FOX GLACIER, Nov 8 — Remember that scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when our heroes tried crossing the Pass of Caradhras? They were beat back by an ice storm summoned by the evil wizard Saruman.
Looking upon the frozen veneer of Fox Glacier in New Zealand’s South Island, we can’t help but ponder if this was what inspired director Peter Jackson’s wintry setting. We are about to find out; we’re going to try walking on that very glacier!
Measuring 13 kilometres long, the glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of the South Island. There aren’t any foxes native to the area; it gets its name from Sir William Fox, then Prime Minister of New Zealand who visited in 1872.
The Fox Glacier’s original name in Maori is Te Moeka o Tuawe, which means the “tears of Tuawe.” Local legend has it Tuawe lost her husband on the treacherous peaks and the gods supposedly froze her tears into a glacier as they flowed down the mountain.
Hikes directly up the glacier are no longer allowed due to how dangerous its terminal face can be. These days the only way to get onto the glacier is via a helicopter hiking tour. Flying towards the mountains, we can see how the glacier descends from the Southern Alps down into lush temperate rainforest just 300 metres above sea level.
As we approach, our pilot heads for a makeshift landing strip, basically the flattest section of the glacier. Once we have gotten off the helicopter, the next step is to put on the crampons — essentially sharp spikes for the soles of our shoes — that enable us to walk easily on the ice.
Here the actual walk begins with our guide carving fresh paths across the icy surface using his ice pick. He tells us that new ice features form while others change or vanish every hour so no one ever walks the same path twice.
This has the effect of us feeling like adventurous explorers – pioneers scaling virgin ice country for the first time. The sense of accomplishment lasts for all of a few minutes as we hurry to follow in our guide’s footsteps before the path he has made for us disappears.
Walking on ice is a weird feeling: on one hand, it feels very solid, thanks to the crunch of the ice; on the other, it can be nerve-wracking as you try to get a grip and not fall down. Everything looks like it’s been here since the Ice Age; in fact, Fox Glacier has been moving at an astounding rate — approximately 90 centimetres a day in the past two decades!
There is nothing quite like the experience of navigating around naturally “sculpted” ice caves and lowering yourself down into shallow crevasses. We crawl through ice tunnels. We stare up at the electric blue face of the mountain, all sunlight and sky and ice. It’s an incredible feeling.
Little wonder that we haven’t gotten our fill of glaciers. Fortunately for us, less than half an hour away from Fox Glacier is another famous glacier, the Franz Josef. Slightly shorter than Fox Glacier at 12 kilometres long, Franz Josef Glacier was named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by the German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865.
In Maori, however, it is known as Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which means “the tears of Hinehukatere.” According to native folklore, when an avalanche swept climber Wawe to his death, his lover Hinehukatere was heartbroken and her tears flowed down the mountain forming the glacier. (Yes, there’s definitely a trend with glacier names here.)
Franz Josef Glacier is steeper than Fox Glacier. Its dramatic incline creates a sense of awe, and for some of us, near vertigo. The river flowing from foot of Franz Josef is known as the Waiho River; its banks are strewn with rocks and pebbles that allow for a more laid-back approach.
Besides these two glaciers, another scenic spot not to miss is Lake Matheson, a five-minute drive from Fox Glacier. This kettle lake was formed 14,000 years ago, when the glacier had its last major retreat from the sea. In its wake, the glacier left a depression in the ground that later filled with water.
Lake Matheson is famous for its crystal-clear reflections of New Zealand’s two highest peaks — Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Thanks to its naturally dark brown waters caused by organic matter from the surrounding forest, the lake has a perfect reflective surface for the mountains in the east. The ultimate mirror lake.
We take a leisurely walk around the lake; it only takes 1.5 hours to complete the circuit and along the way we get stunning views of the mountains and native rimu trees repeated in reverse in the water, especially on a calm day. Pay close attention and you might see deer grazing, as we did, or even long-finned eels swimming in the lake.
Who needs the Pass of Caradhras when we can walk on glaciers and stroll around mirror lakes?
Use State Highway 6 to reach the town of Fox Glacier. By car, it’s about 5.5 hours from Christchurch in the north and 4.5 hours from Queenstown in the south.
To get to Franz-Josef Glacier from Fox Glacier, head east on Cook Flat Road toward State Highway 6. Continue for about 25 kilometres before turning left into Franz-Josef. For more information on booking a guided glacier hike, visit www.foxguides.co.nz.
To get to Lake Matheson, turn west onto Cook Flat Road toward Pekanga Drive. Drive for about 5 kilometres along this road until you see a signpost to turn right onto the side road to the lake.