Magnificent Mount Cook

Our blog’s been at a standstill waiting for this post. Barry’s pondered intensely, choosing his selection from over 700 photos, then edited and put them into his spectacular slide show. If you’d rather not read about our Aoraki/Mount Cook exploits, scroll to the end. Then gaze in awe at the images Barry’s picked for you.

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You’re Rubbish Twizel

We stayed overnight once again at the fabulous free campground above Lake Pukaki on Monday 26th of April. Blimey, over nine weeks ago now! The hoped-for weather window was predicted for Wednesday 28th April. So we set off through Twizel, as we needed to empty our black and grey water and fill up with fresh water.

We also hoped to get rid of some rubbish in Twizel. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. We weren’t impressed by their ridiculous signage and lack of facilities. Mackenzie District Council certainly don’t want visitors to give them any rubbish! “Too Good To Waste” indeed. Isn’t it ironic? They’re far more likely to find waste when they don’t provide a means for tourists to dispose of their rubbish. How narrowminded can you be? “Take your rubbish with you” – to where? We were frankly shocked. Having visited a range of areas, this was the worst at welcoming tourists.

Tapataia Mahaka – Peter’s Lookout

We’d previously seen Aoraki/Mount Cook from the western side as we approached Franz Josef township in February. We thought it was Mount Cook but later discovered it was the second-highest mountain in NZ, Mount Tasman, which sits comfortably alongside. However, we did get glimpses of this magnificent mountain then and decided to make time to see him closer.

Driving the almost 70 km from Twizel to Mount Cook Village, you’re blessed by stunning views of Mount Cook from the road. It’s akin to the images you see on calendars and postcards. Barry found it incredibly challenging to watch the road rather than the scenery! We were compelled to stop at Tapataia Mahaka to stand still and gaze in wonder.

The sun was starting to set by the time we approached. The fading dusk colour palette blew us away. Barry’s pictures make it look as though Mount Cook was on fire.

Sunset At White Horse Campsite

Our destination was the DOC White Horse Hill campsite for two nights, costing $40. There’s a large kitchen and seating area, plus ladies and gents loos. However, like all DOC huts, there’s absolutely no lighting. We can’t comprehend why DOC can’t move forward and add some form of solar/LED lighting to these places. It seems very archaic.

An overview of where we stayed for two nights

This campsite is the nearest to the 10km return Hooker Valley Track, our destination the following morning. It’s said you don’t see the mountain two days out of three, so it’s a long walk for no view! Hence our planning around the weather, as the Aoraki/Mount Cook region experiences swift changes; we hoped the predicted forecast was correct.

It was freezing that night, with a clear sky and full moon. And breathtakingly beautiful. Again, Barry captured the campsite wonderfully. I managed to snap a 22° halo which is a ring with an apparent radius of approximately 22° around the Sun or Moon. We were certainly glad of the gas heater and hot water bottle overnight!

Walking The Hooker Valley Track

The next morning, Wednesday 28th April, our set alarm went off at 6.25 am. We intended to get to Mount Cook for sunrise. The track was engulfed by a ground frost, causing pretty frozen puddles from the recent heavy rainfall. We left the campervan by 7.11 am, with a packed breakfast, picnic lunch and hot drink.

Despite our best intentions, it took over an hour before Mount Cook was in view. By which time we’d missed the best colours of the early morning light. However, we saw the crimson reflections on the Southern Alps, from the Mueller Lookout point and beyond. On the way back, we heard the rumbling of avalanches from the distant Mount Sefton.

Incredibly, there’s even a long drop loo halfway at Stocking Stream to cater for the 300,000 or so walkers who visit each year! A marvellous idea, as there’s no way I could’ve lasted there and back without a pee! I was thankful there was loo paper too. The following day I watched a DOC warden walk the start of the track with a couple of large rolls to fill it up.

Mount Cook resides in the Te Wāhipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Area of the South Island – and rightly so. The area is breathtakingly beautiful. It felt as though we were walking in a kind of fantasy dream-world. You know the type where you have to pinch yourself to be sure you are awake?

Along the ‘easy’ walk are three massive swing bridges. From the first one, the views over Mueller Lake are impressive. The second swingbridge was severely damaged during a storm in March 2019. It’s now closed during winds above 80 k/hr and significant flood events. There’s also erosion on both sides of the bridge, which affects its structural integrity during high winds. Thankfully engineers have determined the bridge is completely safe when not affected by strong winds and flood events. We were so right to wait for fair weather!

