Letters from New Zealand: Into the (wild) west

Set between sky-propping peaks … and the vast emptiness of the western seas are forests and lakes, rivers and seashores as beautiful, as mysterious, as rich in the elemental spirit as any left on earth.

— New Zealand poet Peter Hooper

FOX GLACIER, N.Z. – The road from Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island to its ferocious western shores winds through the lush ranchland that borders Mount Aspiring National Park, past Thunder Falls, through the spare town of Haast and up to the commanding cliffs below Arnott Point and Knights Point.  From there it turns inland and, after another 75 miles or so, arrives at Fox Glacier and then Franz Josef Glacier, two extraordinary places where the hiker can emerge from tropical rain forests to the foot of massive, still moving ice fields that climb from about 900 feet above sea level to nearly 5,000 feet in the shadow of what’s known as the Southern Alps.

As beautiful as they are, New Zealand’s alps and the coastline not far to their west together form a wild and often orbidding place.   In the 1950s, according to the country’s Department of Conservation, the Christchurch newspaper, The Press, described this as a place of “gloomy skies, incessant rain, country wrapped in perpetual solitude, incapable of occupation, niggardly of promise.”

The roadway we took to reach this one-block-long town near the glacier’s base wasn’t completed until 1965.  The last pavement, not far from Knights Point, wasn’t laid until the early 1990s because, the Department of Conservation writes, “steep country, unstable soil, high rainfall and flood-prone creeks made work difficult.”

This is no overstatement.  It rains about a half inch a day here on average, every day throughout the year. It rains here more in a month than it does in a year in San Jose, Calif., where Kathy, the girls and I enjoyed seven years of sunshine.  It rained so hard here just after Christmas that some of the trails around the glacier have yet to reopen, that waterfalls cascade down steep mountain walls everywhere, that parts of the pavement have been washed away.

Life can be a struggle in these parts, which is why it is all the more remarkable that over the last three days we have seen nothing but sunshine. We have walked, then sat and eaten and marveled at the glacier-covered Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, rising more than 12,000 feet to tower above the rain forests that surround Lake Matheson, carved by the glaciers thousands of years ago. Today, the peaks’ reflection shimmers in the lake’s still waters.

Tourists in these parts – many Germans, Brits, Aussies and, to a lesser extent, eastern Europeans and Americans – flock to Franz Josef Glacier 15 miles north in much greater numbers.  That town has a bird’s eye view of both snow-covered mountains, the highest in New Zealand, and Franz Josef, unlike Fox, is approached over a wide glacial moraine.

We would recommend the quieter town of Fox Glacier and the more mysterious glacier near it, which is approached through a rain forest that leads directly to the rim of the ice.  The real reason for staying here, however, is Lake Matheson, which we circled twice (3 miles, about 90 minutes), once in the evening, once before breakfast.  In the morning on clear days the lake offers a perfect mirror reflection of both giant alps. In the evening, at the beautifully designed and sumptuous Matheson Café, it is possible to sit on the deck and enjoy at three-hour meal as both mountains turn pink in the setting sun.

Both experiences compare with the most memorable moments of our mountain travels, the dawn on Machu Picchu in Peru as the mist rose from the Urubamba River below;  the trail to the Matterhorn hut in Switzerland, the mountain towering above;  the sweeping alpine views from the top of the 12,600-foot cable car on a crystal clear day on France’s Mount Blanc.

Lake Matheson is a spiritual place, mist rising from its surface, tree ferns branching green umbrellas above the hiker, moss clinging to the trees along its path.  Two friendly pilots we met at our Bella Vista Motel in Te Anau told us it was worth waiting beneath Mount Cook, at the foot of the glaciers until the rains cleared and the sun shone.  As it turns out, we didn’t have to wait a minute.

Sometimes luck is the best travel companion possible.  But this remains a wild place. As I wrote these words, the power went out in the entire town.  And now, at 9:33 p.m. in the middle of New Zealand’s summer, it’s beginning to get dark.

Don’t worry, decades of life are good for something. We always carry flashlights.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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