New Zealand: The power of nature on South Island

Despite the tragedy of last month's catastrophic earthquake, New Zealand still delivers sublime travel experiences, writes Chris Leadbeater

They felt it even here, 150 miles west of Christchurch. "It went something like this," says Steve Kirkpatrick, jerking the steering wheel from side to side so that his car weaves as it inches down the dirt road. "It was the sort of sensation you might get if you've had a couple of drinks too many. But this was at one in the afternoon. It was quite unnerving."

Three miles behind us is The Hermitage, the hotel that Kirkpatrick runs. Since 1884 it has played a role as a lone token of man's presence in the wilderness a stately institution trapped in the shadow of Mount Cook. I glance to my left. The great crag, the icon of New Zealand's Southern Alps, glowers back imperiously. In spite of the summer sunshine draped across its broad shoulders, it looks – 12,316ft in stature, snow caked to its summit, clouds lingering on its jagged edges – a monster of winter.

Australasia's highest peak stood firm against the earthquake that struck beneath the main city of New Zealand's South Island on 22 February. The official death toll stands at 166, but will inevitably rise. And the Tasman Glacier, which oozes down the mountain's east flank, gives a clear indication of the tremor's brutal power.

As the ground pulsated, a vast section of ice was shaken loose and 30 million tons of flinty, frozen water crashed into the lake.

Much of it is still there. "Before the earthquake, there were maybe a dozen icebergs in the lake," Kirkpatrick explains as we park near the shore. "Afterwards, there were hundreds." He isn't exaggerating. Out in the grey, sediment-heavy water, a frosty flotilla awaits its orders. Some of the icebergs are flat and benign; smooth like marble counter-tops in a giant kitchen. Some are broken and bruised, all harsh angles and sharp spires jutting menacingly from monolithic blocks of white. Others are visibly blue at their core – a clue that this is hard, compacted ice, prematurely ripped from its home on the mountain. All conceal the same secret: that 90 per cent of their mass lurks unseen below the surface.

The unexpected ice-fall proved a difficult experience for Glacier Explorers, the adventure-tourism arm of The Hermitage, which takes visitors out on to the lake to observe the icebergs for themselves. Two of its sturdy yellow vessels were on the water when the collapse happened; the passengers and crew survived the mini-tsunami that resulted. The boats are now back in operation and I am soon on board, battling to stay in my seat as we bounce across ridges of wind-spun waves, chill spray – a decidedly unfriendly temperature of 2C – kicking up as we speed along.

Several of the icebergs are given a wide berth, their precariously poised shards too dangerous for personal inspection. But others, their rounded shapes less threatening, are declared approachable and I'm able to place a careful hand on ice that, three weeks ago, was pinned to a continent's tallest landmark.

You can, should you choose, get even closer to this sub-zero force of nature. A mile back down Highway 80, Mount Cook Ski Planes offers flights that land directly on the Tasman Glacier. It sounds something not to be missed – but when I awake on my second morning at The Hermitage, Mount Cook is cloaked in fog. A short hop to the airstrip confirms the news – it is unsafe to fly.

Here is a reminder that this is challenging, uncontrollable territory. But then, such memos are in good supply: in the dust that spits from the plain south of the lake where, centuries ago, the glacier dragged its belly; further south in the pale turquoise of Lake Pukaki, whose steep banks taunt the highway as it passes, a flimsy ribbon of Tarmac above; in the Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, attached to the hotel, which charts the achievements of New Zealand's most celebrated mountaineer – a man who conquered Everest and reached the South Pole, but only after climbing Mount Cook and training on the Tasman Glacier.

