The glacier town is inky blue and silent as the alarm buzzes at 6:45; the guidebook recommends visiting the Lake Matheson trail at daybreak, before the tour buses pile in. Melanie and I take the rental car south to Fox through the damp gray hills as daylight begins to trickle over the Southern Alps to the east. We descend into thick cool fog and turn right onto a long straight country road as trees and fenceposts emerge from the mist.
There are a few camper vans and rental cars in the gravel parking lot as the sun clears the alps. The gray fog instantly turns a blinding white and begins to dissipate quickly, like it really meant to be somewhere else by now.
As the sun climbs and the view crystallizes we realize why this hike is in the books – the sight of snow-capped Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman against the clear blue sky is really something to behold. To watch them emerge from the mist at dawn is the kind of elusive stop-action moment that feeds the urge to travel.
Matheson is the product of an iceberg left behind from Fox Glacier’s retreat from the sea. There’s a circuit trail that winds around the little lake; it takes about an hour to walk and at the far end leads up to a wooden platform overlooking the water toward the alps. This is called the “View of Views”, and if seen before the wind catches the water it provides a stunning mirrored view of the mountains – material for countless New Zealand calendar photos. We’re there in time to see the last of the mist dissipate from the quiet lake, and share the view in hushed conversation with the handful of early risers already at the platform on our arrival.
Meanwhile, back at the parking lot a thousand buses have also appeared. Good time to grab a coffee at the little pavilion and move on.
We pull into the vast rocky Fox Glacier parking lot a few minutes later, and begin the long hike to the edge of the ice. The trail is all strewn stone, often times hard to make out save for the next trail marker a few dozen yards ahead. The sun is out in full now, warming the gray rocks and the tumbling streams headed for the sea, but as we approach the blue-white ice of the glacier terminus the temperature begins to drop, falling probably a good ten degrees by the time we’re a snowball’s throw from the ice cave. It not a biting cold, but soft and damp. Dark gray boulders litter the wide mouth of the glacier, brought there by the slowly flowing sheets of ice towering in front of us. Water liquified from the intense pressure at the bottom of the glacial river rushes from its only exit, the natural ice tunnel in the middle of the terminus. For safety’s sake we respect the thin yellow guard rope, snap a few pictures, and turn back toward Franz Josef. We’ll get a little bit closer to that one.