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Eric Bergeson

Down on the Farm: Fox Glacier

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The sparsely-populated South Island of New Zealand lies about as close to Antarctica as you can get without a plane or boat. Yet, it contains a gaudy variety of scenery unseen anywhere else.

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The crown jewel of the South Island is its remote West Coast, a former gold-mining region now devoted to dairy and tourism. New Zealand's West Coast is so removed from the rest of the country that it seems to operate under its own set of laws.

In the rest of New Zealand, the pubs close at 11 p.m. On the West Coast, the hours posted say, "Open noon till late."

"Late" is left undefined.

Today at a museum in the West Coast gold-mining town of Hokatika, I found out why. In the 19th century, West Coast pubs were actually required to stay open all day and all night to serve the prospecting throngs.

The tradition hasn't entirely died out.

Twenty-five years ago when I passed through New Zealand's West Coast as a college student, it was quite rough. I stayed in a hotel, which was a set of dorms above the pub with about eight beds per room.

Although I was alone when I went to sleep, I didn't know what sort of drunk would buy a key and plow in during the middle of the night. Now, there are chain hotels who know what middle-aged people are willing to pay for a reasonably nice bed. And some privacy.

What hasn't changed is the scenery. It is some of the world's best.

From the Tasman Sea, the West Coast clings to a brief shelf of land which is home to dairy farms and some beach homes. As you move eastward, however, the land climbs fast from sea level to 12,000 feet.

As the terrain forces the moist sea air upwards, the persistent clouds drop up to twenty inches of rain per month. At about 7,000 feet, that rain changes to dozens of feet of snow.

Near 12,000 foot Mt. Cook lies a twenty square mile snow field to which is added over 100 feet of snow each year. That snow field has spawned a glacier which moves ten times the speed of normal glaciers. Fox Glacier plows forward at a rate of thirty feet per day. Due to its speed, it survives down to an altitude of 1,000 feet, where it grinds through rain forest.

The West Coast rain forest is so deep, so dark, so thick that one of the primary causes of death for early pioneers was "getting lost in the bush."

In fact, there are only two places where one can view Fox Glacier from above through holes cut in the forest, and those two places are so small that you have to take turns with Japanese tourists and retired New Zealanders on holiday. The glacier itself runs for nine miles. At its end, tourists can approach within 600 feet of its massive face.

In 2009, two tourists ignored the warning signs to get pictures closer to the glacier. They were crushed by a chunk of ice weighing over 100 tons. One of their bodies was found 6 miles downstream.

While we contemplated the massive blue chunk of ice over a thousand years old standing a couple of hundred feet high and a half-mile wide, a thunder clap shook the ground on which we stood. The glacier had jolted forward like a tectonic plate.

From beneath the glacier roars grey melt-water, made cloudy by the sediment from rock ground to dust by the nine-mile-long mass of ice. Guided tours will take you onto the glacier. Helicopter and plane rides will give you a better view. The weather permitted us to do neither.

However, nothing could detract from the sense that we had seen one of the earth's great natural wonders.

At the edge of the little village of Fox Glacier which serves the tourists, there is a little trail. People gather at the head of the trail after sunset, which in the Southern Hemisphere summer, happens about 8:30.

As you enter the darkened trail into the rainforest, you become enveloped by the green light of glow worms. On a good night, the trail itself is visible merely because it is darker than its worm-covered surroundings overhead.

It is the end of the day. The massive wonders of the Southern Alps and Fox Glacier have given way to the gentler but no less impressive efforts of thousands of worms.

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