MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Aoraki”

Spring Roadie: Mount Cook to Queenstown

My brother and I awoke to a sunny morning, however the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. Mount Cook village is nestled amongst some of the tallest mountains in the country, close to the west coast, and as such, the area is privy to its own weather system, and at the mercy of the cloud systems. Luckily my brother had had plenty of opportunity to see Aoraki/Mount Cook the previous day, because we were not to see it again on our trip. I love this part of the country because it is surrounded by mountains, littered with walking and hiking trails, and due to being at the end of a very long dead-end road, it feels secluded and a bit less touristy than some of the rest of the South Island. I’ve visited a few times previously, including a visit where the village was surrounded by snow. The most recent visit prior to this one with my brother was to attempt to hike up to the Mueller Hut, high up in the mountains above the village, but I was a bit early in the season to go up, and wasn’t prepared for the snow in the upper reaches, thus being thwarted.

With an action packed 10 days of South Island driving to get through, my brother had selected the Hooker Valley track as his walk to do in the National Park. It is one of the country’s most popular walks, leading across alpine vegetation from the village to the lake at the base of Aoraki. We left the village in sunshine, but the clouds were falling over the mountain tops all around us, and it was clear the weather would close in as we progressed along the hike. There were plenty of other people on the trail that day, and we made good time treading along the well-maintained path. Some of the alpine flowers were starting to bloom, which along with the glacier lakes and nearby river, were a ready distraction as we hiked. As we neared the final rise at the end of the trail, spots of rain began and accompanied us as we reached the viewing area of the lake and Aoraki. The bulk of the mountain was hidden behind the cloud, which was a shame, but there was plenty of iceberg activity below to look at.

 

A path leads down the scree to the lakeside and this is the place to go for a close up of the icebergs. The rain was driving into us a little here which made it cold, so we hid in the lee of a large boulder whilst we had a snack, popping out briefly to take photos and pick up shards of ice. This was my brother’s first experience of icebergs, and it made me realise how much I’ve gotten used to the New Zealand landscapes in the 6 years I’ve lived here. I certainly don’t take it for granted, ever in awe when I see the glacier lakes, the towering mountains and the braided rivers, but I’d certainly forgotten what it was like to see these things for the first time. Whilst New Zealand has many similarities to Scotland, there are enough differences to make you appreciate you’re somewhere different.

 

By the time we had returned to the village, the clouds had closed in a little more. I had wanted to take my brother to the nearby Tasman glacier lake, but it was clear as we passed the turnoff that there would be nothing but cloud to see if we went, so it wasn’t worth wasting any more time. We had a few hours driving ahead to reach Queenstown, so by late morning we were on the road. Down the long stretch of road past Lake Pukaki, and onwards to the south, we had lunch in Twizel before continuing. There is a definite change in landscape as you follow the inland road south, and a somewhat desert quality starts to creep in. A little north of Omarama, I drove off the main road and headed along a dirt track, past an honesty box at the gate onto private property, and onwards to the Clay Cliffs. I’ve driven past the sign for these every other time I’ve been through this way, and so this was the first time I’d actually visited.

From the car park, an obvious track leads up to the base of the cliffs which stood distinctively like pinnacles against the blue sky. We had returned to sunshine, and meandered into the gaps between the peaks. It initially looked like there was an obvious path to follow, but after an initial climb and slide up loose scree, it became quite clear that the path petered out and became vague and loose under foot. Some people ahead of us sent a wake of loose stone in our direction and we did the same to those behind us. In the end, we backtracked a little, picked a different route through then once again reached an impasse. It felt like we were in some kind of foreign desert landscape and I was glad to have finally visited. My brother enjoyed squirrelling around the place also, and we found more paths to follow, away from the main track, as we slowly made our way back to the car park.

