image: Clouds roll over Mount Cook National Park in South Island, New Zealand.
Clouds roll over Mount Cook National Park in South Island, New Zealand.

Photograph © James L. Amos
 

Into the Wilds of New Zealand
By Mel White

The remarkable name Cam Speedy belongs not, as you might expect, to a race-car driver, but in fact to a biologist with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. I've sought him out for advice, and he's giving it to me in a good-news-bad-news way.

"You can hear one," Cam says, "but seeing a kiwi in the wild is another matter. Most New Zealanders never do in their lifetimes."

Much less a just-arrived Yank, I suppose. From what I've read, this doesn't surprise me. The kiwi ranks among the most bizarre of evolution's whims: a flightless, half-blind, dumpy lump of feathers, with stubby wings and a long bill it uses to probe for grubs and other squishy things as it snuffles through dense undergrowth in the dark. Shy and plain, it's nonetheless a beloved icon for New Zealanders (themselves nicknamed Kiwis), and I have it in my head to find one.

Cam tells me to go out at night and listen for the bird's mating call, which he imitates—an impressive kind of quavering wail. "Finding one is a matter of pure luck," he says. "Good on ya, then."

With that blessing, I'm off to explore the wilderness of New Zealand's two islands on a roughly north-to-south itinerary of national parks, beginning with rugged Tongariro, in the center of the North Island. More specifically, I'm walking the Whakapapanui Track in moonless darkness with Julie Zella, a Bostonian I met at dinner, who's also game for the kiwi chase. Our flashlights trace the otherworldly outlines of mountain cabbage trees, with masses of enormous daggerlike leaves towering over our heads. A fallen trunk sparkles with tiny shining dots, blue and cold as sapphires; they're New Zealand's famous glowworms, fly larvae that use biochemical light to lure prey.

We've been walking half an hour, ears straining, when we both freeze. Eerie, slurred, wailing notes ring out and quickly die away. We listen for ten more minutes, but there's only the rush of wind. Whatever procreative urge struck tonight must have been short-lived.

"I'm sorry we only heard it that one time," Julie says sympathetically as we pick our way back along the trail. She thinks I'm disappointed, but she can't see my goofy grin. I couldn't be happier if I were a love-struck kiwette. Through the stuporous fog of jet lag, I heard it plain: Welcome to New Zealand, the song said—to the world of flightless birds and tree ferns, rain forests and ice parrots, glowworms and dinosaur lizards.

My visit to the Land of the Kiwis has begun.

Tongariro National Park

The next day I head up into the scrubland on the flank of Ruapehu, the volcano at the center of Tongariro and, at 9,175 feet, the highest point on the North Island. The trail climbs through lichen-splashed lava boulders in orange and purple—or more precisely, Day-Glo and Burgundy wine. The wind carries an intimation of autumn, ruffling the dun tussock grasses.

All morning Ruapehu has been doing a slow striptease, peeling off veil after veil of wispy cloud. The opacity is beginning to break up over the distant lowlands, but Ruapehu is big enough to create its own weather (read: overcast and rain), and so stubbornly hangs on to its modesty with a last few low clouds. After hours of this flirtation I'm avid to see it all.

In this I differ from the old-time Maoris, the Polynesians who crossed the South Pacific in great canoes to populate New Zealand some 800 years ago. They averted their eyes as they walked past Ruapehu, and the lesser peaks of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, lest they offend the spirits so obviously resident. What else but supernatural forces—and touchy ones, at that—could shake the ground, blow up mountaintops, and send molten rock pouring down hillsides?

When the pakeha, the colonizing Europeans, moved in with their farms in the late 19th century, the Maoris feared the intruders would destroy the mountains' tapu, or sacredness. In 1887, Chief Te Heuheu Tukino came up with the then innovative plan of creating a protected reserve. Tongariro became New Zealand's first (and the world's fourth) national park, growing to nearly 190,000 acres of glaciers, alpine vegetation, rocky rivers, and forest—and it's the reason that, when the clouds finally do lift above Ruapehu, it is I who am standing here rather than a rancher's fat merino sheep.

I see immediately that the fan-dancer metaphor is wrong for this mountain. Blasted and weathered for a quarter-million years, Ruapehu is more an irascible old sailor: somebody with lots of good stories to tell, sure, but you don't want to be too close if there's trouble. Since September 1995, the volcano has shown its temper in a series of spasms—tremors, mudflows, a seven-mile-high eruption of steam. Right now, trail signs warn that a new lava island is growing in Crater Lake, and seismographs are restless. Since I'm hiking well outside what scientists call the Red Zone, part of me wouldn't mind an insignificant little temblor, just to get more of the Tongariro experience—but nature doesn't do special orders.

