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Visiting New Zealand’s Glaciers

The overwhelming majority of New Zealand’s glaciers (all but twenty out of more than three-thousand) are to be found in the country’s Southern Alps. Discover the frozen beauty of New Zealand with Silver Fern Holidays…

Among the more spectacular features of New Zealand’s famously sweeping landscape are its glaciers. These enormous expanses of ice have literally helped to shape the country we know and love. If you’re planning a trip to this part of the world, you owe it to yourself to squeeze a visit to these stunning locations into your itinerary.

Franz Josef Glacier

The Franz Josef glacier is around twelve kilometres long, and descends to just three hundred metres above sea level. It was among the first in New Zealand to be named by Western explorers, in 1865, after the then Emperor of Austria.

Of course, it had a name before then: Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere, or ‘the tears of Hine Hukatere’. Hine Hukatere was a Maori ‘snow maiden’ whose lover was killed on the mountainside, and whose tears now flow slowly toward the sea in the form of an enormous glacier.

Look at the mountainside surrounding the top of the glacier, and it’s easy to see how this Maori story comes to life. It’s stunningly beautiful and, prior to the creation of modern helicopters and snow-scaling equipment, difficult to scale.

Image credit: Edwin.11 via Flikr

The glacier attracts around three thousand visitors per day, but the terminal face itself unstable. Thus, since 2012, the only way to reach the top has been via helicopter.

The glacier attracts around three thousand visitors per day, but the terminal face itself unstable. Thus, since 2012, the only way to reach the top has been via helicopter. Our Tane Mahuta 21-day tour, and “Best of New Zealand” tour both take you up to the Franz and Fox glaciers, where you’ll have the opportunity to go on a heli-hike.

A heli-hike of the Franz Josef glacier offers you the chance to see this beautiful behemoth from above during a short helicopter ride up to the top. From here, you’ll strap on your crampons, grab your poles, and go for a hike across the icy surface of the glacier; navigating corridors in the ice and stopping for breath-taking photos along the way.

A quick flight then takes you back to base where you can spend the day unwinding and exploring the beautiful alpine town of Franz Josef. Or, should the mood take you, the Fox glacier is just around the corner…

Fox Glacier

The Fox glacier, like its near-neighbour the Franz Josef Glacier, stretches down almost to sea level. It was named after Sir William Fox, the country’s Prime Minister from 1869-1872.  It flows through a valley of the same name, passing between kilometre-tall steep valley walls which the passage of ice has ground from the rock, more than eighteen-thousand years ago. From there, it descends through the centre of a temperate rainforest before coming to a grinding halt just twelve kilometres short of the Tasman Sea.

Image credit: Mario Karner via Unsplash

The Fox glacier measures around thirteen kilometres from end to end – and a trip along it will afford hikers a vivid illustration of the geological forces that have shaped the area. You’ll be able to take a hike up to the terminal face, a heli-hike across the glacier itself, or an airborne sightseeing trip that doesn’t land on the ice at all.

The Rob Roy Glacier

This glacier, as you might expect, is named after Rob Roy Peak, a Scottish explorer who farmed this area in the late 19th century. It’s a ‘hanging’ glacier, which terminates at the edge of a 4900-foot-tall cliff edge. During spring, when the ice melts slightly, this overhanging section can weaken sufficiently that bits of it fall off and crash into the valley below.

Being suspended in such a precarious position, close-up glimpses of this glacier are obtainable only by helicopter. But fantastic views of Rob Roy can also be had from below, on the Rob Roy valley track, a hiking trail in the valley below, leading to a lookout from which you can take in glacier itself. You’ll be able to take a hike through rainforests, across wooden bridges and waterfalls, and round it off with lunch beside the observation point. Time your trip just right, and you might be able to see and hear chunks of the glacier falling to the valley floor!

The Tasman Glacier

This glacier measures more than twenty-seven kilometres from end to end, and covers an area in excess of a hundred square kilometres. As such, it’s the largest in the country. It lies in the shadow of the nation’s tallest mountain, flowing south and east toward the Mackenzie Basin.

Being so gigantic, this glacier takes a little longer to traverse via helicopter – which contrasts markedly with similar trips taken up the Fox or Franz glaciers. From the top, you’ll get spectacular views of the summits of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook, and of the surrounding mountains.

Image credit: Ian Cochrane via Flikr

Tasman might be the biggest glacier on offer, but it’s also visibly shrinking – at a rate of around 180 metres per year.  This retreat is such that the various ponds at the foot of the glacier merged to form Tasman Lake in the 1970s – and the lake is expanding each year. Find the time to pay this spectacular glacier a visit, and be sure to do so quickly – as it won’t be around forever!

How to Visit New Zealand’s Glaciers

Getting to the Southern Alps themselves requires a drive that covers many hours and covers many winding mountain roads. This makes it the perfect road trip for those who enjoy scenic drives. Those interested in motorcycle tours of New Zealand will also relish the curvy mountain passes.

If you’d like to take in the scenery in a more relaxed setting, you might take the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth. The train journey will provide you with a perspective of the mountains that other modes of transport can’t replicate.

The Tasman Glacier lies on the opposite side of the Alps to the Fox and Franz Josef glacier, and thus a drive from Christchurch might be the easier option.

If you’re looking to get up-close-and-personal with these awe-inspiring natural phenomena, then there are two main options. The first is a walk across the ice itself – for which you’ll need appropriate equipment and a qualified guide. Glaciers are covered with hidden hazards, and so taking the appropriate precautions is crucial.

The second option will grant you an even more spectacular view of the glaciers. A heli-hike comprises both a helicopter survey of the glacier in question, and a short hike across the top of it. We’re able to arrange them as part of an unforgettable tour of New Zealand, so be sure to get in touch.

Glaciers, by their nature, are ever-changing – and vulnerable to the whims of the local weather. As such, it’s always possible that the timing or difficulty of your trip might change as the date gets nearer. No matter how you’d like to see these wonders of Mother Nature, Silver Fern Holidays can help get you there. Contact us today and discover how we can help you plan your dream, tailor-made holiday to New Zealand.

Header Image Credit: Esaias Tan via Unsplash

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