The larger and longer of the two rivers of ice which descend through the South Westland forest. Guided walks on the glacier are available or you can take to the air and survey the scene from an helicopter. There are accommodation and eating places in the township. The Visitor Centre and DOC office are combined.
A helicopter lands softly on the upper icefall, dwarfed by colossal chunks of blue-white ice the size of small houses. Looking further up the glacier, these chunks form a river of massive, slow-moving ice that could mow down a ten-storey building without even stopping for breath. They loom above, waiting, as they slide ever so slowly down towards the sea. The wind is cold, biting, as it swirls down the ancient glacial u-shaped valley.
Franz Josef Glacier, which is 12 kilometres long, and nearby Fox Glacier, 13 kilometres long, are unusual in that they run almost to the sea while surrounded by dark green temperate rainforest. Unlike other coastal glaciers, these are at a relatively low altitude, with farms and villages nearby and a constant stream of people wandering up to the terminal faces to experience the ice. They are considered the most accessible glaciers in the world.
Options to view are many. You can take an easy walk along the river bed to the base of the glacier, admiring it from a distance and taking a few photos. The glacier moans and cracks as it moves, and occasionally a giant chunk of ice breaks off the face and crashes to the rocks below, shattering like a frozen elephant, so stand clear. You can join a guided ice walk and climb up onto the glacier itself. New steps are cut each day, as the glacier is constantly moving. Tricky places are wired, and occasionally bridged, so no previous experience is required to enjoy this expedition. Jackets, gloves and ice boots are provided and trips vary from a half to a full day.
Or you can take to a helicopter and combine a flight over the surround- ing mountains, whose snowfields feed the glaciers, with an excursion onto the upper icefall – weather permitting. Unlike the lower icefall, where the ice is a bit smaller and whiter, the ice further up is bigger, bluer, and the crevasses far deeper. The only sound is silence, broken by the occasional snap far beneath as the ice moves, and the low moan- ing of the alpine wind. It is a humbling place. Or you can enjoy the best of both and fly on to the upper icefall then walk down, a more demanding option but a once-in-a-lifetime experi- ence for many. Ice caves and séracs can be explored on the way.
After this adventure, ice-blocks tinkling in your pre-dinner drink will take on a whole new meaning. © Sue Farley 2006.