Chasing Mackenzie's Ghost

According to legend, New Zealand's South Island was formed when the dawn froze 150 shipwrecked gods into mountains. There are worse places to spend eternity.

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
I first heard about the outlaw one night in a dingy Twizel pub. I was demolishing Steinlagers with an ex-con who had teardrops tattooed on his eyelids. He owned a small, flimsy helicopter that he would fly into his own backcountry camp whenever things turned bad for him—bankruptcy, say, or a divorce. He took a rifle for venison and a fishing rod for trout, and would not come out again until it was safe. He talked admiringly about this Mackenzie character, some kind of 19th-century rustler who had disappeared into the woods—"Gone bush," my pub companion explained.

"He never came out?" I asked.

"Nobody knows, mate."

Soon enough, I went bush myself. I began by climbing southward and up the famous Routeburn Track, a three- or four-day expedition above tree line. I walked along the ridges, soaking in the views, and eventually I came to a fork in the trail. One path led left, to that night's hut, and then a road, and then the life I have led since. The other path led right, over an endless chain of hills, into the vast Fiordland National Park, New Zealand's largest: approximately 7,200 square miles of primeval rainforest and granite peaks, a trackless wilderness cut only by 14 fjords whose most frequent visitors are dolphins from the Tasman Sea. Because the Southern Hemisphere has much less air pollution than the Northern, I could see far across those mountains, almost farther than I could stand.

According to the indigenous Maori, who discovered New Zealand five centuries before the Europeans, this terrain was literally divine. The South Island was formed, they say, when a canoe full of 150 gods foundered on a reef. The boat settled, creating the island, while the gods, climbing higher to avoid drowning, were frozen in place by the rays of the sun, thus creating the region's 150 mightiest peaks.

I studied this possibility for a long time, until it seemed quite plausible, and then I turned left. I marched on, yet knew even then that I would never recover from that glimpse over the horizon, that vision of an inexhaustible world. And I knew I'd be back.

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