FOX GLACIER, N, Z. – If Montana is Big Sky Country, then New Zealand is Big Land Country.
No one here would invent an ad campaign like McDonald’s “Super Size Me.” The entire country is supersized. Waterfalls cascade hundreds of feet off the sides of mountains that soar upward along rippling, muscular ridges. Ranchland dotted with sheep and cattle undulates through long, broad valleys. Lakes are huge, trees three and four stories high. Ferns ( appropriately called fern trees) open in a canopy overhead in this region’s rain forests, which rise out of the sea and to stretch to the foot of the Southern Alps. Some of the birds are the size of rabbits. (Again, honest.)
In keeping with their natural wonders, New Zealand’s people are hardly lilliputians either. Most are big, raw-boned and muscular, and they sometimes prefer to run, rather than walk up and down mountains. We’re guessing they are training for the country’s 243-kilometer coast-to-coast race by foot, bike and kayak in February.
We’ve spent the past three days hiking considerably shorter distances in absolutely beautiful, cloudless weather. Hiked up Mount Iron above Wanaka on Friday, then to the Fox Glacier and around Lake Matheson Saturday, and around Lake Matheson to capture its mirror image reflection of the Southern Alps yesterday. More about that later. It’s one of the truly spectacular sights we’ve seen anywhere.
The portions here are as big as the people.
We’d give the food a B+ overall. Meat, salad and vegetables are exceptionally fresh, and, in fancier places to our surprise, presented with the garnishments and look of haut cuisine. The New Zealand wines are excellent, too, particularly the crisp sauvignon blancs, even with twist-off caps. And I’ll be hunting for sweet and mellow Spaeth’s ale in the States.
What doesn’t exist here is bread, at least bread that tastes better than a sponge. It’s curious in a country that has worked hard to develop its culinary side. Bread isn’t served at all with meals, and it’s next to impossible to find a decent roll or croissant in the stores.
The flip side: farm-raised venison is fantastic here. Beef burgers spill of the plate. And lamb? Well, this is a country of 40 million sheep. You can’t get better.
Vegetables, from broccoli to asparagus, come fresh and lightly cooked, and some of mushroom sauces rival those of French chefs. Let’s make that an A- for food. Given the size of portions, bread becomes an afterthought anyway.
It takes a bit of intestinal fortitude to drive in this country.
All roads are just two lanes wide, one in each direction. The larger ones add a third periodically for passing. In the mountains, the roads narrow to a single lane to forge rivers, sometimes on suspension bridges that seem to have last been inspected in 1932. We went over a dozen of these or more in a single day on the drive west from Lake Wanaka. Shoulders don’t exist so, there’s little time for practice in gauging space while driving on the left. I’ve stopped more than once to let an approaching car pass.
Somehow, it all works. On the one-way bridges, a circular sign with two arrows, one black and large, one red and small, alerts drivers who has the right-of-way, so games of chicken don’t evolve (traffic is light everywhere, which helps immensely). In general, signage is excellent, and besides, my nickname for Kathy has always been the human map. (We no longer have room for any suitcases in the trunk because of all the maps and other materials we’ve picked up.)
New Zealand’s version of our AAA and its Department of Conservation do an extraordinary job of providing maps and descriptive material for history, hikes and the longer multi-day tramps into the wilderness.
Don’t read on if you’re easily offended. New Zealanders, you see, have a rather cheeky sense of humor and often it’s painted on the side of the colorful camper vans for rent by several competing companies.
At Knights Point, high above the Tasman Sea, two vans were parked side by side. One read, “I have kleptomania, but when it gets bad, I take something for it.” The other, written in what looked like official rental-company red, stated: “Thou Shalt Not Steal: God is Watching, You Stupid Fuck.”
Somehow, back home, I don’t think that message would pass muster painted on a rental-company van.