 

Continuing south, we cut through Omarama and onwards to Lindis Pass, one of the many mountain passes that New Zealand has. At 971m (3186ft), the Lindis Pass is the highest road pass in the South Island. The vegetation here is rather scrubby, which makes the view a little uninteresting to me, but at the top is a viewpoint where you can stop to look back at the road already travelled. From here, the drive down the other side towards Cromwell is windy, and we snaked our way down the hill, eventually arriving at Lake Dunstan which the road hugs all the way to Cromwell. We stopped briefly by the lake shore and also the giant fruit in Cromwell’s town centre, but the shadows were already starting to lengthen, accentuated by the steep mountain sides that flank the Kawarau Gorge on route to Queenstown. I’ve never had the opportunity to stop anywhere in the gorge before, and didn’t really know where was worth stopping at, so apart from a brief pull-in near a power station, we pushed on, arriving in Queenstown by the late afternoon.

 

Nestled around the shores of the large expanse of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is an odd place. The main settlement is sandwiched between the lake and the mountains and as such sits in shadow for the latter part of the day. Kelvin Heights across the Frankton Arm of the lake is better situated for sunshine hours. Queenstown will always be an immense drawcard for many, with nearby ski fields for winter lovers, adrenalin activities on its doorstep, water sports and hiking within easy reach and a plethora of bars and eateries to choose from. I however, am not one of its fans. I’ll happily visit it from time to time, but it is overcrowded and eager to part you with your cash. We were staying along the lakeshore away from the main drag which was great, and it was a pleasant walk along the lakefront as the sun was lowering. We went for dinner at The Cow, one of my favourite places to eat in town, and afterwards, I always find it impossible not to visit Patagonia, a chocolate and ice cream shop that sells divine ice cream. I didn’t need it, but I sure did my best to shove the cold chocolatey delight down my gob.

 

The next morning was one of sunshine, and we had another morning hike planned. Although Queenstown has a gondola, it is also possible to hike up the hillside to the viewing platform, rather than pay the fee for the gondola. So as we are both avid walkers, and by way of saving money, we left our accommodation that morning and picked our way up into the forest behind the hostel. Ironically, before my brother had announced his visit to New Zealand, I’d already booked to fly to Queenstown for Christmas, in order to hike Ben Lomond, the tall mountain immediately behind the lake. So a month before I’d be back to hike it, we found ourselves on the Ben Lomond track which eventually joins up with the road up to the gondola building. Some old pipes litter the track and as we found ourselves at a waterfall, the route became a little unclear. I discovered when I was back in December that we had taken a wrong turn, but we did eventually make our way back to the proper path.

The route eventually breaks out into the mountain bike park that is scattered across the hillside. Here the Ben Lomond track separates from the road to the gondola building and we had to keep our eyes and ears open as the bike tracks regularly cut across in front of us. There were plenty of bikes out on the trails, whizzing past us at speed at regular intervals. Finally, the familiar view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu opened up below us, and we were back amongst the crowds jostling around the viewing spots. With the ziplines, luge and bungy jump, this was a good example of how you could spend a lot of money here, but we simply meandered around and watched as people either raced down the tracks in their little carts or chucked themselves off a platform. At the time of visiting in November, there was plenty of work being done here to upgrade the facilities and this made a couple of spots extra busy, but we did manage to get some spots of grass to ourselves to soak up the view.

 

We hiked down via the Tiki trail which brought us out at the back of town. Picking our way through the streets, we stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking a square, and then headed into the Queenstown gardens. The blue skies had been replaced by clouds, but the mountain tops were still clear so despite the change in outlook, we still had a great view over to the summits. It is a lovely walk along the lake foreshore round the little peninsula, and is another example of a free thing to do in Queenstown. In fact, if you don’t mind using your own two feet, there are several free things you can do here. Once on the far side of the peninsula, overlooking the Frankton Arm, we cut up onto the hill in the middle and into the compact Botanic Gardens. Being springtime, there were plenty of flowers in bloom to look at and we both found plenty to take photographs of.

 

We walked back to the car parked far around the lakefront and although we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to Glenorchy, I took my brother to Bennet’s Bluff lookout about half way there where there is a stunning view across the lake. The cloud detracted from it a little, but the steely colour of the water was still stunning and it was worthwhile taking the detour. We weren’t to see any sun for the rest of the day, and on return to Queenstown, I drove through it and out the other side, cutting across the Kawarau river bridge tracking south. Hugging the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu for some distance, we hit rain as we continued onwards on our South Island road trip.

