Diamond in the rough: New Zealand

Beyond its genteel corners, New Zealand is a land of raw and rugged extremes.

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:15 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:01 BST

Others still are lightly blue; a tint of azure glowing within — a hint that they've not yet started to oxidise. Hard and compacted, they're freshly torn from the mountainside.

I find myself oddly star-struck. I've never seen icebergs before. And there are hundreds of them, suspended in water I've been warned isn't suitable for falling into. Its playful surface conceals temperatures barely above freezing just as artfully as it disguises the true size of these sub-zero giants — 90% of whose bulk is lost in the murky depths.

And yet, we're not at sea. This is not the bleak North Atlantic nor a forlorn corner of the Southern Ocean. This is green, leafy New Zealand — specifically, Mount Cook National Park, at the heart of the South Island. The great mountain itself looms large in my eye-line; a snow-capped beast of 12,316ft, the tallest peak in Australasia. And its frosty mystique is only emphasised by the Tasman Glacier, which inches down its eastern flank, dropping regular ice bombs into the lake at its foot. The lake on which I'm floating.

"Yep, we've had a few of them lately," growls Dennis Callesen. Gruff and bearded, he's the manager of Glacier Explorers, the company whose sturdy boats offer visitors close encounters with these frozen refugees. He is referring, in particular, to the earthquake that hit Christchurch in February: a tremor of such rage that it was felt here, 150 miles west, where it shook ice from the glacier like baubles from a Twelfth Night Christmas tree.

Almost a year on, many of them are still here. Callesen pilots the craft with quiet care, keeping a safe distance from new arrivals whose solidity he doesn't trust. "The bergs can take a while to settle," he explains. "You have to treat them with respect."

I'm delighted. I've found what I came for — evidence of the New Zealand that I knew was here. The rough, unfettered New Zealand whose existence is not always appreciated. It's not that New Zealand has an image problem. It's more that there's a problem with its image. This is a country of considerable area, split into two islands, and blessed with a wide variety of terrain — from the sub-tropical beaches in the upper reaches of the North Island to the Ice Age scars of Fiordland National Park in the lower corner of the South Island. And yet there's a perception that New Zealand is just a fuzzy expanse of trees and fields — beautiful, but distinctly short on anything wild or dangerous. Perhaps you can blame the hobbits, who cutely inhabited its film-friendly turf in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings movies. Somehow, since, New Zealand has been cast in soft focus — as a polite retirement home at the end of the planet; as a nice, unchallenging add-on to a break in Australia.

In some ways, this is true. New Zealand certainly has its genteel corners — the furrowed winelands of the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island; the aptly named Bay of Plenty, atop the North, with its laden fruit trees. But one glance from my hotel window the next morning is all the reminder I need that it also does raw and ragged.

Between the curtains is Mount Cook; mist-clad. This is not a good sign. A mile down the road, the bad news is confirmed. My plan had been to take a flight with Mount Cook Ski Planes, which lands intrepid travellers on the Tasman Glacier via aircraft fitted with aviation-strength skis. But with the mountain fading fast, all services have been cancelled.

Plan B is swiftly hatched, and defeated — the persistent wind and rain driving me back as I try to hike towards the huge crag. I spend the afternoon skulking at The Hermitage, the hotel that has catered for visitors to these parts since 1884. Here, the presence of the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre — a museum dedicated to the New Zealand mountaineer who used Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier as training zones for his famous assaults on Everest and the South Pole — is another memo that this can be inhospitable territory.

Lost highway

As I depart south the next day, I remember that New Zealand was the last major landmass on the planet to be settled — by Polynesian sailors in the 13th century. Early Maori residents named their new home 'Aotearoa' (The Land of the Long White Cloud) — in deference to the pale shroud that covers the country when viewed from afar. Searching my wing mirrors in vain for Mount Cook, I completely understand.

