the middle of the fault line clearly visible in this imge, which extends over hundreds of kilometres from left to right.

The Alpine Fault, in the South Island of New Zealand. Northeast toward the right. Public domain NASA SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) image via Wikimedia Commons.

To continue the traditional accounts, it is said that the first full crossing of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana was made by another adventurous female from the West Coast, Raureka, who managed to find a reasonably safe pass to the East Coast.

In the oral tradition of the South Island Māori, the ones who dwelt on the East Coast at that time only used rather inferior sorts of stone tools. They were astonished at Raureka’s fine and sophisticated implements of pounamu, that is to say, New Zealand jade, which only occurs naturally on the West Coast of the South Island.

Trails through the mountains opened up the great pounamu trade that I have blogged about elsewhere, and ensured that by the time the Pākehā (i.e., Europeans) showed up, pounamu was the prestige article of Māori in general and not just the ones who lived on the West Coast of the South Island.

Franz Josef/Waiau was in the doldrums this September, but the businesses were still open. I noticed that one of the backpacker lodges was for sale though. You can get some pretty good deals on websites such as the New Zealand branch of Bookme right now.

As in many places on the West Coast, there is quite a bit of local colour of a kind that suggests that the Americans don’t have a monopoly on the phrase Wild West. Though of course, a lot of that sort of thing is pretty tragic really.

One of the bars, Alice May, is named after a woman named Alice May Parkinson, who shot her former lover four times with a revolver in the early 1900s after he refused to marry her, and then tried to kill herself, unsuccessfully with the last bullet or two. Maybe she was mentally affected as well, having lately delivered a stillborn baby fathered by the man she shot.

Alice May Parkinson was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour, itself a milder penalty than being hanged, as Ruth Ellis was to be for a virtually identical crime in 1950s Britain.

Remarkably, Alice May only served six years. She was released early, after the government was petitioned by thousands of socialists and feminists who felt that her circumstances were unfortunate.

I wonder if people also took the view that the sheer availability of handguns was to blame?

As in other frontier nations, handguns used to be quite common in New Zealand. But, in contrast to the USA, they were completely and successfully banned in 1920, a few years after Alice May was realised with the injunction not to do it again.

For a long time afterward, even the New Zealand Police could only get hold of one in a dire emergency, and perhaps by no coincidence did not shoot anyone dead for more than twenty years between 1949 and 1970, though it is true that a handful of police were shot dead themselves by violent offenders in the same twenty-plus year period.

(In one of my other posts, I’ve got a photo of a conspicuously unarmed 1950s New Zealand city cop helping a couple of women across the road. This was the sort of publicity the NZP’s American counterparts could only dream of.)

The 1920 ban was perhaps the world’s successful example of gun control: facilitated by New Zealand’s extreme isolation of course. We should have commemorated it when the centenary rolled around, but I think we were too distracted by Covid.

Was the Alice May case one of the examples that the handgun-prohibitionists pointed to? Quite possibly.

As in America, the New Zealanders also tried to ban liquor at the same time. Prohibition with capital P did not quite come off in New Zealand. But as a compromise, a World War One-era economy measure that forced pubs and bars to close at 6 p.m. would remain in force until 1967.

Save, that is, on the West Coast of the South Island, which was notorious for ignoring the law: perhaps because it rained so much that nobody wanted to go home.

Display in the West Coast Wildlife Centre

It’s said that the local police, unwilling to make themselves unpopular in these tight-knit communities, would see to it themselves that the intended target of the next raid was tipped off in time in time to boot everyone out!

Anyhow, surprisingly enough, the Alice May bar is actually owned by one of Alice May’s descendants. These days, it is legal for it to remain open late — how boring!

See, further, my new book The Sensational South Island: New Zealand’s Mountain Land, available from my website


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