Spring Roadie: Christchurch to Mount Cook

With my brother visiting New Zealand for the first time, he had planned a road trip around the South Island to see some of the country’s highlights. After all, he hadn’t travelled all this way just to see his little sister! Originally he was going to head off on his own, but after securing the time off work and double checking that he was prepared to spend 2 whole weeks with me (something that we hadn’t done since we were teenagers), it ended up being me & him on the road for a spring-time roadie. I love road trips although they’re inevitably tiring, but I insisted on doing all the driving so that my brother could sit back and enjoy the stunning New Zealand countryside.

My brother had decided the route and overnight stops, so on day 1 we set off from Christchurch to head inland to the lakes of the Mackenzie District. There’s various routes to take there, and I took the scenic route cutting across to the Rakaia Gorge which normally offers a view of the stunning turquoise waters of the Rakaia river. In advance of my brother arriving in the country there had been a recent dump of snow followed by some inclement weather so I had a feeling the river was more likely to be a muddy grey colour, just like the day I had hiked the Rakaia Gorge walkway some years ago, and as it turned out, not only was I right, but the river was in extreme spate and the force of the water gushing through the gorge was immense, and the river was starting to flood into the car park below the bridge. We got out to stretch our legs and wander around, first crossing the old rickety road bridge and then to cut up the river a little to view the bridge from a different angle. Unfortunately, Mount Hutt, which is usually visible from here, was partially shrouded by some cloud. Still, it was a good opener to the stunning scenery that this island is famous for.

 

From the Rakaia river, we followed the scenic highway south to Geraldine, turning towards Fairlie and from there, headed over the mountain pass to Lake Tekapo. This drive reminds me quite a lot of my homeland of Scotland, and my brother commented the same. We arrived in Lake Tekapo late morning, and the sun lit up the water of the glacial lake in a brilliant blue. The lupins were also in flower which always adds some added beauty to the place. As an introduced and invasive species, they are actually classed as weeds or pest species here, but yet locals and tourists alike love to see them in bloom in the alpine regions of New Zealand. We parked at the far end of the village centre and took a walk down by the lakefront, joining the many other tourists that were also there that day, everyone intent on getting their Instagram-worthy photographs against the backdrop of the snowy mountains. Despite my brother’s luck with the warm sunshine, the recent dump of snow meant the mountains were still white and it was the perfect vision.

Since I’d last been in Lake Tekapo, which had been about 18months prior, there had been some obvious developments. New housing estates had appeared, several of the shops in the village centre had changed hands and a new supermarket had been built. There was clear evidence that parts of the foreshore had been tampered with also, a sure sign of further building works to come. Following lunch in one of the cafes that had undergone a renovation since I’d last been there, we crossed the new bridge across the lake outflow to the Church of the Good Shepherd, probably one of the most famous sights of New Zealand. It is often framed by the Milky Way in an astrophotograph or the backdrop for somebody’s wedding, either way it is an immensely busy spot as every visitor to Tekapo tries to photograph it from the same angle as everyone else, whilst desperately trying to find a new angle that fewer people have done before. It’s an interesting observation on human society whenever you turn up to the popular photography spots of New Zealand.

 

For my brother, the blue shade of the lake was a colour he’d not experienced before. For me, the wintery snowy backdrop with the spring-like foreground of lupins and sunshine was a novelty, and I was happy to walk along the lakefront as my brother wandered along. He was keen to cut round to the eastern shore, so we headed all the way round to the south-eastern bay which we had to ourselves. The wind was blowing the waves in our direction and in one spot the lake level had dropped to reveal a patchwork of puddles across the stony beach. Cutting back towards the village, we crossed the lake outflow via the road this time and wandered past the shop fronts back to our car. As we would be self-catering that night, we stopped at the new Four Square supermarket to grab some stuff for dinner and then headed on our way.

