Franz Josef and New Zealand Glacier Country
New Zealand’s Glacier Country – Franz Josef, Fox Glaciers and the Westland National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Located on the West Coast of the South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are among the most accessible glaciers in the world and Glacier Country offers a wealth of activities. Here you can try heli-hiking, ride a quad bike, take a scenic helicopter flight over the glaciers, or even do a tandem sky dive. Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier provides stunning reflections of the mountains – a view not to be missed. Lovely Glacier Hot Pools will help you relax and sooth your muscles after a full day of activities.
Franz Josef Glacier area has some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand. Just six kilometers from the centre of the village, Franz Josef Glacier descends from the tops of the Southern Alps into rainforest close to sea level. This provides a rare opportunity to experience a dynamic glacier in a temperate environment, within easy driving and walking distance from the main road. Franz Josef is the name of both, the glacier and the nearby village. The small but lively Franz Josef village is surrounded by lush rainforest with the high snow-capped mountains above. Within a short distance of the village are a number of options for taking in the natural attractions - walking, hiking, kayaking, rafting or skydiving.
Fed by four alpine glaciers, Fox Glacier is longer and faster moving than the Franz Josef Glacier. Its terminal face is just five kilometers from the village. Fox Glacier is also a name of the nearby village, which is smaller than Franz Josef, but offers an equal variety of activities - from quiet walks and beachcombing to serious adrenalin pumping adventures.
Near Fox Glacier is beautiful Lake Matheson, famous for its mirror-like reflections of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, New Zealand’s highest peaks, on a clear day. An easy and pleasant bush walk follows the edge of lake and offers unsurpassed views and picture opportunities.
The glaciers have always held interest for people from the first Maori inhabitants on the West Coast to the European explorers, to the gold seekers who stayed on when the gold ran out, to the first tourists and their guides.
Archaeological evidence shows early Maori lived in this area many hundreds of years before European settlers arrived. They lived mostly along the coast in places where food gathering was good but travelled up and down the coast searching the mountains for greenstone. In their travels they became familiar with the glaciers, peaks and forests of Glacier Country and later became valuable guides to the European explorers.,/p>
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman encountered Westland in 1642 but it was not until mid 19th century that the sight of the great glaciers was recorded. In 1857 Maori guides led the first Europeans, Leonard Harper and Edwin Fox, across a traditional east–west pathway that Europeans later named Harper Pass. Young Harper then named the two glaciers—‘Victoria’ (now Franz Josef) and ‘Albert’ (now Fox Glacier), after the Queen of the United Kingdom and her husband. But Harper did not register these names. In 1865 German geologist and explorer Julius Von Haast decided to name the glacier after the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Josef I. The local village later took its name from the glacier. This was the first of a number of landmarks that Haast did not actually “discover “, but took the liberty of naming. Haast also registered the name Fox Glacier, in honor of Sir William Fox, the New Zealand Premier.
Gold discovery in 1864 brought huge changes. Around 16,000 hopeful diggers came to the area. Some vast fortunes were made, but 18 months later most miners had left, disillusioned and disappointed. Those who stayed eventually looked beyond the gold to seek a living from the land. These early settlers turned to farming, saw milling and tourism - offering accommodation and guidance to tourists.
The early visitors to the area stayed in guestrooms in local farmers’ houses. Eventually hotels were built, but the intimate atmosphere remained. Enterprising young men saw a future in operating excursions up on the ice and by the 1900s tracks and bridges were built to provide access onto the glaciers.
These days New Zealand’s glacier country is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Its natural beauty and easy access to the glaciers attract millions of visitors from all over the world. But despite the popularity, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier still maintain their intimate set-up and laid-back atmosphere, so don’t expect big resort developments and large hotel chains. Most accommodation options are boutique style motels and lodges, and due to high demand, finding availability during peak season might be challenging.