Extending from high in the mountains down to lowland forest, the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are both readily accessible by road. For many people, these are the only glaciers they will ever be able to visit.
Lakes Paringa and Moeraki are glacial lakes, marking the position of former tongues of ice. Both lakes were stocked with trout in the 20th century, and are now favoured for fishing.
Rivers of ice
The glaciers originate in the highest part of the Southern Alps. A large area of snow, converted into ice as it is buried, is funnelled into two steep, narrow valleys. Under pressure from the weight above, the ice flows down to lower altitudes before it melts. By world standards, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers move very fast – rates of up to 4 metres a day have been recorded. It takes about five to six years for changes in snowfall in the mountains to affect the glaciers down the valley.
The position of the terminus (front) of the glacier closely reflects past snowfall. From first records in the 1860s to 1934 the terminus of the Franz Josef Glacier was close to Sentinel Rock. From 1934 to 1984 both glaciers retreated several kilometres, but from 1984 to 2008 both gradually advanced.
Abundant fresh water provides potential for aquaculture, but by 2008 the only example on the West Coast was a salmon farm at Paringa. Salmon are raised in ponds using water from the bush-fed Waituna Stream. The fish are sold at a shop and café beside the ponds.
Franz Josef Glacier’s Māori name is Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (the tears of Hine Hukatere), and Fox’s is Te Moeka o Tuawe (the bed of Tuawe). They record the tradition of Tuawe who fell to his death while exploring. The snow and ice that replenishes the glaciers are believed to be the icy tears of his lover, Hine Hukatere.
Julius Haast was the first European visitor to describe the glaciers in 1864. He named the northern glacier Franz Josef, after the Emperor of Austria. The southern glacier was named after Premier William Fox, who visited the area in 1872.
Westland Tai Poutini National Park
Although the glaciers are the best-known feature of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the park extends from the highest peaks of the Southern Alps to the sea. It is possible to visit both glaciers (with guided tours on to the ice), and flights are available over the spectacular glacial scenery. Lake Matheson, where the mountains can be seen reflected on the lake surface on a calm morning, is well known. The park has many walking tracks, and there are Department of Conservation visitor centres in Franz Josef and Fox Glacier townships.
Township on the north side of the Waiho River, 136 km south-west of Hokitika. One of the busiest and fastest-growing tourist centres on the West Coast, it has up to 3,000 tourists a night, and many more during the day.
Although in a good location for tourism, the town site is subject to natural hazards. It crosses the Alpine Fault, and would be affected by any future surface rupture. There is an ever-present danger of flooding and erosion from the Waiho River.
Tourist town on the north bank of the Fox River, 161 km south-west of Hokitika. Smaller and quieter than Franz Josef, it provides accommodation and facilities for visitors to the southern part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
A small coastal settlement near the mouth of the Mahitahi River, 46 km south of Fox Glacier. In 2005 Te Rūnanga o Makaawhio opened their new marae at Bruce Bay – a landmark, as there had been no marae in the West Coast region for many years.