Above: The calm waters of Milford Sound, a glacier-carved fjord in New Zealand’s Southland region.
A land of high mountains, deep fjords, and sparkling glaciers, the wild west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a scene-stealer in a country full of natural wonders. Add to that its special way of life, and you have the makings of an adventure writ large
By Jason Tedjasukmana
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang
The captain of the TSS Earnslaw is in no hurry to get to the other side of Lake Wakatipu. Given the scenery, you can hardly blame him. As he inches his old red-funneled steamboat though the ice-cold waters from Queenstown, the aptly named Remarkables come into clear view, a white-capped alpine range that looms over New Zealand’s adventure-sports capital. I pass the time listening to a gaggle of elderly Australian ladies, dressed in their Sunday best, as they sing old ballads (“Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling …”) and gush about the mountains’ beauty.
The boat eventually docks on the lake’s western shore, and the ladies file off and form a group destined for a tour of the sheep farm near the harbor. I head in the other direction in search of my ride, which, like the Earnslaw, proves slow to arrive. I sit down on a low stone wall and wait. Finally, an old Land Cruiser pulls up and a burly gent rolls down the driver’s window. “You must be looking for me. I’m Dave Hughes,” he announces with a grin. I jump in beside him, and as we roll past the ladies and their tour guide, an old friend of his, Dave shouts: “Believe everything you see, but only half of what you hear.”
I might have offered up a variation on that piece of advice myself: the scenery in New Zealand is so breathtaking that you wonder whether it’s been digitally enhanced. I’ve seen, as I’m sure you have too, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was shot on locations throughout the country. So I’m prepared for dramatic, even mythic landscapes —plus a lot of sheep. Yet what you see on film is merely a trailer for the real thing. And nowhere is the physical grandeur and diversity of New Zealand better displayed than on the west coast of the South Island, one half of a small country with only four million people, most of whom live on the neighboring island to the north.
Dave runs a back-roads tour service based in Te Anau, which he tells me is a Maori name meaning “cave of rushing water.” This lakeside township of about 1,800 people is the largest community in the 1.2-million-hectare Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage–listed wilderness carved out of sheer cliffs and deep sounds. As we head across the high country, Dave says the drive to Te Anau will take about three hours, maybe longer, “depending on traffic.” That’s Kiwi humor: there isn’t another vehicle in sight. Then I get an early lesson in Kiwi neighborliness when Dave tells me he has to drop off a newspaper at a friend’s house on the way.
Above, from left: A kayak outfitter’s headquarters at Deep Water Basin, Milford Sound; a former bus now serves as a mobile home; garden seating at a local winery.
Soon we’re cutting through the Eyre Mountains, one of several towering ranges in the Southland region. Along the way we pass a number of vast sheep ranches, known here as “stations.” True to what everyone says, sheep outnumber people in New Zealand, especially in this part of the country, which is famous for producing high-quality Merino wool and some of the best lamb you’ll ever taste. “You have to try it when it’s about one to two years old,” Dave recommends. He should know. He was a sheep farmer for most of his life before deciding to use his truck to transport people instead of livestock.
Above, from left: enjoying a lamb kebab; stones stacked by passing motorists on the West Coast Highway; lamb roast ready for cooking at Dock Bay Lodge.
After dropping off the newspaper at an unlocked ranch house in the middle of a vast sheep station (locked doors here are about as rare as people), Dave parks the Land Cruiser in the middle of an empty plain. We plop down on the tussock grass under a deep-blue sky, and enjoy the silence over a thermos of English breakfast tea and his wife’s shortbread.
“Southlanders are very attached to the land,” Dave says between sips. Later, with a sweep of a sinewy arm, he adds, “It’s hard to be in a hurry around here.” But it’s getting dark so we move on.
After passing a total of one car, Dave deposits me in Te Anau at Dock Bay Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast run by Dawn and Mark Dowling. Feisty and plain-spoken, Dawn comes out to greet us as if I was one of her children returning from university abroad. It’s coming on dinnertime, and an herb-flecked lamb roast beckons. Over a glass of local Pinot Noir, Dawn assures me I’ll have a great time in Fiordland, but that I should be prepared for changes in the weather and difficult terrain if I go hiking. “You’d be amazed how unprepared some visitors are,” she says, shaking her head. “This is a very tourist-friendly country, but you need to respect nature.”
I tell her the most energy I plan to expend is on pulling the cork from another bottle of wine, and she proceeds to explain how her husband Mark, an auto mechanic, is routinely called out to rescue tourists who have crashed their rental cars. “People who come here from big cities just can’t take their eyes off this waterfall or that mountain, and then, boom, they’ve run themselves off the road.”
