New Zealand is a land of glaciers. There’s the Franz Josef, the Fox, and the Tasman. Not to forget the beautiful southwest coast and Fiordland National Park – an impossible geographical marvel without glaciers. Coming to New Zealand and not seeing a glacier would be like visiting Iceland and not seeing a glacier. Maybe. Well, only if Aotearoa meant land of the long white glacier. It doesn’t, but you should still definitely see one while you’re here.
The Tasman Glacier.
If you’ve been following along our two-week trip with J’s parents, you’ll know that we opted to skip visiting the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers to save on driving time. Luckily, that did not mean we would miss out on all the glacial fun. In fact, Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier are actually quite close in distance to the big F’s. There are just these pesky mountains in the way of a direct driving route. Having taken a peak at the Franz Josef a few weeks later, I’m glad that we opted to do this experience with Jason’s parents instead.
As it stands today, the Tasman glacier is reported to be 23.5km in length, the longest glacier in New Zealand. Throughout the 20th century it held at an average of 28km. It was not until the 90’s that it began to melt, and an alarming rate. This was the beginning of the Tasman lake that makes the boat tour we experienced possible. As the glacier rapidly melts the water pools in the land previously carved out by the moving glacier, creating a terminal lake. Persistent melting and calving – when large chunks of ice drop off the glacier wall – continues to grow the lake’s size.
I don’t want to get on a political soap box, but when you are presented with concrete facts like glaciers melting IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE, it is difficult to understand how any intelligent person can deny global warming, cough, POTUS, cough.
Several different options are available for visiting the Tasman glacier, but I think we opted for the best. A 2.5 hour tour picks you up at the Hermitage Hotel. A great pick-up point as you can come a bit early to check-in, grab a drink at the bar or visit the Edmond Hillary Alpine Center. Everyone is loaded on a bus and taken on a little drive, about 20 mins, to the parking lot for a trailhead. Then its hiking time, but only for about 30 minutes. It’s a fairly easy hike at a moderate pace over mostly gravel paths, before you reach the lake.
There is a quick safety briefing, life vests are handed out and then the fun begins.
On the lake.
We had an excellent Kiwi guide named Brett. And yes, I couldn’t stop quoting Flight of the Conchords in my head. Obscure Kiwi musical references aside, he was seriously a fantastic guide. Super knowledgable about glaciers and an agile boat driver. We zipped in and around the icebergs without a hitch.
The coolest part, by far, was “parking” on the larger icebergs. Now, when I heard that we would be parking on them, I imagined brazenly speeding towards one and somehow mounting it, like a jetski ramp. That is not what happened. That would be super dangerous. No, “parking” on an iceberg is when you simply pull up next to it… kind of like parallel parking, but on the water. Much safer. Although, Brett did mention that were the water clear and not milky from all the rock flour, he likely wouldn’t park on half the bergs he does.
Thanks to Titanic, we all know that the large majority of an iceberg resides underwater. Were we able to see the whole picture clearly it would be much easier to analyze the risk of closely approaching these mammoth ice carvings. Our guide said with that extra bit of analysis, he would probably deem most to0 at risk of rolling to park on. He casually went over all this info as we were parked on the largest berg of the day, nbd. It wasn’t terrifying at all.
The Main Attraction.
After careening around the lake, parking on icebergs and bringing a baby one into the boat, we headed off to the glacier itself. The wall stands 600m high, although it is now partially underwater. Because of the constant contact with water, the lower portion melts more quickly than the portion exposed to air. This causes large calvings from the top as the ice below melts and can no longer support the glacier above.
As calvings are completely unpredictable, the boat stays at a safe distance from the glacier wall, avoiding falling ice and large, sudden impact waves. We weren’t fortunate enough to see a calving happen while on the lake, but Brett assured us it has happened before. Those lucky bastards.
Anyone had any awesome glacier adventures? Where were you and what did you do? I would love to read about it in the comments!