New Zealand / West Coast

Lack of access to Fox Glacier causes businesses to suffer

12:03 pm on 11 June 2019

A West Coast community says Fox Glacier will become a ghost town without access to its star attraction.

The Fox Glacier access road remains closed. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

The road to Fox Glacier was destroyed by a major landslide in March, preventing foot and vehicle access.

Fox Glacier residents say they are in the dark about when - and if - access to their town's main attraction will reopen.

A mini blockade of rubble covered with signs and orange road cones marks the former road access to the glacier - now it warns of dangers ahead.

Along the main street is Cafe Nevé, its owner François Goosen said nowadays the town was very quiet.

"If it doesn't open, I believe the town will slowly turn into a ghost town. Businesses will start closing, hotels and motels will be the first to feel it, they'll slowly start dropping off and some of us will have to start thinking about where to next," Mr Goosen said.

The main road at Fox Glacier Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Ropatini's Bed and Breakfast owners Patricia Benson and Collin Robertson said visitors were sorely disappointed when they discovered they could not visit the Fox Glacier by foot - only via helicopter.

Sitting at their long wooden table, looking at snow capped mountains skirted by rainforest, it can be difficult to grasp.

"Well you kinda feel like what have we got to sell. The glacier is what it's about. Yes, it's a beautiful area, we've got the mountains, we've got the trees, we've got Lake Matheson and it's a fantastic place to be, but it's about the glacier. It's like being the pub with no beer," Ms Benson said.

Mr Robertson said they were forced to promote the Franz Josef glacier experience to their customers at the expense of their own town until road opens.

"But if they can drive up there and see it, they're happy with that, let alone walk it and a lot of them love to walk it because they want the experience. But to sell it to Franz is just soul destroying," he said.

Ms Benson said they did not have anything against Franz.

"It's just really hard to look at your town and think we're going to become another West Coast ghost town."

They said it was just a matter of time before businesses start closing down and people leave.

Tourists at Franz Josef glacier Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Shuttle bus driver Murray Freeman would drive up to the glacier three or four times a day when the road was open.

But since it's been closed, he said business had dried up completely and so had the town.

"There's no cars around, no one walking into the shop, no one walking into the restaurants. There's no one here. It is the winter time, no doubt it's off season but even so there should be more people around than what there is," Mr Freeman said.

In the summer, there would be at least 300 to 400 people visiting Fox Glacier each afternoon, he said.

Sometimes he would take them to Lake Matheson and other attractions, but Mr Freeman said they were not enough to keep the tourists around.

"Tourists are not going to come here to stay, are they? What are they coming here for? Not going to come here and look at the cows down the road, are they? Or the sheep out in the paddock, they're going to carry on straight through," he said.

Lake Matheson is one of the attractions near Fox Glacier township, but it's about the glacier, Patricia Benson said. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

It's been raining for three days, but even low hanging cloud has not obscured the view to the mountains.

Mr Freeman said that was one of the advantages of Fox Glacier.

"This glacier is the better one to see. Franz today, you go up the glacier valley road, you wouldn't even see it cause it's under clouds. It's that high up in the mountains. This one here you can always see it."

But Department of Conservation South Westland operations manager Wayne Costello said it was not a simple fix.

Fox Glacier township overshadowed by mountains Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

Opposite the road is the country's largest active landslide, which is moving about 116 millimetres a day towards Fox Glacier Valley floor.

Mr Costello said the 50 to 70 million cubic metres of debris was gradually pushing the river onto the leftover road and causeway, wiping it out every time there was a flood.

"The chances are that there could be a massive release of material from the landslide that could cause a huge blockage in the valley," he said.

"We don't think that it's going to be feasibly possible for us to maintain roading infrastructure in the valley, but we're getting that checked out."

A report on the future of the Fox Glacier road is expected to be released later this month.

In the meantime, Wayne Costello said DOC was working with the community to find different ways to attract people to town.