Imagine California before cars, litter, and smog. Imagine mountains, lakes, and waterfalls left completely alone. This is New Zealand's state of grace, where quite happily you can't see the forest for the tree.
I cannot remember when I have not wanted to go to New Zealand. I think I have always carried an image of that land in the back of my mind like a man driving across the desert carries a full canteen: He may not need it, but he takes comfort in knowing it's there. This year, I went. It was summer there then. And I returned home from that visit upset.
I could not look upon the landscape of New Zealand's South Island-its golden, grass-covered, undulating ranges, its crystal lakes cascading down boulder-strewn gorges, its sapphire-blue, glacier-gouged lakes, its jagged, granite, snow capped mountains from whose misty flanks waterfalls leap and plunge through forests and ferns into bottomless fjords below- I could not look upon so much undefiled beauty without coming home saddened, angry.
To be confronted with such loveliness is to be confronted with how much of the rest of the world's natural beauty has been crowded out, how much has been spoiled. The South Island reminds us of what we have given up, of what we have permitted ourselves to pollute, defile, bulldoze away, and destroy.
This is not to suggest that New Zealand is perfect. A fourth generation New Zealander's controversial and incisive 1976 critique of New Zealand society was called The Passionless People. Just before the end of the nineteenth century, when Australia's six colonies were charily contemplating forming a united federal government, they invited New Zealand to become a part. Sir Joseph Ward, a New Zealand statesman of that time, responded, "There are 1,201 reasons why we won't join Australia. Twelve hundred of them are miles. The one is that we don't want to."
Three-quarters of the population is concentrated on the Pennsylvania-sized North Island. The South Island is about the size of Florida with less than a tenth its population. The farther you go south in New Zealand, the farther you go into that nation's rural past. But even in the South more than 80 percent of the population is concentrated in a couple of urban areas, which is why the South Island's countryside or that part of it we visited-seemed so empty, as though at times we had it to ourselves.
What was it like?
Imagine southern California before Los Angeles, before the car, before billboards, telephone poles, litter, and smog; imagine Switzerland with nobody there. Imagine walking through forests of moss-covered beech trees and coming upon beautiful wild pigeons so tame that instead of leaping screaming into the air, they simply step out of your way. And what gorgeous birds they are: big, plump, with snowy white breasts, and heads and necks the iridescent blue-green of a peacock! Two of them watched me pass under the limb upon which they were roosting the day I spent fly-fishing for trout-or, TROUT! I should say, since I've never before seen rainbows and browns so huge.
As a base my friend Charles and I chose Queenstown, in the Central Otago region. With air travel, Queenstown has mushroomed from a small, quiet community on Lake Wakatipu visited by New Zealand summer holiday seekers into the South Island's leading year-round watering hole and what one guidebook labeled "an antipodean St. Moritz... the most sophisticated resort in New Zealand, a sophistication belied by its decidedly masculine energy."
Antipodean it is; St. Moritz-sophisticated it ain't. Its architecture would not be out of place in Fort Collins, Colorado. Its cuisine stars twice-killed lamb-the second time by the chef. And the drink measure is so stingy that when Charles saw what the bartender had- fixed him he said, "Maybe you'd better make that a double."
"That is a double," he responded.
However, Queenstown does have energy, and has had it ever since the early 1860s, when gold was discovered in the Clutha, Arrow, Kawarau, and Shotover rivers nearby. In 1862 the Shotover was the richest river in the world, yielding as much as 5 ½ ounces of gold per shovelful. One afternoon two native Maoris paused in their efforts to rescue their near-drowned dog and scooped up 19 ¼ pounds of gold!
Miners poured into lands occupied until then only by the occasional hardy pioneer who, in order to raise sheep, had willingly accepted the harsh isolation of a homestead savaged by winter snows, spring floods, summer droughts. Australians from the Victoria goldfields, Americans from the California gold rush, Chinese from all over, joined New Zealanders seeking their fortunes in Otago's riverbeds. They discovered that though gold might have been plentiful, food was not.
Those who did not starve to death risked drowning in the raging rivers. Between 1840 and 1870, so many men lost their lives in New Zealand's rivers that in parliament a member proposed that drowning be considered a natural death. Miners who survived created small communities like Arrowtown, Macetown, Cardrona, Bendigo. Today only Arrowtown remains; the others have become ghost towns. A pity, since according to one account, at Bendigo's saloon on Saturday nights in the 1860s, "a hideous maniacal yelling ... entirely over-powered and drowned every sound within a radius of a mile or so."
Topographically, the North and South Islands are quite different: They are separate micro continents in collision, the more temperate North molded by volcanic fires; the cooler South by ice. If the North is "town," the South is "country," the "wopwops" as the New Zealanders call it, their slang for boondocks. Over and over the Otago high lakes country reminded me of the old American West.
