The End of All Things
I have a memory of a mountain so clear I can see it with my waking eyes. The mountain is wide and solid and nameless. Snow tops its rocky slopes. Beneath it lie pastoral foothills in shades of green I have seen nowhere else. Cows shamble around doing what cows do. Lambs gambol in a way they won’t this time next year. There are trees and birds – hundreds and hundreds of birds. It’s an image that brings me peace and feeds my dreams. In two weeks of driving around New Zealand’s South Island, the mountain and hundreds like it are in front of me so often as to be seared into my consciousness. I hear “New Zealand” and I see the mountain.
This country, disconnected from so much else, has long been a leader in the appreciation of nature. It opened its first national park, Tongariro, in 1887. Today New Zealand has designated 10.5 percent of its land as national parks, an area a little smaller than Belgium, or two Lebanons and a Cyprus, if you prefer. That’s not to say that its beauty is contained only within those borders – virtually every part of the South Island is remarkable and only very rarely is the horizon mountain-free.
To see as much as possible, and so not as to waste time with checking in and out of hotels, I travel in a Swift Bolero from Iconic Motorhomes in Christchurch, the largest city in the South. So wild and unpopulated is the South Island (76 percent of New Zealanders live in the North) that the highways are rarely dual carriage; so varied are the roads that relying on the Bolero’s cruise control would result in shooting off a bend like Thelma and/or Louise. But helpfully, the speed limit for the van is 90kmph, compared to 100kmph for cars; as I creep up hillsides, this frustrates drivers behind me, but means I get longer to take in the views, which evolve and reform like gloop in a lava lamp.
Leaving Christchurch I immediately head south west towards the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, stopping en route at Mount John, a hillock that rises from the middle of a flat plain like a pimple on a model’s skin. A few nights after I visit, a local photographer visits the same spot and shoots the aurora australis shimmering over a rare moonbow. I read about it in The Press two days later but by then it barely seems a surprise. Nothing feels implausible here because everything is. For example, on the west coast, in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers end in rainforests. Glaciers in rainforests! New Zealand is an extremely weird place.
Above, on and below the ground extraordinary things happen here. On 22 February 2011, the extraordinary took the form of catastrophe, when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake tore into Christchurch with the loss of 185 lives. The devastation and economic fall-out continue to be felt today, but if nothing else the tragedy served as a reminder that in every way New Zealand is a young country, not yet fully settled. For another example, consider Aoraki, the highest peak in Australasia and one after which the national park is named, which rises at a geologically frantic pace of 1cm per year.
Anthropologically, things have happened quickly too. Prior to visiting I thought that Maori history on the islands was as old as the mountains they named, but archaeologists struggle to find much trace of human history much before 1280AD. By then William Wallace was already a wee boy, and Marco Polo was wandering the world – in other words, it wasn’t all that long ago. The Maori were alone for around 400 years before Dutch explorers arrived in the 17th century, naming the islands after their province of Zeeland. However, European colonisation, and disaster, only began in earnest with the British in the early 19th.
If New Zealand is glorious at all today it is despite, not because of, the British arrival; the fierce desire to conserve what’s there now was earned through bitter experience.
Te Wahipounamu, a World Heritage Site comprised of four of the country’s 14 national parks, is the best example of this desire. It’s in “the place of the greenstone” I spend the majority of my time in New Zealand, especially in the giant Fiordland National Park, the country’s largest by a distance – an area approximately the same as Samoa and Jamaica combined. Each night is spent sleeping in the Bolero, either in designated, paid-for sites, or freedom camping wherever I choose, unless a sign explicitly tells me otherwise.
Stand still long enough in these wild places and you may well be met by a silver eye, fat little buggers with dramatic white flashes behind their eyes, giving them an intense look, as though they’re trying to warn the watcher of some mortal danger. The silver eye is not an indigenous bird in New Zealand – it is originally Australian. Colonialists did not import it and the only plausible explanation for its arrival here is that a severe storm once blew them across the Tasman Sea. They are now regarded as a “naturally introduced” species, and while they may irritate viticulturists around the country, people can live with them.
When it comes to introduced species, silver eyes are an exception. The majority of arrivals have been distinctly unnatural and the eco-system was far, far more delicate than anyone properly understood until it was too late. Each imported creature has, in its own way, made a mess of things.
To understand why, you need to know that before man, birds had it very easy for a very long time on New Zealand, millions of years passing without a challenge to their feathered reign. The mighty, flightless moa could grow up to 230kg and over 3m tall, but it evolved without man and didn’t fear us. By the time Europeans turned up, the Maori had already eaten it out of existence. The colossal Haast Eagle also relied on the moa for food, so it was soon extinct too.