 

For me, no visit to Lake Tekapo is complete without heading up Mount John. It is possible to walk up to the summit from the village although strangely, considering my propensity to hike everywhere, I’ve never actually walked up, always driving up instead. I was surprised to arrive at the turn-off up Mt John to discover a hut and barrier due to the introduction of a user fee for the road. Sitting at the top of Mt John is an Observatory belonging to the University of Canterbury. Students come here as part of their course, and owing to this part of the Mackenzie District being an internationally recognised Dark Sky Reserve due to its lack of light pollution, it is also possible to pay to take part in a star gazing tour here.

But the main draw during the day time is the view over the nearby lakes of Tekapo and Alexandrina and the flanking mountains of the Southern Alps. So whilst I objected to the fee, having come up multiple times before for free, the $8 charge was reasonable, and we spent enough time at the summit to feel that it wasn’t overpriced. It is a conundrum in New Zealand though, where tourism has taken off so much, that infrastructure is, in places, struggling to keep up. It is an issue of contention amongst the general public where many object to the mounting costs of maintaining and upgrading facilities that are overused by tourists but paid for by Kiwis. Having paid tourism taxes and had to purchase visitor passes for national parks in other countries, I’m personally in favour of a tiered system where locals pay less or nothing at all and visitors pay more. There will always be plenty of people to argue either way, but as a regular user of the Outdoors, I’m sick of seeing rubbish, waste and inconsiderate habits of tourists (many of which cause damage or harm to native flora and fauna), and am keen to see a positive change happen.

 

From Lake Tekapo, the scenic drive winds across the rolling hillside before finally arriving at the eastern bank of Lake Pukaki, another brilliant blue glacier lake. The road cuts down to the southern end where it crosses a dam and this is one of the first places where the hulk of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the country’s tallest mountain, is really pronounced. We were staying in Mount Cook village that night, a place that I love due to the many hikes in the area, and taking the turnoff that leads up the western side of Lake Pukaki, it is a deceptively long drive there. There are some great views on route though and although the shadows were starting to fall across the mountains to our left, Aoraki remained in sunshine and almost free of cloud.

 

Due to the steep mountains flanking its every side, the village was in shadow when we checked into our motel room. Whilst we didn’t have a view of Aoraki, we still had a mountain view and after taking a breather for a bit, we headed up to the Hermitage where we could see Aoraki’s peak in all her glory as the colour of the snow on her flanks changed with the lowering sun. The alpine setting was reflected in the temperature which was dropping down quite dramatically. I was keen to watch the sunset over Aoraki but was forced indoors to watch it through the glass of the Hermitage’s large front windows. Eventually my brother wanted to brave the cold to take some photographs without the reflection of the glass, and so I joined him outside as the light faded from the sky.

 

We had a nice cosy motel room which was part of a large complex which included a bar, a kitchen serving meals and a kitchen for self-use. It was a busy little place with plenty of backpackers and self-drivers there. After dinner though, we retired to our room, and it was very easy to fall asleep after all the driving and fresh air. This was to be the recipe for the rest of our road trip, and the following day would be no exception.

Tasman Glacier Tracks

It’s a strange concept to consider that at the time of my birth, Lake Tasman was barely in existence. The Tasman glacier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s longest glacier at 27kms in length. It is, however, undergoing a rather fast rate of retreat and experts expect that it will eventually disappear completely. In the early 1970s, pockets of melt water became evident and over successive years these pockets increased in size and eventually merged to form the lake that exists today. The presence of the lake itself speeds up the retreat of the glacier, and now in 2014, the lake is over 7km long, with the glacier retreating at a rate of 500-800m per year. Within my lifetime, the lake is expected to reach its maximum size, and even over two visits 18 months apart I can see the difference in the lake.

