NZ Roadtrip: 5. Franz Josef the glacier and a recipe for jalfrezi

The Southern Alps runs north to south along the length of New Zealand's South Island. To the east lies the great plains of Canterbury while on the west are some of the highest elevations of the Alps. Aroki or Mount Cook is the highest peak. There are more than 300 glaciers in this range and we were looking for Franz Josef.

Plaque at Crown Range summit

The view from Crown Range Road. Can you see the cars in the 2nd pic?

From Queenstown, we drove up the Crown Range Road. This road is definitely not for the faint-hearted - it's the highest main road in South Island with several zig-zags and a steep drive to the top, designed to keep your heart booming in your chest! Some of the slopes still had patches of ice and mist hung heavy in the air though the view from the top was spectacular.

Makarora Country Cafe

Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka are 2 glacial lakes that lie beside each other on the way to the tiny town of Makarora. What is it about lakes in New Zealand? Viewing areas have been built along the shoulders of the roads just so you pull off and take in the breathtaking views. We stopped at the Makarora Country Cafe for coffee. It's a cheerful place and seems to be a popular pitstop for tour groups. The walls of the cafe had a collection of tools, car license plates and flags. We were served by the owner, a friendly woman who asked us where we were from. She told us she loved travelling and she would be visiting India again for another trip.

Tasman Sea

The drive up the Haast Pass was scenic, the drive down more so as we followed the course of the Haast river and ended up somewhat north of Jackson Bay for one last, lingering look of the Tasman Sea before driving through pastoral countryside.
Which way to Franz Josef?

Soon enough, signboards announced the entry to Glacier Country. We could see mountains ahead, their peaks covered with snow and there was a decided nip in the air. Franz Josef village came into view, the main road runs through it; to one side are the offices of the adventure tour companies.

Sheep and alpacas at Glenfern Villas. Mama sheep didn't trust us 1 bit but the alpacas were ...err...friendly - they do spit!

Glenfern Villas, 3 km away from the village was where we were staying for the next 3 days. The weather at Franz Josef is quite unpredictable and so we could not take any chances. Along the driveway, there were sheep and alpacas in their pens. The owners handed over a paper bag with some bites for the alpacas. The have cute teddy bear faces but they spit!

Kingtiger serves superb food - tofu with mixed veg; chicken jalfrezi; the Indian starter platter 

Back at the village, we went to the tour office to check out what we needed for the next day's flight to the glacier then to the supermarket to pick up milk, eggs and other essentials.

We were hungry and joked about having hot and crisp masala dosas when we saw Kingtiger and decided to step in for dinner. At the entrance were 2 Chinese warrior-like statues. Inside, there were red lamps and the tables had little lights on them. Shelves were filled with a collection of Feng Shui statues and even a small model of the Taj Mahal. A young lady came to take our order. She spoke in a strong Indian accent and we learnt that she was from Delhi - well, fancy that! There was plenty of Asian and Indian stuff on the menu but no dosa - yes, we asked! But they did have a platter of Indian starters like onion bhajji, tandoori mushrooms and even a giant samosa with tamarind chutney. Very yummy too! (Kingtiger's delish chicken jalfreizi is the inspiration for the recipe in this post.)

Facts and figures about the glacier walk

The next morning, we were dressed and ready to meet the glacier. My nephew and I were going for a snow landing while my brother and sister in law's plans included a heli-hike. The glacier, however, was not ready for us - the rains and cloud cover put paid to our plans; all flights for the day were cancelled. How disappointing because this was to be the highlight of the trip and we were leaving the next morning.

People on the slopes; the glacier is in the distance 
 Franz Josef glacier in retreat; stepping over a stream whose edges have been gouged out by the glacier

The formation of a glacier; waterfalls

But what's a bit of rain for people like us who have lived through monsoons? If we couldn't reach the top, we sure were going to see it from the base!

Sedimentary layers on a pebble
The Glacier Park pathway is a short drive away from town and it looked as if everyone else had the same idea - the pathway was full of people. Steep and rocky in some places, the sight of the river of ice in the distance kept us going. Named after the Austrian emperor, FJG is 2700 metres high and the base is a scant 20 kilometers from the Tasman Sea. Currently in retreat, pictures taken years earlier showed the ice reaching all the way to the base. The sides of the riverbed are exposed, gouged out by the glacier as it advanced and retreated over millions of years, revealing the layers that made up the rocks, the pressure exerted on them by that mass of ice must have been so enormous. We picked up a few pebbles and could see the layers, as if someone had painstakingly stuck them all together! Rockfalls are a common occurrence and dangerous paths are cordoned off.

Our blue chopper; FJ township and the river; the glacier 

Back at the villa, my brother spoke with the owner who happened to have a friend who was a pilot with a chopper. We were going to get one more shot at a glacier landing! The weather the next morning was perfect - blue skies all around. The company sent around a car to pick us up and in 15 minutes, we reached a tiny helipad when a tiny, bright blue chopper from GCH landed in front of us.

Six of us hopped on board and when we were strapped in and headsets on, the pilot lifted off. The little chopper was like a dragonfly, flitting from side to side and the view of the ground was stunning. It turned around and suddenly, we were looking at a sheer wall of ice - were we going to bang into it? No, still flitting, the chopper rose higher and higher. Snow covered peaks were all we could see and yet we kept going higher. We could identify the part of the glacier that we had seen from the ground the previous day.

Top of the glacier

Our pilot; glacial wilderness

Views from the glacier
With my family and that "top of the world" feeling

A few minutes later, we could see a vast sheet of ice and a red flag fluttering. A gentle touchdown and we scrambled out on to the hard ice, breathing in great lungfuls of the crisp, clean air. The ice was packed so tight that a bit of scraping could dislodge only a few crystals. What a surreal scene - that shade of blue of the sky, the pristine white of the ice, the black rocks covered in snow and the sun shining down. It was quiet, calm and peaceful and those 15 minutes we spent there went by in a blur. Little wonder some people leave everything to go live in the mountains.

A crack on the ice; glaciers after all, are rivers of moving ice

The jalfrezi at Kingtiger was delicious and I managed to fish out a recipe that was given to me ages ago. Here goes:

Chicken Jalfrezi

750 gm boneless chicken cubes
2 onions
4 green chillies, sliced
1 green capsicum
6 cloves garlic
1½ teaspoon ginger garlic paste
6 tomatoes, blanched and pureed 
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon nigella seeds 
Chopped coriander leaves

Marinate the chicken with salt, coriander, chilli, cumin and turmeric powders, keep aside for half an hour.
Finely dice 1½ onions and cut the capsicum into large squares.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a pan, add in the nigella seeds and then the finely diced onions.
When the onions are glassy, stir in the ginger garlic paste.
Add the tomato puree and when it comes to a boil, cover with the lid and let it simmer.
In the meantime, heat another pan with a little oil.
Sauté the chicken till browned on all sides, scoop out and place in the tomato-onion mix and let it cook till done.
Heat a little more oil, chop the remaining onion into large dices and sauté along with the capsicum.
Transfer the chicken and gravy into the onion-capsicum mix, mix well and check seasoning.
Stir through the chopped coriander leaves.
Goes well with naan, roti or rice.


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