All those accidents, however, have provided Mark the seed capital for this stunning five-bedroom lodge on the southern edge of Lake Te Anau. The view from the balcony recalls the palette of Maxfield Parrish, and coniferous trees pierce the sky in defiance of winds that take on gale-force in the morning. The weather does indeed require getting used to. Never have I experienced what feels like four different seasons in one day, from sunshine to rain back to cold and then hail—and this is at the end of the antipodean spring.
There’s not much to Te Anau apart from some nice cafés, guesthouses, hostels, and a few shops selling top-of-the-line Icebreaker clothing, including woolen T-shirts for more than US$100. The town serves primarily as the base from which most people explore the walking trails and sounds of Fiordland. My choice is Milford Sound, about a two-hour drive from Te Anau along a highway that literally cuts through the mountains via the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2-kilometer engineering marvel opened in 1954 after almost two decades of blasting.
Dave drops me at Milford early one morning. “This sound is one of the most accessible remote places you’ll ever visit,” says Alistair Watkins, a kayaking guide whose sanity I question for wearing flip-flops and shorts in weather that makes my teeth chatter. Our boats are the only ones on the water that morning, a sensation that I can only describe as a privilege. I feel as small as a Hobbit as I paddle alongside slabs of granite that somehow support enormous trees growing out of them at 45-degree angles. In the distance, a waterfall tumbles more than 500 meters down a cliff face. The sky is arctic blue and a crisp, unfiltered light shines on the ring of jagged peaks surrounding us. It comes to me then that there’s nothing but empty sea between me and the Antarctic. As if to underscore that thought, a crested penguin waddles out onto the rocks, casts a sidelong glance my way, and disappears into the gelid waters.
In places like Milford Sound, you can see how scenery alone can fuel an economy. Tourism is New Zealand’s largest export earner, and employs nearly one in eleven Kiwis. Nor can you travel far without hearing about the DOC, or the Department of Conservation. With little in the way of a military budget and a landmass about the size of Malaysia, the government funds environmental programs that touch nearly every aspect of life. “You can’t even remove a tree if it falls down in the forest,” says Fiona Lee, who works in the Fiordland area. “The DOC has done an amazing job conserving our most important assets.”
As have the residents themselves. This is a country, after all, where people regularly chain themselves to trees to prevent them from being chopped down for infrastructure projects like highways and airports. And I don’t spot a piece of trash anywhere.
Farther north near the town of Greymouth, I spend a cozy night at the Punakaiki Resort. The place is as eco-friendly as they come, with seaview bungalows made from recycled woods and powered by solar panels. Carey Lister, the property’s general manager, says that folk on the west coast—home to five of the country’s 14 national parks and just 31,000 people—are steadfast about safeguarding the environment. “There are huge protected forests around here that have not been touched and never will be,” he tells me. “People here prefer it that way.”
Tourism and agriculture fuel the local economy today, though it was gold and timber that first lured settlers to these shores. “At one point they thought [the town of] Hokitika would be the capital of New Zealand because of the gold mines and economic activity in these parts,” says Jackie Gurden, director of Greymouth’s Shantytown museum, which reconstructs pioneer life during the gold rushes of the 1860s. “When they discovered gold, a town would pop up overnight,” she continues. “And when the gold was gone, the town would disappear just as fast.”
No one strikes it rich here anymore, but there’s still an enterprising spirit. In and around Franz Josef, a town of 300 people, at least 13 new businesses have opened over the past three years. One entrepreneur, Ian Hartshone, invested his family’s savings in a boat, and now runs tours on Lake Mapourika, a radiant body of water fed by runoff from the Southern Alps. “One thing about the west coast is, there’s always another way to make a living,” he says. “It’s a very resilient part of the country.”
He might have added “independent,” which is what I conclude one night sitting in one of Hokitika’s many little pubs. There are few places I know where striking up conversations with locals comes so easily, and I strike one up with Terry Kearns, a dairy farmer sporting an All Blacks rugby jersey. Over pints of Monteith’s lager (brewed in Greymouth), Kearns tells me that “the combination of isolation and history has formed a very strong identity here. We’re not like those JAFA,” he adds, using a rather unflattering acronym to describe his compatriots on the North Island—Just Another F*cker from Auckland. And he complains sourly about federal environmental legislation. “We’ve always been concerned about the environment here. We don’t need to be regulated too, just so they can hammer us with more taxes.”
