Yes, yes, it was longer than a day, I know. I got distracted by being invited to join in the hostel Sunday dinner (it was worth it!).
As you all already know by now, after leaving slightly boring Greymouth, I headed to Fox Glacier. New Zealand has two famous glaciers (many more that are less well known or less accessible) – Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Both glaciers have small townships nearby, which are around 25 minutes drive apart. I decided to stay at Fox over Franz Josef for no other reason than the hostel at Fox was cheaper. If you have a car, you can easily see both from just the one township, but without a car it’s a little more difficult. I booked 2 nights here, but due to the bus times it was really only dinner on the first night, one full day and then bus first thing in the morning.
The West Coast of the South Island, including the glaciers, see something like 200 days of rain each year, but I was lucky and didn’t get any rain at all between leaving Nelson and arriving in Wellington. Even for me as a British person, 200 days of rain seems like a lot. This, of course, has now led to me looking up the annual rainfall of Chesterfield (apparently we get on average 135 rainy days per year). It’s because of all that rain that the area has such lush temperate rainforests. Travelling down the west coast to Fox, it really is obvious that it just gets greener and greener (and let’s face it, New Zealand is pretty green to begin with), the forest becomes more and more dense, with more ferns and undergrowth. Part of what makes Fox and Franz Josef so popular is that, as well as descending to around 300 metres above sea level, they are surrounded by this temperate rainforest. The scenery really is like nothing else you will ever see.
For both glaciers, you can walk fairly easily to the terminal face. The car park at the start of the valley walk is a few kilometres from town, easily reached by car or shuttle. I’m going to write only about Fox, as I obviously haven’t done Franz Josef. The valley walk took about 30 minutes each way up to the viewing point 400m from the terminal face. Just as the name suggests, you are walking through the Fox River valley, then uphill towards the glacier. The first portion of the walk is essentially crossing the riverbed. This is a lot easier than it sounds, as the riverbed is mostly dry gravel and silt with smaller streams running through in places, easily crossed with well-placed stepping stones. However, due to the often inclement weather and regular falling ice, the water levels can rise very rapidly. It’s always advisable to check the weather forecast closely on the day you plan to visit, as you may need to turn back or the path might be closed. For the first 400m or so, you are warned not to stop – that’s how quickly the weather and water can turn.
After the first portion of not-stopping, you reach the first lookout since the car park. If you ever do visit, I strongly suggest that in addition to gawping at the glacier in front of you, you also turn around and gawp at the rainforest-covered valley behind you. In my opinion, that is just as impressive. Gawping over, you carry on across the riverbed and on to dry land, crossing bridges and stepping stones over a few more streams. Not long after, you reach the steepest part of the walk. Like the first 400m, the last 400m also have signs warning you not to stop before you reach the top. This is because, as well as rising water, the area is also at a serious risk of falling rocks and ice. Not exactly the place to stop and take a selfie… you might need to pause and get your breath back, just don’t pick that place for a 10 minute break! Hard part over, and you’ve made it! Now you can take that selfie (literally everyone… even me!). It is worth noting that you can actually see more of the glacier from the car park than the terminal face, but the bit you can see is a lot bigger (apparently that’s how distance works, who knew?!) and still very impressive. Once you have taken all the pictures you want and had time to appreciate the view from the lookout point, it’s time to turn around and do it all again.
The best way to see the glacier is, of course, to take a helicopter tour. You can even take a tour that flies you up to the top and then drops you off to walk on the glacier. These tours are super weather dependent, any change in the weather can delay or cancel your trip. Also, they cost a lot more than I could justify spending at this point in my trip!
As I only had one day and the weather was so good, I also decided to visit Lake Matheson, about 5km the other side of Fox Glacier township. Lake Matheson is famous for being the “mirror” lake that gives a perfectly reflected view of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Of course, to get a perfect reflection, you have to hope that there’s no wind and no clouds. They tell me the best times to get those conditions are at dawn or dusk, but when you don’t have a car, you have to take what you can get. I got there probably 30 minutes too late to get the perfect picture, but I’m still very impressed with the ones I got. The walk takes around an hour and fifteen minutes, with it being 30 minutes to the first “photo op”. In the 30 minutes between me entering the woods and reaching that point, a cloud decided to float right in front of Mount Cook. Very considerate of it! Also, you know, the breeze picked up and disturbed the water. Luckily for me, I had managed to get a perfect picture of the mountains from the very start of the walk, and I got a picture of the lake reflecting the trees before the breeze reached that far.
Lake Matheson shot right up towards the top of the list of New Zealand places I really want to visit again before leaving the country. It’s an easy walk, very peaceful, and even if you don’t get a good reflection, the pictures will still look incredible. What’s not to love?
So here it is. Another short and sweet update, and only one more before we reach Wellington! That one will be up in the next few days, but I don’t want to put a deadline on it. We all know how good I am at sticking to a posting schedule!
Coming soon: Wanaka and Queenstown (or, which lake would you live by if you had the chance?)