Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Fox Glacier vs. Franz Josef Glacier

The next morning, after fighting off the bugs, I got dressed and snuck into the driver's seat via the small passageway through the folded-down middle seat of the front bench and under the framing and curtain holders, trying to avoid stepping outside and letting in more bugs. Just an hour or two up the road, and I arrived at my first destination, Fox Glacier. Completely out of place, a short drive along a dirt road through thick rainforest leads to...a huge mass of ice, looming in the valley of two green mountains. The glacier is one of the fastest moving in the world, and it has been advancing and retreating in waves for as long as has been recorded. Just fifty years ago, it was a few kilometers down the access road, as indicated by sign posts, though it is said to be retreating now, perhaps in part due to global warming, if that does exist. The speed of the advancing glacier and large amounts of accumulation from the mountains above allow it to exist in such temperate conditions. The glacial valley itself is quite dramatic, with huge rock walls advancing almost vertically along the sides where the glacier used to be, scraping away at the mountains and leaving a gray river full of boulders and pebbles in its place. I followed the other tourists passed a few warning signs, and I may or may not have crossed one of the barriers to get an up close look at the block of ice. It wasn't quite peer pressure as I saw everyone else doing it, it was more of peer acceptance, figuring that if that old guy could do it and that out of shape lady could do it and that naive German tourist could do it, of course I could. So, I walked through the rockslide area, along the river, feeling the breezes of air get colder and colder as it came off the glacier. Soon, I was upon the ice mass, in awe of the size of the beast. Huge chunks of ice larger than boulders fell into the water and floated viciously downstream, noisily ramming other rocks and the shore along the way, giving a true impression of the natural power of the area. An ice cave about 30 feet high had formed in the opening of the front of the glacier where the ice was melting away, falling into the river below, and this is one of the reasons that the barriers were up. The unstable ice cave/arch can collapse at any time, causing a huge surge in the water below, taking with it any unsuspecting tourists trying to get just a bit closer for the perfect shot along the banks of the frosty brownish water. Much like an iceberg, we could only see a bit of the entire ice structure which continues up into the mist and peaks for 13 km, though that comparison makes absolutely no sense if you know anything about icebergs. It just came to me, though. The front of the glacier contains the debris carried down by the entire glacier, so the visible ice is littered with rocks and gravel along the face, combining with the pure blues and whites to create an interesting mix of natural beauty and ruggedness.

I stared at the dwarfing glacier for almost an hour before returning back to "town" and checking out the one supermarket. Amazingly, as I searched the aisles aimlessly, I found something that caught my attention - they had taco shells, so the wheels in my mind started turning. I found some taco sauce and lettuce, so all I needed was the meat. They didn't have anything close to ground beef in the meat section, so I ended up in the soup section where I found a can of Savoury Mince, which is basically some cheap ground beef and pork along with chopped bits of carrot and peas, somewhat like a beef stew or vegetable beef soup combo. I figured this would have to do, so I made my purchase (along with some cookies and amazing double chocolate muffins), and I went happily on my way, excited about the prospect of dinner. I drove off from the tiny town, looking for a place to park the van for the night and start my feast. Along the winding, steep road, I found a few gravel pullouts around wide turns, but I didn't like the prospect of having headlights shine in every time someone came around the corner, so I kept looking. While braking down one hill, I saw the telltale track of a good spot - two tire tracks in a tiny clearing of the forest. I quickly turned around and headed back to check out the spot. The two tracks with grass and small plants in between lead around a short bend then emptied into a nice parking lot sort of area, what appeared to be some sort of construction site a few years ago. It was a perfect spot in the middle of the woods, so I claimed it as my own for the night and began my dinner preparations. First, trying to heat the contents of the can to make the mix a bit better and more taco-like, I found that I actually don't have the hose to connect the gas canister to my stove, so that idea was a bust. Up to this point, I'd just been eating cold food or cooking at the random motor camp where I have stayed a few times that have community kitchens. So, the meal would be cold, but I didn't think it would be a problem, and I figured that if they're selling it as soup, the meat must already be cooked, so I'd be alright healthwise. So, I mixed in the taco sauce with chunks of the meat/soup, took out the shells, and made the best of it. This was no Taco Bell, but it wasn't bad, and I was pretty proud of it. Six tacos later, I decided that I was finished, and I could save the other half of the meal for the next night, making the meal both good and economical.

