By Anita Krishnan
We drive past the outskirts of Christchurch and into the lap of vast stretches of undulating Canterbury planes touching the horizon. The verdant grasslands, broken intermittently by lush groves of trees, softly rise into the hills and bring to my mind Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf and the dwarves; as they encounter Trolls and elves and giant spiders in these rolling undulating hills and valleys of New Zealand’s South Island. It was the peaceful mountain of Mt Sunday that was transformed into Edoras, the capital city of the Rohan people in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. And, it’s no wonder that the actors and crew fell in love with this stunning location.
Once upon a time, the aboriginal Mâori tribes roamed these planes, hunting for food and entreating the gods for protection. This was a time when these grassy plains were covered with dense forests of Totara trees. Why did these forests disappear? Were they destroyed by the fires lit by the native inhabitants or did they fall victim to climate change? The mystery remains unsolved. Presently, there are only remnants of these forests growing in isolated areas.
Totara is the longest living tree of the NZ forests – attaining ages of 1000 and more years. It used to be one of the most useful timber trees in the forests of New Zealand. The Mâori favoured it, because of its reddish-brown light timber. Long canoes could easily be hollowed out from its tall trunks and the durable heartwood could easily be split and shaped with primitive stone tools for building and carving. The same properties made it a valuable timber for the first European settlers. They used it for making houses, wharf piles, telegraph poles, fence posts, carvings, musical instruments and toys. The bark was equally useful for roofing, torches, containers, and splints for broken limbs.
The Mackenzie Country
Gradually, we enter the Mackenzie District, named after infamous James Mackenzie. Fascinating information and amusing anecdotes constantly furnished by our bus driver enrich the experience of the journey.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, many settlers arrived from Scotland, England and Ireland to the South Island of New Zealand. They were escaping the Industrial Revolution and were hoping for the ‘Pot of Gold’ in an environment very harsh and rugged. Some did find what they sought, but Mackenzie wasn’t so lucky. A large and tough Scot, already hardened by the harsh environment of Scotland, he migrated to New Zealand sometime in 1840’s. He, along with his faithful Collie, Friday, whom he trained not to bark, began to steal whole mobs of sheep from the coastal farmers. He then drove them through secret mountain passes undetected to the high country plains, covering around 300 miles to the south of Dunedin, where he sold them at a handsome profit.
He was finally caught in 1855 in Lyttelton with 1,000 sheep stolen from Levels Station, which was 160 kilometres north. He was sentenced to five years of hard labour, but pardoned a year later on account of lack of proof. He became one of the country’s most enduring folk heroes and was the first Europeans to discover the Mackenzie Pass, the Mackenzie Basin and the Lindis Pass during his exploits. This region came to be known as Mackenzie Country.
A three hours’ drive through this enchanting land of truly rugged beauty leads us to the banks of the glacier fed Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie basin. It is the second largest of three roughly parallel lakes running north–south along the northern edge of the Mackenzie Basin. The others are Lake Pukaki and Lake Ohau. It covers an area of 83 square Kilometres at an altitude of 700 metres above the sea level.
The remarkably milky turquoise water of the lake comes from the fine rock flour suspended in the water. We hop out of the bus to behold the breath-taking scenic beauty. Around the lake in the distance, the hills have changed into an unbroken chain of lofty snow-capped Southern Alps. The sharp cold wind is blowing with such intensity that it becomes difficult to walk.
We spot a small church a little distance away and hurry to find shelter in it. It is the ‘Church of the Good Shepherd’, which was constructed in 1935; the first church to be built in the Mackenzie Basin.
Our next destination is Mt Cook, which, at 3754 metres, is the tallest mountain in New Zealand, the mountain which helped Sir Edmund Hillary develop his climbing skills in preparation for the ultimate test of human power and endurance, that of conquering Mt Everest. “Keep your fingers crossed, so that Mt Cook shouldn’t be covered with clouds today,” our driver announces. I smile and look out of the window at the blue sky and perfect sunshine.
