Two of the world’s most accessible glaciers gouge their way out of New Zealand’s Southern Alps just a half hour’s drive apart by road.
Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are two of the star attractions of the South Island’s West Coast, a place of dense rainforest, high rainfall and the tumultuous Tasman Sea pounding against dramatic headlands and driftwood-strewn beaches.
Between 1983 and 2008, these maritime temperate zone glaciers confounded scientists by advancing at some of the fastest rates anywhere, while meanwhile in the rest of the world, glaciers were shrinking. At one point Fox Glacier was advancing by a metre a week – positively sprinting in geological terms.
But, now, finally the tide for NZ glaciers has turned too and Franz and Fox are shrinking…fast. So, now is the time to see them, before only remnants of these magnificent rivers of ice remain.
There are three ways to view the glaciers. One is to drive up the dramatic u-shaped valleys to the glacier carparks and then walk. The walks are relatively gentle, although the best view of Franz is where the track ends after snaking up the terminal moraine (the vast mound of gravels and boulders a glacier leaves behind as it retreats). Even though, for safety reasons you can’t go further, the view from here is spectacular. The ice shines white and glacial blue, crisscrossed with deep crevasses and punctuated with jagged pinnacles of ice known as seracs.
If you want the unforgettable experience of standing on the glacier itself, where the ice creaks and meltwater rushes through ice tunnels beneath one’s feet creaking, heli hikes are available on both glaciers. After a short spectacular helicopter trip, experienced glacier guides will take visitors on a tour of ice caves, crevasses, against a background of some of NZ’s highest mountains. It’s also possible to do scenic flights over the glaciers, sometimes with a short landing but no other walking involved.