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Mt Cook and the McKenzie Basin
mountains and languid lakes"
The central spine of the South Island, the Southern Alps and Mt Cook, dominates this region.
Rearing suddenly off the coastal Canterbury Plains, they are a dramatic backdrop to this heartland region of the South Island.
From gentle Geraldine in the north to drop-dead beautiful Wanaka on the lake in the south it is an area of bold, raw landforms.
Everything about it seems to be big. The high country runs, which lie at the core of the rural New Zealand story, are big. They were broken in by colonists with big dreams, big ideas and big pockets.
The civil engineering schemes, which have reshaped whole landscapes, are big - they needed to be to bring power to a rapidly growing nation.
And the landscapes themselves are big. The mountains go without saying - they are the highest in the land - but at the very heart of this region is the McKenzie Country, bounded by Burke's Pass in the north and the starkly beautiful Lindis Pass in the south.
Named after a notorious 19th century sheep stealer - we have an eclectic collection of heroes in this country - the McKenzie is a vast, near-flat grassy plain spread like a green-brown cloak at the feet of the alps.
Within its borders is some of the most beautiful scenery the country has to offer.
For instance, just go to Tekapo and sit in the front pew of the little church there. If the view through the altar window doesn't move you emotionally then your heart must be made of the very mountain stone itself.
First thing you'll notice is the colour of Lake Tekapo - brilliant turquoise. Makes for fabulous photographs. The colour is caused by "rock-flour" suspended in the glacial melt-water that feeds the lake. The glacier literally grinds the rock to a fine powder and carries it away. Thus are mighty mountains brought low by the efluxion of time and torrent.
As said earlier, go into the Church of the Good Shepherd and marvel at one of the finest altar views in the world. The best of European stained glass is not equal to the work of the god that made this scene.
Nearby is a bronze statue that pays recognition to the working sheepdogs of the high country. Without them, farming these rugged slopes would be impossible.
But nature has not been allowed to rest easy in this land. To give power to the people men with giant machines reshaped vast tracts of countryside and built a system of canals that carries water from Tekapo to the headwaters of a series of hydro electric generating stations. As you drive you'll see the canals and lakes they created in completing the single largest civil engineering project the country has seen.
Around Mt Cook National Park there are numerous walks ranging from 10 minutes to an hour or two, or to several days of strenuous mountain hiking. There is, of course, also some serious mountain climbing here. This is the area in which a young beekeeper from Auckland did his training so that one day in June 1953, with the sherpa Tenzing Norgay, he would stand on the top of the world. His name was Ed Hillary, now Sir Edmund, and he climbed Mt Everest. He is probably the man most revered by NZers.
One of the more unusual visitor attractions is a chance to visit a working astronomical observatory. This remote location, along with the fact that it’s stuck in the middle of the even more remote South Pacific Ocean, means the astronomers can gaze into space unpolluted by urban-generated light.
It’s one of the things that really hits home with visitors – when you look upwards and outwards from a place like this you realise what an incredibly beautiful thing the night sky is . . . and how little we city-dwellers see of it in our every-night lives. You can take an organised tour of the observatory that will explain the amazing research they are carrying out there.
If you have a hankering to become a high flier, this is your kind of place. Recently, multi-millionaire adventurer Steve Foster has been sitting around here waiting for just the right conditions to break the world gliding altitude record. He plans to fly to the very edge of space with nothing but the wind beneath his wings.
Why here? Because when the prevailing westerly winds hit the mountains they are driving upwards. The resulting pressure wave can lift gliders to extreme altitudes and many a record has been set here.
If this sounds like your kind of action you can get in the pilot's seat - tuition, flying or just sightseeing in the silence of unpowered flight.
Fishing is also a biggie in the rivers and lakes (many of them man-made) around here. .
From here you go up and over the Lindis Pass to the South Island's lake district. The Lindis is one of my favourite landscapes - I just love the photos you get contrasting the red tussock with the crystal azure of the sky.
A New Zealand Travel Guide is written by David Morris and published by
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10 March 2012