Finding your Franz Josef

Finding your Franz Josef

Saying no to a job and yes to backpacking solo was meant to be exactly what Isaac needed. And it was, only not for the reasons he thought. Here’s how a small glacial town in New Zealand taught Isaac some home truths.

Rejecting a job offer and deciding to backpack for two months solo around New Zealand is an act your stereotypical boomer might call “financially reckless” or “a classic example of what’s wrong with the current generation”. Looking at my bank account they may be right, but it was a decision I will never regret.

Nearing 21 years old, I’d been working part-time for almost seven years. In that time I completed high school, got a degree and done an internship. I was burnt out, miserable and convinced that if I didn’t get a job relating to my degree that I would be a failure.

After months of receiving emails containing versions of the phrase, “unfortunately you have been unsuccessful”, I finally managed to get an interview.

It went awfully.

I didn’t go bad because I threw up all over the floor or knocked over a cup of coffee that fried a laptop containing the presentation for ‘the big meeting’. It went bad because I realised that I hadn’t done anything I wanted to do before locking myself into a nine-to-five job. I wanted to travel. It seemed like the only way for me to truly live (at least that’s what the travel-bloggers on Instagram told me).

I had to be comfortable knowing that I’d challenged myself abroad before settling into a state of grown-up financial stability. Travelling to New Zealand was everything I needed. It would unquestionably transform me. Wouldn’t it?

No pressure. Just a life-changing trip.

Fast forward to half-way through my New Zealand-based coming-of-age indie film and I hadn’t necessarily hit all the plot points. I had fulfilled my Lord of the Rings bucket list, taken many photos, and had become quite competent as a solo traveller. I was still yet to meet my love-interest or the rag-tag group of travelling misfits that would hail me as their charismatic counterpart.

Again, no pressure. I’d been doing really well up until the mid-way point, yet somehow when I packed my bags for the next stop, I accidentally zipped up some social anxiety, money concerns, and irrational fears of being on a bus that fell off one of New Zealand’s many cliffs.

I would internally give myself a talking to: “Don’t get so stressed over stupid shit like this! Don’t you realise that…”

“Okay, here we are, Franz Josef,” the bus driver interjects.

“I’ll get the umbrella out as it looks like you’re being greeted with a bit of wet weather. ” After the mundane routine of setting yourself up in a new space for a few days I noticed what Franz Josef had hidden behind its dark skies: wallpaper-worthy mountain views, dense and lush forests and a tiny yet adventurous town laying at the foot of it all.

The backdrop to Franz Josef, the rocky foreground once inhabited by the glacier over 100 years ago | Source: Isaac Freeman


Due to my lack of research, I was fully unaware of the three major factors that affect this particular pocket of the South Island and its population of around 440 people:

1. Franz Josef lies on top of the alpine fault, where the two tectonic plates of Australia and the Pacific meet. With the last severe earthquake (magnitude eight) occurring in 1717, scientists estimate that another of equal measures is well overdue.

2. The area is prone to severe flooding. Last year alone saw two instances that destroyed the Waiho bridge and cut off resources from the town, stranding many tourists.

3. The biggest attraction, The Franz Josef Glacier, is in a state of retreat and is doing so at a faster rate each year. It’s once vast and awe-inspiring presence has begun to dwindle, which could spell economic disaster for the town in the next 50 years or so.

You’d expect that a town in these circumstances would constantly be on edge, or full of anxiety and fear. But they weren’t. Not even slightly.

To them, problems would come and go. They could work together and deal with whatever was at hand. They embraced the now and what surrounded them and had immense joy in showing it to those passing through. It was strange. How could a place so unpredictable and untamed have such a calming presence?

“A cool giant spectacle, oh and the Franz Josef Glacier” | Source: Isaac Freeman

Here I was tasked with putting things into perspective

You can either let anxiety or fear control you, or you can acknowledge it and try to find a way to deal with it. Franz Josef let me figure this out.

One afternoon on a quad-bike tour I happened to rear-end well… another quad-bike. No big deal, no damage, nothing. Yet the guide’s warning, “any serious damage will result in a $1000 payment” rang loudly in my ears. 

That was all it took. I went from skidding in the mud at the front of the pack to chugging along quietly at the back. All because I let some anxiety convince me that a quad-bike had the fragility of a Pringle.

The next day I went on a group hike. After falling prey to some slightly anti-social tendencies, I gave myself the impression I would be unable to communicate ever again.  I acknowledged this absurd feeling and began to break it down. I put it in my head that these people are here for their own interests, and wouldn’t really care if I was a little bit awkward, it’s a shared experience after all. It was that simple. No longer did I think such an interaction would cause me to be the subject of a vlog titled “STRANGE CREATURE TRIES TO COMMUNICATE WITH US??” I acknowledged and controlled it.

Travel isn’t always a cure to one’s problems. That idyllic location or experience may not always live up to the hype. But you might stumble across a place that teaches you a bit more about yourself. A place that allows you to focus on the details rather than the bigger picture. A place like Franz Josef.