But the weather improves as I drive; the sun bursting across the surface of Lake Pukaki as I trace its banks on Highway 80. Continuing south on Highway 8, I cross into Otago, where the rural aesthetic of this southern region is emphasised by The Wrinkly Rams, a roadside pit-stop in Omarama where you can watch sheep shearing displays as you sip your coffee.
The highway becomes a gloriously spiteful creature as it spears south-west towards Queenstown, bucking and rearing between bluffs and gullies. Rabbits skitter and twitch at the edges — though proof that some have strayed fatally onto the camber is smeared across the occasional white line. Perhaps, like me, these unfortunates were hypnotised by the scenery. Certainly, I find my road-focus slipping as I turn onto Highway 6, and am forced to pull over to ogle the deep tear of Kawarau Gorge; the river of the same name roaring in fury as it's channelled east.

Queenstown preens up ahead. Forever admiring its own reflection in Lake Wakatipu, this gilded resort town provides respite from the toughness of the Southern Alps. It also deals in contradiction — as popular with backpackers who swarm here to bungy jump as with an older type of tourist who comes armed with camera.

Having baulked at the 140ft plunge from the legendary AJ Hackett Bungy site over the Kawarau Gorge (reputedly the birthplace of commercial bungy jumping), I spend a morning on a less adrenalised option — a 'Safari of the Scenes' tour that takes in locations used in The Lord of the Rings films. But if this seems to pander to the soft-focus New Zealand I'd hoped to gaze past, the landscape begs to differ. The Kawarau Gorge is soon revealed as the River Anduin, while Skippers Canyon appears as the real-life incarnation of the Ford of Bruinen. A winding passage through mountainous bulk, it bristles with prongs and spires of rock, and is pierced by a 'road' — a track hand-carved in the 1880s to reach the gold mines
that lurk beyond — so precarious that even the 4WD deployed by tour organisers Nomad Safaris seems unsure of its footing.

This ribbon of dirt is an echo of the 19th century; of an era before movies and tourists, when survival was wrung from the soil by European immigrants desperate for a new life in another hemisphere. In some ways, it still is. As I continue on the 6 — the hung-down arm of Lake Wakatipu sticking with me for the first 20 miles south of Queenstown — I enter a sharp valley at Athol, and watch as a vast herd of sheep barrels down the slope on my right. Someone's livelihood bouncing along as a giddy mess of stubby legs and wool.

My aim is to reach Lake Te Anau (the biggest body of water on the South Island) to take in its majesty before speeding further into Fiordland National Park. And when I reach its shore at lunchtime, ebbing west on Highway 94, it doesn't fail me; the insistent midday sunlight painting its wavelets a silver that is almost too bright to behold.

And yet the lake is but a starter to the main course. Beyond the town of Te Anau, the 94 curls north and becomes a tangled thread as it swerves through a folded, twisted realm that must have given the road-builders nightmares. It takes three more hours, but Milford Sound is worth the journey. A 12-mile long inlet, sucking in water from the Tasman Sea, it lies framed by flanks of granite, some rising to 5,000ft. Rudyard Kipling hailed it as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'. He may have been right.

Here, I must turn. Because here, the road ends, nothing beyond but bare stone and ocean. But it's no hardship to drive this tarmac roller coaster  for a second time. And after a night in Te Anau, I rush on, across the bottom of the country; the 94 strangely British in the names of the towns it proffers — Mossburn, Lumsden, Riversdale, Gore — until Highway 1 sweeps me along, via Clinton and Milton, to Scotland's remotest outpost.

Scottish roots

On close inspection, Dunedin reveals itself to belong to that hard, flinty New Zealand that's as resilient as any chunk of the Southern Alps. Founded by Scottish emigrés in 1848, and thrust into adolescence by the 1861 gold rush, it's kept its Caledonian character — right down to the statue of Robert Burns that dominates The Octagon, its central plaza.

There's a Scottish stubbornness here. Just outside the city centre, Baldwin Street claims to be the world's steepest, climbing Signal Hill in an unflinching straight line at a gradient of 35%. Its boast doesn't seem an idle one as I walk it, calves aching, cars wheezing as they overtake me in slow motion.

There's a pragmatism here, too — St Paul's Cathedral standing as an exercise in staying power, its nave a grand statement completed during more monied times, in 1910; its chancel a concrete addition tacked on in 1971, half a century after funds ran out. The next morning, as I watch the sun rise over the Pacific from my balcony at the St Clair Beach Resort, I can't shake the feeling that I'm on the Firth Of Forth, even as surfers run out into the breakers.