Again rain poured down at times during the night and the early morning, so I got a little later start than normal - about 9 am. (Normally I would get up late, but I've adjusted to living by the sun, since there's not much to do in a campervan once the sun goes down.) Immediately, I was enthralled by the awesome views all around - the sun peaking through the mist providing bright blue skies and reflecting off the rain soaked vegetation. The valleys below were green and lush, with the occasional waterfall replenishing the rivers and streams passing through. I first drove back to the Fox Glacier area, just to make sure that I wasn't missing any spectacular views there, but the morning clouds were still covering the mountains that loom behind the glacier, so I turned back and headed North to the Franz Josef glacier, only 25 km away. Franz Josef is the more popular of the two glaciers, meaning a bit more people and one or two more cafes, though it also wasn't much of a township. As before, I followed a murky river up into the rainforest before coming to a clearing, revealing a white swath in the area between the two green mountains. I made my way to the first lookout at Sentinel Point and saw the extent of the glacier. Similar to the Fox, it stretches from the rocky river bed below up to the peaks of the mountains around, with steep canyon-like walls on either side where the glacier had been in previous years. Waterfalls came down the side, fueled by the rain from the night before, and the clouds still hung overhead, though they began to clear as the morning progressed.

I moved on to the next track, a walk in the glacial valley along the river, up to the face of the glacier. The signs advised walkers to be careful, knowledgeable, or with a guide, but I figured my previous days glacier walking experience served me well, so I pressed on, along with the other intrepid visitors. The moss and lichen in the area are slowly trying to take back the exposed valley, leaving interesting green, red and yellow patches along the rocks. I also saw a few spots that were blocked off, protecting some native vegetation that is only known to exist in four locations, though it didn't look much different that the other stuff, so no pictures there. Nearing the terminus, the air again grew cold, and the warning signs grew more frequent and desperate. I stopped at the ropes that said "Do Not Proceed." Only the guided tours that walked on the glacier walked past this point, supposedly, though more and more people kept passing by me, making their own ways to the ice. After a motivation speech from an Englishman who said it was completely worth it and easier than other parts of the walk, "Bollocks to these ropes," he said, I was convinced, so I made my way over the final boulders to the frozen wall of ice. This glacier also had an ice arch from melting away at the bottom, though I wasn't foolish enough as another visitor who decided to go right underneath it, at the water's edge for a better view. Not too long ago, two tourists were trapped by a collapse in the cave, and the rangers had to risk their own lives saving them, prompting the posting around town of the newspaper's account of the story and the "bloody stupid tourists," as the ranger said. This fearless visitor also proceeded to climb the ladder and ice stairs carved into the glacier for the guided walks on top of the front of the glacier, but I resisted the urge. This mass of ice isn't as long as the Fox Glacier, but it's just as, if not more impressive, sandwiched between the two mountains and forest. I slowly backed away, admiring the shining blues of the ice, poking out in between the muted grays of the ridges where the debris collected.

