April 08 2015

Travel Tasman Lake Glacier Kayaking

Wherein we go sea kayaking on a lake. A very, very cold lake.

The Tasman glacier is one of several accessible glaciers in the Southern Alps on New Zealand's South Island.

Due to glacial retreat, a proglacial lake has formed at the foot of the glacier - a lake that didn't exist 40 years ago. The lake frequently features icebergs that have calved off of the glacier. You can go out to see the icebergs up close in a speedboat, or in the much more pleasant option of a sea kayak.

The kayaks are set up for maximum stability - despite the lake generally being dead calm, they're fitted with flotation pontoons because the water is only a degree above freezing, and is completely opaque due to rock flour suspended in it. So...don't fall in. Just. Don't.

The opacity of the water is due to what we've heard guides in the Canadian Rockies call "rock flour" - it's very fine particulates of the rocks ground down underneath the weight of the glacier itself. It's what gives glacial-fed streams and lakes their incredibly vivid blue color in smaller concentrations. Here in this lake it hasn't been filtered at all by its travel downstream from the glacier.

It gives the water an odd, almost pearlescent effect, which you can see in this photo of the shore. Every water current causes the dust to swirl around. Beautiful.

But again -- if you fell in, in addition to the shock of the cold, you probably wouldn't be able to tell which way is up.

As for the kayak excursion itself, we couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day. We got up early to drive to Aoraki/Mt. Cook village to meet up with the guide and the rest of the kayakers. From there it's a short drive by van out to the lake, and about a mile's easy hike from the car park to the shore.

The tricky thing about the lake, and the icebergs floating in it, is figuring out the scale of what you're looking at without any referents.

See that iceberg in the photo on the right? It looks like it could be about 20 meters away and the size of a small car. Actually, it's over a mile away, and the size of a small office building.