MOUNT COOK, NEW ZEALAND
The Road to Mount Cook
At 3,755m (12,320 ft) Mt. Cook is the highest peak in Australasia. It is located within a national park and a World Heritage Site. Of course I was going!
Having just picked up the Juicy Condo in Christchurch, this would be my first real road trip, or rather, the beginning of a multi-month road trip.
The Maori called it Aoraki (Cloud Piercer) after an ancestral deity in their mythology. The area has been and still is the focus of climbing and alpining. A trio of local climbers first summited Mt. Cook on Christmas Day 1884, being motivated by the news that a group of well known European Alpiners were coming to New Zealand to attempt the climb.
So I left Christchurch and after several hours of driving south and west I stopped at a DOC (Department of Conservation) Camp for the night. DOC Camps are generally either $6.00 per person per night or are free. The only difference seems to be that one has a flush toilet and the other has a vault toilet.
Holiday Parks, on the other hand typically run $15-$20 pppn and can be even higher in more touristed areas. Freedom camping, puling off somewhere and camping, is getting harder but sometimes possible (if you do this please don’t leave poo or trash–that’s why it has become so hard in recent years).
The next morning I entered Mackenzie Country, rolling hills, farms, and yes sheep.
Weather is unpredictable in New Zealand. It had been raining on the East Coast, but a clear day was mine. Before long, I reached the shore of Lake Tekapo.
After several days of cold and wet weather, it felt great to get into shorts and jump in the water! Along the shore there is an old stone “Church of the Good Shepherd (see additional photos at the end) and a bronze monument to the Sheep Dog which was instrumental in the settling of this area.
Back on the road and soon I came to Lake Pukaki which I would be following the rest of the way into the park.
The blazing turquoise color of Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo and other regional lakes and rivers is due to ‘rock flour’ created when the lakes bottom was scraped out by an advancing glacier (one sees this color in rivers that are primarily glacial runoff as well).
As I continued driving the 70 km length of the lake, the views remained astounding.
I checked the visitor’s center around 3:00 pm for weather and tramping information (always a good idea). A big storm was predicted for late that night and the following morning. I parked in the popular DOC Camp within the park and soon headed out on the Hooker Track for a tramp to Hooker Lake. I planned 3-4 hours, enough to return before dark. I would do the much shorter 30 minute tramp to Tasman Glacier in the rain the next morning before leaving.
For the Kiwi uninitiated, a track is a hiking trail. They are generally well marked and maintained. A tramp is a hike or a trek. New Zealand is all about tramping and I would soon discover that there are tracks everywhere. Being just past summer, I have mostly met Kiwis on holiday and not that many foreign visitors!
The track followed the river for awhile before climbing to a second swinging bridge.
Passing this memorial was a sober reminder that avalanches are the rule and not the exception in this part of the world. A couple hours later, back at camp, I actually witnessed an avalanche on Mount Cook.
As I headed back, I could see that the weather was changing.
Back at camp, I cooked a leisurely dinner of pasta and sautéed veggies. The rain did not come until several hours after I had turned in for the night. After that the wind howled and rain fell the rest of the night.
The next morning I ate and “broke camp.” A 15 minute drive down a gravel road took me to the trailhead for the Tasman Glacier Track which I did in my rain gear.
I must admit that after paddling Prince William Sound a few summers ago, I was not terribly impressed by Tasman Glacier. I soon made the 20 minute return to the warmth of Juicy.