From Christchurch we headed West for our only inland destination on the South Island: Mt Cook National Park (Aoraki in Maori), the highest peak in NZ. Getting there is an expedition: a full day’s drive from Christchurch, the nearest big city, or you would have to fly from any location along the West Coast, which is geographically close, because there are no roads across the Southern Alps.
After taking in the sunset views along massive Lake Tekapo, we passed through a nearby National Park which featured the best Dark Skies in New-Zealand. Looking back, we should probably have stopped over there as this is one of the best locations in NZ for sighting of Aurora Australis, and it was the start of the season for that. Chances are slim, but a true dark sky helps alot and further South, it is difficult to get far enough from city lights and cloud cover. We had our own share of clouds driving into dusk, creating a dramatic landscape against fields of yellow and gold.
We stopped over for the night at the last free camp before Mt Cook National Park, and a very nice one at that, just beside a river.
The next day we were greeted by a perfectly blue sky, so we left early to get to the National Park by midday.
We stopped for a brief walk up to Tasman Lake and Glacier viewpoint, on the way to Mt Cook village. This was obviously the wrong time of year for glacier viewing, as all we could see was a pile of rocks and sand in the distance, disappearing into a shallow muddy stretch of water. It was actually kind of sad to see such a once mighty, but now, rapidly-receeding glacier (at a rate of half a km per year), due to the effects of man-made global warming. We returned via a dirt track, passing 2 smaller lakes, blueish-green from rainwater and algae.
We checked the van into tonight’s paid campsite near Mt Cook Village. We had lunch there, admiring the majectic snow-capped mountain ranges from below, giving us a sense of space that easily overcame the slightly over-crowded feel of the site. From there we accessed the Hooker Valley track on foot.
It’s an easy walk through low shrubs and colourful bush, along boardwalks passing over swampy grassland and across swingbridges crossing milky-grey river rapids. The finale was Hooker Lake, mirky from glacier water highly concentrated in sendiments, with a lone dirty iceberg bobbing in the middle. The views on waterfalls and high peaks, including the iconic, perfectly pointy Mt Cook, are spectacular throughout.
The return was just as enjoyable, although a brooding storm was clearly in the process of settling in for the night. We also passed the memorial honouring all the mountain climbers who perished over centuries of exploration in this treacherous area. Just enough time to prepare and eat dinner (chilli con carne and tortillas), in the company of cute wild rabbits and the very popular but cheeky Kea birds, indigeneous to NZ, and we took shelter in the van for the night.
We had planned a big hike the next day (Mt Wakefield), but we woke to thick fog all the way down the mountain. We had to move on unfortunately, so left for our next destination, Dunedin, without further exploration of this beautiful Park.