I turn my back to the wind and face northeast, where dark, volcanic Ngauruhoe is as pleasing to the eye as Ruapehu is jagged and forbidding. A youthful 2,500 years old, Ngauruhoe rises in a smooth, even sensuously symmetrical cone to a dimpled tip. Ngauruhoe, they say, is due to blow any day now.

Te Urewera National Park

Tongariro means volcanoes; Te Urewera National Park, 94 miles to the northeast, means forest: the most extensive continuous native forest on the North Island. Almost all New Zealand's native trees are evergreen, and as I head into the Huiarau Range, the woodland—tall, ferny, viny—seems spread as thickly on the hills as green icing on a child's birthday cake.

In this wilderness the Tuhoe tribe of Maori held out steadfastly against pakeha encroachment throughout the late 19th century. A Maori elder finally allowed the establishment of a mission school in 1922, saying, "Take the children and teach them the new way, but leave us to finish in the old way"—a haunting echo, for an American, of our native peoples' lamentations when they, too, faced the end of their world.

Legends grow in wild places like Te Urewera. The Tuhoe, called the Children of the Mist, believe themselves descendants of Hine-Pukohu-Rangi, the Mist Maiden, and Te Maunga, the Mountain. A peaceful, music-loving fairy tribe called the Patu-paiarehe once lived in these forests, they say. As I drive to Lake Waikaremoana, in the southeast corner of the park, clouds cling to the valley sides like primal spirits.

Unless you're an angler or water-skier, there's not much to do at Te Urewera besides walk the trails; for a nature-lover, of course, this is like saying there's not much to do at the Louvre but look at the pictures. I follow paths under trees with names like typing exercises: tawa, rata, miro, matai, totara, and the magnificently tall rimu, with its drooping foliage and shaggy trunk. New Zealand broke away early from the ancestral supercontinent of Gondwana; forests of these ancient species, isolated for 85 million years, survive as a near-direct link to the days of the dinosaurs.

I've been watching a comically tiny bird called a rifleman, a tailless squibbet hardly bigger than my thumb, when the silence of the forest is whooshed away by flapping wings. I wouldn't be too surprised to see a pterodactyl here, but it's three New Zealand pigeons, resplendent in iridescent green and purple, half again as big as American city pigeons. Monster birds, I think, to match these woods.

Farther on, a hillside rings with rippling tones, so pure and melodious that I stop, transfixed. And right now a little knowledge is indeed a disappointing thing, for I happen to know it's only the song of the bellbird—a pretty olive-green creature, voicing simple instinct—and not the magic flute of some forest fairy at all.

Abel Tasman National Park

Kiwis are fond of tossing in the word "brilliant" where we Yanks might say "great" or "wonderful," and brilliant exactly describes the morning as I lean against the rail of a cruise boat skirting the Abel Tasman National Park coast. The north shore of the South Island is renowned for its mild climate and abundant sunshine; Abel Tasman is famous for genuinely dazzling golden beaches, the sand gilded by iron-rich granite, curving in long bights between rocky headlands. Put those things together and you have a park immensely and deservedly popular with hikers (in Kiwi-speak, "trampers"), sailors, sea kayakers, campers, and beachcombers. More than 20,000 people a year walk all or part of the 28-mile, three- or four-day trail along the coast, and thousands of others cruise the bays, enjoying islands, seals, and seabirds.

I spend two days walking most of the Coast Track, an easy route that alternates between sea views and wooded valleys; my nights are spent in beachside lodges run by Darryl Wilson, whose great-great-grandfather immigrated to this area from England around 1860 and who now operates an all-encompassing tour company. (And all-indulging, too: Supper the first night includes grouper in parsley and wine sauce and chocolate mousse.) My fellow-trampers are a mixed lot (Colorado, Michigan, Australia, Brazil); our guide, Paris Brady, is a ponytailed part-Maori who goes the distance barefoot, while the rest of us have to shed our boots for the occasional slosh across a tidal bay or stream mouth.