Barely fifteen minutes later, the tables turn. We encounter a sudden change of weather as the sun and the blue sky disappear behind cottony clouds. Soon, it begins to drizzle. By the time we cross Lake Pukaki in Aoraki and turn towards the Hermitage Hotel, our lunch stop at the Mt Cook village, it is pouring cats and dogs. So, we completely miss the majestic Mt Cook, and have to be contented with the wilderness supporting mountain buttercups, daisies, gentians, edelweiss, and the clouds trailing down the mountains. A quick lunch, a visit to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre adjacent to the hotel, some delving in the souvenir shop, and we are once again on the road.
The sun now smiles mischievously at us, but Mt cook is by now left far behind. We drive through the fruit-growing region of Cromwell before joining Lindis Pass. The drive is heavenly. Fertile green vales and small hills are dotted with fluffy little sheep. There are hundreds of them; rams, ewes and lambs, grazing independently and fearlessly without any goatherds tagging along.
We pass by townships of barely five families owning mammoth flocks. There are numerous such sheep stations on the way. There are 39 million sheep in the country, the ratio being ten sheep per individual, the highest density of sheep per unit area in the world. Sheep were introduced in New Zealand between 1773 and 1777, and the credit goes to the great British explorer and navigator, Captain James Cook. For the next 130 years, sheep farming was the country’s most important agricultural industry.
Around 220,000 tons of wool is shorn from New Zealand sheep each year. It makes the country the world’s third largest wool producer, after Australia and China. Shearing involves hard physical work despite improvements in technology. Shearers often work in gangs and move from farm to farm. Shearing competitions are held to find the fastest shearers, who are often international champions of shearing.
The global popularity of the synthetic fibre is viewed by the New Zealand’s wool industry as an existential threat, yet there may not be much reason for alarm as this high-end fibre beats synthetic alternatives in quality and environmental sustainability.
Shrek — The Celebrity of New Zealand
Our driver halts the bus and announces with a big grin, “This is the Bendigo Sheep Station, which was once the home of our world famous sheep, Shrek.” He then exhibits a large picture and we gasp at a character straight out of biblical times.
Usually Merino sheep have their coats sheared once a year, but Shrek- the sheep, hated nothing more than having his coat removed. So, he devised a plan to avoid shearing forever. He got out of his enclosure, and made a break for it, running away from the madding crowd.
For six years, Shrek’s escape proved successful. He spent his time hiding in local caves far from any shearing blades. Shrek’s wool continued to grow, and grow, and grow; which is a typical quality of the Merino sheep. Eventually, Shrek was discovered in 2004, although he looked nothing like the Shrek his owner John Perriam remembered. He was blinded by his own mountain of fleece, the extra weight of 27 Kilos of wool on his body. That was perhaps the reason Shrek decided enough was enough and finally divulged himself.
Nobody had ever seen a sheep so terribly heavy with wool. It obtained instant fame, even flew business class to Wellington to meet the Prime Minister and got its photographs clicked on the steps of the country’s Parliament. It became a funny character in children’s books, for instance, of the two books written by the children of Otago’s Tarras School. Shrek was finally sheared-off on national television and the wool was enough for making suits for 20 large men .
As we cross the river Roaring Meg, named after a real loud-mouthed woman Meg, the horizon begins to get multi-hues of the sunset. We enter Queenstown after an eleven hour-long journey, our final destination of the day. The motel suite is the most welcome sight for our cramped legs.
As I sat with my much-needed cup of tea, I was overwhelmed by what I had witnessed that day; pristine nature’s beauty bestowed by God, and lovingly preserved almost by the natives of this island nation. I realize, that this becomes possible only when the concerned citizens not only strictly follow the stringent environmental bylaws set by the government, but also become individual bylaws themselves to preserve their legacy.
I know my country is equally endowed with nature’s beauty, but only if we learn to let it remain untouched and unspoiled . . . only if we keep it safe from human callousness and greed.
Anita Krishan (India) is an author. Her published works include ‘Tears of Jhelum’ and ‘Running up the Hill’.
Featured Image Credits: Lonely Planet