Mercifully, through luck as much as design, the kiwi has clung on, though its territory and population are greatly diminished. Today, the bird which literally defines the nation finds sanctuary in the national parks, from Stewart Island in the south to Kahurangi in the north, but nowhere are they more abundant than sensational Fiordland.
Of the national park’s many treasures, the Doubtful Sound is perhaps its most spectacular. The sound was named by the great explorer Captain James Cook in 1770, but access by land has only been made practical in the last 60 years since the creation of the West Arm Power Station. Its construction was met by fierce opposition from environmentalists, but in the end enough guarantees were provided over the preservation of Fiordland National Park that it could go ahead. Fresh water from Lake Manapouri now falls through a tunnel system in a mountain, spinning turbines and generating electricity, before merging into the brackish waters of the sound, where expectant seals wait for luckless fish to filter through. The fish wouldn’t agree, but so far as a power plant in the middle of a national park can ever be low impact, West Arm is a model example.
The access granted by the station’s roads has allowed for a modern boom in tourism. On the rare, fair days, tourists can fly over the fjords, but more commonly (and certainly more economically) people leave Manapouri by boat, cross its eponymous lake, then take a bus over the Wilmot Pass, before arriving to Deep Cove, where small ships await to cruise around the Doubtful Sound overnight.
Captain of the Southern Secret, John Conrad is barefoot for most of my journey through this amazing place. He has been working in the waters of New Zealand for longer than he cares to remember, for decades as a commercial fisherman and now on tourist boats. The years of wearing overalls and rubber boots taught him to appreciate the feeling of free air tickling his toes.
The Southern Secret sails in almost all weather between vast corridors of sheer slopes during a season that runs from September to April. When it rains, which is often, waterfalls appear all over the fjords, making them look as though they’re perspiring under intense interrogation. The only guarantee during these trips is the scenery, which will always astound. The abundant wildlife is less predictable. Tantalisingly, the day before I arrive a large pod of humpback whales made a surprise appearance where the Doubtful Sound empties into the Tasman Sea. Missing them is extremely annoying, but we do see dolphins, seals and endemic Fiordland penguins. Though our little expedition is comprised exclusively of Europeans, Conrad tells me that a fair number of his countrymen visit too. Even by New Zealand’s lofty standards, he says the Fiordland National Park has the ability to leave them “gobsmacked, which is the way it should be.”
Before bed, I chance upon a book in the ship’s small library, a collection of articles from the Otago Witness published between 1860 and 1910. They’re mostly colourful fluff like “A few practical notes for holiday-seekers” and “Two interesting letters from Mr Richard Henry”. Others, though, offer an insight into why national parks and conservation are now so important in New Zealand.
One details the voyage of The Warrior Queen, which sailed from London on 28 November 1870, bringing with it an Ark-like collection of British birds, “all of them in capital health and condition”. The list of avian cargo included 150 partridges, 150 hedgesparrows, 96 blackbirds, 70 chaffinches, 61 goldfinches, 60 skylarks, 50 twites, 50 redpoles and 50 yellow-hammers, a dozen thrushes, 10 quails, 10 woodlarks, “eight brace of grouse”, “four reed sparrows and the same number of scarlet buntings”, three bramble finches, “several fancy ducks” and a single, doomed nightingale. Twenty-two people were denied passage to the New World in order to accommodate these birds, and why? “It is to be hoped [we] will be rewarded by often listening to their songs in the beautiful island home to which we wish them a quick and pleasant passage.”
On 27 August 1891, the Witness published a lengthy essay entitled “The Extermination of Native Birds”, written with an enviable verbosity that most modern writers have had thrashed out of them. Yet, the core of the article is still no less relevant today, the writer alarmed at the devastation wrought on indigenous birds by ferrets and weasels which had been imported to combat a spiralling rabbit population (they had also been introduced). It reads like a tragic rendition of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”.
But, infuriatingly, just as they seemed to be moving towards understanding and conservation, the colonialists lurched backwards. Three years later, the title carried a happy report on the successful release of eight possums in the area, five grey and three black, one of dozens of such projects which went on around New Zealand in a bid to create a fur industry. Today, the country’s possum population is thought to be in excess of 30 million, the hideous marsupials responsible for devastating the endemic rata tree.
If the immigration staff today at New Zealand airports seem at all fussy about where you have and haven’t been before getting to their wonderful country, you can hardly blame them. We brought rats, possums, rabbits, weasels, disease. Before we got here the only mammals were three species of small bat, two of which are now critically endangered, the other extinct. We humans have such dreadful form that at times New Zealand leads me towards misanthropy.
And yet being on the South Island leaves me with an enduring sense of elation, and memories of a mountain that I never want to lose, and a hope that if people can care so much about their environment here, perhaps they can everywhere, and then the whole world could be cleaner and freer and wilder. And better – it could be better.
A version of this piece was published in Etihad Inflight in December 2014