The New Zealanders we saw are a vigorous, handsome, wryly humorous people: lean and sinewy, with glowing, outdoor faces, flat bellies and strong legs. Their accent is softer, less Cockney than the Australian. "Yeh-aae," they say for "yes"; the word soft, like an exhalation of breath. "If yew don't mind moy sighing sew," said a lady behind me in a restaurant, "he was a bit of a pine in the ace."
New Zealanders on vacation in Queenstown appear devoted to flinging themselves off high peaks and bridges: alpine skiing, tobogganing, para sailing, hang gliding, and bungee jumping.
When New Zealanders are not launching themselves into space, they are careening in jet boats through narrow gorges, roaring at breakneck speeds on barely ankle-deep rivers, steering as decapitatingly close to rock outcroppings as possible. These boats can reach 40 miles per hour-but it feels faster: Down the Shotover River we raced, zipping through narrow chasms, ducking overhanging rocks, accelerating across gravel bars, swissssshh-thump-swooooosh, then suddenly, in a diamond-bright deluge of spray, spinning into a stomach-churning 360-degree turn, skidding to a dead stop within the boat's length, before rocketing off to do it all over again.
Visitors who are disinclined to race or leap can simply disappear for days on various nature walks or "tracks." The best known is the Milford Track, often called "the finest walk in the world." The 33 ½ mile, four-day walk through spectacularly beautiful remote west-coast country in Fiordland National Park is something of a national pilgrimage for New Zealanders. The track season runs from November through March; at the height of the season escorted parties, up to forty walkers, make the trek each day. They carry their own gear, but accommodations are provided at huts along the way.
Hikers follow the boulder-strewn Clinton River, whose turquoise green pools harbor combative trout; they stride through the Clinton Canyon, its steep walls glistening with thin veins of water, pass by hundreds of varieties of mosses and lichen growing on the rocks, scrub and sub alpine plants clinging to what soil they can find. After a while the river slows, dips through fern-lined forest glades; and walkers leave the Clinton to seek out the waterfalls of the little Hidden Lakes. They hike, or "tramp," as the New Zealanders say, through beech forest, rain forest, among trees lagged with moss. Over head flutter robins, bellbirds, tomtits, finches, and keas, New Zealand's mischievous, inquisitive, gray-green native parrots.
The Milford Track is for the reasonably fit; it's fairly easy hiking, though many of the paths are extremely rocky and there is the 3,681foot MacKinnon Pass to cross. Still, it is the best way to see the mountains and forests, the national park-protected plant and animal life, and the dozens of waterfalls-including the spectacular Sutherland Falls, whose sheets of water tumble and vault in three great leaps from Lake Quill 1,903 feet down to form the Arthur River, which empties into mist-shrouded Milford Sound.
Our first, jet-lagged day in Queenstown we were content to take a leisurely afternoon cruise in a vintage, black-smoke spewing steamship up Lake Wakatipu to visit the Mount Nicholas sheep station (ranch). Until modern roads were put in the steamship was the sole means of transportation for the bulk supplies and stock needed by the sheep stations on Wakatipu's shores.
Before the radio-telephone was available, there was a simple and effective method of signaling the Earnslaw in case of emergency: A fire was lit on the beach. One fire meant passengers were to be picked up, two meant someone was ill, three that there had been a death. There is the story of the Nicholas Station musterer (ranch hand) who, out of grog and desperate for a drink, saw the Earnslaw steaming past Mount Creighton on the far side of the lake. He lit a fire on the beach and waited to be picked up; the steamer ignored him. He set a second fire; the Earnslaw sailed on. Not until he lit a third fire did the ship speed across the lake. As she tied up at the Mount Nicholas station wharf, the Earnslaw's captain called down, "Who's dead?"
"I am," the musterer replied. "Dead sick of this place!"
Sheep are the reason why the New Zealand we saw seemed so empty. Each sheep requires three acres to graze in, and while stations raise tens of thousands of the animals, very few hands are needed until mustering and shearing time. Since that work is contracted out, there is little need for outbuildings. Although the Mount Nicholas sheep station we visited is quite typical of the high country sheep and cattle station, it is the largest operating on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It runs 25,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle on 100,000 acres of sun-bronzed range, empty, it appeared, but for a stockyard, wool shed, and sheep-sheep who, from a distance, look for all the world like flecks of lint on a scorched, golden blanket.
