In 2012 a guided hike on Fox Glacier with Fox Glacier Guiding was 64th on the AA Travel “101 Must-Do List for Kiwis”, but it was number one on my wish list when we visited the West Coast of New Zealand. Mr ET was surprised by the cost but I was adamant that I was going whether he did or not! Of course, he had no intention of missing out…
Fox Glacier and its twin Franz Josef are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Area of Te Wahipounamu. It is one of the few glaciers in the world that is advancing instead of retreating and its terminal ends in dense green rainforest only 300 metres above sea level.
There are several ways of viewing Fox depending on budget, age and fitness levels. We decided to go on the guided helihike with Fox Glacier Guiding as it gave us the opportunity to hike on the ice in places that would be inaccessible on our own. The usual advice is that tours are dependent on weather conditions and although it was overcast and showery we made our booking the day before in the hope it would be fine the following day.
During the night we lay in bed listening to the rain pouring down and thinking that our chances weren’t good, but in the morning when we drew back the curtains in our room the view was glorious. Clear blue sky and a fresh dusting of snow on the highest peaks – it couldn’t have been better.
Our tour started at the helipad but before we could take off we needed to be kitted out and instructed in the safety requirements of the day. We’d been told to wear layered warm clothing, while thick socks and heavy leather hiking boots were included in the cost of our tour. They weren’t exactly fashionable but I knew once we were on the ice I’d be grateful for the protection they provided. We learned how to board the helicopter safely, use our headsets while flying and climb down to a safe area once we arrived on the glacier. Most important was the instruction to squat with our arms over our heads facing away from the helicopter when it took off again, as ice chips go hurtling through the air in the updraft.
It took only a few minutes to leave Fox Glacier township behind and fly up and over the glacier. We travelled along the length of the ice floe, over the mountains and the upper reaches of the glacier, and circled Victoria Falls before landing in the centre of the glacier.
Once the helicopter left the only sound was that of water flowing under the ice and dripping from the tops of ice caves, until there was a low rumbling as rocks and soil tumbled down the slope on a nearby mountain. Dean, our guide, assured us that minor landslides like this happen frequently after rain and aren’t dangerous.
There was one more thing to do before we started hiking. Everyone was given a set of spiky metal crampons, which attached to our boots and gave us traction on the slippery surfaces, and a walking pole to aid our balance.
Finally we were ready to go. We played follow the leader as Dean took us past deep blue crevasses, tiny sparkling waterfalls and blindingly white hillocks of hard-packed ice. Occasionally we waited as he searched for the best route and carved out steps with his pickaxe.
The highlight of the day came when Dean discovered the entry to an ice cave hidden in the side of a frozen hill. He set up a knotted rope tethered to hooks which were hammered into the wall of the cave and showed us the best way to get into the cave. That was easier said than done and instead of an elegant and controlled entrance I simply slid from the top of the cave to the floor as if I was on a rollercoaster. Once there I was left breathless, as much by my surroundings as my helter skelter descent. The ice inside the cave glowed, luminous and blue, and a frosty silence wrapped itself around us.
If entering the ice cave was tricky, climbing out again was even more difficult. Those crampons really earned their keep as I dug them into the walls of the cave and pushed with my legs, while pulling myself up by the rope, one knot at a time.
After 2 ½ hours on the ice it was time to make our way back to the helicopter landing site and return to the township.
We had one last birds-eye view of the glacier as we flew high and then swooped down its length, over the Fox River and the forest. As we landed, Mr ET turned to me with a glowing smile and said: “That was the best thing I have ever done.” Money well spent!