Dunedin is my last dance with the South Island. Wellington calls me; this curiosity of a capital, sat small but dignified at the base of the North Island. I expect metropolitan culture, and am not disappointed in the restaurants on trendy Cuba Street, or the museums — such as the New Zealand Portrait Gallery — arranged on the waterfront. But I also note Wellington's appreciation for the wild side of the country — the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, whose foundations are designed to withstand all but the most cataclysmic earthquakes; Zealandia, a nature sanctuary barely two miles from the centre where kiwi birds scratch in the undergrowth, cocooned by a silence that belies their urban location.

Strolling here on a calm night, I'm keen to see the North Island's version of the wilderness — the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, the forested Coromandel Peninsula. But my last date will be New Zealand's biggest city. Flying north, I'm not anticipating any backwater ambience or broken splinters in Auckland — a capital in all but name; home to 1.4 million people, a third of the population.

And I'm right. Though there's sophistication here — in the refined eateries of Viaduct Harbour, a portion of the port revitalised by Auckland's staging of the America's Cup yachting tournament in 2000, and in the boutique art galleries of the Parnell district.

But then it happens. Strolling under the 1,076ft frame of the Sky Tower — the Southern Hemisphere's tallest building — I realise I can't leave New Zealand without copying the thousands of visitors who submit to a particular form of madness here every year.

An hour later, having signed up for the 'Sky Jump' — a leap from the observation deck at 630ft, sporting a wire harness — I'm wobbling on a ledge, questioning my sanity. The only consolation, as I prepare for what I'm convinced is imminent death, is the view — across the harbour, to the islands that fringe the city. One of these, Rangitoto, is visibly volcanic.

Perhaps it's the fear, but as I prepare to launch, I'm sure I see it wink, as if to say: "There's plenty of rugged wonder around these parts, mate. You just have to look for it."




Getting there

Air New Zealand flies from Heathrow, via Hong Kong or LA, to 22 New Zealand destinations.  www.airnewzealand.co.uk
Emirates flies to Auckland and Christchurch daily from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle (via Dubai). www.emirates.com
Average flight time: 24-28h.

Getting around

The country is easy to explore by hire car. Internal flights (via Air New Zealand) are numerous. Interislander offers ferry services across the Cook Strait. www.interislander.co.nz

When to go

Now. New Zealand's summer dovetails with the European winter, while a visit in March or April will coincide with the multi-colour nature show of the Antipodean autumn.

Need to know

Currency: New Zealand Dollar ($). £1 = $2.

International dial code: 00 64.

Time difference: GMT +12.

Places to stay

The Hermitage. www.hermitage.co.nz

Novotel Queenstown. www.novotel.com

Radfords Lakeview Motel. www.radfordsmotel.co.nz

St Clair Beach Resort. www.stclairbeachresort.com

Bolton Hotel. www.boltonhotel.co.nz

SKYCITY Grand Hotel. www.skycityauckland.co.nz

Places mentioned

AJ Hackett Bungy. www.bungy.co.nz

Fiordland National Park. www.doc.govt.nz

Mount Cook National Park. www.doc.govt.nz

Glacier Explorers. www.glacierexplorers.com

Mount Cook Ski Planes. www.mtcookskiplanes.com

New Zealand Portrait Gallery. www.portraitgallery.nzl.org

Nomad Safaris. www.nomadsafaris.co.nz

St Paul's Cathedral. www.stpauls.net.nz

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. www.tepapa.govt.nz

The Wrinkly Rams. www.thewrinklyrams.co.nz

More info

The Rough Guide To New Zealand. RRP: £16.99

How to do it

New Zealand Sky offers a 16-day self-drive trip exploring both islands. From £2,100 per person with flights, accommodation, transfers and car hire. www.newzealandsky.co.uk

Explore offers the 19-day 'New Zealand Explorer', taking in the Coromandel Peninsula and Milford Sound. From £4,383 with flights. www.explore.co.uk

Exodus offers a 22-day 'Trails Of New Zealand' package that includes kayaking and volcano hikes. From £5,849 with flights. www.exodus.co.uk

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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