Sunday, 17 July 2016

Glacier Country- Fox Glacier

Catch-up, back to the Coast 

The day after our arrival at Franz Josef, the rain started and it rained solid for the next 10 days give or take the odd morning or afternoon when we managed to do a bit of exploring. First on the list was a trip back over the Omoeroa Saddle, on the winding and narrow main highway back to Fox Glacier to check the glacier out, just in case that incoming rough weather foiled our attempt later in our stay. 

Fox Glacier Village
The road to the glacier leaves the main highway just south of the village and follows the Fox River about 5kms up the valley to a large carpark.

We say hello to the friendly DOC Ranger who fills in the daily update board for the glacier. Today we can get to within 450 metres of the glacier and it's an hour long walk, about 3.5km return, according to my tracking app.

From the carpark the track drops down into the old glacier/river bed and weaves its way across and up a vast gravel plain. You can get an idea of the huge expanse of the glacier valley by keeping an eye out for people in the photos, some are mere dots on the landscape.

There are warnings everywhere; falling rocks, falling ice, slippery surfaces, flooding- this is an active glacier valley and an alpine environment that has rapidly changing weather patterns. 

From a vantage point early in the walk, the top of Fox Glacier can be seen, the terminal face is tucked around the edge of the mountain, front left.

After a number of  tourist deaths on and near both Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers, the warning signs now state the cold hard facts. Cross the barriers and you could die.

The elevation in the valley isn't actually that high at around 300mtrs but it's amazing how cold it becomes the further we move towards the glacier. Back at the carpark people are in short sleeves, some even wearing shorts and sandals. I think many would get caught out not realizing how cold it will be closer to the glacier. 

Can you see the people (specks) on the rise ahead of us? (click on the photo to enlarge)

Looking back down the valley with the sheer sided walls of the mountains that line the south side of the valley. Thousands of  years ago Fox Glacier filled this valley and flowed out towards the coast some 30kms away. You'll recall that Lake Matheson is a kettle lake left behind as the glacier withdrew.

The track cuts in close to Fox River and the terminal face is now in clear view....and those little specks on the track aren't getting any bigger.

It looks pretty benign here as we pass another warning sign, but this is where the river surge flows after heavy rain or when the terminal face calves sending torrents of water and icebergs down the river.

We finally reach the bottom of the climb up to the lookout, it's steep, rocky and slippery underfoot. And if to taunt us, on this quite tough, gut-busting climb, there are signs all the way up saying no stopping for 400mtrs. Like that's going to happen. Not. I'll rather take my chances with a wayward boulder than have my lungs burst.

Not far now David, one foot in front of the other; slowly, slowly does it.

And how the heck did he get up here before us! Tricked were you? 

And there in all it's glory, is Fox Glacier. Well in fact, not all it's glory because it's 13km long and reaches up and around the corner over the top of the deep crevasses. Glaciers constantly advance and retreat depending on the snow gathered in the upper catchment area and the ice melting in the lower part. Both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers were generally advancing from 1985 until 2009, they are currently in a retreating phase.

The glacier terminal face is constantly moving in this highly changeable environment. We can hear a distant rumble and cracking sound as a few chunks of ice drop of the side and fall into the river below. 

It's hard to get some perspective so I found a photo on the web which has people in it at the face, you can now see how tiny they are. This is where two tourists (brothers) were killed when they ignored the signs and barriers, and climbed down to check the face out. They were buried under an ice fall when the glacier calved blocks of ice the size of small cars.

Higher up the glacier, and where it flows around the corner, deep crevasses have opened up. I love the colour of the glacier, the soft aqua of solid ice and the steel gray of the moraine as it's pushed down and aside by the flow. It reminds me of soft whipped icecream. And as much as I love it, David dislikes it, he thinks it looks dirty is always disappointed when we see a glacier. I think he's been watching too much TV, he thinks it should be pristine white, crisp, clean and smooth!

Thoroughly disillusioned he heads back down the track (he wasn't really, it just suits my photo!) 

There's a steady trickle of people walking the track but not so many as to make it feel like Piccadilly Station. I bet in the summer the track would have a solid row of 'ants' moving back and forward across it.

