Fox Glacier, New Zealand
Written by John Braniston
Wedged deep in the alpine landscape of Westland Tai Poutini National Park in New Zealand’s South Island, Fox Glacier provides spectacular scenery and glacier challenges for those with a sense of adventure.
Although the glacier is easily accessible – tourists only have to hike out from Fox Glacier village and up the valley to its terminal face – its current rapid retreat causes frequent rock falls and collapsing ice, and much of the dramatic natural wonder is roped off to the casual visitor. Southern New Zealand’s unpredictable weather also makes careful pre-adventure enquiries a must before setting out on hikes. Still, there are several easy walks in the area with views down onto the glacier, and many visitors also take to helicopters to admire it – and the surrounding Southern Alps – from above.
Lovers of a challenge, however, should consider a guided walk or heli-hike onto the glacier itself. Sightseeing helicopters, weather permitting, will land on the glacier’s surface for 10 minutes or so, but heli-hiking options will provide you with several hours to explore the spectacular ice formations of the glacier before the helicopter returns to carry you back to base. The great silence of the mountains is disturbed only by the trickle of melt water and the sometimes unnerving creaking and groaning of the always-shifting glacier itself. There’s also the chip-chip of your tour guide hacking steps in the ice; the glacier changes so quickly that rarely can the same route be followed twice.
Such glacier walks are a rare chance to see crevasses, ice caves, and icefalls up close; the latter are giant tumbles of fractured ice that glitter in the sun like some fabulous palace of a fictional snow queen. The vivid blue colour of parts of the glacier is caused by snow compressed into ice at such pressure that its air bubbles – which allow regular ice to appear clear or white – are squeezed out. Other parts of the glacier, tumbled with moraine (rocky debris), appear an unexpectedly dirty grey.
Some companies take explorers to the steep upper icefall of the glacier with ropes and crampons for an experience of abseiling into moulins (ice holes) and traversing crevasses – after instruction in safety techniques and the use of ice picks. You can crawl through ice tunnels that glow neon blue and surround you in weird ice-sculpted shapes and crazy-paving ice slabs. Geared up in stout nailed boots and waterproof alpine jackets, you’ll feel like an Arctic explorer – or perhaps like Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand-born conqueror of Everest.
Fox Glacier, fed by four other alpine glaciers and winding 13km through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, is a rapidly changing glacier that advanced by an impressive metre a week in the early 2000s but is now in steady retreat. It’s one of the world’s few glaciers to end almost at sea level, and is even rarer in its proximity to lush rainforest, which covers surrounding slopes and is home to several rare New Zealand birds.
Auckland, New Zealand
Distance: 14,518 km
Flight Time: 16 hours, 20 minutes
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