Destination: New Zealand : Lake Moana, Lake Surprise

I discovered Lake Moana by mistake. I was standing in the rain outside Christchurch, hitchhiking to Greymouth, a port town on the western coast of New Zealand's South Island. A battered old blue Ford station wagon pulled up. "Greymouth?" said the driver when I told him my destination. "I wouldn't. Its only claim to fame is a seawall." He introduced himself as Dennis, then continued, "But Lake Moana, now there's the place. If you're into fishing, the trout up there die of old age."

I'd never heard of Lake Moana. Neither, I was later to find out, had many New Zealanders. The reasons are twofold: One is that, while it's not far from Greymouth, it's off the usual tourist routes, and far from main roads. The other is that its official name is Lake Brunner--not Lake Moana at all (more about that below).

Intrigued by the sound of the place, I slid into the passenger seat and we drove inland past coal-streaked river cliffs, across a plain bristling with tree stumps (the remains of an earlier frenzy of logging) and disused mine shafts dating back to the 1859 New Zealand Gold Rush. ("Once the gold was gone," remarked Dennis, "they had a go at the landscape.")

Next, we passed through fields clogged with prickly yellow gorse, the plant introduced by the region's early English settlers as a form of cheap fencing--which has since proved impossible to eradicate. Then, suddenly, we came around a bend, and stretched out before us, ablaze in the sunset, was the lake--its surface shimmering with the reflections of distant snowcapped peaks poking up from a base of conifered hills.

"The Maoris call it Moana Kotuku," Dennis said. "The Lake of Herons." Well, the maps call it Lake Brunner--but locals prefer the prettier name, and I can't help but think of it that way.

We drove along above a sandy beach with reeds lancing up through the water near the shoreline. Ducks chattered amid the vegetation, scooping up beakfuls of water, sifting it for food. It wasn't hard to imagine a small flock of herons themselves flapping off lazily into the orange sky on their broad wings.

Tourism in New Zealand is very well developed, and information on various destinations and activities is so readily available that at times the country can feel a bit like one huge organized tour--a tour you've already seen the video of.

Lake Moana, though, was different. It seemed almost untouched, innocent of Walkmans and clicking Nikons--an all-but-undiscovered gem in a land of unparalleled beauty.

Dennis drove us down into the town of Moana (Pop. 95), a scattering of houses set among half-tended lawns on the lake's northern shore, and pulled up outside what had obviously once been the local railway station. It was now his, he told me. He had converted it into the Lake Moana Adventure Lodge, offering visitors accommodations and facilities for fishing, boating, canoeing and bush walking--just the sort of low-environmental-impact activities the local population wants to encourage. (Unfortunately, this was apparently not enough: In July, the Lodge went out of business.)

For the gadabout tourist not interested in tramping through the bush or doing something on the water, Lake Moana offers few outright attractions. There is a small zoo specializing in endangered birds and animals, a local pottery and a pub in which it is possible to enjoy pitchers of cheap Greymouth beer--but that's about it.

Actually, Moana does boast one other potential tourist draw: Sitting in the middle of a vacant lot about 200 yards from the railway station is the 1927-vintage Royal Tour Rail Carriage. Built by craftsmen in Christchurch, it typified early 20th-Century luxury travel at its peak. The kitchen has crested porcelain sinks; there are gold taps in the bathroom; two twin bunk cabins are beautifully finished in local native timbers, and, taking up a third of the carriage, there is a carpeted lounge complete with opulent armchairs, suggesting a gentleman's study. The car was used by King George VI and the Queen Mother on their first trip to New Zealand in 1927, and was later used by the Duke of Windsor and other royals. When Dennis's establishment was still open, the car sat on a siding in front of the station, and it was possible to spend the night in it for a nominal fee. Now it just sits there, incongruously and forlornly, awaiting another entrepreneur to bring it back to life.

The best thing about Lake Moana, though, is simply the lake itself. I spent the night in a guest room at Dennis's station--there are other, more conventional (and still operating) accommodations available nearby at the Moana Hotel and Lake Brunner Lodge--and the next morning took a cruise out onto its waters in a 39-year-old clinker of a motor launch, leaving from Inveagh Bay on the eastern shore.

The lake sits in a 25-square-mile hollow nestled up against the spine of the mountain range that runs the length of the South Island, forming the so-called Southern Alps. Originally, the region was home to a tribe of Maoris, the Nagatiwairangi. In 1884, it was seen by the first pakeha , or white man, a German engineer named Brunner--from whom the lake gained its more common name. The town of Moana was founded nine years later: It celebrates the 100th anniversary of the region's first European settlement on Nov. 16 this year.

Early this century, loggers came and went, and the lake remained a largely untouched fishing preserve. But behind its calm exterior, the area hides a notorious past: Refuge Island, in the middle of the lake, was the last place in New Zealand where cannibalism was practiced, and it was here I was headed.

The clouds were sweeping in, and the smooth surface of the water surface was starting to be pitted by a few tentative drops of rain. There was hardly any wind, hardly any noise--just the steady thump of the boat's old engine, and a waft of blue diesel smoke driftingout behind us across the water.

Suddenly, Refuge Island loomed up out of the lake. It was small, no more than 100 yards long--a rocky islet overgrown with native bushes--and deadly quiet. From the island, the Nagatiwairangi had fished and hunted until the discovery of local greenstone deposits turned them into traders with the surrounding tribes. Jealousy led to war; war led to taking prisoners. The Nagatiwairangi kept theirs on an even smaller island next to Refuge Island, keeping them alive until they were slaughtered and eaten. "The locals call it Refrigeration Island," the captain of our boat helpfully informed us.

Cannibalism had died out by the turn of the century, fortunately--at least partially through the efforts of Christian missionaries--and Refuge Island became what it is today: a good place to fish.

As we circled the island, in fact, I happened to look into the water just in time to see a huge trout turn and swirl away. Maybe the trout here really did die of old age. A few fishermen were still out, and under other circumstances I would have liked to have joined them--but the rain had grown heavier now, so I was just as happy when the boat headed back to shore.

Though the Lake Moana Adventure Lodge is closed, a train to and from Christchurch still stops at the former station daily, and I was scheduled to get back to that city. Luckily, I was in time for that day's train. With the station PA playing "Waiting for the Train" and Dennis dressed up in a stationmaster's jacket--holding a watch on a gold chain in one hand and a whistle on an old piece of toilet chain in the other--I boarded and we chugged off into the mountains, with the lake fast disappearing in a long, low sweep of oncoming rain.

GUIDEBOOK

Lake Moana Layover

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Ansett Australia fly frequently from Auckland to Christchurch. Fares from $98 round trip. The TranzAlpine train leaves Christchurch every morning, stopping at Moana on request. Fare is $64 round trip. There is also shuttle-bus service from Christchurch to Moana, but schedules change often. Contact Canterbury Information Centre, tel. 011-64-3-379-9629. Both train and bus take about three hours.

Where to stay: Lake Brunner Lodge, Inchbonnie, telephone/fax 011-64-3-738-0163, a comfortable, relatively upscale establishment. (Bill Cosby stayed here on a visit to the lake last year.) Rates: about $100 per night for two. The Moana Hotel, Moana Westland, tel. 011-64-3-738-0083; a 1935-vintage wood-frame hotel with lakeview rooms. Helicopter and horseback fishing trips are offered. Rates: about $25 per night for two.

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