Monday, May 11, 2009

A West Coast Drive

I have a huge regret in that I can no longer drive, a necessity which has greatly reduced my independence. More than that, I loved driving, especially in the country. One of my last big drives was on the West Coast. I’ve always had that Cantabrian fascination with the Coast and it was good to be back there. I picked up a rental at Hokitika airport and headed south over the new bridge. The previous time I had been there was with David Lange when on an educational tour he took time out to inspect the half-built bridge.

Farmland alternateed with bush with its regenerating rimu. The native clematis was in flower, its garlands hanging everywhere - a touch of chastity in the tangled green. South of Ross it’s mainly bush right to the road verge, except for the lush green dairy flats. I pulled off the road at Lake Ianthe. It was so still with great reflections that I regretted not bringing my camera. A duck landed and its mates followed, disturbing the calm. They hopefully paddled towards me, obviously tourists often fed them. I stopped at Harihari for an ice-cream. While I sat licking it on a playground bench a hawk lazily circled on reconnaissance.

In that area mountain immensity and vegetation exuberance dwarf humanity and its dwellings. Tasman’s description remains apt, “a large land, uplifted high.” It some ways the South Island resembles the human torso. Its backbone runs the length of the West Coast.

It’s a challenging drive, especially over Mount Hercules, in this instance complicated by road-works. It was so mild that I wound the window down; the smell of the bush - decay and regeneration - permeated the car. Every now and then there was a stand of kahikatea or totara - a reminder of past glory. Part of the appeal of living in New Zealand is the diversity of its landscape. The west/east divide of flora and fauna is striking.

I pressed on to my destination, Franz Josef and a conference beginning that evening.. That afternoon I sat on the balcony outside my room facing the glacier. It had shrunk back and was now barely visible. The precipitous mountain-sides overlooking it, however, had their own majesty - waterfalls dropping from nowhere - while wisps of mist in the tops adding mystery to the view. As there was no wind tui and blackbird’s songs merged into a chorus.

The previous time I had been there - at the same hotel – Anne had been with me. We were on holiday; lucky with a rare spell of idyllic weather. She’d never been on the Coast before. We did all the tourist things, walked around Lake Mathieson - Mt Cook and Mt Tasman reflected in all their glory - scrambled up to Lake Wombat, and visited the glacier faces.

We hired a ski plane and flew up the Fox glacier to land on the ice-fields that feed Franz Josef. The advantage of a plane is that the pilot can cut the engine. There was absolute silence. Suddenly I became aware of a fly buzzing around. It must have hitched a ride. It wouldn't have lasted long in that temperature. It soon stopped and we savoured the stillness, white and enormous all round us. Then a helicopter landed. The noise from its motor drove us back to our monoplane and the flight down the glacier with its rocky rubble and deep crevasses.

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