New Zealand – the Lake Country

New Zealand demonstrates the dynamic forces of weather, ice and earth movements on a grand scale over short distances. It’s enough to make you sit up and take notice: We belong to a world of amazing and fascinating natural power–and you and I are part of it!

On my visit to the South Island last fall, we traveled down the west coast to Haast, named for an early explorer and geologist who described the region in detail. From this point, Highway 6 follows a valley deep into the Southern Alps before crossing the Main Divide through low Haast Pass. As we drove away from the rainy coast and gained a bit of altitude, rainforest and tree ferns gave way to beech forest. Shortly after crossing the pass at only 562 m. (1,843 feet) we entered open country.

In my last post on New Zealand we visited the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers that descend nearly to sea level from high snowfields . Earlier I talked about ancient glaciers which filled the Waimakariri Valley under thousands of feet of ice . These both showcase the wonder of how ice has shaped and continues to shape New Zealand’s South Island.

As we entered the Lake Country we found even more evidence of how ice from the heights has shaped the land below. In the past, glaciers have stretched far from the summits and gouged huge basins–now filled with lakes up to 80 km. (50 miles) long and 444 meters (c. 1,450 feet) deep!

And these valleys are not far above the sea–from 178 m. (583 feet) at Lake Manapouri in the west to 700 m. (2,300 feet) at Lake Tekapo in the east. The bottoms of most are below sea level.

Shortly after crossing Haast Pass, we began traveling beside Lake Wanaka at 300 m. (984 feet). After a few kilometers we crossed a narrow neck of land to its twin, Lake Hawea. During glacial periods ice heading near Mount Aspiring and from farther south flowed slowly down both valleys and joined at that neck. Terminal moraines from 10,000 years ago at the end of the last major advance enclose the lower ends of both lakes. However, in an earlier advance ice is believed to have extended roughly 18 miles farther, to the junction of the Clutha and Lindis Rivers .

It’s amazing to drive for miles along any of these long, wide blue lakes and try to imagine their valleys deeply filled with moving ice, grinding their floors ever deeper. Rivers carried the ground-up rock away to fill alluvial valleys and plains to the south.

Even now, glacial silt from the Tasman Glacier and others around Mount Cook colors the water of Lake Pukaki a light milky blue. The milky color persists in a canal for a hydroelectric project downsteam. The product of the glaciers’ recent action is on its way to its next resting places.

As I said at the beginning, we belong to a world of immense, dynamic and fascinating natural power. What a privilege and what a blessing to be part of all this! It gives a sense of empowerment: each of us is worth a great deal and each of us is entitled to make a difference!

What places have you visited that give you such a feeling? What is it about them that does this for you?


About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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