The road to the Tasman glacier is not far from Mt Cook village, and was upgraded a couple of years ago to make it suitable for all cars. It was previously a dirt road suitable for only 4×4 in bad weather, so the area is now much more accessible all year round. From the DOC car park, the only spot with toilets, four different track options leave from here. I had arrived very early in the morning when the sun was just reaching over the peaks of the eastern mountain range, so parts of the walk were still in shadow. I headed first to the glacier viewpoint, the paths separating quite early on. Halfway along the left fork, the path splits again, the blue lakes one way and the glacier viewpoint the other. It’s neither a long nor taxing walk with only the latter section involving some rock hopping in a section that isn’t as well marked as the rest. I had the viewpoint to myself, and it was peaceful and quiet, just how I like it.

 

The lake is flanked on two sides by steep mountains including the backside of Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, with steep moraine walls piled high at the lakeside, a remnant from when the glacier was deeper and longer than its current position. In the distance, the glacier was visible, covered in dirt, and at the end of the lake, a few small icebergs floated near the river which escapes through the boulders strewn across the valley, before snaking towards Lake Pukaki. The boulders and moraine creates a barren, dirty-looking landscape which contrasts darkly against the blue-grey water of the lake. When I was here 18 months ago, there were more and larger icebergs on the lake than there were on this day. The photo on the info board at the viewpoint, taken just 3 years ago, shows a noticeable difference in position of the glacier’s terminal face which illustrates quite well the fast retreat of this glacier. Looking towards Lake Pukaki, the valley also looks barren, rocks strewn everywhere, with only the occasional hardy plant or bush poking through the debris.

 

Retracing my steps, I headed to the blue lakes, which are now green in colour. When they were named, they were glacier fed, providing the turquoise blue colour characteristic of glacial melt water, but with the retreating glaciers, the lakes are now rain-fed, allowing algal growth which gives the green colouration. A short path leads to the shore of the first of three lakes of varying shapes and sizes. Behind them, the mountains are scarred with avalanche paths and scree slopes. I had the lakes to myself also, and followed the path round the shore of the first lake and over the brow to the second and third lakes. In places, the path is broken with short sections of rock scrabbling, but other than these points, it is an easy to follow path. A pair of ducks mulled around on the second lake. The third lake was the largest and prettiest, especially with the sun by now reflecting off the surface giving it a brilliant blue-green colour. The area around the lakes was teeming with alpine vegetation, but unfortunately I was at least a month too early for the blooming of the colourful alpine flowers.

 

In stark contrast, the path to the lake side and river was a barren land of boulders and bare-looking bushes. I was surrounded by people as this path leads to the jetty where boats are boarded to tour the lake. A bus party of tourists were noisily chatting as they walked in procession along the gravel path, and I skirted round them as quickly as possible in an effort to return to some peace and quiet. After winding round the moraine wall, the path splits off to go to the river, and from here onwards, it is like walking through a sea of rocks.  Boulders lie everywhere, and the river is very well hidden, deep down in the rock bed, until it appears all of a sudden as a colour contrast to the barren rocks that form its banks. The path ends on the moraine wall just above where the icebergs rest near the start of the river. A route down to the lake side is clear enough to follow, and I quickly headed down to the lake edge to stare directly at the icebergs at their resting spot. They weren’t the biggest icebergs I’ve seen, but looking at them dead on, they still provided a stunning vista as they shone in the sunlight with the snow-covered mountains beside them. I picked my way to the river and sat on a large rock to admire the view and watch the tourist boats pass by. It was a beautiful spot to sit until the flies realised I was a tasty meal. Bigger than sandflies, I’m not sure what they were, but I ended up bearing the marks of multiple suckers up my arms, legs and chest for days to come. I put up with the biting as long as I could tolerate before heading back to the car park and starting the long journey home.

Sealy Tarns Track

For the second time in my life, I was defeated by a mountain. Call it fear, or a self-acknowledgement of my personal limitations, but sometimes, I have to know when to quit. I’m an avid hiker, and love getting out into the wilderness and the mountains, but when it comes to tramping, there are three things that I don’t enjoy: lots of stairs, boulder scrambling, and rock faces to negotiate. I’d happily walk up a steep path than have to negotiate the monotony of flight after flight of stairs, and somehow I lose the enjoyment of a walk if I have to get down on my hands to negotiate a boulder field or haul myself up a rock face.

