A Mountain Tale

December 20, 2019
Iain MacLeod

It is sometimes lost on us, as we live our ordinary and for the most part, urban, lives, so utterly disconnected from nature, just how wonderful this country of Aotearoa/New Zealand really is. Often we only appreciate it when we step out of our comfort zone and head for the hills (or in my case, mountains).

We are surrounded in New Zealand by nature and it is cheap and accessible on all levels. Within 40 minutes’ drive of downtown Auckland we have beaches with few or no one on them, regional parks and reserves, conservation areas where battles rage against introduced pests and predators, marine reserves that hark back to pre-human days still exist and all can be enjoyed at minimal to no cost.

Travelling a little further afield, I left the humid northern summer of Auckland last week and flew to Queenstown in the South Island where the temperature in the mountains was around 10 degrees cooler than I had left.

I then spent three days walking the Routeburn Track with my wife and some good friends. The Routeburn is a 35 kilometre, three-day hike across the Harris Pass dividing a mountain range and several valleys.

There are two types that ‘do’ this track. There is what is known as ‘independent’ walkers, those who carry everything on their backs and stay in very comfortable, warm and dry (free, can you believe it?) Department of Conservation huts (dormitory sleeping and no showers!) or for the more well-heeled, you can pay Ultimate Hikes, which has a concession in this and the Milford Track to provide guides and accomodation, as we did. They have their own accommodation (with showers!) and chefs so while you carry your own kit, they provide the (most excellent) food and bedding.

The Routeburn starts in the Fiordland National Park and ends in the Mount Aspiring National Park.

Day one saw us dropped off halfway to the more famous Milford Track, climb steadily though Beech forest, stripping off layers of clothes until we finally got to the (winter) snow line where the forest ended and the alpine vegetation began. A well-formed and relatively easy side track took us up to 900 metres above sea level where we were still dwarfed by towering mountains, topped with the last of the winter snow, and deep glacier carved valleys stretched out in all directions.

After six or so hours of hiking over some 15 km, we arrived at the MacKenzie Hut where tired feet were consoled by excellent local, Central Otago wines and a hearty meal. At the latitude we were at (think southern France for those of you that know Europe) it seemed like the sun was never going to set. At 10pm it was still only dusk. A rare teat indeed for we northern New Zealanders where even on the longest day of the year the sun is gone by 8.45pm. Pink clouds snuggled the nearby mountains, enveloping us after dark and providing a gentle patter rain through the night. Thankfully it was gone with a crisp dawn.

We had gone to sleep and woken up to the sound of the local mountain parrot, known as the Kea, screeching and squawking. These birds, only live above or about the snow line, and are said to have the intelligence of a 3-4 year old human. The stories you hear about what these critters can do as they work individually or in teams to solve (usually food related) puzzles was absorbing as the guides shared their experiences observing them over the years. Like the pair working in unison on getting into one of the cabins — one landing on the door handle of a room while another sits at the bottom ready to push the door open with its shoulder makes you look at them a with a profound respect.

Day two started with 30 minutes in dense beech forest with a floor littered with giant boulders cracked from the valley walls or pushed down the valley by advancing glaciers thousands of years ago. It is almost impossible to describe and I am not a good enough wordsmith to do it justice. Picture if you will 20 metre high trees, growing on or in between massive boulders. Every surface of every rock, the forest floor and even the trunks themselves were padded with many different species of moss, lichens and liverworts. The only visible stone was on our pathway. It was so ‘Lord of the Rings’ but no set designer or builder could have ever imagined or created anything as beautiful. Every shade of green you can imagine everywhere you looked.

There had been so much rain the previous month (the next valley over had had 2600mm of rain – that’s no typo…) in four weeks, everything was dripping or felt like a wet sponge when touched. We had to take a detour out of camp because the usual way out of the camp was under a metre of water.

Higher and higher we trundled and the forest gave way to the most amazing abundance of alpine plants, many in flower. Many plants in New Zealand owing to millions of years of isolation often resemble plants of a quite different genus or even family. The best of them was the Mount Cook Lily. What looks like a lily actually turned out to be a buttercup. Pure white petals surrounding a bright yellow centre, they only flower for three weeks a year and we happened to be there during one of those three.

