Saturday, September 30, 2006


Shortly after booking into the park for the evening we took a walk into the town of Fox Glacier and booked ourselves on the next mornings half day glacier walk with Alpine Guides. We got up there nice and early and packed a bag with some drinks and snacks (One Square Meal cereal bar being our new favourite). Troy, our guide for the day, called us into the boot room where we got woolly socks, big clod hopper leather boots, a rain coat and some crampons. Along with another group we boarded a lovely old 1970's Bedford bus for the short ride up to the glacier car park.

Our group strode off up the path first, getting a good look at the terminal face of the Fox Glacier as we went. Although the public is allowed up to the terminal, only guided trips are allowed to walk on the glacier for safety reasons. The path led up through the forest to a set of 500 steeply carved steps. The couple of stops we made along the way were quite welcome, everyone but Troy huffing and puffing their way along. Fox Glacier and it's neighbour Franz Josef Glacier are two of only three glaciers within temperate rainforest zones. The other is in South America. As we walked on up the path I began to realise how massive the ice flow is. From the terminal to the horizon was 7km, with the twisting ice flows visible all the way. Troy informed us that beyond is another 6km.

We had to pause and cross an active rock spill area. Troy walked to the centre of the area watching a light on a small box attached to a sensor somewhere up the hill. We had to cross in groups of three when he said it was clear to do so, with strict instructions that we should run if he shouted because a rockfall would be occurring. The path continued and narrowed, being bordered by a sheer drop. At this point we had to keep hold of a chain running along the path.

At the terminal end of the glacier were many crevasses, these are giant rips in the surface of the ice going down to a depth of about 50 metres. We crossed from the hillside onto the glacier and put on our crampons. Because the glacier is an ever shifting and changing system the guiding company have to come out at 07:00 each morning to refresh the path or cut new steps. The going at this point was surprisingly easy. Being on the ice was fantastic. Because of the debris stirred up by the movement of the glacier the terminal is quite dirty. We walked further on to where the ice is cleaner, white at the surface where melting is occurring, but an eerie blue in the crevasses and further up the glacier. In places are streaks of dust along the ice faces. Some is clearly mud from the surrounding mountainside, but in other places it is a red colour. This, our guide explained, was Australian dust, blown over the Tasman during dust storms and fallen as snow on the glacier.

All too soon it was time to turn around and head back down, this time getting fantastic views of the valley, carved out by previous advances of the glacier. The terminal moraines of the previous limits were clearly visible. Troy also mentioned that we had passed the fault line which runs from Milford Sound to Nelson, where the Pacific plate pushes up against the Indo-Tasman plate. By the end of the walk I was a bit knackered and pleased that we hadn't done the full day trip. Also available is a heli-hike, though out of our budget range, still pretty good value. With that option you get choppered high up the glacier, walk for a couple of hours and then get choppered back.

As we walked down we noticed clouds rapidly creeping over the mountains and spilling into the valley. We'd managed to pick a beautiful sunny morning with just a few wisps of fluffy white cloud and a blue sky. That was turning though, scuppering our chances of the perfect Lake Matheson photograph. We gave it up as a bad job and drove up to Franz Josef. As we arrived it was raining so we made and ate lunch in the van. It eased off slightly so we braved the short walk to the lookout point. The Franz Josef Glacier is much steeper than the Fox Glacier, the main difference I could work out in the short time we were there. The drizzle began to pick back up again so we headed back to the van.

North of Franz Josef town and 13km from the highway is the small coastal village of Okarito. The village borders a lagoon full of bird-life. We drove through the little village and parked up in the basic camp site, a nice grassy area with an honesty system. It was refreshing being somewhere a bit cheaper after the past three camp sites. Even though it didn't have many facilities, or power, it did have coin operated showers. The breakers roaring away on the beach lulled us to sleep.

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