Many of the crinklier bits of New Zealand’s geography were formed by the slow but insistent action of glaciers.
We were at the peak of our glaciation a few million years ago, during the last Ice Age, long before they invented homo sapiens, let alone digital photography.
Happily, though, although the earth has warmed up a bit and most of our glaciers have melted, there’s still a few lying around available to be inspected and have their picture taken.
The unique feature of the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers is their accessibility.
Franz Josef glacier, for example – named for the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I by his loyal subject, the surveyor Julius von Haast, in 1865 – is but a short walk from the car park off State Highway 6 in South Westland.
The approach is pretty enough in its own right, winding as the walk does through typical West Coast rainforest. And the sight at the end of it – the jumbled icefall of the glacier’s snout above its placid terminal lake – isn’t something you see every day. If you hang around long enough, increasingly in the era of climate change, you may be favoured with the sight of an iceberg calving from the glacier’s snout, crashing into the lake below. Bear this in mind if you decide to go kayaking on the lake: when the guides tell you not to approach the terminal face, there’s a ten-tonne reason for it.
You can join a guided tour up onto the glacier itself, and the more intrepid can explore the luminous ice caves and crevasses on its flanks. A more demanding climb alongside the glacier will take you up to the nevée (the snow reservoir that supplies the icefall) high up in the Southern Alps. Then again, you can accomplish the same ascent by helicopter, getting a once-in-a-lifetime view along the way.
The more southerly of the West Coast’s famous glaciers, the Fox, was named for noted nineteenth-century surveyor and politician, Sir William Fox, and requires a little more effort to visit on foot than Franz Josef, but is just as readily available by air. Whether you point and coo from your car as you drive by, take the time to tramp up the terminal face, fly over them or land on them, both can easily be incorporated into your unforgettable tour of the South Island.