Otago's hills do look like blankets: like worn, pliant old bedding someone tossed over an aged sleeping giant whose gray, craggy, wrinkled elbows have poked through the covering here and there. My friend, being Scot, is drawn to mountains; I am drawn to hills. Some of the most august peaks and stunning fjords of New Zealand's Southern Alps are less than fifty miles from the center of Queenstown by air; by car, however, one has to drive nearly two hundred miles. For us the trip was the best of both worlds.
Traveling in most of the rest of the world consists of visiting a beautiful spot, then moving on to another one, carefully editing out of our vision the horrors we pass on the way. In the high country of New Zealand's South Island, the beauty just goes on and on and on. For mile after mile, as we drove from Queenstown toward the west coast, the land would take our breath away. The first part of our journey paralleled The Remarkables, the 7,500-foot-high chain of mountains that form Queenstown's backdrop. We passed through broad valleys scoured and shaved by ice millennia ago; crossed rivers floury-blue with glacial silt; passed farms behind whose fences sheep and white-faced Herefords and red deer quietly grazed. But always what held our eye was the play of light upon the hills.
There is softness to those hills, a nappy leonine texture to their stark, bronzed, Henry Moore-sculpted forms. The shadows of passing clouds caress them, smooth their fur. The warm, bright sunlight beaming down through that dry, pure air seems to melt them, shape them into ever more dazzling forms, paint them in ever more subtle colors: beiges, yellows, whites, ochers, siennas, golds. Here and there are tall stands of poplars-as if such tableaux needed exclamation points! On the bus we took to Arrowtown, I recall the guide saying as we looked out at lovely Lake Hayes with mountains reflected in its mirror-smooth surface, "Landscape painters are thick on the ground hereabouts."
For two weeks we hiked and climbed and floated and flew around the broad Otago plains, the narrow, misty, rain-swept West Coast, and the majestic cloud-shrouded Mount Cook. Much of the time-those times we enjoyed most-we were totally alone. We saw glaciers inexorably grinding their way down to the sea; we saw dense, fecund virgin forests; fern-fringed, blue-black lakes. At some point I copied down a Maori saying I had been struck by: Toitu he kainga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata. It means, "The land still remains when the people have disappeared."
Towards the end of our stay in Queenstown I spent a day fly-fishing for trout while Charles climbed the 3,000-foot hill.
My guide was a school friend married to a New Zealander. He took me across Lake Wakatipu in his motorboat. We navigated south down the Kingston Arm behind Cecil Peak to an abandoned sheep station where a battered Land-Rover awaited us. Then we drove along dirt roads past Popeye Lucas's handsome old homestead, his once-elegant Humber car now rusting in a stand of pines, and paused in places to open and shut gates to pastureland where sheep and Herefords grazed.
We bounced and climbed, scared up hares and New Zealand harriers, passed poplars and willows and walnut trees, forded the Lochy River and continued up its other side until we stopped about five miles upstream from where we had left the boat, then we got out and continued on foot, avoiding the needle-sharp gorse, until we came to the pool we wanted to fish. We set up the fly rod, tied on a hairy Royal Wulff dry fly, and we went to the bank of the river.
Whip-whip-whip. Whip-whip-whip. My line and leader straightened out, the rod tip flexed backwards. There was a swirl and the fly was taken. A rainbow trout the size of my forearm leaped out of the water. "What a little beauty!" My friend said. "It's about a two-pounder."
The trout stripped a dozen feet of line off the reel. I was standing beside my friend, watching him play the fish. He knew that what little experience I have had fly-fishing has been on American rivers where a two-pound rainbow would be considered a monster trout.
"Here," he said, passing me the fly rod. "You play him. Get the feel of the rod and this size a fish." About three minutes later we landed and released the trout. We moved upriver to another pool and on my third cast I hooked a jive-pound brown. I must have played that fish for ten minutes, but I lost him. It could have been for anyone of a number of reasons. I am just not a very good fly fisherman. Yet.
For the rest of the day we fished our way upstream, sometimes wading in our khakis and tennis shoes along the Lochy's slippery stony bottom. At other times we followed paths through moss-covered beeches and evergreens to the next beautiful pool. When we were thirsty we dipped water out of the river. We fished with Royal Wulffs, Black Gnats, Adamses, Pheasant Tail Nymphs.
At about eight that evening, when I got back and met Charles in a Queenstown restaurant, he was no more able to tell me how beautiful it had been for him on that hilltop overlooking Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu than I was able to describe what it was like to see five pound trout swimming in the Lochy, to watch a pair of rare New Zealand falcons whistling overhead, to have spent a dozen hours on that river and not seen another person but my companion all day!
Back to “civilization”. I can hear car after car going by, people talking, everything sounds too loud a cacophony of sounds. I took a walk this morning and stepped in a dog turd. Toitu he kainga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata.