In 2007 my newly married hiking buddy and his New Zealand wife flew to California and we got together for the Christmas holidays. Carolyn brought big picture books of New Zealand. The picture that most intrigued me was a scene showing a wide green field with a farmhouse a short distance away. No more than a mile or two beyond, a short valley ended in steep mountain walls that seemed to go up forever–forested slopes rose far up before they became rock and snow, rising higher and higher to a limitless sky–how far above? How high is that mountain wall, I wondered. I’d like to get my feet on the ground to get a feeling for the scale. Where in the country was it?
I was about to find out.
Descending from Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast, we entered a land of contrasts: a broad blue ocean stretching over the horizon past Australia, green fields backed by an abrupt mountain front, winding rivers, deep rainforest and glaciers reaching almost to the sea.
For much of the South Island’s length, the coastline closely follows the Alpine Fault. Between the water and the fault line the country is flat or hilly, most of it heavily forested.
East of the fault, where the Pacific Plate is being shoved upward against the fault plane, the mountains rise steep and high without prelude. There is absolutely no transition. As we joked in the car, “Who needs foothills? They just get in the way.”
As we drove down the coast we crossed rivers draining canyons cut deeply into the mountains. Between rivers, the mountain front rose as it had in the picture. I don’t know that we passed the very location of that picture, but I now knew it must be along these mountains.
The day we drove south to Franz Josef, there was high overcast. The summits of the highest peaks disappeared into the mist. Wisps of cloud hung in a valley.
The Maori called New Zealand the Land of the Long White Cloud. Though the name comes from their legends of the creation of the islands, it’s very appropriate here. Moist air blowing in from the Tasman Sea rises over the mountains, condensing as it climbs. Lush forest and green fields surrounded us, speaking to the prodigious precipitation the region gets during a year. The next day we would visit glaciers that descend from snowfields almost to sea level .
Prodigious mountains, prodigious processes, prodigious life–we’re part of a world of wonder!
Next post: the glaciers.