Posted by: Alex | May 13, 2010

The Great Divide

April 28, 2010

Rain has always been romantic to me.  Not the kind of rain that relentlessly ruins your $300 leather shoes and freshly pressed trousers on the way to work in San Francisco, but the kind of rain that you can prepare for, best enjoyed while wearing waterproof outdoor clothing or from the comfort of shelter — the type of shelter with a roof or windshield.  In these carefully chosen conditions, I love rain.  The sound heavy rain makes as it falls on the ocean, the forest canopy above, a simple corrugated roof, your windshield with the wipers going full tilt.  On a hot summer day, the way that it evaporates to simultaneously cool and dampen the air.  And accompanying the stillness just after a rain shower is the most evocative of all: the fresh smell that lingers in the air.

The rain was just that fabulous in Wanaka, but I was having none of it.  I stayed long enough to fill my stomach, feel the rain spatter off my raincoat, and realize that coming to Wanaka was a terrible mistake.

“Do you think the weather is any better in Queenstown?” I asked, the rising tone in my sentence intended to convey, beyond a simple question, my hope for a positive answer.

“Their weather is usually pretty similar to ours.”

So much for that.

“What about heading down towards Milford Sound and Fiordland?”

Knowing the answer already, my optimism wasn’t yet exhausted, and I wasn’t ready to accept that my plan for the next two weeks — formulated without any consultation on the forecasted weather — was falling apart.

“That’s still a very wet area, and Te Anau [the gateway town to Milford Sound] is completely inaccessible due to a landslide.”

She pointed to a printed hazardous weather report with bright green highlights that I was leaning on.  Thanks.  Even if I wanted to drive around in rain and see none of the spectacular steep valleys and lakes that give Fiordland its name, I was royally screwed.

Zipping up my raincoat, I walked out of the Department of Conservation (DOC) office and started the car’s engine.  Less than two hours out of Omarama, I couldn’t admit defeat and the ensuing ridicule from my airfield weatherman housemate.  Besides, there wasn’t much going on back at Omarama, and I wanted to see more of the South Island before winter truly set in.  I engaged the old grey matter and turned right: I had no idea where I was going to go, but I knew I was going to go East.

The Main Divide, as it’s modestly called in typical Kiwi fashion, is the backbone of the South Island.  Running Southwest to Northeast, virtually the entire length of the South Island, is a family of dramatic mountain ranges that rise seemingly straight out of the ocean.  Rising rapidly on a geological scale, they have been cut down just as quickly by some of the fastest moving glaciers in the world into breathtakingly sharp peaks and arêtes.  In a similar fashion to the California Sierras, the Washington-Oregon Cascades, and the Chilean Andes, the Southern Alps have not only formed at a tectonic plate boundary but they also have a phenomenal influence on local climate.

Sitting in the middle of the “roaring 40s” — a band of Westerly winds between 40 and 50 degrees of latitude South that continually sweep around the South Pole — the Main Divide receives the full brunt of low pressure weather systems that have absorbed moisture from the Tasman Sea, lying between Australia and New Zealand.  When these systems meet the abruptly rising peaks of the Main Divide, they dump their moisture as rain and snow with each additional inland valley to awesome effect.  Separated by an inland distance of only 50 miles, Omarama sees 20 inches of annual rainfall versus 240 inches on the West coast.

Already knowing this, and despite the sunny skies in Omarama, I should have checked the weather before making the drive out to Wanaka, but at least I now had more firsthand experience with South Island weather that would serve me well later.  Besides, I liked the feel of Wanaka, brief as our meeting was, and I promised to return.  For now, the rain spattered against the windshield as I followed SH6 towards Cromwell, the wiper blades continuing to do their thankless work.  Rounding the corner into the next valley, the constant downpour turned to the occasional droplet, and then just a fine mist.  I switched the wipers off, and the air flowing past was sufficient to slowly march the beaded droplets off the windscreen.

Passing a nondescript sign marking the Southern 45th Parallel, the latitude halfway between the Equator and the South Pole, I kicked myself for not slowing down to pull over.  With friends and family back home to impress with cute pictures next to authoritative signs, I was failing to be a good tourist.  However, as I glanced over my shoulder, I was greeted by a marvelous sight.  It was now clear that the reason for the parallel highway on the other side of the valley floor was heretofore unseen Lake Dunstan, and suspended above the lake and valley was a symphony of beautiful clouds.  A sucker for clouds, I pulled over to the lakeshore as fast as I could.

