Ewan McDonald explores some of the country's most spectacular icy wonderlands.
Good things take time, as they say on the Mainland. For some of our most spectacular scenery, it'd be about 2 million years.
Unfortunately, it may not be as spectacular for much longer. We're encouraging you to take the opportunity to see the great glaciers of Aotearoa – often called "the most accessible in the world" – because scientists predict the effects of climate change are irreversible. Many will disappear, most shrink, in only a few years.
What are glaciers? Simply, massive bodies of fallen snow that have compressed into ice over centuries and move slowly down a mountain – a river of ice, not water. You might know the names of one or three but there are an astonishing 3147 in the South Island and just eight in the North, all small ones high up on Ruapehu.
There's even a region called "Glacier Country". It's the area surrounding Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, home to our highest mountains, wildest rivers, longest glaciers and tallest forests.
Part of Te Wāhipounamu Unesco World Heritage Site and only 25 minutes' drive from each other, Fox and Franz Josef are the most accessible of 60-plus glaciers in an other-worldly, ever-moving and rumbling landscape.
Clear blue ice, carved out by huge crevasses and caves, flows down from the Southern Alps through emerald rainforest almost to sea level. Until quite recently visitors could walk to a glacier face; it's now too dangerous and the only way to set foot on them is to fly in.
Fed by four alpine glaciers, Fox Glacier Te Moeka o Tuawe is longer and faster moving than Franz Josef Glacier Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. Its terminal face is just 5km from the village of the same name, a base for glacier hikes and scenic flights.
Several operators will fly you to a remote part of the glacier for an ice hike or an extreme all-day ice climb. Fox Glacier Guides' Flying Fox heli-hike, with two hours on the ice, was voted the world's #1 Out of the Ordinary Experience in Tripadvisor's 2021 Best of the Best awards. There's a more demanding seven-hour heli-hike experience or an ice-climbing adventure for fit adventurers (no previous experience required).
Plenty of activities close to the village include less stressful ways to experience the glacier – such as bush walks and glowworm spotting - or stopping the car at roadside lookouts.
Like its sibling, Franz Josef Glacier drops from the alps into the forest at near-sea level amid spectacular lakes, rivers and waterfalls backdropped by the mountains. And as at Fox, the glacier face is only 6km from its village; it's a 45-minute walk from carpark to public viewpoint.
You've a choice of operators for scenic flights and guided glacier hikes, and other adventure activities including biking and hiking trails, kayaking, quad biking or skydiving.
Across the Alps, below Aoraki Mt Cook, is Haupapa Tasman Glacier. It's young, getting rolling in 1974; our longest glacier at 23.5km, although it's shrunk quite a lot since the 1990s; and our largest, up to 4km wide and 600m thick and covering 101sq km.
See it soon: it's estimated Tasman Lake, at its foot, will reach its maximum size in less than 20 years and the glacier will eventually disappear. A lake cruise, surrounded by icebergs, is definitely recommended. Like its chums on the other side of the hills, you can get a good, free view on a short hike from the DOC carpark.
Here, skiers can tap into the thrills of skiing on a glacier – the ice prevents the snow from melting fast, ensuring non-stop good powder – and on the country's two longest ski runs.
Several operators fly guests to a landing zone 2500m up the mountains for 8-10km runs with a 1000m vertical descent. The runs are easy to moderate (green to blue grade), suitable for intermediate or first-time off-piste skiers (but not snowboarders). The small-group trip offers the chance to explore ice pillars and caves, and a picnic lunch on the snow. If skiing isn't your thing, there are options for hikes on the glacier.
The 18km Murchison Glacier on eastern Mt Cook is a go-to for hardcore climbers and skiers; more easy-going folk will opt for Hooker Glacier. The 5km, 3hr return Hooker Valley Track is the most popular short track in the national park and suits most fitness levels. You'll get unobstructed views of the Cloud Piercer, Hooker Lake and its icebergs (when available), as well as the glacier.
Fiordland takes its name from, and most of its visitors to, sights like Milford and Doubtless sounds, but Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks boast glaciers too.
Put Rob Roy Glacier on your to-do list but you'll have to save it for later because we're in avalanche season. Hanging dramatically off the edge of Rob Roy Peak, it's a magnificent sight from the 10km, 3-4hr Rob Roy Track, touted as one of the best one-day hikes in the country and suitable for older kids.
However, much of Fiordland's scenery lies far beyond tramping tracks, let alone roads. The best views are through the window of fixed-wing, floatplane or helicopter flights out of airports including Queenstown, Wānaka, Invercargill and Te Anau.
Volta Glacier on Mt Aspiring is one of the biggest in Aotearoa; "Glacier Alley", a unique ice amphitheatre on the Olivine Ice Plateau, is a highlight. Several flights offer the chance to land on a glacier such as the Donne on Tūtoko, Fiordland's highest peak, and include ice hikes.
For more travel inspiration, go to newzealand.com/nz.
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