Some of the world's most accessible and majestic ice formations live in New Zealand, home to more than 3000 glaciers.
There’s something undeniably impressive about glaciers, bodies of ice so dense that they’re constantly shifting under their own enormous weight. Understandably, adventurers are drawn to their beauty, travelling on foot, by ski, or buzzing above them in helicopters to steal a glimpse of nature’s majesty.
South Westland’s World Heritage Jewel
The bulk of New Zealand’s glaciers can be found inside the 2.6 million-hectare World Heritage Area known as Te Wāhipounamu. Comprised of four national parks – Aoraki/Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland – this picturesque wonderland is home to outstanding glaciers, snow-fed rivers and air so pure you wish you could bottle some to take home. Within the heritage area you can enjoy everything from physically demanding hikes across ice to scenic flights; hot pools to rain forests. In summer, the hiking is spectacular. In winter, mountaineers relish the climbing.
Drive here via the dramatic Great Alpine Highway, fly into Mount Cook Airport or take the TranzAlpine express from Christchurch to Greymouth then hire a car. Or make life easy and join an organised tour. The parks are open year-round, but in winter be prepared for freezing conditions.
Admire Tasman Glacier by Boat
Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s largest, and one of the few accessible glacial lakes on earth where you can watch icebergs float around you. Rugged up warmly, visitors set off from Mount Cook Village before zipping across the surface of the lake in custom-made boats. Keep your eyes peeled for giant bodies of frozen water as they fall from the glacial face in a process known as “calving” while your guides explain how these extraordinary formations came to be. This is the only trip of its kind in New Zealand so keep your camera close at hand.
Travel to Aoraki/Mount Cook by car takes 3.5 hours from Christchurch or three hours from Queenstown.
Glacier Explorers tours depart September - May from Mount Cook Alpine Village. Bookings recommended.
Aoraki/Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain and no trip is complete without visiting the iconic Hermitage Hotel.
Plane Sailing on Ice
Mount Cook Ski Planes’ founder Harry Wigley started flying tourists around Aoraki/Mount Cook and over the glaciers in the 1950s. Necessity led him to invent a special retractable ski that allowed planes to take off from the airfield and land on the snow. The company still takes tourists to the pristine Southern Alps, Tasman Glacier and Hochstetter Icefall. Choose to land on snow or glaciers, or pick the more affordable but shorter scenic flight option. If you’re fit and feeling adventurous, the possibilities include skiing, ice climbing and snowshoe adventures.
Flights take off year-round from Aoraki Mount Cook Airport, but booking ahead is advised. Weather conditions can change quickly so be flexible about when you fly. The nearest town is Mount Cook Village, where there’s only a small convenience store at the hotel, so stock up on provisions in Twizel, 65km away.
High hopes with Fox Guides
Heli-hiking on Franz Josef Glacier is an experience to treasure forever, an outing that includes a helicopter ride and a three-hour guided hike through this land of towering peaks and ice of alpine blue. If you’re on a budget, the Fox Trail Terminal Face Walk is an easy two hours (complete with a chance to check out the glacier’s “snout”) accompanied by a guide who’ll share Maori legends and scientific facts. Or you could just go for a soak in Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools.
Fox Glacier is a 3.5-hour drive from Wanaka or two hours from Hokitika. Visitors can walk unguided to the glacier from the carpark behind the toilets. Look for Department of Conservation warnings to find out if conditions are changing, stay behind the barriers and dress warmly.
Delicious Fishes: Glacier-Raised Salmon
Salmon raised in the waters that run from Aoraki/Mount Cook are some of the most delicious you’ll find anywhere in the world. This is partly due to the clean quality of the freezing, swift and highly oxygenated currents, and because there’s virtually no pollution, no parasites and most farmers don’t use hormones. Several of the salmon farms in this region welcome visitors and sometimes not only can you feed the orange-fleshed fish, you can find out more about how they’re produced. Best of all, you can then purchase this super food to eat in or takeaway.
Salmon features highly on the menu at High Country Salmon’s café south of Twizel. Mount Cook Alpine Salmon offers delicious salmon dishes – from sashimi to chowder – by the shores of Lake Pukaki. At South Westland Salmon Farm you can feed the fish before dining.
Sky’s the Limit
For pure perspective and eye-popping scenery, little beats seeing glaciers from above. Not only does a flight across Tasman, Franz Josef or Fox glaciers give unparalleled views of these natural wonders, you’ll also understand how these masses of ice have carved out spectacular glacial valleys. An Air Safaris ‘Grand Traverse’ scenic flight takes in all three glaciers as well as Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, brilliant azure lakes and the spring and autumn colours of the vast alpine sheep stations. Operating from Tekapo or Franz Josef, the wings of the aircraft are fixed above the windows to allow for maximum viewing.
The best season for flying is between October and April, with more than 85% of flights operating. Tekapo, in the heart of the South Island, is a three-hour drive from Christchurch and close to Mount Cook. Franz Josef, on the west coast, is a dramatic five-hour drive from Queenstown.