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Destination: New Zealand : Lake Moana, Lake Surprise

September 26, 1993|MARK WATSON | Watson is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer. and

MOANA, New Zealand — 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.

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