In keeping with the enormous magnitude of mountains in New Zealand (less than 25 per cent of the country is under 200m above sea level so the entire country is more or less mountainous), there are glaciers and snow fields of considerable size. In the South Island the glaciers are enormous and perhaps the three best-known glaciers in New Zealand are in this area. They are the Fox, Franz Josef and the Tasman Glaciers.

Glacier walking started at Fox Glacier towards the end of the last century. Even today local guides still nail leather boots with hobnails, make alpensocks and cut steps into the ice in the time-honoured manner. It's possible to go up with ice axes, hammers and crampons and, under instruction, climb vertical or overhanging walls of ice.

The Fox Glacier itself is a 15 km long river of moving ice travelling forward at the rate of two metres each day. Over the past few years it has increased enormously in size and moved almost a kilometre down the valley from Glacier (3007m) and Douglas Peaks (3085m).

Few records have been kept of early exploration of the West Coast glaciers but it was probably back in the 1960s when this glacier was given its original name of Prince Alfred or Prince Albert, the first being Queen Victoria's second son, and the second being her consort. The name was changed in 1972 in honour of New Zealand Prime Minister the Hon. (later Sir) William Fox.

Franz Josef Glacier (Don Hadden Copyright )

A view of Franz Josef Glacier. The circle surrounds a group of people and gives some idea of the scale of the glacier.

Only 24 km's north-east of Fox Glacier is Franz Josef Glacier situated on the boundary of Westland National Park. About 13 km's long this glacier has been recorded moving at varying speeds ranging from 1.5 metres per day to an incredible 5 metres per day at the main ice face. This is the steepest area of the glacier. However, the Franz Josef Glacier is presently in retreat and probably being affected by climatic change.

Franz Josef Glacier is one of the most accessible in the Southern Alps as you can drive right up close to within easy walking distance. Julius Von Haast gave both this glacier and Fox Glacier their original names though what we now know as 'Franz Josef' was originally 'Francis Joseph'.

Tasman Glacier, in the Mount Cook National Park, is even more spectacular. It is 3 km's wide and 30 km's long, the world's longest glacier outside the polar regions or the Himalayas. Ski planes from Mt. Cook village regularly land tourists on this river of ice. The first landing on the upper Tasman Glacier was in September 1955 in a ski plane with retractable skis.

Ski Planes On Tasman Glacier

Ski Planes On Tasman Glacier.