One thing that really stuck out to me on my itinerary when I first saw it was the Glacier Explorers trip on the Tasman Glacier lake. It’s something on my ‘travel bucket list’ — well, kayaking on a glacier lake is, but this is close enough. I was excited about getting the chance to get up close and personal with some icebergs.
Our guide was a bit concerned about my ability to even make it to the lake because the second leg of the trip, after the scenic drive through the Tasman Valley from Mount Cook Village, is a 1.5km walk over loose gravel. I was willing to give it a try because I really didn’t want to miss the experience and because my leg has held up pretty well on this trip.
The walk really wasn’t as bad as the guide made it out to be. The first half was on a decent path; the second half was on gravel but didn’t involve any sharp declines so I wasn’t concerned about slipping and falling. The scenery was amazing — there were mountains all around us but it still often seemed like we were in a sparse, almost lunar landscape because of all the loose moraine. Parts of it struck me as being very similar to the Tongariro Crossing, albeit with a lot more mountains.
Once there, we put our belongings we didn’t want to get wet in the shed (they pointed out there is a chance we would get wet, although it hadn’t happened in 18 years of boating the lake). Then we were handed our lifejackets and divided up into the three boats that would be heading out.
Unlike Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, which are glacier-fed lakes, the Tasman Glacier lake is a dull grey colour because there is still such a high concentration of rock flour in the lake. In fact, our guide pointed out that one iceberg hadn’t moved in a month and they suspect the reason is because it got stuck on some rock flour which glued it to the bottom.
The first order of business once the boat had drifted out onto the murky greyness was the safety briefing, which was pretty standard except for the first point. Our guide asked us to put our hands in the water until he counted to ten, and then veeeery slowly began counting. By the time ten came around, I was quite uncomfortable — not surprising, given the water is 1C at most. This did a very good job of showing us why we shouldn’t be trying to swim in the lake (although I would have been willing to take his word for it, given it’s a lake with icebergs in it).
As we motored around the lake, we learned all sorts of interesting facts about the Tasman Glacier and its terminal lake. The glacier is currently 27km in length but is receding up the valley at a pace of about 300m per year. The lake is a product of the recession of the glacier; the wall of moraine that holds it in at the far end marks the length of the glacier just before the lake formed (6km further down the valley from its current terminal face).
Near where we launched at the end of the lake, we pulled up around a few icebergs and were given the chance to touch the smooth ice. Some of us broke off pieces so we could taste iceberg water; we were told it would taste a bit like dirt due to all the suspended rock particles but I thought it tasted nice and fresh.
Then we sped over to the other side of the lake, taking in the spectacular views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and all of the other mountains in Mount Cook National Park. Once we stopped near the terminal face and our wake dissipated, the water was glass and perfectly reflective of the mountains beyond.
Even though the glacier is much smaller than it used to be, it’s still a very impressive natural phenomenon. We weren’t allowed too close because there can be large events of ice shearing off where the only warning is a huge cracking noise before ice comes bubbling out of the water underneath the glacier. Our guide has been on the lake when this happened and said it’s perfectly safe — provided you’re not too close in the first place.
Unsuspectingly, our guide saved the best for last. As we sat near the glacier, he watched an iceberg roll and quickly made his way over to it. The ice was still a brilliant blue colour, which you can only see in the first few hours after a roll as it becomes more and more white. The sunlight sparkled through it, only blocked by the myriad of rock particles suspended inside. It was beautiful and we were so fortunate to be able to see it.
After about an hour, we pulled back up to the dock to prepare for our walk back to the bus (which I thought was even better than the walk in because we could see Mount Cook towering over us). As we pulled into the dock, our guide told us to pretend we’re excited and make a lot of noise for the people in the other boats. I certainly didn’t have to pretend — I was very excited! It was so different from anything I had done before, and to be honest, I was happy I was in a boat rather than a kayak because we got to see much more than we would have otherwise.
Glacier Explorers is based in the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village and does multiple trips to the Tasman Glacier lake daily.