You might be surprised to find that snow rarely falls in Franz Josef and
Fox Glacier townships - but a whole lot of it falls in the nearby
mountains, just what a glacier needs to produce ice. This ice pushes
down the steep valleys into the forest, meaning you don't have to walk
far to see an amazing West Coast ice cube.
There are two MUST DO glaciers on the West Coast in Glacier Country that are viewable near the road, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Glaciers descending into rainforest
The land where the glaciers are located is sandwiched between the sea
and the highest mountains in New Zealand. Warm, moist air travelling
from Australia drops snow in the higher elevations of the Southern Alps,
piling it up to form large neves or snowfields. Gravity then squeezes
it down the valley as if it were toothpaste and the once fluffy
snowflakes are compressed into hard blue ice. The valleys are so steep
and narrow that the tongues of ice have pushed far down into rainforest
and not much above sea level.
The forces generated by the moving tongue of ice grinds away at
everything in its path to reach the terminal face at the front of the
glacier. A glacier likes to find equilibrium, where the amount of ice
produced in the neve is equal to the amount of ice lost to melting in
its tongue. This results in the dramatic advances and retreats of the
terminal face of the two glaciers.
Franz Josef Glacier / Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere and Fox Glacier / Te Moeka o Tuawe
The Maori name for the Franz Josef Glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere
(‘The tears of Hinehukatere
‘). The legend of the Makawhio
people (a sub tribe of the Nga Tahu) says that Hinehukatere
was a fearless young woman who loved climbing in the mountains. She persuaded her lover, Wawe
to climb with her even though he was less experienced. Disaster struck when an avalanche swept Wawe
from the peaks to his death. The Fox Glacier was his final resting place, or moeka. Hinehukatere
was broken hearted and her many, many tears flowed down the mountain.
The gods froze these tears in a river of ice and the Franz Josef glacier
was formed as a reminder of her grief.
The choice of the glaciers European names is a little less romantic. In
1865 Julius Von Haast decided to name the Franz Josef glacier after “His
Imperial Majesty” Franz Josef I, Emperor of Austria and the local
village later took its name from the glacier. He also named the Fox
Glacier in honour of Sir William Fox, the New Zealand Premier. This was
only a couple of a number of landmarks that Mr Haast did not actually
‘discover’ as a European explorer, yet, he took the liberty of naming!
Guiding on the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Enterprising young men, including the well known Graham brothers saw a
future in guided excursions on the ice and by the 1900s tracks and
bridges were built to provide access. With a few temporary nails in the
soles of their shoes, ladies and gentlemen adorned in long dresses and
bow ties were soon regularly exploring the glaciers.
Today the gear is much higher tech but the wonder of being on the ice is the same as then. Take a guided tour with one of the many glacier guiding companies that operate in Glacier Country.
You can view the front of the glaciers yourself by walking the Glacier Valley Walks.
See how the Glacial Moraines carved the Valleys that exist today, and
as you are driving into the carparks, spot where the Glaciers' started
was in the years gone by.
Please do not go beyond the signposted barriers. The glaciers are a very dynamic area and rocks and ice are constantly falling off the terminal faces.