There's history here, both Maori and pakeha. Just around Separation Point is where Abel Janzoon Tasman himself, the Dutch navigator who "discovered" New Zealand in 1642, first met the Maori, and vice versa. "It must have been like a UFO landing," Darryl says, as we look to sea and imagine two tall-masted sailing ships on the horizon, dwarfing the Maoris' war canoes. On Awaroa Bay, near Darryl's Homestead Lodge, he shows us where the waves have exposed a foot-thick midden of discarded shells of pipi, a mollusk that was then a favorite Maori food; nearby lie blackened oven stones from cooking fires.

Tall tree ferns grow in the park (including the lacy silver fern, another of New Zealand's national emblems), along with the peculiar, feather-duster-shaped nikau palm, the southernmost-growing palm in the world. But the Abel Tasman forest—recovering from decades of logging and grazing—can't compare to Te Urewera's, so extravagantly lush. The allure here is instead the blue-blue tone-on-tone of bay and sky, and most especially the serene seaming of land and water at places like Onetahuti Beach (Maori, Paris tells us, for "sand to run along") where you can sit down, dig your toes in, switch off the cerebrum, and try to remember when we responded more to the rhythm of the tides than to the silent tyranny of a digital watch.

Paparoa National Park

The landscape that one early explorer compared to the Italian Riviera seems just as beautiful today at Paparoa National Park, on the South Island's west coast. Judging from the crowd this fine Sunday, it's one of the most popular, as well as one of the oddest, places in New Zealand. No long hike needed here, no tiring climbs; I park along the highway, walk five minutes to the shore, and join other visitors watching the surf roll in from Australia to crash against the famous "pancake rocks" at Punakaiki.

These stacks of finely striated limestone look less like pancakes than like layer after layer of neatly stacked carpet. A few million years of relentless waves have carved them into caves, arches, towers, and blowholes, where fountains of water erupt in heavy surf. This is a middling day, I judge; the jets of foam are modest, but bigger swells shatter with thunderous and satisfying whoomps. The spectacle is watched over by a gathering of grayish seabirds called shags, trying to look like the solemn guardians of the place, but betrayed by their clownishly huge yellow feet.

The park offers other attractions as well: Inland there are rivers and the Paparoa Mountains; on the coast, a colony of rare black petrels; and everywhere more limestone wonders, from cliffs to caves to a water-carved formation like a breaking wave. Just north of the Pancakes, I take time to follow a trail under limestone bluffs along the Pororari River, where palms and cabbage trees are dwarfed by a massive rata, its rough trunk choked by vines. Despite the throng on the coast, my only company in this pretty spot is a pair of kayakers, who seem as determined as I am not to disturb the silence of the gorge.

I must hasten on, however. My next stop would be only two hours southwest from Paparoa by straight-line highway, but none exists; there is the matter of going over and around the massive, snow-capped Southern Alps, which run the length of the South Island like a protruding, off-center spine. The trip takes most of a day, through wild mountain scenery and green pastures strewn with sheep, 20 of which are said to live in New Zealand for every New Zealander.

Mount Cook National Park

At Lake Pukaki I turn north toward the mountains again, or rather toward one in particular: snow-capped Mount Cook, the loftiest peak in Kiwiland, 12,316 feet high and accompanied by a couple of dozen other summits over 10,000 feet. For two days I have to take this geography on faith, though, since I'm met at the sprawling Hermitage Hotel not only by a gaggle of raucous keas—one of the the world's few alpine parrots, able to survive freezing weather—but by clouds, patchy fog, rain, and sleet. It's some consolation that Mount Cook National Park is notorious for this kind of thing.

It's a striking place nonetheless, what I can see of it below the weather, with a kind of gritty beauty. One morning I drive across a boulder-strewn plain to the foot of the 18-mile-long Tasman Glacier, where it's a short puff-and-pant to stand on top. Here the Tasman resembles not so much a river of ice as the earth's largest rock pile; zillions of stones eroded from the surrounding cliffs have accumulated on the surface of the glacier, concealing the ice. It looks more like a NASA photo of some airless Jovian moon. Below is a steel-gray lake, jammed at its outlet with icebergs—some banquet-table-size, others as big as a small backyard—calved off the glacier and drifting toward the nascent Tasman River, beginning a journey to the South Pacific, where their meltwater will bathe swimmers in Papeete and Pago Pago.

My last night in Mount Cook National Park—and I still haven't seen Mount Cook. The next morning I'm on the balcony almost before the alarm has died. Sure enough, there's the view that makes this top-floor room so pricey: a sweep of ragged snowy crests from Mount Sefton (four miles away, though in the transparent air it looks a tenth that), to Cook, its twin-peaked top rising ten miles distant. The clouds have fled, but for one patch hanging on the ridgeline like a scrap of shirttail on a barbed-wire fence.

