You find yourself in a wonderland of pristine whiteness – ice pinnacles, blue crevasses, deep caves and towering seracs. The glorious crispness and purity of this jumbled icefall is truly astounding.
The guide’s ice axe swings in a constant arc, cutting steps for the group to follow around yawning voids and over the glacier’s contorted surface.
The Franz Josef glacier is moving forward one metre a day, inexorably grinding down from its broad nevé basin to the coastal plain, only 30 km from the sea. Nowhere else on earth at this latitude, have glaciers advanced so close to the sea.
Licensed alpine guides take half-day icefall walks, allowing around one hour on the glacier. Full-day and helihiking trips visit the upper glacier where the going is even more adventurous. Flight-seeing is a popular alternative for viewing the glacier and overflying Mts Cook and Tasman, New Zealand’s two highest peaks. Helicopter operators also land on the glacier nevé to give a first hand experience of the vast ice basin. Popular walks to lookout points include Sentinel Rock, Douglas Walk, Alex Knob Track and Roberts Point Track.
Fox Glacier, 25 km south of Franz Josef township on S.H.6, is a slightly smaller community, but with all the same services, glacier walks and climbs. Popular walks include the river bed path to the glacier’s terminal face, the River Walk to Glacier Valley Viewpoint and the longer Chalet Lookout.
Lake Matheson, New Zealand’s most photographed lake, is 6 km from Fox and is a ‘must see’ attraction on a clear, sunny day. It was formed when the glacier retreated at the end of the last ice age. Early morning is the best time to capture the snow-capped summits of Mts Cook and Tasman, perfectly mirrored in the placid waters. It is common for colour prints of this glorious scene to be reversible i.e. to depict identical mirror images reflected in the lake.
Both the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are included in the Te Waipounamu World Heritage Area due to their uniqueness. They were named after the emperor of Austria-Hungary and a former New Zealand premier. Despite their consistent retreat throughout most of the 20th Century, they have advanced over 1 km since 1985.
These giant rivers of ice are among New Zealand’s major scenic attractions. Walk on them, fly over them, view them from the riverbed, but don’t miss them.