Up Close With Icebergs In The Heart Of NZ

16 April 2015

I reach out to touch the iceberg, its crystalline surface glimmering in the sunshine as our boat draws up to its side.

It is hard not to be struck by its beauty, but also the unreality of the situation. I haven’t had to make an epic sea voyage to one of the polar regions. Instead, I’m on a land-locked lake in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island.

 Not so long ago it was little more than a puddle

Not only are we able to reach out and touch the face of a genuine iceberg as it glistens in the light, but as we drift on the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake, we are able to reach down into the chilly water and scoop up small crystals of ice that have broken from the larger mass. We taste the ice, which must contain some of the purest water to be found on the planet, given the crystals are said to be 300 to 500 years old.

We marvel at the scene before us. But what is equally stunning is that the lake on which we are motoring – more than 6.5 kilometres in length and more than 200 metres at its deepest point – only began forming in 1973 as the Tasman Glacier continued its natural retreat.

At that time the lake was little more than a puddle, but it grew significantly during the 1980s and continues to expand.

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On A Sunny Day Nobody Wants To Take A Dip

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Our guide from Glacier Explorers explains that the face of the glacier is more than 200 metres high, although only 30 metres of it sits above the water. The icebergs are created when massive chunks calve from the glacier face. We must therefore remain a safe distance from the vast, but potentially unstable, ice wall.

 You can get close enough to touch one

The icebergs, as beautiful as they are, also present a danger not obvious to the novice.

Less than an hour before we arrived at the lake shore, one of the larger icebergs on the lake rolled. This is a natural occurrence as bergs attempt to maintain a position of 10 per cent above water, 90 per cent below. But both the tipping iceberg and the wave it might create could pose a threat to an unwary boat driver and his crew.

Fortunately our experienced guides know the inherent risks. The other is cold water.

Not long after we boarded the vessel, our Glacier Explorers guide challenged us to dip our hand in the water and leave it there for 10 seconds.

With the temperature sitting between two and three degrees Celsius, the numbing effects were so quickly obvious that few on our boat lasted even such a short period. It serves as a warning to all on board to stay seated and follow instructions. It’s a sunny day, but nobody feels like a swim.

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Guides Ensure It's A Safe Trip

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Given the potential risks, the tour is incredibly accessible. On our boat participants are aged from six to 60-plus.

Our tour began at the luxurious Hermitage Hotel in the village of Mount Cook. We boarded a four-wheel-drive bus that brought us into the Tasman Valley, then walked a gravel path through a stunning flat valley, surrounded by high mountains, that would make a fine setting for a grand “wild-west” Hollywood cinematic adventure.

Awaiting us at the shore were bright yellow boat double-skinned pontoon boats which have been custom-designed for the conditions. They are driven by guides who are not only charged with ensuring a safe trip, but explain how the glaciers and lakes of the region formed.

 The guides know the limits

Glaciers do not stand still. Franz Josef – Glacier On Speed

You'll geet a different view from the sky. Scenic Flights over New Zealand’s South Island


Icebergs aside, the setting is remarkable. The snow-capped peak of Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, looms to the western side of the lake.

Apart from a cloud spilling across the top of neighbouring Mount Sefton, the sky is an uninterrupted blue. We are fortunate to have come on a spectacularly clear afternoon when the surrounding ranges are at their stunning best.

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Beauty In A Harsh Environment

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The tour takes about two and a half hours, including close to an hour on the lake. The tours operate from mid-September to late-May. If the weather or lake conditions are less favourable than we experienced (dangerous or of no scenic value), tours may not operate as scheduled. Refunds are offered in such instances.

 Aoraki Mt Cook dominates all

When we’ve criss-crossed the lake - as some icebergs can do in a single day – we return to shore and reluctantly head off, still awestruck by our experience.

As we trek back to our bus the sun drops behind the high mountains. The chill of the approaching evening serves as a reminder that the beauty we’ve been able to behold has been created by what is more often a harsh, unforgiving environment.

There may not have been penguins and fur seals, but we have seen icebergs up close and this may be the closest we ever come to an Antarctic adventure.

Fortunately, rather than face a daunting sea crossing, we can return to the campervan and set off to explore more of New Zealand’s breathtaking countryside.

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Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to New Zealand.

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Michael Mapstone

Michael Mapstone is a freelance journalist and photographer who has worked for major newspapers and national magazines for more than two decades. Based on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Michael is noted news, sport and travel writer who has diversified his skills into sport and landscape photography.