Then something happens that makes two days of drizzle and frustration more than worthwhile. As I watch, the first rays of dawn just peek over some distant eastern range and suffuse the tops of Cook and Sefton in a pink glow, as pink as a rosebud, as pink as a baby's blush, with the pale-blue sky above and the fresh snow below and the green-gold valley floor underneath it all. Good Lord, it's a wonderful sight, and it's over almost before I can take it in, as the sun rises higher and the light changes and the whole thing turns into just another gorgeous Kodachrome.

I hustle down to the Mount Cook airstrip, whence a Swiss-built Pilatus ski plane carries me and six Indonesians right up into the throat of the Tasman Glacier, flying wingtip-to-cliff along the mountain ridges. We land on the glacier and step out onto sun-blasted ice 1,900 feet deep, into a tricolored, elemental world: blue-white-gray, sky-snow-rock. From this angle, Cook— although we've risen nearly a mile, it's still a mile above us—looks flat-topped, with an indentation in one corner, like a tiny chip in a tooth, where a 1991 landslide knocked 30 feet off its height. On the way back, we fly through Cinerama Col, a cleft on Cook's east ridge, and I conclude that this has been the most spectacular hour I've passed in many a year. If you get to Mount Cook National Park and are weighing the cost or worth or touristyness of this ski-plane flight, here are six words of advice: Do it do it do it.

Fiordland National Park

South again, 269 miles to Te Anau, the resort gateway to Fiordland National Park. On a lonely road near Cromwell I am actually held up by one of those picturesque sheep-flock traffic jams you see in every tourist brochure. The farmer waves me on through, and the woolly mass magically parts like a bow wave in front of the car. Careless sheep, I suppose, never get a chance to pass on their genes.

On a sunny Friday I begin the Milford Track, Fiordland's best-known attraction and possibly the most famous hiking trail in the world. I take a boat across the northern reach of Lake Te Anau to join a guided walk on the first of 33 miles that will lead over a low pass in the Southern Alps to Milford Sound, on the coast of the Tasman Sea. My fellow trampers and I will be spending three nights in trailside lodges, with hot showers, hot meals, and dorm-style sleeping rooms.

The park we'll be traversing in such relative luxury is one of the most remarkable natural areas on earth. Fiordland covers just under three million acres of the southwestern coast of New Zealand. The park's coastline squirms and squiggles along some 900 miles of bays, sounds, and inlets. Glaciers gouged this tortuous shore, and shaped cliffy valleys, deep lakes, and rank after rank of mountains. Much of Fiordland is overlain by vegetation for which the word luxuriant fails pitifully as a description. There are places that almost certainly have never felt a human footstep.

These are book facts, map facts, flyover facts—good to know and appreciate, but in the real world they do tend to yield in the mind to details: the white blossoms of an Easter orchid, hanging from a tall beech; the inquisitive tameness of a New Zealand robin pulling at your bootlaces; a nameless spot on a rocky river where the water pauses on its downhill run, pooling up and reflecting a mossy bough in a way that seems a singular version of perfection, a haiku for the eye.

Despite being on a "guided" hike, I have plenty of time to dawdle over these moments. Our leaders—two bright young Kiwi women named Miff Collie and Tracey Devery—are the most tolerant kind of shepherds for their flock. With two dozen of us (one of whom, by coincidence, is Julie, my friend from Tongariro) spread out over miles of trail, those who enjoy solitude can easily spend all day poking along alone.

Our first day is a sunny idyll, following the Clinton River upstream. The forest of the flat valley floor, where gnarled beeches dangle long strands of lichen, could almost be a bayou in Louisiana, with Spanish moss hanging from live oaks; from another angle, the glacier-sculptured mountains rising in the distance could be the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. These comparisons work, though, only if I don't notice that the trees are like nothing in North America, if I can't hear the chatter of a passing flock of kakariki, yellow-fronted parakeets.

By now I've picked up a few of the confusing-looking Maori names for things, and once when I notice a small bird I fulfill a minor fantasy by calling out, "Look! A piwakawaka in the kotukutuku"—which means only that there's a fantail in the fuchsia, but sure is a lot more fun to say. (Footnote: Because I'm in New Zealand, home of the strange, this isn't just any fuchsia but in fact the world's largest fuchsia, a good-size tree with papery peeling bark.)