I awoke in Mount Cook village to another glorious blue sky with the sun beating down from above. Knowing how fickle the weather can be in the mountains, I got going early. From the YHA hostel in the lower village, the path snakes through to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village and near there, a shared path leads off towards various end points. This first section is the same start as that for the Hooker Valley track, but today I took the left fork towards Kea Point. Mt Sefton glistened in the morning sunlight as I headed nearer it. Along the path the Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut track split off into the bushes, but I headed forth towards Kea Point which sat on the moraine bank of the Mueller glacier terminal lake. A small amount of cloud swirled around the summit of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook lay half in shadow in the distance. There were no kea to be seen, and only a few dedicated people were up at this time, so the viewpoint was peaceful and quiet.

 

On the return trip, the valley opened up before me, with the Hermitage hotel just poking up above the bushes. Back at the start of the Sealy Tarns track, a sign warned of avalanche risk for those heading to Mueller Hut on the Sealy range. I was heading as far as the Sealy tarns, but at the back of my mind, I hoped to continue up to the hut if the conditions would allow. Soon after getting on to this track, the steps started. 2200 of them to be precise. The altitude gain is around 540m, and it is mostly achieved through negotiating step after step after step. Despite my dislike of steps, the view is fantastic from every available vantage point. With increasing altitude, a slightly different perspective is obtained of the hooker glacier, the mueller glacier, and the valley past the village. Mt Sefton felt increasingly within reach, and there was a frequent burst of sound from avalanches cavorting down Mt Sefton’s slopes.

 

On this occasion, the snowline was at the level of the tarns. Some stale snow was scattered by the path just below the final gain in height, and the tarns themselves were frozen over. A picnic table has been erected to give a perfect spot to stare out at the world below. After a brief respite for fluid replenishment, I decided to give the Mueller hut track a go. On the ascent to Sealy tarns, I had met a few hikers coming down who had spent the night in the hut. They had reported that there was plenty of snow between the tarns and the hut, and that it was quite slushy in places. By the time I reached the tarns, a group of friends that I had met lower down on the track were disappearing into the far distance above me. Another sign warns of avalanche risk, and from here onwards, the path is narrow, rough and marked only by orange poles.

 

It started off innocent enough: a rough, stony path that was easy to follow, but not hugely far up was a small rock face to scramble up, and a little beyond that another one. It was at this point that I started to question my sanity. I had done that one thing that no hiker should do: go off tramping without telling anyone my route plan or expected time of return. Not only that, but I was not at my peak level of fitness, and here I was, on my own with no-one to spot me, negotiating the best route up a rock face. Granted, it was just a small rock face, not one that needed ropes or special equipment, but I found myself pausing to decide in my head the sense in going on. I was keen to get up to the hut, to see the view, feel the achievement in doing so, and be able to tell people I’d done it. On the other hand, my dislike (and a touch of fear) of rock scrabbling, and the thought of tackling all of this just to find out that I couldn’t get across the snow, eventually made me turn back and return to the tarns.

 

Sealy tarns sits at an elevation of 1250m, and I estimate that I gained maybe only another 50m, if that. With Mueller hut at 1800m, it would have been a long stressful hike onwards for me. Defeated, I returned to the picnic table and hoovered up my lunch, my pride slightly wounded.

 

Just 45 mins earlier, the view from the tarns had included a lot of cloud that had billowed over Mt Sefton, but shortly after my return, the cloud had burned off somewhat and the view was delightful. Several avalanches skipped down Mt Sefton’s slopes, and the full colour palette of the Mueller glacier lake was evident below. The amount of sediment in the water determines the colour, and there was a mix of blues and greys. Unfortunately, the alpine flowers were not yet in bloom, and I’m sure they look spectacular when the time is right. Two kea appeared to goad each other, one landing briefly near the table. Many hikers appeared, and sat for a while, and I spent around 45mins soaking up the view, reluctant to leave. Eventually though, I thought it only fair to leave the view for others, and I headed off back down the many many steps to the bottom.

