It wasn't exactly grand theft auto. I prefer to say that I borrowed the car that first carried me into Mackenzie Country. On the only occasion that I met him, I'd heard the owner, a friend of a friend, lament his inability to sell the wreck at any price, and say he wouldn't mind if it just disappeared. When he went on vacation, it did. (Since I returned it after a few weeks, I figure there was no harm done.)
Once I'd remembered my father's hot-wiring lessons it only took a spare battery, a set of points, and a few minutes to get the old jalopy—a hunk of rusted English pig iron called a '56 Salmon—thundering down the road. Early one January morning in 1988 I found myself rolling south on Route 1 from Christchurch, free, stupid, 23, and slightly outlaw. The Salmon had no license plates, no proof of inspection, no registration, no muffler, and was running on two cylinders. I had no auto insurance and, soon enough, an expired tourist visa. No matter. To help push-start the car, I picked up every hitchhiker I saw—Aussie rock climbers, Scottish peak-baggers, and Kiwi rafting guides eager to fling themselves from Queenstown bridges—and rolled steadily south.
At Burke's Pass in the Snowy Mountains, about 120 miles out, the exhaust manifold broke off. I crawled under-neath the car and, using fencing wire, reattached it. Then I lay there, staring upside down at the horizon in awe.
I'd heard the locals speak of something called The Mackenzie, but no name is big enough for this vast terrain on the South Island, an upland basin of windswept tussock grass, where 50-milelong valleys collide at the horizon with wedding-cake glaciers. Turquoise creeks braid through the landscape, feeding immense lakes full of brown trout the size of my leg.
Few maps denote The Mackenzie, and those that do limit it to the Mackenzie Basin or the Mackenzie District—a 100-mile swath across the South Island between the Southern Alps and the plains of Canterbury that's home to just 4,077 people. But The Mackenzie of legend is broader than that, and encompasses 23 of New Zealand's 25 highest peaks. It is a revered land of frozen gods and skies unsmudged by jet contrails, a dream of vanishing-point canyons, granite mountains, and waters of such unfathomable purity that I have twice tripped on streams I mistook for air.
To many Americans, this area—the Southland—has become known as a reverse-season wonderland of non-stop adventure—the beating heart of the "thrill-sport nation." Indeed, adrenaline is bottled and sold here, whether to kayakers shooting the gold-flecked rivers of Central Otago or to bungee jumpers committing recreational suicide (the sport was first popularized in Queenstown). The truly masochistic come for New Zealand's signature triathlon, the Coast to Coast, a connoisseur's race pursued up streambeds, down rivers, and across the island in a single, inevitably bloody day. One of my 1988 hitchers went on to climb the Tasman Glacier; another scaled Mount Cook, the Kiwi Eiger and training ground of the young Edmund Hillary. A Scottish kid in a kilt (he said it helped him get rides) disappeared up the Copland Pass trailhead.
But you don't have to push yourself to any extremes to appreciate The Mackenzie. You can just orbit in a jalopy, crash by the side of the road, take lazy day hikes up the valleys, and follow in the footsteps of the infamous James Mackenzie, the region's pioneering fugitive.