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Ninety years have passed this year since the level of Lake Monowai in Fiordland was raised by 2.13m (7ft) after the Monowai Power Station began operation. Members of the Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club went on a two-day kayaking trip to the beautiful lake and observed that the effects of damming the lake are still being felt today. Alina Suchanski reports.
Monowai Power Station was one of the earliest hydro-electric power plants in New Zealand.
Its construction started in 1921 and the station was officially opened by the Southland Electric Power Board (now Pioneer Energy) on May 1, 1925.
But it wasn’t until 1926 that the level of Lake Monowai was raised to ensure greater output of electric energy generation.
The decision makers at the time surely did not foresee the extent of the damage and its long-lasting nature.
Part of Fiordland National Park since 1952, Lake Monowai, set in spectacular mountainous country, would have once been a jewel of the South.
If it did have beautiful sandy beaches, similar to those on lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, there is no trace of them now.
Almost the entire shoreline is still lined with stumps of dead trees.
The forecast for the weekend was for cold but calm weather, with occasional showers on Saturday, but fine on Sunday.
Perfect conditions for kayaking.
Six Fiordland Tramping and Outdoor Recreation Club (FTORC) members drove to the car park at the end of Lake Monowai on Saturday morning.
Five launched kayaks and one was in an inflatable dinghy with an outboard motor.
Our destination, Rodger Inlet Hut, about halfway down this long and narrow U-shaped lake.
Although most of the group knew about the destruction of the lake by the raising its water level nearly a century ago, we were all shocked to see how bad the situation remains today.
Guarding the lake shore, the skeletons of tall trees and sharp branches stick out from the water like bones of long-extinct aquatic dinosaurs.
Kayakers and boat users are best to keep a safe distance from the lake’s edge for fear of impaling their vessels on something lurking just below the surface.
After two hours of paddling in light rain we reached Rodger Inlet and saw the lovely new six-bunk hut across the water.
The hut features a very efficient woodburner and with a good supply of dry firewood and kindling we brought with us, its cosy interior soon became quite toasty.
The new way of building Department of Conservation huts really makes a difference, with insulation and doubleglazed windows keeping the heat in.
The hut can be accessed on foot via a Doc track.
According to the Doc website, this difficult six-hour tramping trail leads around Lake Monowai to Rodger Inlet Hut.
However, at this time of the year the mud and cold could put off the hardiest of trampers, particularly when there is a much nicer alternative.
The two-hour kayak trip is a pure joy on a sunny and calm Fiordland winter day.
Luckily for us we didn’t have to share the hut’s tiny space with any other visitors.
The next day we waited for the rain to stop, before leaving the hut to return to our vehicles.
The lake was glassy as we put our kayaks and the dinghy on the water.
While we explored Rodger Inlet, the sun came out, revealing amazing views of snow-capped mountains.
Gliding through their mirror images on the water was an elating experience.
By contrast, the dead forest stumps around the lake’s edges filled us with sombre reflections on the impact of humans on the environment.
Les Hutchins, founder of Real Journeys and the instigator of the Save Manapouri campaign of the 1960s and ’70s, visited Lake Monowai in the early 1970s.
In his book Making Waves he wrote: "I was appalled at the total destruction of the shoreline of this once beautiful Fiordland lake."
It is 90 years since the water level was raised, and while the beauty of the lake still delights, the destruction of the shoreline continues to shock.