 

This time round, with less exertion required, I could actually pay attention to the creatures and plants around me. Little birds flitted between the vegetation, some curious, some alarmed by my presence. There were crickets everywhere: brown ones near the top, and green ones lower down. I learned later at the Mount Cook visitor centre (which is well worth a visit!) that these are adaptations to the environment, and that other colours appear at other altitudes also. I also discovered at the visitor centre, that there was an ice and crampon warning for the Mueller Hut track which made me feel slightly better about my failed ascent. By the time I was near the bottom, the cloud had started to roll in again, and the summits of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook were once again shrouded. The morning is definitely the best time of the day to get out in the mountains. I reached the Hermitage hotel, and sat absorbing the sunshine, gazing over at the statue of Edmund Hillary who forever gazes towards the summit of Mount Cook.

Hooker Valley Track

I grew up in a suburb of Scotland‘s largest city, Glasgow, inland and away from the coast. I would always enjoy trips to the beach or into the hills, but I didn’t necessarily crave them. When I left home I moved up north to Aberdeen, and spent the next 5 years of my life living by the sea. I could smell it every day, I could see it everyday, and I routinely spent evenings after work or weekends pounding the local beaches or promenade listening to the waves crashing and falling in love with the ocean. Now I think of myself as a ‘coast’ person, someone who loves living by the sea and craves to be near it. Over this same time frame, I developed a love of hiking and camping and would disappear into the mountains and hills as much as possible, scaling my first Munro (a mountain in Scotland >3000ft), and acquainting myself with as much of the nearby National Park as I could. And so I also crave for that mountain view – the sight of majestic mountains towering above and around me. Living in the Canterbury Plains, I can spy the Southern Alps on the distant horizon, and when the opportunity arises to go play amongst them I grab it with both hands.

Mount Cook Village is a small settlement nestled in a valley under the shadow of New Zealand’s largest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook. It sits within the National Park of the same name, and lies at the end of a long road that snakes up the western shore of Lake Pukaki. I’d been here twice before, once in winter when the snow on the ground limited the ability to go exploring, and once in autumn when it was raining and misty. I had been eager to do some hikes around here, and I was also keen to see the alpine flowers in bloom so as soon as spring hit, I made sure I could find a free weekend to go there. It is a roughly 4hr drive from Christchurch, so I arrived just after midday and set about getting ready to go for a walk.

The Hooker Valley track is the most popular walk amongst visitors and is graded as an easy walk suitable for families. It can be started from the White Horse Hill campground (an estimated 3hr return), a short drive from the village, or it can be reached from the village itself via a connecting path (an estimated 4hr return). I was staying in the YHA hostel in the lower village, from where a path snakes through the village to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village. Near here a path leads to several hiking options: Kea Point, Hooker Valley, and up one of the mountains to Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut. Even from the hostel, there is an impressive view with the snow covered Mt Sefton towering over the village. There were regular sounds of crashing ice as avalanches fell down Mt Sefton’s slopes sending a cloud of snow behind it.

 

The initial section of the walk is through bushes, then across some open scrubland and finally over a stony dry river bed until a marker denotes a split in the path. Taking the right fork, the path continues to White Horse Hill campground, where on the opposite side of the road, the start of the Hooker Valley track is evident with a domineering Mt Cook visible behind. It is a well marked and maintained walk on a mixture of gravel paths and raised boardwalks to protect the alpine plants. Despite reading that the alpine flowers would be out in spring, I was clearly early as there were none in bloom and they didn’t look close to it either. I later discovered that they wouldn’t appear till late November, meaning I was over a month too early.

