Christchurch

Sound of silence

Print edition : June 09, 2017

Franz Josef glacier. The early Maori name for it is Roimata (tears of the avalanche girl). Legend has it that the tears of a Maori girl whose lover fell down a cliff froze into the glacier. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Doubtful Sound (a sound is a narrow channel of water connecting two wider bodies of water or between two bits of land) is the most exquisitely rugged and remote area of untamed wilderness in this part of the world.

Cows coming home in Franz Josef town, which is at the base of the mountain where the glacier is situated. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The tui, a native bird. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Post-rain cascades dot the hillsides along the route through Doubtful Sound. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A view of the Tasman Sea. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The Franz Josef glacier. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Aoraki, or Mount Cook, is 3,754 metres high and is New Zealand’s highest peak. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The Wilmot Pass road, which runs through Fiordland National Park. New Zealanders claim this is the most expensive road ever built. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The weka, New Zealand’s version of the wild swamphen. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The highlight of the trip to South Island is the cruise through Doubtful Sound. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Sunset in Wanaka. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Lake Tekapo. It is one of the seven lakes that make up the Lakes District in South Island. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station on the edge of Fiordland National Park. It is the largest power station in the country. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The Southern Alps, with Lake Wanaka in the foreground.

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand’s second largest city, seems reluctant to emerge from the burrows it had buried itself into after the devastating earthquake of 2011. The 6.3-magnitude quake laid waste large parts of the city and left it in a shambles. But life had to go on. So churches with severed steeples commenced services in the undamaged parts. Shopping malls sprang up in freight containers and continue to operate, giving the city an art nouveau look. An apparently undamaged car is perched dramatically high on the side of a cracked building, making one wonder what forces deposited it there. The roads are festooned with ribbons and tapes to cordon off construction sites; many buildings have shed their designer looks to don garments of scaffolding. A tourist tram trundles past in the midst of all this. Residents seem to take everything in their stride. After all, their city sits precariously on a notorious faultline.

We are in Christchurch at the start of our 10-day family vacation in New Zealand’s more glamorous half, South Island. If you wonder what would induce us Indians, spoilt by the rainbow tapestry of India’s spectacular landscapes and dramatic coastlines, to undertake an 18-hour flight across a couple of oceans to visit this country tucked away in the remote South Pacific, rest assured, there is plenty. Cricket and the spectacular imagery of Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings fame are attractions enough, but most Indians come to New Zealand for that one commodity we seldom find in our own country: tranquil wildernesses and vast empty expanses untrodden by human feet. Modern facilities; crisp, clear air; a cool climate; and the ozone skies dramatically lit up by the setting sun are a bonus. Being in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand enjoys a salubrious summer climate in December even as Delhi freezes over. New Zealand is an expensive destination though.

We hire a car and drive through this scenic country and stay in self-booked Airbnb accommodations throughout, except for the two nights we spent deep inside the Fiordland National Park in Doubtful Sound.

The trip also involves self-catering, inspired as much by our budgetary constraints as by our dietary preferences. It is a great way to explore the country; you are not limited by the pace of other travellers as would happen in group travel. Airbnb homes in South Island seem to run on autopilot. You never get to see any human beings, neither the owner nor any caretaker. As the check-in time approaches, an anonymous SMS on your mobile gives you the code to unlock that magical door to the accommodation. The properties are invariably shipshape and squeaky clean. The kitchen is equipped with all the gadgets you would need to cook your food. The entire house is at your disposal. Nothing is locked, not even the walk-in closets bursting with the owners’ clothes. The trust reposed by the owners imposes an added sense of responsibility on you to leave the property as you found it.

We begin our trip with a tour of Christchurch, a sprawling city with huge gardens and leafy neighbourhoods. We take the cable ropeway up a hill from where we enjoy a panoramic view of Lyttleton port, the epicentre of the 2011 earthquake. Today, the port is a picture of placidity with nary a trace of the destruction. Lyttleton was the port early settlers used to reach this island. A home for the Maori for about 700 years, this natural harbour was rediscovered by Captain Cook in 1770 during his first voyage to New Zealand, on the ship Endeavour.

Franz Josef glacier

Next morning, we begin our fairy-tale drive through the Southern Alps. Within minutes of leaving Christchurch, we are already in the mountains. Our destination for the day is Franz Josef glacier. The route takes us through Arthur’s Pass, a community of 60 households almost all of whom rely on tourist traffic for their livelihood. The pass is the only way out of the Waimakariri watershed into the valleys of the west coast. The area is also a national park that is home to the great spotted kiwi, the kea, the blue duck and the rock wren. After we cross the pass and enter the valley on the other side, the surf-battered stretch of craggy coastline serves up several peaks, including New Zealand’s tallest: the 3,754-metre-high Aoraki, or Mount Cook.

In Franz Josef, the town that bears the same name as the glacier, we stay at a country house with an expansive paddock and farmyard. With enchanting views on all sides of the property, we elect to spend our time outdoors chasing wekas, New Zealand’s version of wild swamphen, and watching cows come home at sunset. The trek up to the glacier can wait until the morrow.

The early Maori name for Franz Josef glacier is Roimata (tears of the avalanche girl). Legend has it that the tears of a Maori girl whose lover fell down a cliff froze into the glacier. Named after the Austrian emperor by an Austrian explorer who found it, the glacier has been retreating alarmingly in recent years. A five-kilometre walk from the base of the mountain on which the glacier is situated leads us to a roped-off section of the glacier that looks like slush. We stand at the foot of the glacier and take our regulation photographs. Helicopters whirr above. For a hefty sum, they will drop you on the glacier for 10 minutes and bring you back down.

