Encyclopedia of Islands

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New Zealand, from Snowy Teaks to Sparkling Rivers

At 12,349 feet it is New Zealand´s highest mountain, more than 800 feet higher than its tallest rival. Thus it clings to the sun´s colors longer than other peaks, longer often than the clouds. Several thousand feet below Cook´s distinctive, rooflike summit, a thin streamer of fluff had impaled itself, recalling the mountain´s ancient Maori name: Aorangi, or "Cloud in the Sky," bestowed more than 11 centuries ago by those seafaring Polynesians who first settled New Zealand. Even today, the name fits.

An hour later, Aorangi was invisible. Night had not triumphed— clouds had, suddenly packing together in a dense overcast not 300 feet above the mountain´s base. Such whiteouts are common in this alpine island nation, whose western flank zooms up from zero elevation to more than 10,000 feet in as little as 22 miles. The sharp ascent thrusts warm, wet ocean air to chilly heights where the moisture must condense. Often the resulting clouds stack up in unending ranks along the Main Divide, ultimately rolling over it like ocean breakers coming ashore. And like the surf, these frontal attacks can be entrancing, almost magical to behold.

Mountains are but one of innumerable natural splendors to grace New Zealand, a Colorado-size country stretched across 13 degrees of latitude—about the same span as the western coast of the contiguous United States. It possesses extraordinary diversity and compactness, its seagirt borders enclosing rain-forested wildernesses, fjords as dramatic as Norway´s, smoking volcanoes and spewing geysers, finger lakes full of trout, tussocky hills full of game, native plants and animals that exist nowhere else, crashing white-water streams, jagged seaside cliffs, pancake rock formations, inland caves, and dramatic undersea arches and reefs. Acre for acre, New Zealand has more scenic and topographic variety than any other country— all of which makes it an outdoorsman´s dream come true.

Nature has split this land into two major isles, the North Island and the South Island. The more temperate and less rugged North claims volcanoes past and present, rolling hills, and countless beaches and bays. Smaller in size than its southern counterpart, it nevertheless harbors two-thirds of the nation´s 3.3 million people and most of its industry; yet it prides itself as much on its seashores as it does on its commerce. The country´s major metropolis—Auckland—calls itself The City of Sails, tipping its hat to the colorful pleasure craft that dot its waters like confetti whenever the sun shines. In the 1920s, American author and outdoorsman Zane Grey dubbed a stretch of this island´s northeastern coast "the angler´s El Dorado" after plumbing its abundant supply of marlin, tuna, and other game fish. His label is even more apt today, for the area draws spearfishing scuba divers, as well as anglers in all types of boats from sail to jet. Jet boating, by the way, is a New Zealand invention to cope with shallow local streams and rivers.

In contrast, the South Island boasts Mount Cook and the neighboring confusion of snowcapped peaks and ridges known as the Southern Alps. Though continental giants such as Alaska´s McKinley or Africa´s Kilimanjaro tower far higher, this island´s corrugated backbone is astonishingly compact and challenging. The South Island´s features include, for example, steep-walled fjords and hanging valleys born of glaciers, brown sand beaches and dazzling icefalls, crystalline lakes and rivers, hardwood forests and broad plains. The magic of New Zealand is that all these varied features— and the different climates they create—coexist so close together. No place in the country lies more than 80 miles from the sea, and none escapes the sea´s influence. So it is that one can ski an inland mountain, then windsurf off the coast—all in the same day.

Though the bedrock here is ancient, today´s convoluted topography is not. "Basically, what you see is all very young," says Dr. Richard I. Walcott, a geology professor at Victoria University of Wellington. He adds that the mountains outside Wellington, the nation´s capital, "have arisen out of the sea only within the last million years, probably the last half million—an instant of geologic time."

For almost all its existence, New Zealand remained rather flat and low-lying. It originated from massive river deltas that built up off Australia and Antarctica hundreds of millions of years ago, when the two continents were united. As recently as 80 million years ago the huge tectonic plates that underlie earth´s crust moved in such a way that these deltas began to split off from their mother continents; rifts spawned the Antarctic Ocean and the Tasman Sea. New Zealand eventually wound up atop a no-man´s-land where two plates, the Pacific and the Indo-Australian, happened to meet.

New Zealand

To the north, the Pacific plate dives under the Indo-Australian. To the south, the Indo-Australian crunches under the Pacific. In between, especially beneath the South Island, the plates clash head on, resulting in surface crumpling that produced the Southern Alps. These mountains, according to Walcott, "started rising about five million years ago, maybe only two million. The whole area now is coming up very fast—about 10 millimeters a year, perhaps as much as 20 millimeters in some places"—about half an inch to an inch. At that rate, the Alps would balloon six to twelve miles in elevation every million years.

Why aren´t they that tall today? For one thing, the uplift hasn´t been constant. For another, the mountains have created an intriguing equilibrium: They erode precisely as fast as they rise. The nearby ocean provides unlimited moisture, prompting high precipitation along the Alps—the equivalent of more than 30 feet of rain a year, says Walcott.

"That´s what is causing the erosion," he adds. "And there´s not much doubt what´s causing this high rainfall—it´s the mountains. So we have a feedback mechanism; as mountains push higher, they cause more precipitation, which increases erosion, eventually balancing the uplift."

Most of that precipitation takes the form of snow on the Southern Alps. Billions of gentle crystals descend yearly, accumulating in such masses that their combined weight eventually compresses earlier snowfalls into ice. Glaciers result—slow, grinding rivers of ice powered by gravity. As they descend the slopes, their ice stretches and compacts, giving rise to avalanches, icefalls, crevasses, and rockslides. Mindful of such hazards, New Zealanders respect glaciers. They also ski down them.

Skiing is a popular activity in this mountainous land, whose Southern Hemisphere location makes it the ideal training camp for world-class skiers during the Northern Hemisphere´s summer. All classes of skiers enjoy New Zealand´s glacier skiing and "heliskiing"—the chartering of helicopters to haul skiers up rugged mountains.

Many careers are not confined to the indoors, nor is wilderness merely a stage for sport. To many residents, such as Don, the land and its various challenges create an alluring way of life.

Don has spent the past five of his 33 years guiding skiers down the Tasman and climbers up Mount Cook and other peaks. He´s seen local winds jump from zero to 40 knots in less than an hour and has weathered storms that "can dump two meters of snow just like that."

Over time, the volatile weather and the enormous popularity of the country´s rugged scapes among hikers, climbers, and skiers have moved the nation to evolve a hut system that ranks among the world´s best. Cabins—usually stocked with bunks, mattresses, stoves, and other supplies— are found in many national parks, national forests, and other reserves, as well as on some private lands. They exist not just in the hazardous high country, but also in frequently hiked areas such as the Milford Track, where they help reduce human wear on the wilderness.

In fact, New Zealand boasts so many huts and trails that Brin Barron of the New Zealand Forest Service maintains: "It´s becoming more difficult, nowadays, to get into danger in the bush."

The "bush"—a term embracing native forests as well as scrub—is where Brin puts in most of his work time, as a professional hunter. His quarry is not elk or other game but feral goats, descendants of those introduced more than two centuries ago by settlers and prospectors. Today, the forest service considers goats harmful to native vegetation and responsible for aggravating erosion, so much so that it employs Brin and other hunters to control the animals´ numbers.