Thursday 24th February - Hokitika to Fox Glacier (and Mt Cook!)

Mike and Liz Downing
Sat 26 Mar 2011 09:47
Heading south down the coast, following a road winding between the sea and the mountains, we headed for the west coast glaciers. New Zealand has many glaciers, but 2 are world famous as they come right down the valleys well bellow the tree line and are easy to get to. They are the Franz Josef glacier and, about 30 minutes drive further south, the Fox glacier. Villages have grown up at the base of each glacier and are called after them. We had booked a motel for 3 nights in Fox Glacier village, the smaller and quieter of the two places, although the Fox glacier itself is longer. An afternoon walk of about an hour along a very wide scree filled river valley took us to the terminal face and we saw our very first glacier, a huge, rugged mix of white, blue and grey ice towering up above us. The terminal face is constantly melting and dangerous as huge chunks of ice can break off at any time, so unless accompanied by a registered guide, you cannot go too close, but it was close enough and the glacier could be seen stretching up the valley to the snow capped mountains and Mt Tasman above, at a height of 11,473ft (NZ's 2nd highest mountain).  
So the following day it was a 30 minute drive back north to repeat the walk, but this time up the valley leading to the terminal face of the Franz Josef glacier. The valley is even wider, longer and not as dramatic and threatening as the Fox valley (where you are told not to stop walking as rocks and boulders can come crashing down at any time), but our second glacier was just as impressive as it carved its way through the rainforest clad valley sides.
The next day, Saturday, was just a little bit special. The overcast skies of the previous day were replaced by blue skies and sunshine, so we took our first ever helicopter ride, up into the mountains following the path of the Fox glacier. At the head of the glacier the 6-seater helicopter gained more height and headed towards and across the west face of Mt Cook, the highest mountain in NZ at 12,349ft. Seeing the snow capped peaks with bright blue sky behind was breathtaking. From there we headed back towards the Fox glacier and landed high up in the snow fields at its head. This gave an opportunity to get out and walk around on the snow covered glacier, trying to take in the vastness and beauty of all that we could see. Then it was back in the helicopter and back down the Fox glacier to the landing pad in the village. But that was not all - having seen it from the air it was time to join a half-day guided walk back through the valley, up through the rainforest clad hills and on to the glacier itself. With crampons on and stout sticks, and led by a guide with an ice axe cutting ice steps as he went, we walked through a small side crevasse, up on to and across the jagged surface of the glacier. With the sun still shining we saw ice caves, deep crevasses and ice of all shades white and blue - all quite amazing. Then it was a long walk back - off the glacier going down the side of the terminal face, rather than back through the forest, and back along the valley to a bus taking us back to the village. Days can't get much better than this!
Pictures we took from the helicopter are below, those from the walk on the glacier follow in the next entry (due to server size limits and too many photos!).
The summit of Mt Cook
The snow fields in the surrounding mountain tops where snow collects to feed the glacier.
So crisp and clear, looking across the mountains and above the clouds in the distance.
The summit of Mt Tasman (we think - don't normally get this close!)
The surface of the Fox glacier is very uneven in places (these chunks are huge), and ......
...... relatively smooth in others.
The glacier starts its journey down the valley.
The film star and her taxi!
Not a bad spot to go to for a photograph
In parts the Fox glacier is very steep as it heads down the valley, much more so than glaciers elsewhere.
It only takes around 40 or so years for the ice at the top to reach the bottom. On the Tasman glacier which is the longest in NZ and much flatter, it takes hundreds of years.
On the way back down looking down the valley to the coast and the Tasman Sea.