The Rob Roy Glacier

On a gravel road in New Zealand’s Southern Alps

The walking trail up to the Rob Roy glacier starts an hour from Wanaka, an hour up the Matukituki valley with tyres droning fiercely on the rough track and small stones peppering the underside of the car. Fields of winter feed for the sheep lie along the valley floor, small clouds of greenfinch swirl up from the dusty road in front of us and Australian magpies play in the fields. We glimpse large deer among the pine trees, fenced in. The dry fords we cross are full of pale dust and bright grey volcanic stones, cutting down to the low Matukituki River, which glows pale blue. It is lined in places with bright red autumn leaves caught on the banks of shingle, and dotted with pied stilts for relief. The droning stops, in a car park with a green toilet shed, a path beside the river the only way to go on.

Crossing the rope bridge over the Matukituki River.

We start along the gentler side of the Matukituki, and spots of rain cause consternation. Drizzle down here means it will be much wetter on the mountain, up the icy stream that flows from the glacier. But we cross the rope bridge anyway, and begin our ascent through the forest. When the path breaks into a clearing before angling up the ravine, we stop for refreshment by a sign that says, “Please do NOT feed the kea”. But there are no Alpine parrots today, perhaps because it is too wet, although we hear plaintive birdcalls among the trees.

What kea?

We have another hour and a half to climb, on a good path that is occasionally quite steep, or rocky, or half-slidden down the bank. Mainly we can see only the route and the trees around us, but occasionally a view opens out on the left, of the steely blue Rob Roy stream crashing down to where we came from, of bright lichen-coated trees smothering the opposite bank, and just once or twice, of the crown of the glacier itself on the mountain above, towering impossibly high over our heads.

The icy Rob Roy stream.

This wonder keeps us going. Theo is eight, and although he looks bedraggled in the wet, he makes his own way, clearly relieved when we stop briefly for each rest. Huxley is younger and only a few minutes into the trek begins to complain. But he has no option: I cannot carry him because it is too steep and we cannot turn back from our first glacier. I chivvy and praise, push and drag, and we make good progress through the forest. At first it seems as though we are alone on the mountainside, but occasionally a group of teenagers strides past. Towards the top, we meet more and more walkers coming the other way, all with smiles, from the spectacle no doubt, but also perhaps from the relief at not having to climb any more.

The biggest boost comes when thin but monstrously high waterfalls appear in the rock face on the left: icy melt water that is falling from the glacier, out of sight behind the mountain. These pencil lines would be hardly noticeable in a photograph, so thin at distance, but up close they must be voluminous. The water takes a long time to hit the ravine floor. Most of all they mean that we are getting close.

When we reach the rough clearing we are still a long way from the glacier but this is where the footpath ends. It is the viewpoint. There is no shelter, and my friend is right about the rain being heavier at this height. For that reason we do not stay long, but these few minutes are unforgettable. The parts of Rob Roy that we can see crest on top of the mountains like the tops of breaking waves. They are high above our heads, and myriad waterfalls run down from the peaks as gifts to the stream below. The colour of the ice is unique: white, but somehow blue in its whitest parts. It is power and it is beauty. We have come so far and yet we are humbled far beneath the glacier’s mount. It is unapproachable, but we have at least witnessed its splendour.

View of the Rob Roy glacier.

And that is enough. My Kiwi friends have a low tolerance for rain and cold, and for standing around. Only minutes after arriving they are back off down the slope, as though getting back to the car was always the point of the trip. I carry Huxley on my shoulders some of the way, where it is safe to do so, and for as long as I can. The rain lightens up, and the half hour between the bridge and the car park seems the longest stretch of all. But what a view, with blocks of sun roaming the open valley sides, the whole scene somehow transfigured by our meeting with the glacial king enthroned on its summit. I know now why those walkers were smiling.

The last leg feels the longest.

The drive back down the valley yields even more stunning vistas, and as we near Wanaka deep blue lakes with meticulous vineyards on their shores replace the colourful mountains of Aspiring national park. Old warplanes from the weekend air show curve overhead. It is hard to take a bad photograph in a place like this. Even in the rain.