Glacier Country

Our next stop as we continued our journey along the West Coast was in Glacier Country, home to the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. They are some of the South Island’s most popular attractions, and there are small Tourist towns servicing each of the glaciers. 

We were concerned our trip may be delayed, with a huge slip closing the highway that leads to the glaciers just a few days before we were due to travel. This left us at one point considering a 1,000km detour to make our prearranged tour of Franz Josef. Fortunately for us the road was partially reopened just in time and we were only delayed very briefly.

Upon arriving in the region our first stop was at Lake Matheson, which is just a short drive from Fox Glacier. Before beginning a walk around the lake we stopped for the obligatory coffee and cake at Matheson Cafe. While the refreshments were good, the view across to the peaks of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook were incredible. 

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We began along the trail that circuits the lake, with this taking us over a wooden boardwalk before entering into thick forest. As we continued, we reached several viewpoints over the lake, each complete with stunning mountain backdrop.

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The most frequently photographed view of the lake is at the aptly named View of Views lookout. We had the viewpoint to ourselves when we arrived, and spent several minutes taking in the beautiful view before us. Fortunately, despite the gentle breeze, we were still treated to almost mirror-like views of the mountains in the lake.

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We stayed the night in Franz Josef at the quiet and secluded Rainforest Retreat, waking up early and ready for our helihike tour of the glacier. We had been extremely excited for the trip since booking it in December, and we couldn’t wait to get started.

After checking into the tour, we were given a short safety briefing and provided with the required equipment, including waterproofs, gloves and crampons. Once all of our small group were ready, we were led through the rainforest to the awaiting helicopter.

We were soon up in the air and rising high into the valley towards the glacier. After around ten minutes of travelling through the steep canyon, we landed onto the thick ice of the glacier.

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After making it onto the ice we were led away from the helicopter, and introduced to our Canadian guide Cody. We put on our crampons and each took a walking pole, before being given a brief tutorial on walking on ice. Once satisfied we understood what to do, Cody led us along the start of the trail over the glacier.

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It was surprisingly easy to walk with the crampons, with confident, forward steps definitely key to not slipping. With the walking pole for support as well, we travelled along most of the path with ease. Franz Josef is fast moving for a glacier, and its features are constantly changing. This means the path taken across the ice also changes frequently, and at several points our guide had to cut new steps into the ice using an axe.

The path took us through several very narrow crevices, and we had to breathe in to squeeze through some sections. We blamed the numerous layers of clothing we were wearing to combat the cold, although our cake eating habit could have something to do with it!

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We also came across a small tunnel through the ice, and after Cody had attached a guide rope he encouraged us to climb through. Rachael volunteered to attempt the tunnel first and slid through easily, although given her size this didn’t appear to give the rest of the group much confidence. Fortunately I did manage to follow her through the slippery walls with surprising ease.  

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We stopped for a short break on a flat section of ice, with Cody giving us lots more interesting information about the glacier, which is currently in a period of retreat and has lost 800m of length in recent years.

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During the second half of our tour, the previously clear blue sky gradually began to fill with thick clouds. With helicopters unable to land on the glacier in low cloud there was talk of cancelling the afternoon tours, and we realised how lucky we had been with the perfect morning conditions.

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In total we spent over three hours hiking across the glacier, and it was an incredible experience to see its fascinating features in such detail. We were fortunate to have such a knowledgable guide, and we ended the tour knowing far more about glaciers than we did beforehand.

The tour also gave us access to the Franz Josef Hot Pools, and after our return helicopter flight, we changed into our swimwear before heading to the pools. It was the perfect way to warm up after a long day on the glacier. In fact we were soon far too warm, having missed the signs and climbed straight into the 40 degree pool, the warmest of those on offer.

We made one more stop in Fox Glacier for some overpriced petrol and another cake from Matheson Cafe (yes we have a problem), before beginning the long drive towards Wanaka.

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