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Christchurch June 2, 1988 - Travelers fly by Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest peak

By Bob Van Leer

  (CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND, June 2, 1988) - This is our last night in the southern hemisphere. Tomorrow we begin our long trek home.

  The highlight of the day was a light plane flight around Mt. Cook, at 12,349 feet the highest peak in New Zealand. This is called the Southern Alps. There are in the vicinity of Mt. Cook more than 50 other peaks over 2300 meters in height.

  This is glacier country and the distances are such that we could see glaciers from their formation on the peaks more than a couple of miles high through the compression stage and finally down to the bottom stage where the glaciers wind up in a dirty grey melt of ice and gravel that was forced down with the ice.

  Flying in, through, and around these towering peaks was a breath-taking experience. Our tiny single engine plane took us within feet of these ice-covered rock crags. These are new mountains; they are rough, vertical rock cliffs, not old smooth mountains. As we fly through the mountains I wonder where the plane would put down if the engine failed. After looking around and below, I really don't want to know.

  Actually, there are relatively flat spots on glaciers where ski-equipped planes have landed. Our plane, however, does not have skis. The whole experience gives us a feeling of how small we are in the total scheme of things.

  The glaciers are great rivers of ice. As snow falls on the high slopes it becomes compressed. More snow falls, compresses it more and forces the bottom snow, now compressed ice, to flow downward. The movement of the glaciers varies greatly, from a millimeter per day on the Franz Josef glacier (remember how wide 35 mm. film is) to 300-400 mm. per day on the Tasman, the largest glacier here, which is 29 kilometers long.

  The glacier may go over a rock outcrop and fall hundreds of feet or, as most of them do here, continue down the steep mountain side into a warmer climate zone where the glacier melts. It has brought with it assorted gravel and other debris and a rock powder, caused by the glacier grinding against the rock face of the mountain. This rock powder gives glacier-fed streams the characteristic milky white appearance. The final death of a glacier as it melts is not a pretty sight. It is dirty and messy.

  Our plane for the flight was a Cessna Stationair 8 II, an 8-place plane. We had seven passengers, three from our party, one from London, one from Scotland, and one from Christchurch. We took off from Lake Tekapo, flew for 10 minutes, and picked up the New Zealand passenger from a sod and gravel strip on the other side of the lake. Around the high peaks the air was rather choppy. Our plane bounced around quite a lot. The pilot didn't seem upset, so we decided we shouldn't be either.

  Otherwise the day was mostly driving from Queenstown north to Christchurch, a distance similar to that from Gold Beach to Portland. We started through the Kawarau River Gorge, the same river we had boated on the day before. There were some stretches we saw from the road that would give rafters pause.

  A lot of the country was rather grassy and barren, similar to Utah. Along the way our driver pointed out an observatory that had gotten caught in politics. New Zealand has refused to let U.S. nuclear or nuclear-armed ships use its ports. The U.S. had been scheduled to participate in this new observatory but suddenly the participation was cancelled. New Zealand is entitled to run its country the way it wants, but New Zealand could use a more powerful friend. Instead of cultivating the U.S., the prime minister, David Lange is looking for differences.

  New Zealand is shipping live lambs to the Willamette valley this year in a program that is viewed with alarm by Oregon sheep growers. The shipments aren't looked on completely favorably here. Some of the locals feel the same way Oregonians do about exporting logs. The lambs shipped to Oregon aren't processed in New Zealand and butchers are out of work.

  This is essentially the windup of our tour. We have traveled 1614 miles in New Zealand, not counting side trips to places such as Mt. Cook. Tomorrow we still have time scheduled to look around Christchurch but in mid-afternoon we are to start out trip home. Along the way we will gain back the day we lost coming out.

  We know a lot more than when we left Los Angeles three weeks ago and we will all have to go home and think about it to sort out the experiences we have had.

  Tonight we all gathered and stated what were the outstanding events of the trip to each of us. These varied widely but there were a couple of common threads. The people in Australia were friendlier than we had any right to expect. The tie between the people of the U.S. and Australia is rock solid.

  And a second feeling is that the scenery in South Island, New Zealand, is the best we have seen on the tour.

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