Just as I arrived safely back to the parking lot, the rain started to come down, so I jumped in and made some lunch - peanut butter and honey sandwiches, topped with a thin layer of Cocoa Krispies. I had the idea the other day for the concoction, and it's quite good, so I think I'll stick with it. Surely, bits of sugary chocolate will make anything better, and sandwiches are no exception. I've also been eating many handfuls of these for breakfast, since I decided that it wasn't worth it to buy milk and worry about keeping it cold all the time. In addition, I have a few more plastic bags of food in the corner of the van with some fruit and muesli, a sort of oatmeal type cereal with bits of dried fruit that also makes a great snack and is very popular down under. After lunch, I pulled out, but then I looked up and saw that the clouds over the apex of the glacier had cleared, so I pulled back into my space and walked back to the lookout point for a few more pictures and moments of awe. I hung out in town for a little while longer, filled up on gas and candy, and I was soon back on my way, with a few hours of daylight to spare. My next stop was somewhere further up the West Coast, but I had no real idea where, so I hit the road and figured I'd decide something along the way. That's the beauty of the campervan. I can basically just drive until I find an opening on the side of the road or am sick of driving, and then I simply pull over and call it a night. It's been a great way to see the country, especially given my impulsive stops and lack of true planning, which has made the trip much more enjoyable and a bit of an adventure. Planning every last detail in travelling never works anyway and causes frustration, so I'm completely avoiding that whole issue. I have places in mind that I'd like to visit, I know what I really want to see when I get there, and I have a somewhat general idea of what direction I should be travelling, but that's about it. The other nice thing is that the road, signs and facilities of New Zealand are perfectly geared for tourists, so it's not a problem arriving somewhere without a clue of what's going on.

(The cliff carved away by the Fox Glacier)

(The front of Fox Glacier. For a bit of perspective, that ice cave at the entrance is about 35 feet high. It's big. Picture - not so big. Real life - very big.)

(A closeup of the ice cave and the boulder sized chunks of ice floating down the muddy river)

(A distant view of the Franz Josef Glacier, sandwiched between the two mountains)

(Getting closer...)

(The ice cave and blue/gray scenery at the terminus of the Franz Josef)


☆*´`*★me★*´`*☆ said...

wow, what a great account of the glaciers. i googled "fox vs franz" and stumbled upon your blog. i was trying to decide which one to visit/climb.
which one did you like best? do you have any more pictures than what you've posted?
btw, next time get some long life milk. it doesn't have to be refrigerated, great for camping type adventures. they sell them all over the place down under.

Derek said...

Hey Kits. I'm a little late on the response here, so sorry about that. If it's any help now, I liked the Fox Glacier better, just because there were fewer people there. If you could find a hiking tour of this glacier, that would be ideal. On Franz Josef, there were a good number of tours up on the glacier, so when you get up close, you could see some ladders and people climbing around on the top of it. As for which is the most impressive, they are both beautiful settings, though I'd say the Franz Josef is just slightly better, though the Fox would probably be better if I had just stopped at the ropes telling you not to proceed further.

Thanks for the tip on the milk. I'll keep an eye out for it next time, as I was dying for some good cereal by the end of this trip. And, yes, I have plenty more pictures, if you're still interested. derekbrace[at]gmail.com

Rick Bot said...

Maybe too late for Kits, but just the advice I was looking for (re: glaciers, not longlife milk).

Cheers, Derek!

Derek said...

I'm glad I could help. Enjoy your trip, Rick Bot. That area is beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Hi hi Derek... I'm also looking for advice as to which glacier walk to do... Franz Josef is a shorter walk but steeper than Fox Glacier... Can't decide coz I'm sure both are just as awesome...
Was Franz Josef really that crowded when you went? Can I really wear shorts? Thanx :)

Derek said...

As I said, I'd opt for the Fox Glacier, if both have tours at about the same price. When I was at Franz Josef, you could see distant lines of tour groups snaking up the glacier and the numerous ladders on the side of the glacier. It would obviously be an amazing experience at either one, but I think it would make it that much more special with less people around.

I was there in late Feb or early March, and it was fairly cold (jeans and a decent jacket), but I imagine if you're there in summer and doing a bit of physical exertion, maybe a thin pair of pants, jacket that can be removed and t-shirt would be fine. I'd think shorts might be a little cold, since you might be rubbing up against the ice here and there.


