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
On my recent return trip, I drove 40 miles up a gravel track into a valley of the Godley Peaks, and then another 12 miles along mountain faces in a farmer's "ute," the flatbed truck that gives this rugged nation its mobility. In view was Lake Tekapo, colored an unbearable powder-blue by glacial runoff, and as long as the loose shale under our tires held us to the mountain slopes, I remained happy. Once in a while my driver, a lonely 24-year-old, would stop the car, stare at the ridge line. "God musta been a photographer, eh?" he said.

I dropped my backpack in a hut built in 1920 for a shepherd named Sutherland. From there I hiked into the realm of Maori deities who came for their own glimpse of the unlimited and never left. Alone in an immense, perfectly flat valley backing onto Mount Cook National Park, I played fugitive, spending my days stalking the brown trout that floated dead-center in the streams, arrogant and regal, unshadowed by man. By night I fumbled with the woodstove, counted unfamiliar constellations, and wondered what became of New Zealand's own Billy the Kid, whose Gaelic name, it turns out, was Seumas Mac Coinnich.

His legend ends abruptly. Despite two successful and two failed escapes, Mackenzie was finally convicted in Christchurch and sentenced to hard labor. Amazingly, popular opinion was on his side. Kiwis are a frontier people who admire those who can make do with a good dog. In the end, Mac Coinnich vanished one last time. He was pardoned by a governor who admired his brio. The governor simply required that he leave the country, and with that the record falls silent. The shepherds who knew him said that Mackenzie's one unrequited dream had been to visit America. I'd like to think he lived that dream, that he took a ship into exile and brought his unruly passion for freedom to us. But I don't believe it.

I have seen the view from Mackenzie Pass, and I think I know which way he went.   

Patrick Symmes's Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend was published by Vintage Departures in February.

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