 

There were a few detours from the main path, and I chose to do these on the return leg, but after a few twists and turns, the Mueller glacier and terminal lake came into view at the foot of Mt Sefton. As with many glacier-fed lakes, the water was a cloudy grey colour due to the suspension of sediment swept down from the rocky source of the glacier, and the river draining from this lake led away from the end and started its snaking journey through the valley to eventually drain into Lake Pukaki. The first of 3 suspension bridges on this walk crossed the river, and the river bed was strewn with large boulders left behind during the last age of glaciation. I had arrived in Mount Cook to gorgeous sunshine and clear blue skies, but as often happens around mountains in the afternoon, large clouds started to roll over Mt Sefton and the neighbouring mountains and threatened to block out the sun. At this stage, Mount Cook was hidden out of view so I had no idea what view to expect at the end of the hike.

 

The second suspension bridge crossed the Hooker river as it tumbles down stream from the Hooker glacier, the destination of my walk. Shortly after this bridge, Mount Cook (thankfully not hidden by clouds) came back into view and dominated the skyline for the rest of the hike. There was the start of a lenticular cloud (my favourite type of cloud) crowning its peak, and I could see the clouds on the neighbouring mountains form and disperse as they curled over their summit. They would continue to threaten to occlude the sunlight but then wisp away at the last minute.

 

As such a popular walk, and being a weekend, there were a lot of people out on the track that day. A congregation of them hung around a small hut further along the track which boasted an unobstructed view of Aoraki, and this is the only place on the track (apart from the campground) where there is a toilet. A small stream trickled by, and several families milled around here. Further on, the track continued through the alpine vegetation until the third suspension bridge was reached, and after this, large boulders appeared as a moraine wall was reached to demarcate the end of the glacial lake on the other side. Snaking through the boulders, an incline brought me to my first sighting of the Hooker glacier and its terminal lake on which floated some rather large icebergs.

 

Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy overhead, although Mt Cook’s peak remained unobscured. There was a picnic table at a raised viewing area, but most people headed down to the stony shore at the end of the lake and absorbed the view from there. Lapping at the shore were multiple smaller icebergs at the end of their melt, and the shoreline resembled an iceberg graveyard. I had previously seen these up close on a boat trip on the Tasman glacier lake and the colour and clarity of these ‘bergs are amazing. The larger icebergs afloat on the lake were dirty from the moraine, and the glacier itself was barely distinguishable from the surrounding land due to the moraine deposits on the surface. Previous to my first up-close view of a glacier in Chile, I’d always thought of glaciers being pristine white from the snow and ice, but aside from the Perito Moreno glacier in Chile, every glacier I’ve seen since has appeared dirty, covered in a layer of sediment and debris chucked up from the valley walls as the glacier moves down the mountainside.

 

I sat for a long time on the lake shore, blocking out the noises of other people and just soaking up the view and inhaling it all. Eventually, the clouds started to build up and some spots of rain could be felt. It was also exceedingly windy at the shoreline, and eventually, I decided to head back. I left just as the summit of Aoraki disappeared behind the cloud. The route back retraced the same route I had come by, but I followed the detours as they appeared. Firstly, there was a little tarn which is the name given to mountain lakes that have formed in an excavation created by a glacier. I investigated the hut that I’d ignored on the way up, and wandered along the edge of the stream at its side. The view on the way back was towards Mount Cook Village and the Hooker river snaking down the valley towards Lake Pukaki. The cloud had by now passed over the summit of Mt Sefton and hidden it from view, and was threatening to dump some rain on the village.

 

There were a couple of viewpoints that I had skipped past on the way there, giving alternate views over the Mueller glacier and its terminal lake, and nearer the campground was a memorial erected to remember those that had succumbed in the mountains. It was originally erected to remember two particular adventurists who had perished in an avalanche in 1914, but since then further plaques have been erected to remember those who had come to strife since. It was sad to read how young many of them were, and there was a definite trend relating to the location of several of the deaths. Even for the highly trained and experienced, these are dangerous and unpredictable mountains to play in.

 

The final detour was to Freda’s rock. As unassuming a rock as it was, it marked the spot where an explorer called Freda Du Faur had had her photo taken after becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Cook in 1910. This was at a time when it was frowned upon for an unmarried woman to spend the night in the company of a man, never mind go mountaineering. From here, it was a short walk back to the campground and then along the same path back to the Hermitage and the village where a warm shower and a nice cold cider awaited.

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