Clocking Lake Matheson at sunrise anyone? © traumlichtfabrik

Lake Matheson: the perfect mirror


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If you find yourself on the West Coast in a reflective mood, you’ll also find you’re in good company.

Dotted in the ancient shingle fans laid down by the advance and more recent retreat of the glaciers, you’ll find a number of jewel-like lakes holding a mirror to the sky and the Southern Alps above.

Most of the waterways in this part of the world reflect some pretty spectacular scenery when the conditions are right. After all, there’s a bunch of Alps looming over the lot of them, from the largest – Lake Brunner, close to the western approach to Arthur’s Pass – to the smallest, which for the sake of argument we’ll call Lake Lyttle. Lakes Ianthe, Māhinapua and Māpourika all give a good account of themselves and the adjacent scenery, but the most spectacular and reliable of the lot is little Lake Matheson, reached by taking a short detour from State Highway 6 out towards Gillespies Beach.

Matheson occupies a hollow in what was once the moraine of the Fox Glacier, dating from the chilly days when the icefall was rampant, about 14,000 years ago.

Like the other lakes on the West Coast, the waters are dark and tea-coloured, which is no coincidence, considering it’s the tannin leached from the leaf litter on the floor of the age-old rainforests of Westland that give them this colour.

There’s a walking track around the lake, and once you reach the western end, there’s a platform from which to admire the main attraction.

That would be Aoraki Mount Cook, upside down in the depths. The wall of rainforest around Matheson protects it from anything other than serious breezes, so the surface is usually mirror-calm. It’s possible to take a picture of Cook and its image and be quite unable to see which way up you should be holding the frame.

Lake Matheson is in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. The bush here is mature rimu and kahikatea, both of which like their roots wet. Their drooping foliage is the perfect frame for the view. Apart from birdsong, the only sound to break the hush is the slap-slap sound of sand flies passing over to the Other Side. Well-equipped visitors won’t even be troubled by this.

Several of the West Coast lakes have more than just a pretty face. You can paddle and fish on Lakes Brunner and Māhinapua if you ever get tired of just staring at the view. And quite frankly, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that score.

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