I woke on from our second sleep at Te Anau, frigid and sore from an uncomfortably cold sleep. The previous day almost seemed to have never occured; it had been so surreal that I struggled to emotionally engage with what I had experienced. After packing up, we headed onwards in our journey, first backtracking all the way to Wanaka. We then headed onto the amazing Haast pass, which wound through a lush gorge, growing more and more warm as we neared the coast.
The road up the coast was also beautiful in a very different way. One of the fascinating things about the far south of New Zealand is how drastically the landscape and climate changed. We experienced what seemed like a journey through many continents as we wound from Te Anau to the Glacier Country. We quickly left behind the cold, rainy weather and headed into the very dry tussock and grazing lands in the heart of the alps, interpersed with the great expanses of lakes Wanaka, Wakatipu and Hawea. As we drove over to Haast, we then entered into a world of narrow ravines and dense temperate rainforest until we reached “the coast”. The road north from Haast showcased the diversity of the West Coast, as we travelled through Rimu forests, bushlands, dazlingly green dairy farmland, rugged coastlines and little by little wound among the feet of the Alps. Unlike the East Coast with which I am familiar, the Western slopes of the alps fall steeply and sometimes abruptly down towards the sea, with only narrow sections of land. The world is also far more green and “leafy” here, with bush stretching up from the sea to the very edges of snow on the tops of the mountains.
We eventually arrived at Fox Glacier. What we were to witness both here and at Franz Joseph was a frightening witness to the speed of change in the world’s climate. As we discovered at Fox, the glacier had retreated so far inland that the walk to its mouth was constantly becoming longer. Even more, it was clear that the glacier was in bad shape, with a very small mouth, a thin, sprawling body and entire sections blackened by rubble and debris (something wich only accelerates the rate at which it melts). My visions of great tumbling masses of ice, blue pools and spectacularly jagged cliffs were met with a thin, sickly and dirty grey trail, dwarfed in the gigantic valley it had onced carved out and filled up to the very tops of the mountains all around us. Franz Joseph glacier seemed to be in a far better state, with a much wider albeit more elevated body and only small patches of grit smudging its white surface.
As much as these views were wondrous and beautiful, I was captivated by a sense of sadness, anxiety and even anger. Within only ten years, these glaciers had lost many hundreds of metres in length, with the appearance of even faster retreat in the years to come. As a result of the rapidly changing climate and the disruption of weather patterns we have already begun to experience, the last great glaciers of the southern alps seem to be on the verge of extinction, almost certainly withing our lifetime. I am terrified by how different the world already looks in places such as these, compared even to what I had seen within my own short lifespan.
What this day taught me is that there is an allarming urgency in the need to address what is going on in the changing climate and in the way we all behave. The effects of carbon emissions, pollution and overuse of resources is now no longer an isolated problem, with only localised consequences. The decisions made in one part of the world have resounding consequences in sometimes the most unexpected places such as these. I cannot help but think that our generation, myself certainly included, needs to wake up from our tendency to be narcissistically self-absorbed and dangerously disregarding of the consequences of our actions. We have grown up in a culture of instant gratification, shallow entertainment and individualism. Unfortunately, as a consequences of our patterns of consumption and pollution, the natural world around us has already begun to cry out louder and louder under the strain of the abuse that we are throwing at it. I hope we are able to bounce back and take seriously these very serious signs, otherwise within our lifetime we will see the last great glaciers of the southern alps dissapear (as well much more catastrophic changes in our environment)!
On a lighter note, the rest of the day in Glacier Country was very enjoyable, as we settled in and enjoyed the last light of sunset from our campsite. Luckily we were able to enjoy a far warmer evening and a more comfortable sleep on soft, west coast grass. The next day we would take the final stretch home, making our way up the coast and over arthurs pass.
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