The scale of things in New Zealand is designed to remind you of your own insignificance—the grandeur of the mountains, the endless expanse of the ocean, the vast meadows and the deafening silence. The one thing you will find in abundance in South Island is solitude. The macadam meanders languorously. As tyre swallows tarmac, you realise you have not sighted a single car other than your own since you set out in the morning. Nor do you see any human beings, although this is supposed to be peak tourist season in New Zealand.

The drive meanders between the coast and inland. When the sea leaves the road, the lakes take over. There are several of them at every twist and turn, and they dazzle you with their deep blue in which the peaks are reflected. The meadows and mountainsides are polka-dotted with grazing sheep. Dairy is New Zealand’s major revenue earner, alongside tourism. There are lovely walks for every level of fitness, and if you want to go tramping and camping in the countryside, be prepared to shell out as much as you would for a hotel stay in India. The Kiwis have put a price even on their wildernesses.

Wanaka

But South Island offers much for the adrenalin junkie, which is perhaps why it attracts so many young visitors. Wanaka, our next destination, offers adventure seekers every excitement—hang-gliding, jet-skiing, rappelling, canoeing, skydiving, rafting, surfing, ballooning, boating, trekking, canyoning, you name it, it is on offer—for a hefty price, of course. After all, the tourist season is short and the weather can be unpredictable. You sign numerous forms indemnifying the operators of these sports against every eventuality before you undertake something as routine as boating in a lake!

Wanaka is home to numerous canyons. You are lowered into one (in a harness, of course) to explore the dark deep recesses and discover hidden secrets. Or you can go jet-skiing, splashing flecks of foam and speeding through the waves. Wanaka is spectacular, which is why it was one of the locations where The Lord of the Rings was filmed. En route, we stopped several times along to admire the vistas. In Wanaka at sunset, the sky looks like a palette on which the artist has dripped ochre and pink. We stroll along the banks of the lake and discover not one but three Indian restaurants.

New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, although the Dutch sailor Abel Tasman had made contact with the indigenous Maori residents almost two centuries earlier. It was Tasman who named the island New Sealand. He was followed by Captain Cook, who landed his Endeavour on the coast of this new land and established British and French settlers on the land. But the Maoris did not bow down to foreign domination easily and put up a stiff fight like the Sioux Indians of America.

At last, when truce was established and the somewhat controversial Treaty of Waitangi was concluded in 1840, it was premised on peaceful coexistence of the two cultures, Maori and European. Later, it was discovered that it used clever wordplay to privilege British interests, leaving Maoris fuming. The uneasy balance endures though. During our travels through this country, we did not come across a single Maori resident, although they are said to comprise 15 per cent of the country’s population.

Leaving Wanaka, we set out for Manapouri, a quaint village perched on the banks of Lake Manapouri, which in turn is the gateway to the two famous “sounds” of South Island: Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. A sound is neither a fjord nor a caldera; it is not like backwaters, a bay or a gulf. In geography, a sound is a sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight and wider than a fjord; or a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land. We leave our rental car in Manapouri, the jumping-off point for the delightful Doubtful Sound cruise.

Swatting sandflies, which swarm all over, we board a boat that takes us across the scenic lake, which is surrounded by mountains and clothed in a veil of mist. At the other end of the ride is an underground hydroelectric power station located on the edge of the Fiordland National Park. It is the largest power station in New Zealand and was constructed in the teeth of opposition from environmentalists. At the power station, we board a bus that will take us 21 kilometres across the national park through Wilmot Pass from where we board another boat for the Doubtful Sound cruise. New Zealanders claim that this gravel road through the national park is the most expensive road ever built. Although it is a major tourist attraction, there is just a single company that runs the combined boat-bus-boat trip to Doubtful Sound. Not only are the ticket prices extortionate, they get booked several months in advance.

The bus journey takes us through a serene forest lined with manuka shrubs. The honey from manuka blossoms is said to have medicinal properties. We stay the night in Deep Cove Hostel, which is located deep inside the national park. The Deep Cove Outdoor Education Trust is a non-profit organisation established in 1971. It has a 50-bed hostel that was established to give school-age children an opportunity to experience life in a remote part of the national park. Visitors can stay here when there is no school camp. We are the only residents in this establishment today. The surrounding forests, we find, are lined with traps for stoats, an introduced species that wreaks havoc on native birds and animals.

The highlight of our trip to South Island, of course, is the cruise through Doubtful Sound: sheer, weathered cliffs dominate the horizon and the perpetual mist adds a touch of mystique as our boat sails silently through these waters. Post-rain cascades dot the hillsides. The sound is home to bottlenose dolphins and fur seals. At the sound’s mouth to the Tasman Sea lies Nee Islets, home to a massive seal colony. Doubtful Sound is undoubtedly the most exquisitely rugged and remote area of untamed wilderness in this part of the world. It is also a delightful oxymoron in that the “sound” is a place of deafening silence!

There are more than 40 sounds in South Island. The story why this one is called the Doubtful Sound goes as follows: when Captain Cook sailed to this part of the island through the Tasman Sea, he dared not enter the sound since he feared there would not be enough wind to blow his ship back to the open sea.

We also visit Milford Sound, where we glide over calm waters between weather-scuffed rocks even as Mitre Peak beckons us from a distance. But compared with Doubtful Sound, this one is crowded with busloads of camera-wielding tourists rending the tranquillity with their clicks and chatter.

Bustling Queenstown is a pit stop on our way back. Lush rainforests, glimmering lakes, breath-taking views and some of the finest wine the country produces have made Queenstown a favourite destination. After a day in Queenstown, we drive back through the wetlands of Haast, home to seal and penguin colonies.

And the route back to Christchurch throws up mesmerising views of Aoraki. It was a climb up this peak that whetted Edmund Hillary’s desire to take up mountaineering as a career. The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre there showcases a three-dimensional digital dome planetarium.

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