Swingbridges had been one of my nemesis for many years – until I started walking in New Zealand. It’s impossible to avoid them if you want to experience New Zealand outdoors. The second swingbridge almost stopped me in my tracks. I took a video as a kind of psycho prophylaxis strategy – a technique used in childbirth to distract your mind from pain!

Frozen Flora and Magnificence

All along the way the flora and fauna were frozen. Our walking was delayed somewhat due to us both frequently stopping to take photos. I believe two of the photos below are Celmisia Coriasia (Fiordland Mountain Daisy). It’s a genus of perennial herbs or subshrubs, in the sunflower family. 

About 45 minutes into the walk Mount Cook suddenly appeared in the distance. Wow!

Mount Cook is a permanently snow-clad mountain; the highest peak in Australasia at 3,724m. Barry vividly recalled how a massive landslide in 1991 shaved 10 metres off its height. Fascinatingly it’s surrounded by another 19 (or 22 depending on the information source!) peaks exceeding elevations of 3,000 metres. In 1642 when the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman sighted the mountain, it was known as Aoraki (also spelt Aorangi; from the Maori for “cloud piercer”). In 1851, as was the case with many NZ landmarks and places, Captain James Cook influenced the current name.

Out Of This World

At 9 am, we turned a corner to face the glacier lake and huge icebergs. Luckily there was no one else around by then. I won’t document the profanity I declared loudly on seeing such an out-of-this-world sight.

We walked down to the banks of the lake. It felt like being on the set of the Frozen movies! Unreal. For a short while, we were the only people there. It was eerily silent apart from the creaking icebergs and rushing water. At the lake end, water rushed down the valley we’d just walked along, running swiftly under the swing bridges. It was unbelievable how much water was pouring out, just from the mountain. The Hooker Glacier (11km long) towered in the distance. One big drop from there could cause a tidal wave as massive icebergs crash into the lake. This is only one of the glaciers that trail off from the mountain. We visited Tasman Glacier (23.5km long) the following day.

Like many of the glaciers in the Southern Alps, Hooker Glacier is rapidly melting. The current glacier lake only started to form in the 1970s, left behind as Hooker Glacier retreated. The glacier lake is projected to grow even larger as the terminus retreats until it reaches the glacier bed about 4 km upstream from the current terminus. So don’t delay. Make visiting this place a priority on your itinerary if you’re ever fortunate enough to travel the South Island.

At the lake edge, finger-like icicles had formed. Maybe Elsa was watching us somewhere nearby singing “Let it go”.

Time To Stop And Stare

As we wandered and watched, dozens of others arrived, took a couple of photos, and walked away. Blimey, we couldn’t believe how unimpressed they must be to linger so briefly! I guess few people have the luxury of a laid-back itinerary like us. We lingered from 9 am to 1 pm! We wanted to wait and see if the mountain’s peak would appear. Our patience was rewarded with the whole shebang! Oh my goodness. It was phenomenal – to pinch the word used by a friendly young woman from the Gold Coast we met, who’d come to NZ for a week. Three of those days were spent in this area. She’d never seen snow before arriving at Mount Cook Village the night before.

She took some photos for us …

Getting Closer

Barry walked around the side of the lake to get closer shots of the mountain, while I sat and watched the clouds clear.

We were both entranced by the scenes surrounding us. It was a challenge to leave. Before we did, we walked higher to get a different perspective. We were close to the Ball Pass Crossing – an unmarked two-to-three-day alpine route, crossing the Mount Cook Range between the Hooker and Tasman Valleys. Not for the faint-hearted!

Sadness On The Return

Reluctantly we eventually left to walk back to the campsite. I’d had the foresight to pack us a picnic, so we had plenty of gusto for the gently undulating track. By then many folks were walking. A few with young children who were struggling to muster up enough enthusiasm to keep going. Hopefully, I encouraged a few when I told them they’d find what looked like the set of ‘Frozen’ at the end.

We took the path up the memorial towards the end of the track. Plaques of all shapes and sizes can be read to those who’ve died on the mountain. More than one of them reached the peak and then fell off! Most were in their early twenties. We decided we’d far rather gaze from afar; thank you. You’ll see photos of the memorial in Barry’s slideshow.

