Remember Foxes Glacier Mints? Remember the advert, with the Polar Bear stood on top with a smile on his/her face? Well the only resemblance that the sweet has to this is that they almost bear the same name. No Polar Bears, no sweet wrappers. The NZ version is a real glacier.
Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe is an 8 mile long temperate maritime glacier located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of South Island. It was named in 1872 after a visit by then Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir William Fox. Following the passage of the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act the name of the glacier was officially altered to Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe in 1998.
The Glacier shrouded in Cloud
Fox Glacier is also a the name of a quiet farming settlement which nestles in the lee of the glacier, just over half way down the West Coast Highway. It attracts visitors from all over the world who come for the glacier, for hiking the in mountains and for Lake Matheson or Mirror Lake which is about 6km away. In close proximity to Fox Glacier are Mount Cook or Aoraki to give its Maori name, New Zealand’s highest mountain and Mount Tasman or Mount Tasman to give its Maori name, the second highest! No prizes for guessing who they are named after.
In this small village there is an I-site, a petrol station, General store, four cafe’s, four bars/restaurants, several motels and most surprisingly, four helicopter companies all offering flights to the glaciers (Franz Josef Glacier is nearby) guided heli-hiking, where walkers are dropped off in the mountains and are led down by guide, and more adventurous pursuits. So it is not surprising that Fox and its neighbour Frans Josef are so popular. Despite this, Fox Glacier, the village is swamped daily by tourists and visitors, looking for Helicopter Flights and the Mirror Lake, more of which later.
The helicopter companies offer a range of options for their flights from the quick fifteen minute flyby, to the “we’ll fly you up there in the morning at 8am and you walk down” option. They do give you a guide though. I opted for a 30 minute experience which gave me a flypast of Mount Cook Summit, land on the glacier and get out for some pics, then fly back to the landing site. Lyn declined to take this trip. She hates flying at the best of times and is only relatively comfortable on anything with four engines and a wide body. So the chances of her joining me on this trip were exactly zero!
We had two full days in Fox but the first day, all flights are booked. This was a good thing as the weather closed in rapidly mid morning, grey cloud and rain shrouded the mountain peaks which spread to lower levels later on.
In Search of the Fox Glacier
The second day was more promising, so at the appointed hour I duly reported for my flight. After check in – they weigh you for a helicopter trip – we had a safety briefing. This consisted basically of “do not walk round the back of the aircraft, tail rotors bite and do hurt if you get in their way; listen and obey instructions of the pilot and groundcrew, and if you drop something whilst we are flying tell the pilot as lose articles are not welcome inside a helicopter.”
Briefing over, we were taken to the helicopter landing site (HLS) about 1.5 miles from the office. We arrived just as the helicopter, a Hughes 500, was returning from his previous trip, so once on the ground, the driver, who doubled as groundcrew started a rotors running refuel in exactly the same way as you would fill a car. Once done the pilot returned with a cup of coffee and we boarded. The seat configuration meant that there were 3 in the front including the pilot and two in the back. Weight distribution was not a problem in this instance.
Clockwise from top left: View from the Helicopter site; Hughes 500; Just airborne: Flying up the valley.
We took off and skimmed low level across the flat plain to the head of the valley before climbing, following the side of the valley as we went. The tree canopy below was incredibly dense and tightly packed and it resembled looking down on a Broccoli forest.
Top to Bottom: Top of the Valley with the Mountains ahead; Views of Mount Cook; Bottom: Approaching Fox Glacier
Soon we were above the tree line and right ahead towering above us was the snow covered peak of Mount Cook. We climbed further until at around 8500ft the pilot flew around the summit so that we could all get photographs. Scattered cloud settled just below the top, it was a breathtaking sight, it looked so close as we flew over the ridge just below the summit and back round. From there we flew across to the slightly smaller but no less impressive Mount Tasman before descending gently to land on the glacier below. There were two other helicopters on the glacier when we arrived and they looked so small against the massive landscape. There is only a small safe area that can be used as a landing site so we put down safely, and de-planed, still with rotors running on idle so that we could walk around a bit and take pictures and have our own taken by the pilot. The air was so clear, crisp and fresh spoilt only by the gentle waft of helicopter exhaust as one lifted away from the site.
Clockwise from top left: Mount Tasman: two shots of the glacier surface; Landing on the glacier…..the pilot had his door open at the time looking for a good spot.
Views from the Glacier surface
More shots from the glacier
Very soon it was our turn to depart and as we returned to the aircraft we swapped so that I was in the back for the return trip. Airborne again we flew down the right side of the glacier, over an enormous waterfall plunging down a rocky cliff face before dropping down below the tree line and returning to our HLS. It was an unforgettable experience. I love helicopter flying and remember my experiences from the RAF fondly but this was better than any trip I did with the the military. Wonderful. Lyn was pleased ‘I filled my boots’ and thankful that I returned unharmed.
Top to Bottom: Airborne from the glacier; Last view of Fox Glacier; Victoria Falls; The Moraine outfall; Almost home.
There is another, less expensive way to get sight of the glacier without leaving the ground and that is to follow one of the local walking tracks which eventually will give you a good, ground level view. Naturally,one afternoon we followed the main track . (You can’t get enough of a good glacier!) Sadly, once again nature had intervened in the shape of that bad storm South Island had suffered on 1 Feb (I have mentioned it previously) which swept away part of the road to the viewing area car park which meant the road was closed. It had also wrecked the path just after a bridge crossing. So no close up of the glacier whilst keeping your feet firmly on the ground.
Anti-Clockwise from top: Fast flowing river from the glacier; Another swing Bridge-the path was closed just after the the bridge; Lyn on the bridge; Us on the bridge.
The other attraction that brings so many to Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson. Known as Mirror Lake because on a calm day the reflections of Mount Cook and the surrounding peaks can be seen in the still blue water of the lake. It is one of the iconic shots of New Zealand and is used endlessly by the marketing people when advertising the country. The trouble is, you need two things to achieve the reflections, a clear blue sky and no wind whatsoever.
Top: How we saw Lake Matheson the first time; Bottom: What it is supposed to look like-shot from an information board.
We paid two visits, on the first it rained all afternoon, on the second, after the flight, the peaks were shrouded in cloud, the sun was out but the wind was blowing about 25kts down the lake! So no mirror for us. I would image that the conditions needed to achieve the mirror lake shots happen about five times a year so as a tourist you would have to be very lucky to see this effect. Nevertheless the path round the lake is a good walk with some excellent viewpoints, if you don’t mind sharing it with hoards of others from all over the world. The cafe served excellent coffee but the “Gallery” opposite is actually a tourist shop and an an expensive one at that! Selfie Sticks are banned on this walk as are that latest of photographic implements, the dreaded Drone. Hurrayyyyyyyyyyyyy!!
Slightly better the second time round. :US at Lake Matheson hoping the wind would drop and the cloud cover lift from the mountains behind.
Having ticked both tourist boxes in Fox Glacier it was time to move on. Our next port of call is Wanaka in the Otago district of South Island, still on the west side a little inland but still close to the coast.