Monday, January 14, 2013

Sounds Good

As pleasant as New Zealand's towns might be, a visitor to the country would be severely short-changed if that is all they saw. There is less than a handful of buildings that surpass 150 years. In terms of style or architecture there is nothing that doesn't mirror some British style (except for a few Maori offerings, but more on that later). New Zealand's true allure stems from its natural beauty, dynamic geology, and unique flora and fauna. If you don't like or appreciate the outdoors then don't even bother coming here. And of all the wild places in New Zealand, the southwestern corner is the wildest, ruggedest, harshest, and undeniably the most breathtaking.

Views like this are what draw people to New Zealand. The Routeburn valley of Mount Aspiring national park.

The winds and currents of the Southern Ocean swirl from west to east, beginning and ending on either side of the tip of America at Cape Horn. These are the Roaring Forties, the latitudes between 40deg and 50deg, where the turbulent currents roil and froth unimpeded as they circle the globe. Unimpeded that is, until they hit the west coast of the South Island. These violent, laden winds relentlessly batter the exposed coast. Here it is windier, colder and wetter (with average annual rainfall in excess of 8m in areas) than anywhere else in New Zealand. Scant wonder then that during the Maori period it was completely uninhabited. Nevertheless even then the Maori were regular visitors. Not so much to admire the glacier-cut landscape (although I'm sure they appreciated its majestic beauty), but to quarry pounamu, greenstone (a type of jade), the tough, workable rock that was so important to their civilisation where it replaced the role of metals, which were not to be found on the islands. Groups of Maori would trek for a week or more in each direction to hack away chunks of this precious stone, which would then be fashioned into adzes, pendants and ceremonial items that were vital to their way of life.

A pounamu adze, a symbol of tribal authority, in the national museum.

Due to its remoteness this corner of the country is one of the last redoubts of native flora and fauna. New Zealand broke away from the Gondwanan supercontinent (comprising Australia, South America and Antarctica) some 100 million years ago, a Noah's Ark of unique ecology. Whilst across the Tasman in Australia it seems as if every animal, no matter how great or small, can kill you, New Zealand is blessed with the most docile wildlife imaginable. Not a single animal is in the least threatening to humans. It also uniquely separated with no land mammals aboard (except for three species of bats), allowing birds to evolve to fill all the ecological niches, from megafauna (the legendary moa) to ground-dwelling foragers such as as the kiwi and kakapo. The arrival of humans was devastating for this evolutionary exception. And I don't just mean European settlers. Westerners often idealise other, less technologically advanced, civilisations as noble savages, living in harmony with Nature. In the 600-odd years since the Maori started settling in large numbers and before the mass arrival of Europeans they managed to wipe out all nine species of moa, the Haast's eagle (the largest bird and largest bird of prey ever known to have lived respectively) and cleared 33% of primary forest. They introduced dogs, Indonesian rats and various crop plants. Not bad going for a people who not only didn't have any machines, but didn't even have any metal either. Sure, the Europeans, with their industrial power and plethora of pets that became pests - Norwegian rats, cats, stoats, rabbits, dogs - accelerated the process greatly. The gawky birds had no chance against the mammals that had been honed by millions of years of fierce selective competition. Now there is a constant trapping programme in all the national parks to keep the mammalian menace at bay, for they are too many and too small to ever truly be eradicated.

One of the many traps that abound in New Zealand's national parks to keep the population of introduced pests such as weasels and rats in check.

The landscape closely resembles that of Norway, with steep U-shaped valleys, fjords and bottomless lakes, gouged out by glaciers over millions of years. Much of it has been given over to the adjoining Fiordland and Mount Aspiring national parks. They are the jewels in New Zealand's nature tourism crown, and its sounds (which are not really sounds, but actually fjords), most notably Milford and Doubtful, are the brightest of them all. It is truly splendid to take a cruise out onto the calm waters of the sound and see the cliffs tower on either side; the myriad Waterfalls tumble hundreds of metres from hanging valleys, some reaching the ground, whereas others dissipate in the air, carried away by the ceaseless wind; and to spot the tourist planes, giving those that can afford it a bird's eye view of Nature's majesty, looking like nothing but gnats against the enormity of geology.

The sheer walls of Milford Sound make you feel truly small.

Going out onto the sounds on a cruise is spectacular, but far too passive and easy and can be done by anyone. To get to really magical places you have to work at it. The harder a place is to reach, the more you will treasure it. So I shouldered my rucksack and decided to hike (or tramp, as they say in New Zealand) along one of the many trails that snake through the national parks. I came out of the tramping experience with mixed feelings. On the one hand I found it a little too undemanding, the huts too comfortable and convenient (with gas cookers and comfy mattresses) and the trails too broad and graded. Still, the views of craggy peaks, pristine alpine lakes, and jade forests dripping in moss and lichen. every surface a soft, organic, green, easily counterbalanced any grumbles I might have had. Another of the delights of hiking/tramping is the trail camaraderie. In the city you try your hardest to avoid eye contact and bury your nose in your book or paper on the commute to and from work. Despite, or perhaps because of, the masses of people all around you, you do your utmost to remain apart. Half way up a mountainside however, you greet every person you meet with a cheery grin, a warm hello and are ready to share a joke or a quick snack. I suppose it's just one more of those human contradictions.

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