You are lying on your belly beside a pool on the dew-soaked grass of early morning. Red and blue damselflies skim the mirror surface. Other insects, almost too small to see, hover momentarily and drop minute bundles of eggs on to the water. These float for a few seconds before sinking to the bottom to begin another life cycle.
A freshly emerged mayfly clings briefly to a stone by the water’s edge before darting away to safety. Water spiders squat motionless on warm stones, their two front legs resting lightly on the surface film to catch the faint ripples made by an insect struggling in the current. Stoneflies sun themselves on rocks beside the stream. Trout rise to take the spent and the unwary. High above, kea trail their thin calls between the chilly peaks.
In the Greenstone Valley, between Fiordland and Wakatipu, this is about as frenzied as life gets. That’s not to say that the 600 million-year-old rocks that make up the area haven’t had their fair share of trauma. Only 20,000 years ago, glaciers covered this land, chiseling out the steep-walled valleys, rounding the lower peaks and shoulders, gouging out the deep lakes we call Wakatipu, Te Anau and Manapouri.
Maori tradition offers a different origin story. The great god Tu-teRakiwhanoa, appalled at the huge wall of rock that is now Fiordland, decided to let the sea run in to make the land fit for human occupation. He set to work with his adze, and, starting in the south, hewed the rock into valleys and fiords. At first he was clumsy, leaving too many islands like the ones in Preservation and Chalky Inlets, but with experience the valleys became cleaner cut. As he strained in his work, the land parted under his feet, creating Resolution and Secretary Islands. At Doubtful Sound he was helped by four sea gods who each carved one of the arms of the sound. Milford proved to be the most difficult of his tasks, and when he had finished it he rested from his exertions on what Europeans named “The Devil’s Armchair,” but which is really “The Seat of Tu.”
That there was Maori occupation here from very early times is certain. Also certain is that Maori used the Greenstone Valley in their travels between the West Coast and Lake Wakatipu in search of the hard nephrite that was found in the Wakatipu area and the soft takiwai, “tears of weeping,” of the coast, so valued for ornaments. Legend has it that the chief Tama-ki-te-Rangi, in searching along the coast for his runaway wives, found one of them at Milford Sound, where she had been turned to greenstone. His tears penetrated the rock, creating the flecked bowenite that is still found at Anita Bay near the mouth of the Sound. Charles Heaphy, in the 1840s, witnessed the working of the harder-than-steel waipounamu into ornaments and tools.
In 1861, David McKellar, for whom the lake at the head of the valley is named, and George Gunn, following directions from an old Maori who drew a map in the ashes of a campfire, explored up the Von River and over the Passburn to the Greenstone. As they climbed up to the pass they noted the “very old and moss-grown `birchwood’ with limbs as crooked as old oaks.”
On June 9, 1861, they stood on Key Summit, from where they looked down into three valleys: the Eglinton, which runs down to Lake Te Anau, the Hollyford, which comes out at Martins Bay, and, the smallest of them, the Greenstone, heading into Lake Wakatipu near what is now Elfin Bay.
Early in 1863, Patrick Caples, after a remarkable series of journeys in the Hollyford/Routeburn areas, made the journey from Rees’s station at the head of Lake Wakatipu up the Greenstone and down to Martins Bay via the Hollyford—the first European to reach the West Coast from Otago on foot.
Also in 1863, James Hector, the Provincial Geologist for Otago, after travelling by sea to Martins Bay, became the first European to travel the ancient Maori waipounamu route from there, via the Greenstone Valley, to Lake Wakatipu.
Greenstone valley, bordering on Mt Aspiring National Park, is now designated a Stewardship Area under the care of the Department of Conservation. A well-maintained walking track (also called Greenstone) runs from the car park at Lake Wakatipu to the Divide on the Milford road, meeting the Routeburn Track at Lake Howden.
At the head of the valley lies Lake McKellar, a long, narrow, bushlined stretch of water. You can walk its length in an hour, through silver beech trees and ferns that grow to the water’s edge. It is a lake of reflections of the dawn; a lake of mists that drift into the forest and nourish the mosses that cover both trees and ground and cause the moss streamers to flag from the branches in pale, golden-green ribbons. It is also a lake of gale-swept white caps.