If it seems strange to be travelling in New Zealand while Christchurch is still under rubble, this is to underestimate the country's resilience and resolve. Both are in evidence in Dunedin, the city on the east coast where I begin my tour of the lower portion of the South Island: in the two minutes' silence held in the streets a precise week on from the disaster; in the hunt for positive stories – a bakery donating half of its production to Christchurch residents; a spirit-lifting victory for Christchurch's Crusaders rugby team, usually fierce rivals of Dunedin– on the front of the local Otago Daily Times. But then, Dunedin has long been a doughty point on the map, founded by Scottish settlers in 1848 and built upon the arduous slog of the gold rush that followed in 1861. And if there is only seaside beauty as I start out for Mount Cook, by driving Highway 1 north along the curled lip of the Pacific, there is further toughness as I turn west onto the 83 at Oamaru, endless acres of scrubby grass devoted to the task of sheep and cattle farming.

At Omarama, the intersection with Highway 8 provides a choice – right for Mount Cook, left for Queenstown. Returning this way after two days at the glacier and taking the fork to the south, I encounter more raw terrain; the road to Tarras bucking and rearing like a horse frightened by snakes, cutting through canyons with no obvious sense of direction. But here, too, are pockets of softness. Tarras is a drowsy hamlet, where the Country Store dispenses cakes, hand-made chocolates and warm welcomes. On a blackboard outside, solidarity with Christchurch is written in chalk."What you can do to help Tarras help Christchurch," it advises. "(1) Bake for the quake: drop some home-baking to the store."

Meanwhile, Gibbston, huddled on the westbound Highway 6 to Queenstown, is a neat encapsulation of the modern New Zealand, signs advertising the location of independent wine producers – Chard Farm, Peregrine Wines – but also the first AJ Hackett bungy-jump site, where the brave can leap 141 feet from a bridge above the River Kawarau. Queenstown itself is a Narcissus; a pretty enclave enchanted by its own reflection in Lake Wakatipu. It is also a conundrum, its boutique hotels, galleries and restaurants rubbing against busy backpacker bars, sometimes on the same stretch, in the case of Church Lane. But if I think this means an end to the prevailing ruggedness, I only have to gaze across the width of Lake Wakatipu, to where the foothills of the Eyre Mountains bare their teeth.

A 1912 coal-powered steamer, the TSS Earnslaw, ferries me to the south shore, where rock-strewn tracks promise a cycle ride through a landscape of gorse and naked stone. My goal is North Mavora Lake, a shimmering outpost, 35 miles distant, that featured in the Lord Of The Rings films. By the time I crest the final incline, I am moving as slowly as the glacial ice that once carved this valley. The scene that greets me makes the effort worthwhile: the lake laid out amid a crowd of fir trees, a slice of something that New Zealand might be deemed to have lost in the trauma of recent weeks. Yet the serenity for which this untamed country is fabled is still here.

Travel essentials: New Zealand

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com), which flies from six UK airports to Dubai with connections to Auckland and Christchurch, whose airport is fully operational. Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Auckland with a stop in either Los Angeles or Hong Kong, while Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.com) has one-stop links from Heathrow to Christchurch.

Touring there

* Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) offers a 22-day "New Zealand Explorer" package that takes in Christchurch and Queenstown, costing from £3,090 excluding flights.

Staying there

* St Clair Beach Resort, 24 Esplanade, Dunedin (00 64 3 456 0555; stclairbeachresort.com). Double rooms start at NZ$195 (£88), room only.

* The Hermitage, Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village (00 64 3 435 1809; hermitage.co.nz). Double rooms start at NZ$169 (£77), including breakfast.

* Novotel Queenstown, Earl Street, Queenstown (00 64 3 442 7750, novotel.com). Doubles from NZ$162 (£74), room only.

Visiting there

* Glacier Explorers, Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village (00 64 3 435 1641; glacierexplorers.com). Cruises on the Tasman Glacier Lake from NZ$133 (£60).

* Mount Cook Ski Planes, Aoraki Mount Cook Airport, State Highway 80 (00 64 3 430 8034; mtcookskiplanes.com). Flights that land on the Tasman Glacier NZ$375 (£170).

Further information

* Tourism New Zealand: 020-7930 1662; newzealand.com

* Destination Queenstown: 00 64 3 441 0700; queenstown-nz.co.nz

* Tourism Dunedin: 00 64 3 471 8042; dunedinnz.com

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