The Southern Alps of New Zealand: The Land of ‘The Lord of the Rings’

Like the raised hackles of the spine of an angry dragon, the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island evoke fantasy and mysticism, not by what they do, but what they are, a magnificent geological feature, in a wonderland of nature.

“We travel not to escape life, but in order that life doesn’t escape us,” goes the Hiking New Zealand mantra, and when you lay your eyes upon the Southern Alps, you can understand the clarity and appropriateness of the analogy. Awe inspiring, yet reachable. Beautiful, yet not untouchable. The Alps are something unique in that they have become a globally recognized adventure playground, with bungy-jumping, jet boat rides, white-water (and white knuckle) rafting, heli-skiing, climbing and mountaineering just to name a few.
The walking tracks, maintained by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, are nine in number across the country, with the Heaphy and Milford Tracks outstanding examples. The Milford track in the deep South of Fiordland, takes in the glacier carved valleys of the McKinnon Pass, the 580m Sutherland Falls, and the unspoiled Clinton River. At the same time, the Heaphy, in the Nelson Bays, takes in the lushest of native bush, tussock downs, nikau palms, with an abundance of wildlife all the way to the Tasman Sea, bringing to mind Rumi’s words that, “Others may walk it with you, but none can walk it for you.”
The Alps are a collection of smaller ranges that together cover almost the entire length of the island, 500 kilometres. Its highest peak, Mount Cook (or Aoraki to the Maori) stands 3,724m, and is just one of 16 peaks over 3,000m. A further stunning feature is that there are more than three thousand glaciers, or dense bodies of ice throughout the length of the alps, which are even further enhanced by Lakes Wakatipu, Wanaka, Ohau, Pukaki, Tekapo and Coleridge, while the Waimakariri River traverses the Arthur’s Pass North of Christchurch.
From the perspective of flying over the alps, they are magnificent, and spread out before you as a sea of white, a mini-arctic region, with the peaks, ridges and glaciers of the Himalayas, just here, they are within reach. From a lower perspective, South Canterbury couple Mike and Juliana Sargent own a lifestyle block near Hadlow, and their ‘light show,’ takes place every day, with the sun rising in the East behind them ‘unveiling’ the mountains from the peaks down.
“We see this every morning,” said Juliana, “and with the mist laying in the valleys nearer to us, it never fails to just, top us for a minute to appreciate it.” Mike added, “Then in the evening we get a second treat as the sun sets in the West, as the stark profile of the skyline is accentuated by the pinks, reds and golds across the sky.” Seeing this sight at first hand, one can indeed understand the Sargent family’s emotional attachment to their home, and its relationship to this magnificent mountain range.
Peter Jackson, movie producer and director, chose the Southern Alps, and particularly the Tasman Downs Sheep Station, as the ‘Pelenor Fields,’ which was the location of the climactic final scenes of the ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Jackson also filmed key parts of the ‘Hobbit’ trilogy in the alps. Jackson identified the turquoise ribbon of Lake Pukaki, the sharp craggy alpine peaks, and the clean, clear light as the reasons the region appeals so much.
These Southern Alps are identified as ‘Shared in the sea,’ by their Maori name ‘Kā Tiritiri-o-te-Moana’ but it could perhaps be more appropriately seen as, ‘shared with all,’ for they are seen, and appreciated by everyone who lives in, or visits the South Island, and is only 2 hours drive from the island’s furthest extremities, a wonderland of white, with a million other colors to complement it. Lord of the Rings, Hobbits, and half of New Zealand treasure this daily, and you can too, as it may be a 15 hour flight away, but I can assure you, it’s worth it!

Photos by Lena Petersen