The second day we're up at 6:25—or as Miff says in Kiwi talk, "twinty-foyv pest sex"—for the ten miles that will take us over Mackinnon Pass and down into the Arthur River Valley. The rain begins at the top of the switchbacks leading to the pass; it continues during the steep descent beside Roaring Burn, where eons of current have smoothed caramel-colored rock into swirly troughs and bathtub hollows. And it's still raining when I reach the astonishing vision of Sutherland Falls, the Maoris' ko te tau-tea ka tu, "the white thread fixed against the cliff," dropping 1,904 feet into a glacial cirque where wind whirls spray into translucent curtains. At first I can see all the way to the top; then the clouds lower, so that the water seems to surge directly and unnaturally from the sky, as if some heavenly lake had sprung a leak and was pouring its contents directly on Fiordland.

Which, in effect, is exactly what happens. By crossing to the western, windward side of the mountains, I've entered a region where rain can total as much as 30 feet a year. Not inches, feet. My conception of all the possible variations of the word "green" is immediately obsolete. Moss and algae cover everything; the trees drip epiphytes. At one point I lift a handful of hanging lichen and squeeze; several ounces of water run out between my fingers. Multiply that by the unimaginable tons of lichen and moss on hundreds of thousands of acres of trees and rocks...there has to be a whole Lake Erie of water held in place by all this spongy verdure.

It's still raining the morning of our last day on the trail, but the rules are different here; the usual hiker's wishes don't apply. Miff tells us that more rain is exactly what we should be hoping for, and soon after I begin walking I understand what she means. Along the Milford Track, where the mountains are so steep and the soil is so thin, rain translates into waterfalls, as immediately and directly as turning on a tap. I come upon Masakatsu Fujinami, one of my Japanese roommates, with whom communication is usually limited to nodding and smiling. He points up and lets out a heartfelt "Wow!" which I feel sure conveys the same meaning in all languages.

I look to see a cliff full of waterfalls, leaping from the rocks and dashing themselves into spumy oblivion on the ledges below, only to regroup and do it again, time after time, level after level. There are sheet waterfalls and ribbon waterfalls and multi-forked waterfalls and every kind in between. At an open spot farther on I can see 13 falls, then 14 at the next viewpoint, and then I decide that counting them is an unproductive way to pass the time. There are simply waterfalls everywhere, until finally, on a ridge cleared by an avalanche, I look around and see that I'm completely surrounded by waterfalls, trailing down the cliff faces hundreds of feet above. I note one that seems small, until by comparing it to nearby trees I realize that it must be 60 or 80 feet high—and it's only one infinitesimal cord in a lacework of water the rain has fashioned around me.

Sutherland Falls was the highlight yesterday; today it's Mackay Falls, which we reach midmorning. If Sutherland is a delicate thread, overwhelming you with its sheer continuity through so much time and space, Mackay—200 feet high and 20 feet wide—is an unsubtle rush of power, blasting its way into your memory with the irresistible force of cubic feet per second through its ferny chasm. As I'm leaving, Kay Long, a fellow tramper from California, walks up and promptly and unequivocally exclaims, "This is the most magnificent sight I've ever seen!" I couldn't argue with her right now.

The track flattens to parallel the Arthur River, after all this rain a churning mass of brown foam—even more impatient than a bunch of footsore hikers, it seems, to get to Milford Sound. Around two o'clock we reach the endpoint, the hut at Sandfly Point, where a boat is waiting to ferry us the last short stretch to our hotel. It's a bittersweet moment: getting ready to say good-bye to all this beauty and hello to clean clothes and a big soft bed. And there, in the hut, is Julie, drinking tea and drying her soggy socks by a potbellied stove. We're comparing notes on the things we've seen today when she tells me a story:

She was the first one out this morning, on the trail right after breakfast. Not far from the lodge, something round and brown crossed the path in front of her. The visibility was terrible in the dim dawn light, the overcast and rain, under the dense canopy. It might have been just a weka, a dark, flightless bird common in Fiordland, but—she's not sure. From her one fleeting glimpse, the bill looked wrong, too long and curved. I open up my bird guide.

Well, maybe...yes. Yes, it might have been....

Just one final note to all you Kiwis, and kiwis: I'll be back to try again.

The last time bird-watcher Mel White lengthened his life list in the antipodes was while traveling to Australia's Great Barrier Reef (Jan./Feb. 1992 Traveler).

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The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.

 

 


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