Lake McKellar is the source of the Greenstone River that flows from here into Lake Wakatipu through 28 kilometres of tussock flats, silver, black and red beech forest and gorges cut deep into the rock. The original name of the river was Waipounamu. Early European settlers, with typical colonial arrogance, discarded it for the English translation.
Up near the head of the valley the river changes character three times before settling down. First it flows almost lake-like through the beech forest in placid, silent movement, as if putting off till as late as possible the necessity of taking on the name “river.” Then, like a docile calf suddenly waking up, it looks up at the surrounding high peaks as it emerges from the bush, bellows “I’m free!” and dashes off down a narrow, boulder-strewn bed.
Like a young heifer let into a new paddock, it then pauses, looks around, and flows nonchalantly along through a couple of tussocked clearings before once more deciding that life is too exciting to be all genteel and decorous.
New and unsuspected deeps open up. Prickly scrub overhanging each side gives way to a rock-flanked tortuous channel of fast water and tight, swirling pools in the elbow bends—pools from whose floors the three-pound jack rainbows will come flashing up to take a nicely placed Coch-y-Bondhu fly floating high on the current.
After another brief foray into the bush, the river emerges matured, “married and settled down.” Pools broaden out into ever-shallowing glides interspersed with rapids and, here and there, long riffles that sparkle in the sunlight of a fine day, or, on a dull day, challenge you to find the rainbows nymphing behind the boulders on their beds. Wonderful.
Lower down the valley—a day’s walk—the pace of the river picks up again as it tumbles through rocky chasms and bush-walled gorges. Two easy days’ further walk down valley, beyond the confluence with the Caples River, are huge, rainbow and brown trout-inhabited pools of emerald green water set in idyllic bush.
As far as other human company is concerned, one can spend the clay completely alone in the upper part of the valley. The isolation, nurtured by the high summits and protecting ridges of the glacier-formed ramparts, draws out one’s awareness in what Martin Buber called the I/Thou—the human response that is so much richer than the I/It.
The valley is alive with a warm ambience of life. The calls of kea and paradise duck, falcon and spur-winged plover provide the background music to the myriad lives of nymphs and flies and moving water. Time is filled with the conversation of cicadas, wind in the tall red tussocks, the flight of birds.
At the quiet ends of the day, clouds of male mayflies hover above the river. Females dart into the swarms, are seized by the males and carried off to be fertilised. They then flit above the water, flicking the surface to wash eggs from their tails. Once their eggs are laid, they perish within hours.
A family of paradise duck, last year’s brood—five of them—are still keeping company with the parent pair. The approach of a stranger sets in motion the protective instincts of dragging wings and attention-drawing calls of the mother in defence of her current year’s family. Later, I find only one left—a scrawny bundle of down tucked under a hebe growing at the water’s edge. Stoats? Probably.
Sometimes the birds of the bush will come to investigate the sound of a piece of polystyrene foam rubbed against a spittle-wet watch glass. South Island robins hop up to your feet. There are grey warblers, tomtits, bellbirds, riflemen and the shy long-tailed cuckoos that fly in from Australia and lay their eggs in the grey warbler’s nest. If you gently part the stalks of the red tussocks you may find stick insects, flimsy-looking craneflies and the nests of the big nursery web spider. The tussock flats are alive with little southern blue and copper butterflies.
Some people walk fast through the bush in order to make sure of finding an unoccupied bunk for the night in the next hut. Others take time to marvel at the complex beauty of these southern forests. Goblin moss drapes from the trees in long sunlit streamers beside Lake McKellar. Tiny green-hooded orchids and little hard ferns can be found between the larger ferns and undergrowth of the sphagnum moss-covered forest floor.
After rain, sheer rock faces glisten black in the first ragged sunlight of the storm’s aftermath. Delicate traceries of waterfalls lose themselves in the bush or tumble into space to be caught by the wind and returned to the racing clouds that gave them birth.
A sense of timeless eternity, of things on an infinite scale, draws the spirit outwards in such places. The scale is unimaginably huge, yet into it one’s own tiny stature somehow fits. And because it does, there is an experience of new dimensions, the human scale merging with the other, vaster one.