In a country full of iconic photo opportunities, Lake Matheson is one of the most famous. Not for its dark brown waters. Not for its west coast rainforest. Not even for the abundance of water birds and other wildlife. Its fame stems from the surrounding mountains, or rather the reflection of those mountains in its waters.
The lake itself is a short five minute drive west of Fox Glacier, along the Cook Flat Road which branches off from the main State Highway 6. A path leads from the car park through native rainforest towards the lake.
This forest is full of ferns and tall pines (kahikatea and rimu), and the paths are in good condition and undemanding, well suited to people of all ages and walking constitution.
After passing over the small Clearwater River via a suspension bridge, you soon reach the lake itself. It's not a huge body of water on the scale of Lake Taupo or Te Anau, so you can encircle it in about 90 minutes. Its small size comes from its origin. Formed some 14,000 years ago, the lake is the result of a slight depression left in the landscape by Fox Glacier as it retreated back toward the mountains.
The surrounding forest not only gives the lake shelter and context, it's also the source of the water's dark brown colour, which comes from organic material leaching into the lake from the forest floor. And so the forest is also responsible for the wonderful reflective quality of the water surface. The dark colour and protection from the wind provide a smooth surface which projects a mirror image of its surrounds.
And in another stroke of fortune, those reflected surrounds just happen to include long views of the monumental Aoraki Mount Cook. You'll see the resultant photos in postcards, posters and coffee table books sold in every souvenir shop in New Zealand. And rightly so, for it is a magnificent sight.
The bad news is that a perfect reflection requires windstill and clear skies. While the trees offer plenty of shelter, your best chance of a millpond surface is at dawn or dusk. For those who choose the early option, you'll be relieved to know that a large cafe adjoins the forest entrance, making an ideal place to take breakfast while checking whether the photos came out OK.
Unfortunately, if it's cloudy or windy, Matheson is not much more than simply a nice lake and forest: it's really the reflective qualities of the waters that give it its must-see status. Without those, it may not be worth making an extra detour to see the place. Having said that, the area is rich in waterfowl and ornithologists would do well to bring a pair of binoculars as well as their camera.