The glaciers on the rugged West Coast are unmissable natural phenomena. Although the eye can’t see it, they are constantly on the move, the strikingly blue ice a reminder that the Ice Age is still with us.
Lying in the majestic Southern Alps, these two glaciers are humbling to observe. Huge valleys of ice hundreds of metres deep, running down almost to sea level but still retreating as global warming makes its impact. Both are awe inspiring, however close you get. The massive, brooding granite cliffs surround you, worn down by millennia of retreating ice which is a distinctive electric blue colour.
Franz Josef glacier is around 7,000 years old and 12 km long, falling to less than 300 metres above sea level in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. What makes this glacier so remarkable is the unique combination of glacial ice juxtaposed with the Waiko river and the surrounding lush rainforest. It is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, with a modest hike getting you as close to the ice face as you are allowed (this will vary daily according to the weather and safety considerations).
Franz Josef is the fastest moving glacier in the country. The steep incline facilitates relatively speedy ice flow – up to 4 metres per day (an average glacier might reach 1 metre per day at top speed).
The Fox glacier is 13 km long and descends 2,600 metres, fed by four glaciers.
Just 5 km from Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson. Aside from the obvious appeal of the excellent café, the lakeside trail leads through the rain forest offering scenic vantage points, especially the ‘Reflection of Reflections’ from the Jetty Viewpoint. If lucky you’ll get views of the Southern Alps beautifully reflected in the still waters (morning/evening are usually best for calm conditions).
A relaxing soak at the Glacier Hot Pools, set among lush rain forest in the centre of town, is a popular end to the day.