Glider pilots are obsessed with clouds.  We can’t help but pay attention to the clues that clouds leave about movements in the mostly invisible atmospheric environment, the manifestation of air currents that allow unpowered flight over hundreds of miles.  If you could somehow visualize these air currents, you would see a fantastically complex and inconceivably energetic picture.  Traveling thousands of miles over the featureless ocean, the wind stabilizes into a smooth flow that suddenly collides with full force into the Southern Alps.  With amazing speed, this energy is deflected upwards, suddenly cooling the air as it expands, causing cloud to materialize.  With sufficient moisture, the first rain will fall here.  Continuing upwards into the stratosphere, a wave system may form that will travel for hundreds of miles.  Lower down, descending again on the other side of the range, the air once again warms as it descends and compresses, and cloud will beautifully disappear like a silent, evaporating waterfall.  The air now takes its cues from the mountains, independent of wind direction above, traveling down U-shaped valleys like a luger.  Valleys may meet, resulting in fickle convergences that produce highly localized weather, sending weather vanes spinning by the hour.  Rarely stable, forever changing, highly energetic — this is the dynamic atmospheric world that the glider pilot tries to visualize when squinting skyward.

I was standing on the lakeshore at the edge of the incoming moisture, at the foot of a mountain range.  Low level clouds were descending and evaporating, their moisture already relinquished over Wanaka and the coast.  Just beyond this fringe, the upper atmosphere was visibly more energetic, producing a lone rising column of sculpted cloud, it’s profile continuously changing in Nature’s version of a Gaudi sculpture.  Perfectly positioned in the setting sunlight, the fiery megalith, rising high into the sky, reflected a full range of solar emotion from dark through purple, magenta, orange, yellow and white.  Clouds beyond the next range rose majestically, lighting the scene, entirely reflected on the choppy water of Lake Dunstan.  Freezing time, the shutter of my camera clicked, and I was on the road again.  The scene had already changed, a briefly shared secret, as the wind continued its work and the Sun relinquished its place to the Moon.

Intending to stay the night in cute little Clyde and visit the valley east of the Dunstan mountain range by day and from the ground — I’d almost landed in this sparsely populated area near dusk a few days prior — I kept driving, relentlessly pushing forward into the darkness, gripped by a mania to head eastward, away from the rain.  Briefly checking my guidebook, it looked like Lawrence had some comfortable accommodation.  I pushed ahead as the Moon periodically peeked through the narrow, dissipating clouds, a scene from a black and white horror film.

Making a left turn in Alexandra, an angry driver honked at me, and I finally understood the unique New Zealand left-hand turn rule, confusingly described to me as something along the lines of “small corners give way to big corners.”  If you’re turning left, and another car is turning right onto that same street, the car turning left must give way.  I hadn’t given way, perhaps narrowly avoiding an accident, but it now made sense.  It’s easy to suddenly feel like an outsider at moments like this despite strong cultural similarities.  With hunger and fatigue building, I decided to press on.  Alexandra didn’t feel like a friendly place at this particular moment.

Driving through the impenetrable darkness, experiencing every tight turn through only the narrow beams of my headlights, the district of Otago was seeming endlessly larger than I’d imagined.  Hoping for Lawrence, every sleepy small town I passed through disappointed my expectation.  I pushed through the dark unknown blackness, with terrain that could only be guessed at from the severity and frequency of the turns.  In training for powered flight at night, you are warned of the dangers of spatial disorientation.  With the absence of any visual reference points and only the balance centers in your ears to guide you, the mind will play tricks on you, almost never telling the truth.  Turning, accelerating, braking, it suddenly occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea whether I was going up or downhill.  The realization of my disorientation served to intensify the effect, and I chuckled to myself.  I’d never experienced this in an airplane, yet here I was driving through a foreign country to an unknown destination thinking that I was continually going uphill.  Too bad there was no autopilot.

WELCOME TO LAWRENCE.  Finally.  Nothing appeared to be open, and when I finally found the entrance to the B&B, I was greeted by a “No Vacancy” sign.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was the shoulder season.  Vacancy was the law of the land.  I stared at the sign in the headlights, wondering what to do.  I made a mental note that unless arranged in advance, arrival during daylight was mandatory, particularly in the countryside.  So what to do?  I quickly flicked through the guidebook, embarrassed, wanting to leave before anyone saw my predicament.

Onwards to the bright city lights: Dunedin.

[ My route on Google Maps. ]


  1. Alex–Great stuff. You’re bringing back some fantastic memories. I remember that DOC office in Wanaka, and I was lucky enough to finish the Milford Track two days before the flooding washed out access to Te Anau. But I didn’t make it over to the east coast, so I’m looking forward to reading about your adventures there. Please keep up these wonderful memoirs. Best regards–Joe

  2. Thanks for the giggles and memories. I love my homeland, but why the bloody hell are you visiting in the winter? Dunedin people are the best, by the way. Just don’t be put off by their reserve – scratch the surface and you will find gold. Trust me.

  3. Mary,

    Believe me, now that I’m back in Omarama, I really wish I had quit my job in September last year! I have some catching up to do, however, as I keep writing you’ll see that I have a cunning plan with regard to the freezing weather…

    Thanks for reading!


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