And one last photo of the glacier as we make our way back to the carpark- I can't get enough of this amazing and majestic landscape. In this photo you can see people at the lookout, tiny black dots (click on the photo to enlarge). Fox (and Franz Josef) Glacier move at approximately 10 times the speed of other valley glaciers around the world. This is due to the funnel shape of the valley and the huge nevé, the snow accumulation area at the top of the glacier. Fox's nevé is 36 square kms, larger than the whole of Christchurch city.

And here is another photo from the web, Fox Glacier in 2006, just 10 years ago and you can see how far the glacier has retreated in just that short time. The waterfall you can see at the top right is in fact out of my picture above, just the bottom of the waterfall can be seen on the right.

We stop half way down the access road to check out the swingbridge that crosses the Fox River. The 70m suspension bridge was built in 1929 to provide access for the many visitors who walked up the valley from the Fox village, a walk that took them most of the day.

The road on the south side of the river wasn't constructed until the late 1930s, and then visitors still had to cross the bridge and walk to the terminal face. The north side road (the one we arrived on) wasn't built until the mid 1940s.

It was getting late but we drove over to the south side of the river and up that road to check out a couple of walks and to if there was a view from further away. The signs at the beginning of the road said 'No Campervans', but we know how many choose to ignore them so this barrier a little further on should stop them in their tracks. And there's even a turning bay just before the barrier so those who think they are smarter than the average bear can turn around.

The lush vibrant rainforest forms a living tunnel as the road gets narrower and we climb along the base of the mountains that form the glacier valley.

We stop to check out a warm spring on the side of the road; it's bubbling up ever so slightly in the back corner and trickling down a rock face leaving a stained sulphur trail behind and the water is luke warm. I wonder if anyone has tried bathing in here, it'd be a tight fit.

Our next stop is at a small lookout and through a gap in the trees I see another familiar sight from my stamp collecting days...

We have a good view of the top of the glacier, which we couldn't see from the north side of the river, and Douglas Peak (3077m) behind.

We carried on to the carpark at the end of the road where we stopped for a cup of tea but decided to leave the Chalet Lookout Walk for another time, the temperature was dropping fast and it was time to head back to Franz Josef before the road over the saddle iced up. 

Two days later the Fox Glacier walk closed for a number of days due to flooding and a big rock fall. 

Here's the blog on Franz Josef Glacier should you want to compare.



  1. Once again your stunning pictures have brought a lump to my throat. I know that every time I post it is ridiculously gushing, but there is something about your chatty delivery, your stunning photos and your real time posting (even when you are catching up!) that get to me. I really feel like I am getting to experience something virtually that I never could have afforded to do in real life. Last month when we went to Great Dixter, a glorious British garden and they had a great display of lupins I immediately thought of you. Thanks again for for sharing the beauty of NZ with strangers.

    1. Hi Kathy, nice to hear from you again and thankyou for your lovely words. I'm so pleased that you feel like you're right there with me, that's what I hoped to achieve when I started writing the blog. I know there are many people who'll never get the chance to explore like we're doing but at least they can come along on the virtual ride.
      I'd love to see the lupin display you talk of, I enjoyed the few English gardens we did see on our visits to the UK. I wasn't so into photography back then- which was probably a good thing otherwise I'd have never wanted to leave...the gardens or the UK.

  2. My kids and I did visited Fox Glacier a couple of years ago, it was summer and the track was a lot busier. We were very impressed that you can see the top of Fox Glacier from away out near the carpark to Lake Matheson - it's quite something to see a glacier coming down into rainforest so near the coast.
    Last year when I did my mid-winter visit to Lake Tekapo I treated myself to scenic flight which went over the Southern Alps and across the tops of those glaciers. You can tell David that they are lovely and white back up at the top!

    1. Hi Lisa, what a pity the glacier has retreated around the corner; that would have been an awesome sight from Lake Matheson. Hopefully it'll re-appear at some stage in the future. And yes, I think I must arrange a flight over the Alps to put all the mountains into perspective, I wasn't too impressed with the short flight they were doing onto the glacier (see the Franz Josef post).

  3. Love Franz. Thanks for sharing. Love your photos Shellie.

    1. Thanks Carron, glad you are enjoying the blogs.


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