My leather walking boots are covered in mud as I make my way uphill. On one side, a vast frozen river of ice tumbles down a carved rock valley; its cool white beauty is a striking contrast next to the lush green rainforest on the other side of the path. As the track winds uphill, I become breathless from the brisk climb and dizzy from the overwhelming views of Fox Glacier New Zealand.
Westland National Park
There are over 140 glaciers in the Westland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand but only Franz Joseph glacier and Fox glacier reach the lower forest zone. Both glaciers are World Heritage sites that present spectacular vistas of crevasses, pinnacles, ice caves and canyons.
This combination of ice and temperate rainforest is a unique feature of New Zealand’s glacier country, and is an ecosystem found nowhere else in the world. The main cause of this is the proximity of the mountain range to the ocean and the steepness of New Zealand’s Southern alps.
The weather that flows onto the west coast rises over the mountains, then cools quickly and drops most of its moisture as rain and snow. The snow that is compacted on the neve (or catchment area of the glacier) forms blue glacier ice that is funnelled down the valley into the icy river.
Fox Glacier New Zealand
Fox Glacier township has a relaxed atmosphere and a cosy country wilderness ambience. There are a handful of hotels, restaurants and a general store. During the peak season, the best accommodation is usually fully booked, so plan well in advance.
Because of the area’s isolation this was one of the last places in New Zealand to become inhabited by settlers. In 1846 three adventurers Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy and William Fox, along with their Maori guide ventured into the interior of the West Coast on a 560 day trip by foot. The town later grew from an influx of miners and flourished with the expansion of local economy. Coal, timber and farming slowly replaced the gold mining, which has since been overtaken by tourism.
We stop to watch a group of ice climbers – colourful ant-sized dots on the white icy walls – making their way down a cliff face.
At a high point of our climb, our guide warns us to hold on to a chain secured into the rocky face of the mountain. I’m a little nervous as I place my feet along the narrow ledge. I try not to look down at the steep drop over the cliff edge.
From its high point, the track winds down onto the edge of the glacier where crampons and walking sticks await. I pull my ski jacket on to keep warm. We strap on our instep crampons (which are metal plates with spikes) to the bottom of our boots and grab a walking stick from a barrel tucked behind a rock.
Single file, we follow our guide onto the glacier. Slivers of ice fly from side to side as she hacks rough steps into the ice with her pick.
Crevasses and ice ridges
We explore crevasses and ice ridges, stopping to admire the spectacular views of the icefall and lower glacier. The view is so enormous that I feel like I’m being swallowed by an all-enveloping cold white vastness. The icy river is awe-inspiring and the knowledge that it is constantly moving beneath us is scary. We stop to drink from a small stream; the water tastes pure and icy cold, better than the bottled water in our packs.
The features on the ice vary depending on the day. Today we’re fortunate to spot a Moulin, a whirling hole in the ice. Our guide grabs each of us around the waist as we take turns to lean over the edge for a closer look. The hole is large enough you could slip into it. And the swirling water is an angry torrent.
Our time on the ice passes by far too quickly. As we descend along the edge of the ice, we reach a vantage point where there’s aview of an ice cave chiselled into the face of the glacier.
The glacier’s icy breath swirls around us as we sit in silent contemplation of this awe-inspiring wonder of nature. The silence is broken by a thunderous crack and a three-storey slab of ice crashes onto the ground in a spectacular show.
Discover New Zealand
A good way to get around is to hire a car and drive from one of these cities, taking in sights along the way. A popular route is from Queenstown via Wanaka following Lake Hawea to the Haast Pass.
Fox Glacier Guide (tel: +643 751 0825) have tours for all levels of fitness. The half-day Fox Glacier walk costs NZ$89 (A$70) for adults and $NZ65 (A$51) for children.