An Aoraki Birthday

If you asked me for only one single place to visit on the South Island, I would recommend Aoraki/Mount Cook without hesitation. It has everything — flat plains/valleys, soaring mountains, impossibly blue lakes, rivers, glaciers, and forests. If you want a luxury hotel stay and do not want to do any hard hikes, there’s something for you. If you want something more middle-of-the-road and want to do some easy/short walks, there’s something for you. If you’re hardcore and want tough multi-day treks, complete with backcountry skiing or kayaking, there’s something for you too.

My last visit to Aoraki/Mount Cook was a family trip where we didn’t get the best weather. So when my 40th rolled around, I figured it might be an opportunity to go on a solo photography-only trip. I rang up my buddy Nick and we decided to make a weekend of it.

We left on Friday afternoon after work (well, Nick’s work at least). As we rounded Tekapo and arrived on the shore of Lake Pukaki, we were welcomed by stunning views of Aoraki across the bright blue water.

Lake Pukaki views

Highway 80 turns off the main road to heads into Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. And I consider this road to be a very dangerous one. Not because of the road itself, but rather because of the scenery. So stunning that you’re liable to drive off the road while gawking at the dramatic “Lord of the Rings”-esque scenery all around.

Lord of the Rings country
Don’t gawk too much at the scenery

We got to Aoraki/Mount Cook Village just in time for sunset. We quickly drove to the edge of the village from where we could get a view of Aoraki bathed in the fading light.

Fading light over Aoraki

We returned to our motel and turned in for the night. I must recommend our motel, the Aoraki Court Motel. Unlike most hotels in NZ, it is a nice modern place. Clean, large, well-lit, with modern furnishings and decor (similar to the newer/refurbished Courtyard hotels in the US). Nice comfortable beds too, which was crucial since we had an early start planned for the next morning.

The alarm went off at 4am and I must say, it was tough to get out of bed. But get out we did, and by 4:30am, we were on the trail to Hooker Lake. It was still dark out. And by dark, I mean remarkably light. Not any human lights mind you. Light from the stars. The sky was awash with stars and they gave off enough light to actually cast shadows on the ground. We had our headlamps on to make sure we didn’t stray off the track, but every now and then we turned them off to marvel at the sky. It was simply magical.

Pretty soon, we arrived at Hooker Lake. It was still dark as we looked around to find a good spot to catch sunrise.

Aoraki blue hour

While the hike had warmed us up, sitting around waiting for the sun made us realize how chilly it actually was. A occasional slight breeze made it even colder. I was very thankful for the extra fleece I’d packed in my pack.

Pretty soon though, we forgot all about the cold. Because the sun came up. It lit up the eastern face of Aoraki in a beautiful reddish glow. The light complemented the serene blue calm of Hooker Lake. Very little wind made for a mirror surface.

Sunrise

The golden hour doesn’t last long, and pretty soon the good light at the lake was gone. We packed up and started on our walk back. With the sun up, we could see more of the valley that we’d hiked up in the dark. And what a sight it was. The soft light above was beautiful, and the lack of crowds in an otherwise crowded area made for a peaceful landscape.

Trail to Aoraki
Shelter in the wilderness

By the time we returned to the village for breakfast, it felt like we’d had a full day already. But since it was still only mid-morning, we decided to head out to Tasman Lake for a quick excursion. The light was not the best, but we were treated to some big icebergs. The water looked very cool, in contrast to the hot day, with the mercury hitting the low 30’s celsius.

Tasman Lake
Tasman icebergs

We thought we were done for the day. But the good weather enticed us out for one last walk. And we picked the hardest one for our last one — Sealy Tarns. It is a steep walk — 2,200 steps straight up the hillside. And they literally are steps — a staircase built into the hillside. It was a stiff climb, but we kept climbing. The views got better as we climbed out over the valley and could see all the way to Hooker Lake. About a third of the way up though, my calf started to cramp up. I stopped and started a couple of times, but it was clear that I was not going up anymore. I was disappointed, but did not want to take the risk of seizing up even worse higher up. At least we got some nice views before turning back down.

Views on the way to Sealy Tarns

After dinner at the backpacker’s lodge, we turned in for a restful night’s sleep. We had no plans for the next day except to drive back home. Even then, the beautiful morning light made us shoot a little bit more.

Morning rays
Road to Tasman Valley

And on the way back, we just had to stop at the lavender farm.

Lavender farm off Highway 8.

So if you have time to visit only one place on the South Island, then make it Aoraki/Mount Cook. Better yet, come with more time to explore more of this stunning island.

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