The “Glacier Explorers” Tasman Glacier boat trip is the best value outdoor activity in New Zealand at $120/person or $95 for YHA members
Viewing the Tasman Glacier up close was one of the most anticipated parts of my 2nd journey to New Zealand’s South Island and it did not disappoint. Glacier Explorers is the only tour of its kind in New Zealand, and one of three in the world. Very few glaciers terminate into lakes and even fewer of these are accessible to the average person as Tasman Glacier is.
Their bus will take you from Mount Cook Village to the Tasman Glacier carpark. From there you’ll take an easy 20 minute walk along a flat gravel track with a great view of New Zealand’s snow capped Southern Alps.
Background Information about Glaciers
Glaciers are formed from snowfall that accumulates above the permanent snowline and packs into ice in the high catchment basins, or neves. They are rivers of ice – and icefalls are their waterfalls
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, and its neighbour Westland/Tai Poutini National Park are home to the biggest and best of New Zealand’s glaciers – 180 large and small glaciers in total.
Two thirds of the Southern Alps ice is found in these parks. About a quarter of the region lies above 2000 metres, the average latitude of the permanent snowline at this latitude. Westerly winds must rise upto 4000 metres to cross the Alps here so much of the rain carried by the winds falls in the form of snow.
Today, the Tasman Glacier is the largest and longest in New Zealand. Covering appx 100sq kilometres (including the terminal lake) it descends from peaks upto 3000metres high down 28 kilometres to the terminal moraines at 750metres above sea level.
The first row of sinkholes in the terminal region of the Tasman Glacier began to form in 1960. Others later appeared and they grew and merged to form the present large lake.
At current melt rates in about 50 years the terminal lake will extend up the valley as far as the end of the Malte Brun range and visitors will be able to take cruises to view what is left of the Hochstetter icefall.
Now that the terminal lakes have begun to enlarge they act as sediment traps and the debris that the glaciers tip into the rivers has been drastically reduced. With their sediment supply cut off, the rivers have begin to cut down into their channels and will continue until they run in deep terraced valleys.
Glacier Calving – A Stroke of Great Luck
I was very lucky because literally the day before I went on my Glacier Explorers trip a huge chunk of the Tasman Glacier “calved” (broke off) from the face of the glacier and fell into the lake where the Glacier Explorers boats could get really close to view this ice that hadn’t seen the light of day for several hundred years.
A three metre tidal wave surging down Aoraki Mount Cook’s Terminal Lake was the first indicator of the largest single iceberg in 25 years calving directly from the Tasman Glacier terminal face yesterday (10 Feb 2009).
The giant slab of ice or ‘calf’, estimated to be 250m long by 250m wide by 80m high, plunged into the Terminal Lake in the early afternoon, the most significant single calving in the lake’s 25-year existence. A second iceberg about quarter of the size calved from the face shortly afterwards.
Glacier Explorers Operations Manager Bede Ward remarked : “Since the Terminal Lake began forming in 1973, the Tasman Glacier’s retreat has noticeably quickened because the lake is expanding all the time and is causing a more rapid melt of the terminal face. I think we may be looking at major calving from the terminal face as an annual event now”
source: Glacier Explorers media release
This event was so momentous that it managed to get 5minutes coverage on NZ Television news:
Tickets, Location, Appropriate Clothing
The Glacier Explrorers day trip operates from mid September until mid May (avoiding the Winter months). You can buy a Glacier Explorers ticket directly from their website for $120 but I suggest getting a YHA membership card and making the booking at any NZ YHA to get $25 discount per ticket, especially if you’re traveling with your family or with a group of friends.
When you buy a ticket you’ll be told what time the trip starts – you have to meet their bus at the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village which is a short walk from Mount Cook YHA where I stayed, appx 4hrs drive from Christchurch, 3.5 hrs drive from Queenstown or less than 2hrs drive from Lake Tekapo.
In total the trip should take about 3 hours return trip from Mount Cook Village including approximately 1.5 hours on the boat exploring the Tasman Glacier terminal lake and icebergs floating past.
Walking shoes are recommended as footwear of choice. It’s also suggested to wear layered clothing to cope with possible cold/hot/wet conditions, sunblock, hat & sunglasses as well as long pants.