Roaming the glaciers in New Zealand

by Mark.McGettigan

Queenstown might be heralded as the extreme sports capital of the world, but New Zealand’s glaciers are undoubtedly cooler

The South Island’s twin glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox – might only be a half-day’s journey up the west coast from New Zealand's tourist Mecca of Queenstown, but they are a million miles away in terms of approach. Sure, tourism is the main drawcard here, but the local businesses largely let the incredible scenery take the plaudits; and rightly so. Fox and Franz Josef are two of only three glaciers in the world that end at only 300m above sea level amidst lush tropical rainforest. And last time I checked, there still wasn’t a McDonald's...

The self-proclaimed ‘Glacier Country’ is fully aware of the appeal of its twin attractions – it’s estimated up to 1,000 visitors a day hike on them during high season – and the opportunities provided to explore them are many. From helicopter tours to crevasse climbs, the traveller with a bit of extra coin in his/her pocket is guaranteed a series of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experiences.
However, it is the guided walking tours on both glaciers that are the most heavily subscribed, and with good reason. The accessibility of the glaciers means that after a minimal approach, you are on the glacier itself, fully kitted out with crampons and ice axe, and ready to explore the incredible ice tunnels, moulins and crevasses. From the floor of the valley, the glacier gives the impression that you will spend your day walking on its surface – and in places you do – but the real beauty of this experience is when you drop below the visible surface and walk through corridors that boast ice walls as high as a three-storey house and as blue as a picture-postcard tropical sea. Just make sure you wrap up nice and warm. And rest assured, not only are the guides here experts, but they split the hikers into smaller groups to ensure you’ll get the most from your day.
Having spent a day roaming the ice fields of Franz Josef Glacier for eight hours, clambering through ice holes, crossing deep crevasses on rope bridges and scrambling up ice steps cut into the wall, it seemed unlikely that anything else was going to compare. How wrong I was – but I don’t think I have ever been so happy to be wrong - thanks to Skydive NZ Ltd.
Suiting up in the shadow of Fox Glacier, as my instructor ran through the basics of a tandem skydive, the old adage, ‘Why jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane?’, was forefront in my mind. As our little plane climbed to the jump height of 12,000ft, the view of the glaciers, the coastline and Mts Cook (the tallest mountain in Australasia) and Tasman was incredible, and probably worth the entrance fee alone. In fact, I wondered if I should just ask the pilot to take me back down? But there was another man strapped to my back, and he didn’t seem keen to let me bottle it. Then the doors opened, and we wriggled our way ungracefully into the open space. Even above the wind rushing past, I heard the solitary question, “Ready?”
Forty-five seconds of freefall seems a lot longer when you’re hurtling towards Earth with your face being pulled in various directions. Thankfully, the man in charge of the ripcord knew what he was doing. As he spun us round to get spectacular views of Fox Glacier and then the coastline (incidentally, only 27km from the base of Fox Glacier), the parachute opened, we jerked upwards slightly and the long, graceful descent back to solid ground began. Only then did I begin to breathe normally again, and my heart stop beating quite so loudly in my ears. Sitting on the grass field after landing, I took a look over my shoulder at the mighty mountains behind and smiled as I watched the plane taxi past with another pair of jumpers inside it. Throughout New Zealand there are plenty of opportunities to skydive, but none of them has this awe-inspiring backdrop. As the company itself says: ‘not all skydives are the same.’