Around 150km south of Hokitika, two white rivers of ice force their way down towards the thick rainforest of the coastal plain – ample justification for the region’s inclusion in Te Wahipounamu, the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. The glaciers form a palpable connection between the coast and the highest peaks of the Southern Alps. Within a handful of kilometres the terrain drops from over 3000m to near sea level, bringing with it Franz Josef glacier and Fox glacier, two of the largest and most impressive of the sixty-odd decent-sized glaciers that creak off the South Island’s icy spine, together forming the centrepiece of the rugged Westland National Park. Legend tells of the beautiful Hinehukatere who so loved the mountains that she encouraged her lover, Tawe, to climb alongside her. He fell to his death and Hinehukatere cried so copiously that her tears formed the glaciers, known to Maori as Ka Riomata o Hinehukatere – “The Tears of the Avalanche Girl”.
The area is also characterized by the West Coast’s prodigious precipitation, with upwards of 5m being the typical yearly dump. These conditions, combined with the rakish angle of the western slopes of the Southern Alps, produce some of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers; stand at the foot for half an hour or so and you’re bound to see a piece peel off. But these phenomenal speeds haven’t been enough to counteract melting, and both glaciers have receded over 3km since Cook saw them at their greatest recent extent, soon after the Little Ice Age of 1750. Glaciers are receding worldwide, but the two here sometimes buck the trend by advancing from time to time, typically around five years after a particularly big snowfall in the mountains.
The glaciers were already in full retreat when travellers started to battle their way down the coast to observe these wonders of nature. They were initially named “Victoria” and “Albert” respectively but, in 1865, geologist Julius von Haast renamed Franz Josef after the Austro-Hungarian emperor, and following a visit by prime minister William Fox in 1872, the other was bestowed with his name.
Activity in the glaciers focuses on two small villages, which survive almost entirely on tourist traffic. Both lie close to the base of their respective glaciers and offer excellent plane and helicopter flights, guided glacier walks and heli-hiking. With your own transport, it makes sense to base yourself in one of the two villages and explore both glaciers from there. If you have to choose one, Franz Josef has a wider range of accommodation, restaurants, and offers the most comprehensive selection of trips, while Fox is quieter.Read More
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier
FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER (Waiau) is the slightly larger of the two glacier villages. The glacier almost reaches the fringes of the village, the Southern Alps tower above and developers have done what they can to create an alpine character with steeply pitched roofs and pine panelling. It’s an appealing place, and small enough to make you feel almost like a local if you stay for more than a night or two – something that’s easily done, considering the number of fine walks and the proximity of the glaciers.
In Franz Josef you can hike to the glacier, join a guided walk on the glacier, kayak on a nearby lake or take a scenic flight. Guided glacier walks and kayaking take place in most weather conditions, but on misty and very wet days you’ll find that scenic flights and heli-hikes are cancelled and alternatives limited.
The village of Fox Glacier, 25km south of Franz Josef, is scattered over an outwash plain of the Fox and Cook rivers, and services the local farming community and passing sightseers. Everything of interest is beside SH6 or Cook Flat Road, which skirts the scenic Lake Matheson on the way to the former gold settlement and seal colony at Gillespies Beach. The foot of the glacier itself is around 6km away.
The existence of a glacier is a balancing act between competing forces: snowfall at the névé, high in the mountains, battles with rapid melting at the terminal lower down the valley, the victor determining whether the glacier will advance or retreat. Snowfall, metres thick, gradually compacts to form clear blue ice, accumulating until it starts to flow downhill under its own weight. Friction against the valley walls slows the sides while ice in the centre slips down the valley, giving the characteristic scalloped effect on the surface, which is especially pronounced on such vigorous glaciers as Franz Josef and Fox. Where a riverbed steepens, the river forms a rapid: under similar conditions, glaciers break up into an icefall, full of towering blocks of ice known as seracs, separated by crevasses.
Visitors familiar with grubby glaciers in the European Alps or American Rockies will expect the surface to be mottled with rock debris which has fallen off the valley walls onto the surface; however, the glaciers here descend so steeply that the cover doesn’t have time to build up and they remain pristine. Rock still gets carried down with the glacier though, and when the glacier retreats, this is deposited as terminal moraine. Occasionally retreating glaciers leave behind huge chunks of ice which, on melting, form kettle lakes.
The most telling evidence of past glacial movements is the location of the trim line on the valley wall, caused by the glacier stripping away all vegetation. At Fox and Franz Josef, the advance associated with the Little Ice Age around 1750 left a very visible trim line high up the valley wall, separating mature rata from scrub.