We recently watched the 2015 film ‘Everest’, about the NZ guide Rob Hall who died in 1996 (along with another seven climbers) trying to help a man descend when an adverse weather window stormed in. It was heartbreaking. His mountaineering wife didn’t accompany him and his company ‘Adventure Consultants‘ on the expedition as she was heavily pregnant. His daughter, Sarah, is now grown up. Rob Hall had previously led an incredible 39 people to the summit of Mount Everest.

Freda’s Rock and The Hermitage

What an astounding day we had, one to treasure forever.

The next day, Thursday 29th April, I re-walked the first part of Hooker Valley Track. I could just glimpse Mount Cook from there, with a top cloud cap on. We’d previously missed the path to Freda’s rock – the first woman to climb Mount Cook in 1910.

It’s difficult to believe nowadays, but

“… social norms of propriety at the time did not look kindly on an overnight climbing expedition composed solely of an unmarried woman and a male guide. Thus, a chaperone was enlisted, and Du Faur committed to wearing a skirt to just below the knee over knickerbockers and long puttees while she climbed. Still, she received criticism from both males and females for her choices in athleticism and dress. After her climb to the summit of Mount Cook in 1910, she’s quoted as stating: “I was the first unmarried woman to climb in New Zealand, and in consequence I received all the hard knocks until one day when I awoke more or less famous in the mountaineering world, after which I could and did do exactly as seemed to me best”

Good on you Freda!

There’s a devastating end to the tale of Freda unfortunately. Despite making inroads into society’s revolting judgements while climbing Mount Everest, at the beginning of the twentieth century her sexuality led to her untimely lonely death. People can be so cruel.

“In June 1929, Cadogan (Freda’s partner)committed suicide after her family forcefully separated her from Du Faur. Du Faur returned to Australia where she lived in Dee Why, Sydney. At first, she lived with her brother’s family. Later, she lived in a cottage of her own. Her main interest was bush walking in Dee Why and Collaroy. She suffered from depression at the loss of Cadogan, and on 13 September 1935, she fatally poisoned herself with carbon monoxide.”

I was reassured to read that despite being buried in an unmarked grave, in 2006 a group of New Zealanders honoured her memory and marked her grave with New Zealand greywacke. A plaque commemorating her alpine achievements was placed at the gravesite. There are some decent humans around thank goodness.

Stocking Up And Hermitage History

Leaving the track, I spotted a DOC ranger taking loo rolls to the long drop! What a great job that would be, to experience that beauty each day.

I also found a plaque commemorating the site of the original Hermitage Hotel which was destroyed by a flood in 1913 while the new hotel was under construction.

In the next post, I’ll reveal more about the Hermitage and its hold on the area. More examples of the dark side of human judgement and unfairness …

We’d been recommended to walk the steep Red Tarns Track for panoramic views (a 300 m height gain). Or to Kea Point culminating in a viewing deck for stunning views of Mount Sefton, The Footstool, Hooker valley, Mueller Glacier Lake and Aoraki/Mount Cook. We decided nothing could surpass our Hooker Valley Track experience – plus, they both sounded far too vigorous!

We’d hoped to see Keas (the beautiful, intelligent, playful NZ alpine parrot) at the campground. Our friends Dot and Mary had done in February. Sadly we saw none anywhere during our visit. Hopefully, we were just unlucky, and they’re still thriving around The Southern Alps region.

The White Horse Hill campground is the start of the 315km Alps to Ocean Cycle Track which we’d been more or less inadvertently following for a while. Supposedly suitable for all ages, the nine section cycle trail is an easy to intermediate grade, linking the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean. I’d love to experience it one day in the future.

This otherworldly astounding area was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our South Island adventures.

Barry’s Slideshow

Here’s the shots Barry chose from over 700 for your delight and delectation. As usual, click on the first image to begin to be blown away by beauty and brilliance …

4 thoughts on “Magnificent Mount Cook

  1. Pingback: Our Top Ten Favourite South Island Destinations ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

  2. Pingback: Mount Cook Village, Tasman Glacier And Back To Lake Pukaki ~ Barry & Sandra's Adventures

    • The photos reflect the out of world nature of the scenes Linda. Make sure you step off the most popular tourist trails as there’s so many amazing things to see. But Mount Cook is a must. Definitely look for the clearest weather and get up early. As once tourists are let back in here it will be completely crazy! Fingers crossed for you that they will be by 18 months time …

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