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One of the joys of travelling has to be the gaining of knowledge you never knew you needed, and interest in topics that would have previously sent you to sleep. Take, for example, geology.
Take a trip anywhere in New Zealand and you can’t miss them, the mountains, rivers, hot springs and suchlike, that signpost our position on the boundary of the earth’s tectonic plates.
And if you possess even a little curiosity, you’ll soon be asking when, why and how, and before you can say glittery schist you’re borrowing ‘Geology for Dummies’ from your local library.
Further field trips are absolutely necessary, and of course they must take in the glorious Southern Alps.
To get up close to the wonders of Aotearoa’s dynamic landscape, you can’t go past the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on the West Coast. These icy chutes plunge down from some of the highest peaks in the Alps, yet end only twenty or so kilometres from the sea.
Stand on Gillespie’s beach – about 30 minutes’ drive from Fox township – and the snow-capped peaks are still so close you’ll just about get a crick in the neck from looking at them.
New Zealand’s two largest mountains, Aoraki/Mt Cook and Tasman, can both be seen from Fox Glacier.
At 3754 and 3491 metres respectively, and surrounded by more than a dozen peaks over 3000 metres, it’s hard to get a grasp of their magnitude.
We’ve seen them from both sides of the Divide (they can also be viewed from the southern end of Lake Pukaki), but we knew seeing them from the air would bring them into perspective.
On our last visit to Fox Glacier we decided to empty the piggy bank and strike the ‘Southern Alps flight’ off the bucket list.
It was the perfect day for what was an eye-popping ride. After zooming up the glacier and soaring over the ridge, the view expanded so rapidly we struggled to take it all in.
Soon we’d traversed the Tasman and Murchison Glaciers, and swung around to take in Cook and Tasman.
It’s at this point that the superlatives run out, so let’s just say, ‘wow’. Landing on the perma-snow of the Liebig Ice Dome, we disembarked for the obligatory photo call on what is, for us, the closest we’ve ever come to the top of the world.
Our trip with Mountain Helicopters took only 30 minutes, but the memories (and the 100 or so photos we snapped) will stay with us for a lot longer.
This spectacular landscape can be appreciated from many other angles. The popular glacier hikes with Fox Glacier Guiding get you on to the ice, and are not nearly as intrepid as they sound.
There are also plenty of short walkways to suit every age and ability, including the Fox Glacier Valley Walk (one hour return) that gets you up close to the terminal face.
The other must-do from Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson, just five kilometres from town. Known as the ‘mirror lake’, thousands flock here every year to try and capture that perfect reflection of the mountains in the lake’s dark waters.)
Your best bet for the money shot is early morning on a clear, windless day, although it’s well worth visiting here at any time – there’s a rewarding 1.5 hour loop walk, as well as a café and gift shop.
On the road to Lake Matheson you’ll pass some of New Zealand’s best budget accommodation. Seldom do million-dollar-views come so cheap as at the Fox Glacier Holiday Park and Motels.
Just two-minutes’ walk from the quiet township of Fox, it’s the ‘rural’ location that makes this place special. The grounds are spacious, sunny and open, affording grand views of the mountains, including a peak through to Cook and the shoulder of Tasman.
There’s accommodation to meet every need, whether you’re tenting or campervanning, or looking for a bed and a proper roof over your head.
Accommodation ranges from self-contained ‘sunset view’ motel units, to standard cabins with shared facilities. All have pleasant verandas and are freshly repainted in a natural shade of taupe that blends well into the surrounds.
Two large amenities blocks are scrupulously maintained and sympathetically decorated, the newer one clad in schist stonework. Built in 2007, this block is a cracker, being practical and hardwearing while still comfortable and attractive.
We love the patio off the kitchen with its splendid views. And we overheard more than one complimentary comment about the bathrooms! In fact, facilities-wise, our German friends declared this their favourite park after six weeks travelling in the South Island.
Campervans have hard-pads, with mini-lawns and picnic tables. The tenters, however, win the day.
The large camping field is dreamy, particularly so in the mellow of late afternoon when it basks in the last of the sun. Unfold your camp chair, fill up your wine glass, and wait… it won’t be long before the keas fly out from the adjacent bush reserve to entertain you with their squawky antics.
Fox Glacier Holiday Park is memorable for many reasons and the manager, Linda, is one of them. Enthusiastic and fun, it was she who showed us the ‘Out Foxing’ guidebooks, which they produce to help visitors get the most out of their stay.
Easy to read and well illustrated, this excellent series of pamphlets offers insights into all the area’s key natural attractions – helping you delve deeper into the when, how and why this area is unique. Unsurprisingly, it all comes back to geology…
Fox Glacier Holiday Park and Motels, West Coast
0800 154 366, 03-751 0821