A Large Land
“A large land, uplifted high” is how, in December 1642, the Dutch led by Abel Tasman first described what was to become known as New Zealand. They were looking upon the western side of the Southern Alps which rise precipitously from a narrow coast to top at 4068m (12,349 feet) above sea level.
Of course, other explorers discovered this was not the great southern continent that northern hemisphere explorers expected (to balance the globe), but a relatively small country comprised principally of two long, narrow islands – practically but somewhat unimaginatively now named North Island and South Island. I prefer the Maori names which are increasingly coming into popular usage: Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui, the North Island) and Te Waipounamu (greenstone – jade – waters, South Island); much more poetic and descriptive.
Te Ika A Maui has its high lands, but it is the vast uplifted lands of Te Waipounamu that always spring to mind when Kiwis talk about ‘the high country’, and it is that land that I pay photographic tribute to with this blog; in particular that wide, high, land that extends eastward across Canterbury from the Main Divide – the long range of mountains extending the length of the South Island that marks the boundary between west and east.
The two sides of this high dividing line are remarkably different in spite of both being halves of the whole. The west side is incredibly steep, very wet, with dense temperate rainforest and little in the way of ‘introductory’ hills as an intermediary between the coastal flats and the high barrier ranges. The mountains jump up from the sea and the distance between coastline and mountain top is not more than some 50 kilometres and, more frequently, much less.
On the eastern side, where the divide borders Canterbury, the high peaks give way to a series of lesser ranges, giving way in turn to rolling hills, cut through by long winding rivers, before petering out to the alluvial plains. Forest close to the Main Divide is still thick and wet but the land quickly becomes drier toward the east. Here are the river-terraced and glaciated valleys, dangerous rivers, and steep alpine passes of Samuel Butler’s ‘Erewhon’. The forest gives way to great realms of alpine tussock grasses, wide wetlands and shallow swampy lakes, and fields of alpine shrubs and herbs (often armed with thorns and spikes) that can be as impenetrable as any tropical jungle. Bare tops pour frail, frost-shattered rock down shingle slides into the valleys, where the rivers refine and polish this material as it is carried out to sea, building, over eons, the wide, flat Canterbury Plains.
It is country where the scenery can change dramatically at the turn of a road or the crest of a hill.
Farthest east, these hills are largely cleared of bush and the tall snow tussocks, and have been grazed for 200 years. They are smooth and civilised, but nevertheless beautiful in form. In spring they are green as a young emerald, but quickly brown into summer, scoured brittle by the hot nor’westerly winds that make the west so wet and the east so dry. Red cattle and white sheep dot them sparsely and mark wandering trails across their surface.
Bush remnants tuck like pubic hair into the intimate folds of the valleys, and blue glacial rivers burst out of the last mouth of their gorges here, to spread leisurely, haphazardly, across the plain. Kahu (Australasian harrier or what most New Zealanders call hawks) patrol here, as do the fierce speedster, the karearea (New Zealand falcon). Pihoihoi (native pipits) trill from the sky and follow trampers along the paths, gleaning insects disturbed by their passage.
Higher and more westerly, the hills steepen, and begin to sport long, steep-sided ridges where land slides away into gorges and gullies. More forest remains here, and the grazed bits left to go wild have reverted to native matagouri thorn shrub or been invaded by the exotic weeds of wilding pine, gorse, briar rose and lupin. In places where this land has been reserved from grazing, or restored, the tall tussock and the alpine shrubs paint the slopes in a range of pastel hues in the red-brown-orange-yellow spectrum.
Manukua and kanuka flower here so prolifically it looks like an unseasonal snow has clothed the regenerating forest, and the birds are more numerous as there is more to feed on, both plant and animal. Green geckos bask among the coprosma twigs; grey, slipper soft, geckoes hug the rocks, while skinks rustle quickly through the dry grasses. Kahu and karearea are fierce predators here, and at the boundary between plant life and bare scree, rare and beautiful rock wren, the ultimate winter survivalist, hop among the boulders. But the king of the birds here is the kea: cheeky, inquisitive, resourceful and bloody clever, these unique alpine parrots are the icon of high country wild.
Higher still and the mountains lose all pretence of civilisation. The peaks are jagged and ice-bound, the slopes precipitous. Glaciers are born here and cut steeply though the gullies. Thick forest rises from the valleys but quickly gives way to shrub, then tussock then bare rock where even lichens struggle to maintain life. Vegetable sheep creep achingly slow across the scree. Kea fly here too, high above, en route to somewhere, or nowhere. What trees there are that impinge on these heights are distorted and creep flat across the landscape growing a mere millimeter or two a year; grotesque natural bonsai prematurely aged by the fierceness of the elements.
In the steep gullies winter snow piles up until the war against gravity is lost, and then avalanches down with death-dealing swiftness. The wind is almost ceaseless here, and ice and snow curl over the edges of ridges, leaning away from the wind in fragile, beautiful, but deadly overhangs. Climbers are among the few living things that ascend to these heights, though even on the high passes frozen footprints show that deer, chamois, hare and stoat travel over high passes from one valley to another. But human, or animal, their stay is brief, the mountain weather gods do not tolerate intruders in their realm for long.
Such is the life of our high places. Change is in their nature, whether that is the dynamic geology and fickle weather, or the changes wrought by mankind through clearing, burning, and developing into farmland, or the impact of introduced pest such as the rabbit, deer, and thar.
Out of this have emerged the much modified green rolling pastures of the foothills which are now such a part of out New Zealand imagery. But so, unfortunately, are the hillsides slipping away from erosion because of the loss of plant cover and over grazing. Slowly, we have learned, and many land users now are changing their practices to sustain the land and enhance its natural resilience.
But the lesson is slow to learn and neither universally supported nor adapted. The recent recommended changes to the Resource Management Act would seem to weaken environmental protections; the unique Denniston Plateau could still be lost to mining; and other ‘development’ still threatens our precious and fragile high lands.
A case in point was a recent trip that took me over Lindis pass down into Omarama. The magnificent red/gold/brown landscape of the Mackenzie Basin was scarred – not by fire, or erosion, but by the standing giants of irrigation machines producing lush pastures in naturally dry valleys, destroying, scenically and biologically, a unique landscape with plants and animals evolved to withstand its extremes of climate. We are learning that sustainable farming enhances the landscape and is better for the economy long term than this boom/bust approach to agriculture. But the green swathes invading the Mackenzie are a sign that we still have much to learn about working with our environment rather than imposing ourselves upon it.