The west coast of the South Island of New Zealand has some spectacular and rugged coastline, with a thin strip of land between the sea and the stunning Southern Alps. The West side of the Southern Alps has two magnificent and easily accessible glaciers, Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers. Coming from Queenstown I arrived at the small town of Fox Glacier and set up camp by around lunchtime. This gave me the afternoon to go and explore the glacier.
There are several ways to see the glacier depending on your budget and your sense of adventure. Being the adventurous type, I wanted to set foot on the glacier itself and chose to spend the money on a “Heli Hike”. A Heli Hike involves a scenic helicopter flight over the glacier, before landing on the glacier itself where you get to go on a guided hike on the ice for a few hours. You are provided with boots, crampons and a walking pole, so all you have to bring is some warm and preferably waterproof clothing (Yes ice is made out of water, so you can get wet if you fall over), a bottle of water, snacks and most importantly your camera.
The flight over the glacier is spectacular, and though the weather wasn’t great when I was there, I still had excellent views. After circling over the glacier for a while the pilot brought the helicopter down to land on the ice. As we got closer I could make out the group before us waiting to be picked up on the ice. This was a great way to see the scale of the glacier, with the people looking like ants on the huge river of ice.
Once the helicopter had landed we got off and had to walk along the ice to a safe distance away from the chopper. Kneeling down on the ice, we waited for the other group to get on the helicopter to fly back to town. Once it left we able to start our hike.
Our guide went through some safety tips with us and showed us how to use our crampons and how to walk the glacier to reduce the risk of any injuries. A glacier is of course a river of ice which is constantly moving and changing and is a dangerous place, full of crevasses and melting ice. It’s very important to listen and follow your guide’s advice throughout the hike.
Walking on the ice is a little weird at first but it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Following our guide we walked around the glacier for a few hours. Being on a glacier almost felt like being on another planet. The different shapes and colours of the ice was amazing and I could just about feel the pure power of the tonnes of ice beneath my feet. At times I could see all the way up the glacier to the mountain peaks above, and at other times I felt small and claustrophobic walking through deep gashes in the ice.
Along the way our guide searched out some of the ice caves on the glacier, and making sure that they were safe we were able to go into and sometimes through the caves. I jumped at the chance and found myself inside the glacier where I could see the amazing blue colours of the older ice.
After a few hours of hiking on the ice we made our way back to the temporary helipad to wait for the chopper to arrive to take us back to town. The clouds cleared just long enough for us to get a good view right to the top of the glacier.
My Helihike on Fox Glacier was one of the best experiences that I have had and I will definitely do it again if I get the chance. Back in 2005 this cost me around $250NZD, though these days I have heard that it has gone up to around $400. Don’t let the price deter you, this is an amazing experience and one that you should try to include on your tour of New Zealand’s South Island.