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.