I stand at the foot of the Rob Roy Glacier, spellbound by the cold blue gleam of the ice. At the height of summer with the sun on the massive expanse of white, it is blindingly bright and mesmerizingly beautiful. Waterfalls cascade off the glacier face, littering the sky with rainbow fragments. A flash of red feathers and a whirr of wings announces the arrival of a couple of kea. There are shrieks of indignation as a cheeky alpine parrot swoops in to steal the last mouthful of a distracted hiker’s lunch.
A cracking, rumbling sound echoes around the mountains as a huge slab of ice on the terminal face of the glacier loses its fight against gravity and warm temperatures and thunders down the valley in a white cloud – an astonishing sight and sound… from a safe distance. The glacier sits below the 2,606m Rob Roy Peak named after Scotland’s Rob Roy McGregor whose image can be seen in the rock and ice from a vantage point on the opposite side of the valley.
Such is the allure of the rugged Scot, we’ve hiked the track in all seasons, regardless of the weather: high summer under a sun-bleached sky, wearing only shorts and T-shirts, grateful for the dappled shade of the beech forest canopy; mid-winter as fat snowflakes drift down from a low, slate-grey ceiling; after spring rain, when tendril waterfalls join forces to become angry, swollen cataracts; and in autumn when the trees around Lake Wanaka are on fire with red and golden foliage.
But our favourite time is when the valley is dressed in silver after a June hoar frost and our boots crunch through stiff white tussock and over concrete moss. The river is ice-green foam and the spray freezes on our eyelashes and brows. Where the meagre early winter sunshine penetrates the steep-sided gorge, the air sparkles with dazzling diamond filaments. Icicle swords droop from overhanging rocks. Common-place spider webs and ferns become works of art in silver filigree.
The foamy waters of the glacier-fed Rob Roy flow in a deep ravine far below the track roar as the gorge narrows and the water fights its way through gaps in the rocks. As we climb higher, the glacier is visible in snatches through the forest canopy. Flimsy, half-frozen waterfalls tumble in tiers from high ridges. It is impossible to take in the full height of the mountains towering above unless you lie on your back.
The last part of the track takes us over and around huge boulders carelessly discarded by the glacier as it retreated up the mountain side to its present-day precarious home, clinging to a rock face below Rob Roy Peak. There’s ankle-deep snow and patches of ice as we near the end of the track so the going is slow.
By early afternoon, the sun is brilliant against a sharp, blue sky but there is no warmth where it touches and nothing thaws. It’s too cold to linger for long at this altitude so we munch our lunch in haste while stamping our feet and flapping our arms to keep warm, and then head back down the track.
Knees turn to jelly on the long trek back down to the car, the steep descent made even more treacherous as we walk backwards for fear of missing a view we have not seen on the way up. The swing bridge over the Matukituki River shudders and sways as we shuffle in single file along the wooden planks secured by wire cables drilled into rocks on each side.
We drive back to Wanaka as the fast retreating sun stains the snowy mountain tops pink. We stop at a tiny pebbled beach near Glendhu Bay and watch the shimmering pathway shrink to a sliver and disappear as the winter sun puts on a final dazzling display of crimson fire before sliding behind Mt Aspiring / Tititea.
In silence, we store the memories in a safe place – until next time.
Contributing Editor Justine Tyerman is an award-winning travel writer, journalist and sub-editor from Gisborne, New Zealand, with 20 years’ experience in newspaper and freelance work. Check out her work at www.just-write.co.nz and Tyerman’s Travels Facebook.