As the trudge through the Rakiura National Park entered its fifth hour, the misplaced chirpy optimism began to grate. I nodded in agreement when told, “Look how green it makes the forest”, although secretly I was prepared to trade that greenness for dryness. I spinelessly concurred with “it doesn’t really affect you when you’re under the canopy, does it?” as the hailstones smashed into my face like weaponised stinging nettles.
Every howling gust of wind sapped my enthusiasm for Stewart Island’s admittedly extraordinary natural beauty and flourishing birdlife. I knew the clue was in the ‘rain’ part of ‘rainforest’, but I didn’t quite realise that the place was basically a wind tunnel into which the entire Southern Ocean was emptied on a daily basis.
There must have been an element of karmic payback going on. The previous time I’d been in New Zealand, I was treated to three idyllic weeks of mid-twenties sunshine. This time, relentless rain seemed determined to chase me round the South Island until I was a broken, soggy husk of my former self.
Everyone’s had a holiday where the weather has become the miserable, defining characteristic of the trip. The odd downpour is easy to accept, but few things are more dispiriting than day after day of remorseless soakings and increasingly predictable activity cancellations.
First the kiwi-spotting tour fell victim to the sodden greyness, then the trout fishing on a jetboat, then the helicopter flight up to the glaciers. And every time someone said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather — just bad clothing”, I got increasingly angry.
If there’s no such thing as bad weather, things wouldn’t get cancelled due to bad weather. Monotonous, driving, horizontal rain is only good weather if you’re trying to make a point about not building houses on flood plains. Hail is only good weather if you’re in the car windscreen repair business. Gale force winds are only good weather if you’re a grand master albatross. And you can forget any comments along the lines of “but it’s good for the farmers” on the grounds that no farmer in history has ever expressed any sentiment more positive than grumbling complaint about any sort of weather.
It took a fortnight of slowly becoming ever more morose and downbeat about the lack of blue skies to finally snap. I was theoretically at Mount Cook (although New Zealand’s highest mountain was consummately hidden by a thick duvet of mist and squall) and I was determined not waste two days moping inside the hotel room.
I marched to the Department of Conservation’s visitor centre and pointed at the three-hour return hike to Hooker Lake. “Will doing this today be actively dangerous or just really, really unpleasant?” I asked.
“It’ll be, erm, a different kind of pleasant,” came the response. Initially, the sense of purpose and determination was liberating. The bulging rocky outcrops glistened in the rain, the swing bridges looked out over thundering rapids as the streams hit full flow, and the steep mountainsides were awash with temporary waterfalls.
But mountains turning into waterfalls are far less impressive when you’re effectively a waterfall yourself. Walking directly into 45-mile-an-hour winds that kindly push your hood back before chucking lashings of icy rain in your face is a very good way to lose faith in your supposedly waterproof clothing. Soaked, heavy trousers drip-feed rain down through the tops of boots that are struggling to bat the deluge away. Socks turn swampy and every arm or neck hole in the coat is a chink in the armour for the dastardly water to exploit.
As the track turned into a series of gushing proto-rivers, my sanity began to strain at the leash. I unfurled cathartic howls of obscenity at innocent rocks, much to the terror of the fellow hikers I hadn’t noticed further up the track.
But then, at my lowest, angriest ebb, I saw Hooker Lake, with its vast, blue-white icebergs floating in front of an glacier-streaked mountain backdrop. Some sights are so magnificent, even when seen in the very worst conditions, that you forget the irredeemably horrible process of getting there.
Such goodwill is only temporary, though. Especially when karma enters full sarcasm mode by finally revealing a blue sky at the most infuriating moment possible — on the drive back to Christchurch Airport, just in time for the sadistically long flight home.
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)