The walk was punctuated every 50 to 100 metres by waterfalls, some over 100metres high, tumbling off almost vertical valley sides. Scores of them. Waterfalls with the sweetest, freshest water you have ever drunk. Side note: how depressing it was that our guides felt obliged to advise those ‘uncomfortable’ filling their water bottles from these purest sources of water that if they wanted sterilisation tablets they could be supplied with them. Who could be ‘uncomfortable’ drinking water that may well have fallen from the sky hundreds of years ago and lay locked up in glaciers before being perfectly filtered through layers of moss? I swear I have never drunk water so sweet. But how far removed from mother nature so many urban dwellers have sadly become.

Day 3 was a doddle 9 km walk. Downhill, our backs to a mighty waterfall we descended back into the beech forest, snacked by a glacial fed river and a forest full of bird song. The past seven years has seen active pest control meaning the valley is once again habitable for some of our most precious and rare native species and they are finally able to reestablish viable breeding groups.

Lunch in a corner of a winding river running deep and crystal clear. Every rock and every pebble visible given the clarity of the water. A deep gorge sliced through by often raging waters, we were treated to the seemingly fearless South Island Robin, a bird of black and cream, hopping onto our hiking boots and picking at the gravel where we had had scratched the surface, looking for its next meal.

We were reminded once again of the volume of rain this part of New Zealand can get. I am not far off six foot in height and standing up the trees above my head were laced with mats of grasses and other dead vegetation, caught in the branches when the river was last in flood a few days before we got there. Huge logs, stripped bare of any remnant foliage, balancing precariously on house sized rocks some two metres above the river level. According to our guides they hadn’t been there a week before….

You are left in no doubt in New Zealand of the awesome power of nature. In particular, and in the lower south west of the South Island the immense power of water, whether frozen or liquid to shape and define the landscape.

Equally, you get to share an experience out of the ordinary and enjoy a part of New Zealand where depressingly few people venture. It was great to share the experience with a group of Japanese tourists, the oldest I understood to be about 70, a couple from San Francisco and another from Taiwan. The enthusiasm of the young guides from New Zealand was infectious.

To those of you who have moved here or will move here, I wrote this time last year about walking the Milford track in November 2018 – a valley or three removed from the Routeburn. I may have mentioned a bucket list and although I don’t have one of those, the Milford Track being ranked one of the top walks in the world, was always a must do for me. I didn’t think it could be beaten. While it was epic, if you want something a little quicker and less difficult on the body, add the Routeburn to your list. I think most older children could manage it, so if you have any and you want to experience a true ‘100% Pure NZ’, the Routeburn is for you.

You can do it cheap (actually the whole thing is free including the accomodation) and carry your own bedding and two minute noodles or do it ‘easy’(er) and book through Ultimate Hikes.

But please do it. I get so frustrated that so many people move here for the wonderful New Zealand lifestyle but never get out into these places. I think the south African clients make the effort coming from a similarly outdoor culture but the clients from Singapore and Hong Kong? Get out of Auckland’s shopping malls this summer and get into the heart of ‘God’s own’ country.

This will be the last Southern Man for the year. We close today at mid-day. What a year it has been. We are currently assisting over 650 families to make a permanent move to New Zealand or Australia. It has been a year of cuts from the Governments of both countries, depressingly sensitive to the politics of immigration despite the unarguably positive aspects of ‘new blood’. In New Zealand, we end the year with increasing pressure on the Immigration Department which seems to have moved from a state of chaos last year, to I suspect, breaking point now. Resident visa applications, that a year ago were taking six months to process are now, with a few exceptions, taking over 18 months. While I hope that 2020 will be the year the department finally gets its act together I won’t be holding my breath.

Will 2020 be the year of higher pass marks for skilled migrants coming to New Zealand as we head into an election year? I don’t rule it as the Government has so dismally failed to deliver on most of what it promised such as more housing and continues to have its immigration agenda controlled by the New Zealand First leadership that they chose to jump into a coalition bed with.

I confess for the first time in a long time, despite the fact that jobs continue to rain down on almost all of our clients, I am worried that the economic need for every single one of you that chooses to come and join us here, might be tossed on the pyre that is an election year bonfire. The minority coalition partner will do and say anything to appeal to the small number of New Zealanders that think migration is a bad thing (at last election they amounted to 7% and polling 4% now) and which trots out the anti-migrant rhetoric every three years to keep its status of kingmaker.

Those peaceful mountains suddenly feel a distant memory.

Have a peaceful and restful Christmas as we, at IMMagine, intend doing in the best kept secret on planet Earth.

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