Monday, 5. March 2012
The turquoise of Lake Pukaki – what a colour! It ignites the entire landscape, makes the sky above it – grey rain clouds in the distance, interwoven with large patches of clear sky-blue – appear a reddish-purple shade. My minor excursion into epistemology, all my deep thoughts about how we see things and why are past, rendered unimportant. At least for the moment. Simply because I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. That’s something that happens to me several times over the next few days. Incomparable impressions alternate with others, no less interesting, which are confusing because they differ from what I’m accustomed to, with which I can’t help immediately comparing them, over and over again.
Familiar examples that spring to mind instantly: the sun moves in the opposite direction. It is approaching April and the leaves are beginning to take on their autumn colours, one by one. The further south you go, the colder it gets. Less familiar: the angle at which the moon’s light falls on the earth is different, and so on clear nights it has a much more intensely glowing colour, tending towards green. Or: as New Zealand was originally uninhabited and some of the animals brought along by the settlers threaten the balance of nature here, the categories of “domestic” and “wild” animals have had to be redefined. As well as cows and many, many sheep, you often see fenced-in deer grazing peacefully in meadows – an absurd sight for Europeans.
We’ve managed to steer our campervan out of the hire-company’s driveway and into the flow of traffic driving on the left-hand side of the road, surviving the critical first twenty minutes without an accident, and we leave Christchurch to drive a little way westwards up country.
And so now this lake. This turquoise. As an over-civilized person you tend, after the aforementioned phase of great astonishment, to relate such sensory impressions to man-made, absolutely ridiculous things, which you have – unfortunately! – come across before, and you think: it’s as blue as a luminous highlighter pen. Or: as a lake in a colour-enhanced video.
An almost empty country road. All around it bare land, as if vacated. Unpopulated, left to itself, so it seems. As I keep stopping to get out of the van, to marvel, to take photos, I remember what I read beforehand: meltwater rivers that dash out of the glaciers here are used to produce electricity. This making use of incisive landscapes for human purposes prompts these places to change in your perception – at least for me. They are nature, and yet subordinated to a human purpose. Some kind of construction – usually a dam wall, in this case neat, straightened canals filled with turquoise water – denotes the process. The mountains around Mount Cook, protruding snow-capped and wild, remain untouched by it, but the immediate surroundings suffer a loss of autonomy, and the steering process gives the stretch of land something fantastic and unreal.
Is it conceivable that one of the few rebels and subversive outsiders we know from the history, or rather the literary history, of a country as obedient to authority for centuries as Germany – a character such as Michael Kohlhaas, for instance – could lend his name to a huge stretch of land? That’s possible here. The area is called Mackenzie Country, named after a Scottish rustler who once stole thousands of sheep, drove them into the hinterland and drove the forces of law and order to desperation, but apparently gave a major boost to sheep farming.
Before we drive back towards the coast we top up our diesel for the first time, at a sun-shimmering white petrol station. An abandoned hut, the paint peeled off, the wood beneath it so bleached that it is almost white too. Two petrol pumps, one dusty aged credit card machine, hill after hill, covered in golden yellow grass, all devoid of humanity.