We drove away from Anakiwa in bright sunlight and made our way south on SH1, the main highway down the East coast of South Island. By the time we broke the journey at Ashburton it was 30+ C and the swimming pool at the motel we booked into was too inviting so we soaked away the dust of travel. The following morning we set off bright and early, heading for Mount Cook village which lies in a national park that comprises New Zealand’s highest mountain, including the tallest of them all, Mount Cook or Aoraki to give it the Maori name.
Our drive took us through some beautiful hill country from Geraldine to Twizel. You first drive through a series of valleys – Gapes Valley, Beautiful Valley, Middle Valley, Cattle Valley full of farms and a rolling landscape. At Fairlie you enter MacKenzie Country, New Zealands largest inter-mountain basin. It’s western edge is formed by the Southern Alps, of which Mt Cook is, of course, the most famous. This is sheep rearing country and was supposedly named after James Mackenzie, a shepherd from Scotland who herded stolen sheep in what was then uninhabited country. It is also a wheat growing area and we often buy MacKenzie Station bread from the supermarkets.
The road rises up by Burkes Pass into a high and dry plateau from where you get tantalizing views of the Southern Alps. Before you get to these the road descends to Lake Tekapo, famous for its cobalt blue waters and for the Church of the Good Shepherd. Three years ago we spent a happy few days staying in Tekapo, making the obligatory visit to the aforementioned church which, truth be told, is really just a tourist trap and actually not that interesting. But we also visited the Mount John Observatory at night to view the night sky. Tekapo is a Dark Sky area where light pollution is carefully controlled and the sight of thousands of stars arching overhead was fantastic. We also had a great time , walking around the shores of the lake, and into the tussocky grasslands, where we saw the Black Stilt, the world’s rarest wader.
This time, however, we just didn’t find the place that appealing. There’s a lot of construction work going on. It didn’t help that a viscious wind was blowing grit and dust about and that the place was simply over-run with tourists. The lake was as blue as ever but we stayed less than ten minutes before driving on.
The next lake, Pukaki, is even larger than Tekapo, is equally as blue but has a greater claim to fame for it is fed by the Tasman River which has its source in the Tasman and Hooker glaciers. And these glaciers descend from none other than Mount Cook.
From the southern end of Pukaki you can get great views of Mount Cook but only if the weather is playing ball and even though the sun had been shining from a cloudless sky Mount Cook and its attendant peaks were smothered in cloud. At this point, with 55 klms to go into Mount Cook village we picked up a dutch hitch hiker who threw her back pack into the car and told us that she was walking Te Araroa, the 3,000 klms foot path which runs the length of New Zealand. Mt Cook isn’t actually on Te Araroa but Veep was taking a side trip just to do some hiking in the national park. She was in her twenties, a vegetarian and looked as if a gust of wind would knock her over but believe me this girl had …… Well, let’s say she had masculine appendages, figurativly speaking. Her idea of a side trip was to spend a night in a hut by Tasman Glacier before ascending the 2058 mtr high Mt Wakefield via a largely unmarked route, all on her tod. I only hope she made it.
We dropped Veep off at the DOC centre to arrange her nights in mountain huts and ourselves went to the more luxurious surroundings of Aoraki Court Motel for a couple of nights. Mount Cook Village has limited options when it comes to beds for the night but we’d stayed at this motel three years ago when it was virtually brand new so we had no hesitation in booking a room before hand. Just as well, because there was barely a spare room to be had in the village.
Aoraki Court doesn’t have a view of Mt Cook, which could be a bit of a disadvantage if it weren’t for the fact that there is the most glorious view of Mt Sefton out of the patio window. You can lie in bed in the morning and watch dawn arriving on Sefton. It really is a great start to the day.
For those of us not following in Veep’s footsteps the major walk on this side of Mt Cook is the Hooker Valley track which takes you under the shadow of the great mountain and within sight of the Hooker Glacier. It’s an easy route and very, very popular but, despite the crowds, being in the midst of a range of mountains which have permanent glaciers on them is awe inspiring. The sun was by now shining down and the mountains had never looked better. There is something about Mt Cook which draws the eye, perhaps because it is your archetype pointed, snow crusted mountain.
It’s true that the glaciers of this range of mountains are retreating and are nowhere near as impressive as they must have been even 50 years ago but they are still very serious mountains and all you have to do is to let the crowds pass you by and then absorb some of the unique atmosphere of the valley. You can hear the sound of ice seracs collapsing high up on the glaciers, the ice melt rivers running milky white over the boulder strewn valley, the keening of the wind as it gusts down from on high and, yes, the sound of a thousand shutter clicks, including mine, of course. For me, I can find a calm, inner stillness when I’m surrounded by great mountains. A knowledge that, change though it does from day to day, still this valley, these mountains, even the snow of these glaciers will endure long after I am gone.
On our final evening we sat and looked in wonder as the sun set on Mount Cook. It was like that feeling you get when you’ve watched a great play or a film and the lights go down. You are left feeling as though you’ve witnessed something timeless and yet unique in its own way. For the mountain will never look just this way again, no matter how many times you return.