Franz Josef, a two-hour drive south of Hokitika along a coastal highway lined with giant pine trees, is like one of those gold-rush towns Jackie Gurden told me about: it has a temporary feel to it. This is glacier country, and residents seem prepared for the day when the melting, moving tongues of ice will swallow their community. Marie Coburn, who owns the lovely 12-room Franz Josef Glacier Country Retreat outside town, is convinced that Franz Josef will disappear in a few years. “It could be gone even sooner because of the glacial floods we’ve been having,” she predicts. “That’s why we built on a farm area and away from everyone else.”
The Franz Josef Glacier, five kilometers from town, is just one of more than 3,000 glaciers in New Zealand. In an age of global warming, it is also one of the few that is actually growing; since the mid-1980s, the ice sheet has been advancing seaward through the forested foothills of the Southern Alps, sometimes at the rate of 70 centimeters a day. It now extends to only 250 meters above sea level.
Twelve kilometers long, the glacier was first recorded in 1865 by the Austrian explorer Julius von Haast, who promptly named it after his emperor. But I prefer the poetry of its Maori name, Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (“the tears of Hine Hukatere”), from an ancient legend about lost love.
Above, from left: The Franz Josef Glacier has advanced to within 19 kilometers of the sea; a Milford Sound kayak guide; Te Anau’s Dock Bay Lodge.
Franz and the nearby Fox Glacier are today part of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. They are the west coast’s top draws for tourists, who come to hike, climb, or take helicopter sightseeing tours over the ice and around the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook, at 3,754 meters the highest mountain in New Zealand.
It’s a clear, bright day when I arrive at the edge of Franz Josef’s frozen expanse. My guide, Giulia Boffa, is an Italian who has been living in New Zealand for the past four years. As we pick our way across the glacier, she tells me how she hacks out a new trail every day through uplifted ice formations that can come crashing down without warning. “The way such a small area of land changes is amazing,” says Giulia, who fell in love with the place after her first visit. “Everything’s on a whole different scale here.” I toast that thought with a drink from an ice-cold stream. The water is so cold that it stings my lips.
I half expect myself to become blasé about the island’s scenery. But by the end of my trip, I’m still feeling like one of those awestruck motorists back in Te Anau that Mark the mechanic regularly rescues from the side of the road. My head spins and my heart starts pounding every time I turn a corner and spot another waterfall, another mountain, another wild beach.
As I cross the South Island from west to east on the TranzAlpine, a 4.5-hour train journey from Greymouth to the the city of Christchurch, the weather is changing almost as fast as the landscape. The views —snowy peaks, yawning gorges, broad river valleys—are breathtaking, and call to mind something that a local told me back at that pub in Hokitika. “This island,” he said, “is just a hunk of dirt. But it’s one you’ll never forget.”
New?Zealand’s South Island West Coast
Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies five times weekly to Christchurch from Singapore, while Emirates (emirates.com) operates a daily Christchurch service from Bangkok via Sydney. From Hong Kong, there’s a daily connection to the South Island city via Sydney on Qantas (qantas.com).
The TranzAlpine (tranzscenic.co.nz; US$92 one way) between Christchurch and Greymouth is one of the world’s great train rides, passing through 224 kilometers of spectacular terrain on its daily runs across the island.
Rental cars and camper vans are widely available in Greymouth for those who want to tour the west coast at their own pace. For more immediate access to the Southland region and Fiordland, there are regular flights from Christchurch and Hokitika to Queenstown.
When to Go
New Zealand’s warmer months run from November through April, while June to August is the peak season in skiing areas. The South Island is typically a few degrees colder than its northern counterpart, and its west coast, thanks to the moisture-laden easterlies that run up against the Southern Alps, can be damp year-round.
Where to Stay
North of Greymouth, the beachside Punakaiki Resort (State Hwy. 6, Punakaiki; 64-3/731-1168; punakaiki-resort.co.nz; doubles from US$80) comes with eco-friendly suites and dramatic sea views. Farther south, the Franz Josef Glacier Country Retreat (State Hwy. 6, Lake Mapourika; 64-3/752-0012; glacier-retreat.co.nz; doubles from US$203) makes the ideal base from which to explore the nearby glacier.
Dock Bay Lodge (192 William Stephen Rd., Te Anau; 64-3/ 249-7709; dockbaylodge.co.nz; doubles from US$216) is a five-room Fiordland bed-and-breakfast. The hosts are charming, and the setting, adjacent to a golf course on the shores of Lake Te Anau, couldn’t be better.
Originally appeared in the June/July 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Kiwi Country”)