About Emily Pechar
Emily Pechar left the world of corporate America to begin a PhD program in Environmental Policy. She loves to travel and experience other cultures, especially when she can find ways to give back to the local community or travel in a sustainable way. Travels have included West Europe, North Africa, the Pacific and much of the United States, and she looks forward to adding South America, Africa and Asia to that list in the near future. For now she calls Durham, NC home but is on the road as much as she can!
Latest Posts by Emily Pechar
New Zealand is home to some of the last untouched, spectacular natural scenery in the world. One of the best examples of this pristine beauty can be seen on the west coast of the South Island, with the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers pouring out of the Southern Alps. As some of the most accessible glaciers in the world, guided glacier hikes are the best way to get up close and personal with these massive formations.
While the two glaciers are very similar (and only about forty minutes apart), there are a few reasons I chose to explore Fox Glacier. First, it is possible to access Fox on foot, as you can walk along the valley parallel to the glacier and enter it above the terminal zone (this area should be avoided on all glaciers as falling ice and rushing water make it incredibly dangerous).
Glacier walks at Franz Joseph Glacier must be started by helicopter as there is no footpath entrance to alongside the glacier. This means that Fox Glacier is much less weather dependent, and no need for helicopter transport means that glacier walks are more cost-effective. The day of my walk the township woke up to storms and hail, but that didn’t stop our tour!
To explore the glacier, I chose a full day tour with Fox Glacier Guiding, the main tour company proving a number of tour options for all fitness levels and budgets. My full day tour, the Nimble Fox, lasted about six hours, while there are shorter half day hikes as well as heli- hikes and ice climbing courses for those looking for and even more unique ways to explore the glacier.
My glacier hike started with a quick safety overview with our guides at the base office, where we also got suited up with our gear. Everyone is provided with rain pants and jacket, socks, boots, a hat and gloves, as well as ice crampons and a backpack to carry your gear and lunch. Once suited up, we piled into a bus and were driven over to the car park for the glacier. The drive winds you through dense rainforest surrounding the glacier, which provides a stark contrast to the ice-filled valley of Fox Glacier.
The Nimble Fox walk starts with a moderate hike up the valley wall, parallel to the glacier but still on solid ground. Following this trail, my small group of six hikers and two guides got a magnificent view of the entire glacier, moving beyond the areas open to the general public and up closer to the glacier. When we reached the access point, we were instructed on how to put on Ahmad use our crampons, and then the ice walk began.
The first steps on the ice are remarkable. While it took a few minutes to get my footing on the ice, I was already very impressed by the color and clarity of the ice, shining a beautiful and translucent ice blue that almost seems artificially colored. After a bit of walking around and practicing the technique for walking on an incline, walking on ice became almost as easy as walking on the ground.
We stayed on the ice for about three hours, following our guides first along set paths and ice steps carved by the company, and then veering off the path to get a closer look at some of the unique ice features. Our guides did a great job of providing a clear, safe path for us to walk on by going ahead to cut out small steps over any areas that may be too steep or slippery. They were also extremely knowledgeable about where the coolest ice features were, including some deep crevasses we could lean over, ice caves to crawl into, and ice tunnels that you could walk through and get a picture on the other side.
The ice on glaciers moves very quickly, and the features change every day, giving us new territory to explore all over the glacier. We ate a picnic lunch on the glacier around noon, and luckily caught a bout of sunshine despite the intermittent rain storms that day. Prepared with all the right gear, though, the weather barely phased us on the ice; it truly is an all-weather activity.
When the group was sufficiently tired out (the guides made sure to ask us whether we wanted to go on at key points in the walk), our guides led us back down the glacier, stopping briefly at a huge glacial pond to allow us to taste some amazingly refreshing glacial water.
While none of these ice features can be guaranteed, it was amazing to see such a variety all over the glacier. Walking down, our guides continued to share some great knowledge about glaciers formations, life cycles, and pretty much anything we wanted to know. They were all very informative, and some great personalities as well.
Overall, a guided glacier walk is an excellent way to experience the unique natural beauty that New Zealand has to offer. Don’t miss it next time you’re there!
Note: The author was hosted for this glacier walk by Fox Glacier Guiding however all opinions and commentary are her own.
In the center of New Zealand’s North Island is the town of Rotorua, sitting on top of the country’s biggest expanse of geothermal activity. Despite the city’s distinct smell (wafts of sulfur can be smelled throughout the area) people from all over the world have been coming to Rotorua for centuries to soak in the healing properties of the mineral water abundant in hot springs around the area.
One of the best places to see the extent of the thermal activity when visiting Rotorua is to take a trip about 20 minutes south to the Wai-O-Tapu thermal park. A native Maori name, Wai-O-Tapu means “sacred waters” in English, and the unique colors and sights here definitely make this a very special place and one of New Zealand’s top sights. Ample parking is provided for cars, or several tour companies run shuttle services from Rotorua or nearby Taupo.
