Rainforests are very dense, hot, and wet forests. They are home to the most diverse collection of plants and animals on the planet. Although there are millions of known plants and animals, new species are discovered every day.
There are ancient tribes whose footprints are etched on the forest floors as they navigate the dense foliage of the only world that they know to be home.
Now close your eyes and imagine all the wondrous things that you might find in a rainforest.
Hold that thought and now imagine the smells and sounds as you walk through the dense vines and over the moist earth of the rainforest floor. As you continue along your way, the dense vegetation suddenly clears and gives way to a glacier.
You heard right, an icy glacier!
How and where is it possible that a glacier and a rainforest can co-exist?
New Zealand’s Franz Joseph & Fox Glaciers of course!
New Zealand’s South Island’s temperate rainforests receive an average of 4,700 millimeters of annual precipitation (which often descends as snow in the mountains). With moderate temperatures (20-30 Celsius in the summer) and glaciers that have both advanced and receded in the past century, the rainforest actually grows and shrinks in a dance with the ever-changing glaciers.
The Westland rainforest: The Westland rainforests are the temperate rainforests that are found in the central west coast parts of New Zealand’s South Island (known by the Maori people as Te Wahipounamu). Most of this region is protected for conservation purposes. Due to its remote location and wet climate the Westland rainforests has a high diversity of plants and animals. Some of the most famous inhabitants of the Westland are, Takahe , carnivorous snails and the flightless Kiwi bird.
Until recently the diverse wildlife existed in harmony, though now with the artificial introduction (from Australia) of possums, rabbits, and weasels, the South Islands delicate ecosystem and its flightless Kiwi birds are now threatened. Additional invasive species are red deer, chamois, and wild goat.
The good news for human visitors is that there aren’t any predatory mammals or reptiles to fear as you make your way through the dense Westland Rainforest. You heard right, no bear traps necessary, and no Amazonian monsters lurking in the bushes.
The flora and fauna of the South Island is so untouched that it is known to be the most accurate remnant of the primitive supercontinent that was once known as Gondwanaland.
Named in 1872 in honor of the prime minister of New Zealand, Sir William Fox.
With the ice and stone tongue of Fox Glacier nearly touching the surrounding rainforest it seems as if two unlikely climates are flirting in an unnatural dance of life and death, just before melting into the Fox River at the bottom.
It’s no wonder that this natural wonder draws tourists, photographers, and adventure seekers from all over the world.
Unlike the Fox Glacier , (which is surrounded by rainforest), the Franz Joseph Glacier has rainforest on one side and a majestic icy mountains on the other.
The Maori name for the Franz Joseph Glacier is Ka Roimata O Hinehukatere, meaning “the tears of Hinehukatere”. The legend is told that a fearless young woman named Hinehukatere loved climbing in the mountains. One day she persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her even though he was less experienced. Everything was fine until an avalanche swept Wawe to his death. The Fox Glacier was his final resting place. Hinehukatere was devastated and her tears flowed down the mountains. The gods froze her tears into a river of ice known today as the Franz Joseph Glacier.
How is it possible that a glacier and a rainforest can co-exist?
The area where the southwestern glaciers are found are pressed between the highest mountains of the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. Warm, wet air traveling from Australia allows snow to fall on the highest areas of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and then accumulating to form large snow fields. Once the soft snowflakes are compressed into hard blue ice, the force of gravity then pushes the ice down the valley (like a tube of blue icing). The valleys are so steep and thin that the ice is squeezed all the way to the edge of the rainforest, and just 300 meters above sea level.
The moving tongue of ice carves away everything to meet the terminal face at the front of the glacier. Since a glacier usually produces as much ice as it melts, both the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers have grown and shrunk in the last century.
Glacier Walks and Tours:
Although both the Fox and Franz Joseph Glacier are easily accessible, glacier walks and climbs should only be done with an experienced glacier guide that understands the dangers and safety protocols appropriate with the glaciers unpredictable and dangerous environment. Most of the deaths and injuries on the Fox & Franz Joseph Glaciers happened because inexperienced people did not heed the warnings and ventured on the unpredictable glacier without a guide.
The most popular way to visit the glaciers is by guided heli-hikes , ice climbing, and glacier walks.
Getting There and Away:
The closest international airport to the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers is in Christchurch. Once in Christchurch you can catch a connecting flight to Hokitika Township (usually about an $80.00 flight). Once in Hokitika you can complete the last leg of your journey in one of two ways:
Many locals of South Island New Zealand use small 4-6 seat aircrafts to commute over the dense and unpopulated forests that make up most of the South Island.
If you would like to get to the glaciers by air you can book a flight with an air safari company, or play it by ear and ask at local establishments in Hokitika for private aircrafts that are flying southbound and are willing to take passengers for a fair price of about $200.00 one way.
Alternatively you can complete the last leg of your journey by renting a car in Hokitika and driving about an hour and a half south to Franz Joseph and then to Fox Glacier.
You can rent a car from Christchurch and drive to Franz Joseph/Fox Glacier. Despite what Google maps may tell you, expect to drive slowly (11-12 hours) past Arthur’s Pass, across the Southern Alps, and slowly down a two-way road through the dense temperate rainforest. Unless you spend the night in a guesthouse at Arthur’s Pass, expect to sleep in your car along the way (or drive through the night).
Due to the unpredictable weather in the South Island it’s very important that you contact the tourist center in Hokitika (before embarking on your drive) and ask about road conditions and if there are any road blocks between Christchurch and Glacier Country.
Hotels and Guesthouses:
Whether you choose to fly or drive to Glacier Park, one thing is for certain, you will want to take a load off when you get there.
Luckily there are a wide selection of hotels and guesthouses for all budgets.
Franz Joseph Glacier:
- Aspen Court Motel Franz Joseph
- Te Waonui Forest Retreat
- Scenic Hotel Franz Joseph Glacier Hotel
- Franz Joseph Oasis
- Rainforest Retreat
- Misty Peaks
- Rainforest Motel
- Heartland Hotel Glacier Country
- Sunset Motel
- Bella Vista Hotel Fox Glacier
Get up and go!
Find out why New Zealand’s Franz Joseph & Fox Glaciers are spectacularly out of this world. Walk in the footsteps of the Maori whose generations of footprints are etched on the forest floors. Witness the dance of ice water and rainforest all squeezed together to form one of the most wondrous natural attractions in this world.
Happy Trails 🙂