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The Fox Glacier is the largest glacier in New Zealand. It is also extremely fast moving (in glacier terms), up to 5m a year. As a result of this the Fox Glacier is always changing. So unless you are a competent mountaineer, Fox Glacier is off limits unless you get a guided tour.
The imaginatively named ‘Fox Glacier Guiding Company’ is the sole tour operator in the area. We met at their headquarters in Fox township, and were told that the weather was expected to be great and it was lucky we were not booked in on the Franz Joesph glacier as a rockfall earlier in the day had caused all full day tours to be canceled.
The rockfall at Franz Joesph also had the knock-on effect that meant our tour was slightly larger than we had initially anticipated. Before we even left the guide headquarters we were kitted out in all the glacier gear needed for the day. Including thick wooly socks!
If you do not have a guide you can still walk out to a view point overlooking the face of the glacier. This is as far as you should go though. Past the safety ropes is very dangerous. A few years ago some tourists got crushed by ice that sheared off the face of the glacier when they went in for a closer look. When we were at this point we even saw a small rock fall at the other side of the valley!
Stepping over the safety rope we were given an Alpenstock (a stick with a metal spike in the end) and crampons (metal spikes that fix onto your boots to allow you to walk on the ice). It is important to have these otherwise you will slip and slide all over the place.
We were finally going to get on the glacier. The path that leads onto the glacier consists of a set of ice steps cut fresh every morning by guides who are on the glacier at 6 in the morning! When you are on the glacier the path that you take is determined by the guide. There is no set path and because of this you feel like you are really exploring the glacier, as you are led around chasms and through ice caves.
In my opinion if you are going to do a glacier tour you are better off paying a bit more and choosing the full day tour over the half day one. You get a lot more time on the ice and the ice is more pure and clean further up the glacier. I also think that the Fox Glacier is a lot better than the Franz Joseph Glacier. It is bigger, has a gentler incline (so is a lot easier on the legs!) and is also cheaper (which if you are traveling on a budget is the most important). But no matter which glacier you choose to visit, I definitely recommend paying a bit extra for the full day guided tour.