On a morning tour, be sure to visit Lady Knox Geyser by 10:15 am for its daily eruption. First discovered by prisoners trying to wash clothes in a bubbling hot spring in the 19th century, rangers are today able to induce an eruption of the geyser by adding a compound similar to soap. While the geyser will erupt naturally every 24-72 hours, rangers induce an eruption just after 10:15 every morning for tourists to experience. The eruption spurts water about ten meters high and, depending on the day, it can last anywhere from one to ten minutes.
The next stop on our tour of the park was to the mud pool, a surprisingly beautiful and bizarre pond filled with boiling, bubbling mineral mud. The mud pool is left over from a mud volcano that eroded in the 1920s. The mud has remarkable medicinal and aesthetic qualities, and the bravest can even choose a tour with a chance to bathe in the sulfurous mud, although no promises on how you will smell coming out!
The most rewarding part of the park comes when you get to the actual Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a giant reserve filled with hundreds of thermal pools and craters, in the most remarkable colors.
It feels like you are walking on Mars as you meander through paths taking you along the pools of boiling water coming right out of the ground. The colors of the pools correspond to the type of mineral, bright yellow being sulfur, red/orange signifying iron, etc. There are three walking tracks of different lengths to suit all abilities, with the longest about 3 kilometers. To see the entire park, be sure to leave approximately 80 minutes.
One of the biggest attractions is the steaming, colorful Champagne Pool in the center of the park. Bordered by bright reds and coppers, the blue-green of the lake is brilliant, especially on a bright sunny day. Visitors in the winter may experience an enormous amount of steam escaping from the surface as pool temperatures exceed 100 degrees Celsius.
If you follow all three tracks to the edge of the park, you will also pass a huge expanse of flat land with puddles of boiling water, making it look like the ground is actually boiling. This is called Frying Pan Flats, and Maori settlements in the area frequently used the boiling water to cook food, lowering it down into the ground to heat in the thermal warmth. The last trail will lead you out to a magnificent lake that is bright teal in color, contrasting beautifully with the surrounding trees and mountains in the background.
Wander your way back out of the park through different trails to see the remainder of the brightly colored pools and craters, making it a truly unique New Zealand experience.
New Zealand is a hotbed (literally) of volcanic activity, and part of the result of that is a giant network of caves spreading out from under the village of Waitomo, just inland from the west coast on the North Island and about 200 kilometers south of Auckland.
A visit to these caves is a must-do for another reason as well: New Zealand is one of only three countries in the world that the Glowworm calls home.
When you arrive in Waitomo, the first stop should be to the Waitomo Caves Discovery Center, the official tourist information site (“I-site” in New Zealand). The center also doubles as a rather informative museum, with the history of the discovery and exploration of the caves in the region, and a science class refresher on geology and the biology of a glowworm (hint: it’s not the head that lights up…).
From here you can also book a number of cave tours with several different companies, varying in length and activity. For the adventurous, I recommend trying a black water rafting trip, which guides you through a cave, mixing walking, wading, and tubing through the underground river of one of the “wet” caves.
Other options include dry cave tours and the classic boat ride to see the largest glowworm grotto.
Our choice was the blackwater rafting with Cave World, located right next to the visitor’s center. They took us first to a base house where we changed into wetsuits (quite chilly in the winter air!) and loaded into a van to make the short drive to the cave entrance.
Located under a functioning pasture, we followed close to a hundred stairs down to what looked like the floor of a jungle, the entrance to the cave. Once inside (carrying our inner tubes), our guide stopped us in the first chamber and instructed us to turn out our headlamps.
As we fell into pitch black, we looked up and saw hundreds of glowworms lighting up the ceiling, looking like hundreds of stars coming to life in a planetarium.
We continued on into the cave (lights back on thankfully) and the water began to get deeper and deeper until it was about waist deep. With our tubes around our waste, it was time for lights out again.
We held onto each other and the cave wall to see more of the ceiling lit up by glowworms, making our way to the first of two waterfalls. I thought the guide was joking as he instructed us to jump backwards over the waterfall onto our bottoms, but it was indeed the safest way down and quite a thrill!
We continued on through the cave for about an hour, seeing more beautiful ceilings full of glowworms and conquering one more waterfall, this time guided by a huge waterslide down to the bottom. As we finally exited the cave it was a welcome sight to see daylight again, but the images of the glowworm-lit ceilings will stay with you forever!
If you’ve got extra time in the Waitomo area, I would also highly recommend doing a quick “tramp” (the kiwi word for a hike) on the Ruakuri Bush Walk. This short 45 minute return hike winds you up through a few walk-in caves and includes wooden bridges over the rivers that flow out of some of the larger caves in the region.
It’s a great post-cave hike to get the blood flowing again after the cold water. While you can’t take your camera blackwater rafting, there are plenty of beautiful picturesque moments in the surrounding cave areas.