Paul B. said...


The wife and I (both in our late 20's) are heading over from the U.S. for 2 weeks in early March. We're the type to plan the details of a trip, but not afraid to deviate from the plan. Along those lines, were you ever hassled for just pulling over and camping wherever you pleased? Is that common? I'm all for doing as you did, i just wanted to know what the "norm" is so i don't wind up getting in trouble. Thanks!

Paul B.

Derek said...

Hey Paul,
I rode around the country in my little van for about six weeks, mostly sleeping on the side of the road, rest areas, etc without a single problem. Especially on the South Island, it's fairly easy to find a relatively quiet road and just stay around there for the night. If you want something in between, there are various camping sites that allow campervans, so you pay something like $10 for a spot which gives you a little more comfort and has showers and possibly a kitchen.

As far as prevalance, you will certainly see some shoestring backpackers with old minivans parked on the side of the road here and there, and I really didn't hear about any problems. Also, I do remember a few of the tourist hubs having signs in parking lots explicitly forbidding campervans from staying overnight, sort of implying that it might be ok in areas where that is not posted.

For me, the freedom of having your own transportation and not really worrying too much about where you'll end up that evening was perfect, and I think NZ is one of the few places with the combination of spectacular scenery, good roads, and very little crime where you feel pretty safe sleeping on the side of the road. Plus, if the weather changes, you have the freedom to completely change your plans based on where you want to drive that day.

So you may want a hostel or something for a day or two to get out of the van, cook a nice meal, etc, but besides that, you could probably do a nice mix of staying on the side of the road in little pullouts or rest areas in the countryside and camping parks in more populated areas.

Unknown said...

My husband I are going to the south island in March 2011, and I was wondering the same thing between the two glaciers. Thanks for the info.

How long did it take for you to see the Fox glacier once you parked at the side of the road? We're just driving through all the way down to Queenstown and picking a place to stay on the last leg before we get there and wondering if we have time to see the glacier in the morning and then drive 4 hours down to Queenstown for the night.

Derek said...

Veronica, I don't remember exactly how far it was from the parking lot to the glacier, but it certainly wasn't a huge distance, and I think you should have no problem doing it on your way down, if you're just planning on stopping off, having a look for a while to enjoy the views and moving on. It's been a while, but I feel like I just spent around two hours there, walking up to the face, hanging out for a while and heading back, and you could surely even do it faster than that if you needed...

Unknown said...

Thanks Derek. I really appreciate you replying so fast, I know this post is old!

Yeah that's what I was wondering if we could just go take a walk up and see it, might as well try if we're driving through. I just didn't want to go for a full day hike as we don't have time this time. We tried glacier hunting in Iceland, but went in the summer and couldn't really find one by ourselves, it was pretty remote out there in the national parks and so misty you can't see much. I appreciate it!

potatochipchocolate said...

Thanks, for the info

potatochipchocolate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks Derek - very helpful!

Anonymous said...

Just to remind people that crossing the limits is dangerous at Fox Glacier. Sorry to be like that, but if it can save lifes...

Accidents on the Glacier
Two Australian tourists, Ashish Miranda and Akshay Miranda, were killed 8 January 2009 when more than 100 tonnes of ice fell on them. They were not part of a guided group and had crossed safety barriers and walked approximately 500 metres to the terminal face to take photos.

Ashish's body was recovered shortly after the accident. At the time, it was thought by rescuers that Akshay might have to be left under the ice permanently. However his body was recovered a week later, 10 km downstream from the accident.

Derek said...

Absolutely - this area is always changing and can be dangerous or even life-threatening. If I went back, I think I'd do one of the glacier tours, as a safer and more in depth way to see the area and be able to walk around on the beautiful ice.

Copyright © Derek's Travels | Published By Blogger Templates20

Design by Anders Noren | Theme by NewBloggerThemes.com