We started out the first day of the New Year leaving Christchurch and driving to Mt. Cook National Park. Driving in New Zealand was kind of fun. It reminded me of when I lived in the UK in the eighties. Besides driving on the left side of the road (Singapore does too) New Zealand and Australia make extensive use of that great British invention - roundabouts (Singapore only has one roundabout that I know of - Newton Circus). Although it takes a while to get the hang of the rules, they work way better than the North American equivalent - the four way stop. It was like riding a bicycle. You never really forget. So I zoomed through all the intersections like a local. And traffic wasn't bad anywhere we went on our trip.
It's about a four hour drive to Mt. Cook. Although it was overcast in Christchurch the day before, when we left it was bright blue sky without a cloud in sight anywhere. The blue was really intense. In Singapore we don't get that deep blue color in the sky. I think that because of the high humidity there is always just a little bit of a haze. We stopped after about three hours fo driving at Lake Tekabo. This is the first resort community that you reach driving from Christchurch and which is situated right on the shore of Lake Tekapo (duh!). The hills around were dry but there were flowers all around the lake and the water was a really pretty milky green color that is common in the Southern Lakes district because the lakes are all fed by glacier runoff. If you have ever seen a lake fed by glacier melt, you know exactly what color I mean. We had lunch sitting by a window with a beautiful view of the lake.
Then it was on to Mt. Cook itself. Approaching from the east you can see Mt. Cook (12,316 ft) from quite a ways off. It's a big mountain. During the last half hour of the approach the road winds along the shore of Lake Pukaki. It is also a beautiful milky green/blue color which makes for pretty views. We finally got to the park about two in the afternoon.
There isn't much in or near the park. At the end of the road is The Hermitage, an old lodge but which now consists of a high rise hotel that is kind of out of place with the settings. It is also very pricey, so we opted for a few chalets that they had right below the main hotel. These were individual, A-frame units with corrugated roofs, but they were quite nice inside. That is about all there is except for a primitive campground about a half mile down the road. There were only two places to eat as well. The hotel featured an expensive restaurant (we passed) and a really lousy cafeteria (pass again). But there was a small pub next to the hotel called the Old Mountaineer that had ok food where we ate for our two days in the park. I tried to convince them that since I WAS an Old Mountaineer I should get a free beer, but it didn't work. They suggested that I might have better luck at the Old Fart Pub down the road.
Since the weather was good we didn't want to waste any time. After getting into our room and dropping off our luggage, we grabbed our packs and headed for the trail. We drove about a mile on dirt road from The Hermitage and started up the Hooker Valley trail. The view of the South Face of Mt. Cook from The Hermitage is world famous. Just as the north face of mountains in North America, Europe and Asia is always the steep side, in the Southern Hemisphere it's the south faces of mountains that are spectacular. (I wonder what North Face, the mountaineering equipment manufacturer from California, calls their subsidiary in Australia?) As you hike up the Hooker Valley at first your view of Mt. Cook is blocked by a low intervening hill. But you are walking right toward the east face of Mt. Sefton (10,359 ft) , which is one huge wall of hanging glaciers. Spectacular. Then finally you turn the corner into the upper Hooker Valley and the whole south face of Mt. Cook is right in front of you - 8000 feet high. We didn't go quite all the way to the end of the trail because of time constraints. It stayed light really late, but we wanted to be back when the restaurant started serving dinner to make sure we got a table. We have our priorities. Besides the incredible views, the trail was interesting too. It crossed two airy suspension bridges across the Hooker River, which is an incredible torrent of white water. But you didn't really have to worry about trying to swim if you fell in. As Butch Cassidy said to the Sundance Kid in the movie "Hell, the fall will probably kill you!" There were some handrailed sections along a cliff face along the river too. The trail also passed a memorial to climbers killed in the park that was in a very beautiful setting.
The next day we hiked to Sealy Tarns. This is not so much a maintained trail as a track worn by hikers and climbers going up to the Mueller Hut to climb. Twenty five years before when I was in New Zealand, my climbing partner Brian and I had hauled full packs up to the Mueller Hut and stayed there overnight before climbing Mt. Sealy (8,651 ft) the next day. I remember it being very steep and very hard work. Well, my memory was pretty accurate. Fortunately this time we only intended to hike up to Sealy Tarns, a couple of small ponds perched on a shelf on the ridge, which is about half way to the Mueller Hut. And this time I wasn't carrying a full overnight pack with climbing gear. But somehow in the intervening 25 years I had picked up most of the extra weight myself, so it was about a wash. It was well worth it though as the view from the tarns was incredible. We ate our lunch there and enjoyed the view.
That afternoon we read in the paper that a mountaineering guide had been killed on Mt. Cook the day before. He and his client were both very experienced and the weather was good. But he was near the summit rocks leading across a snow slab when it broke off and he fell 60 meters. Fortunately the anchor held and his partner wasn't pulled off as well. He was 54 (same age as me) and making his 29th climb of Mt. Cook. The mountaineering community was in shock, but sometimes things just happen in the mountains, as in life.
We had enjoyed perfect weather so far in the park, but it was supposed to turn for the worse overnight - cloudy, rainy and gale force winds. Sure enough, that night the wind was really howling. Sometimes it seemed like it was going to lift our little chalet right up and blow it away. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in a small climbing hut overnight perched on a ledge high in the mountains. It would have been even worse in a tent. Sandy was tired the next morning because the noise of the wind had kept her up much of the night. Me, I can sleep through anything. It was overcast, a little rainy, and still blowing hard. When we went to the main entrance to The Hermitage, they had literally barred all of the glass doors in the front closed because of the wind. We had to go around to a small side door. They obviously have serious weather there. So the timing was good. We had our breakfast and bought some tshirts and souvenirs. We also looked briefly at the brand new Hillary Alpine Museum that had just opened up that week at the Hermitage. Edmund Hillary, one of the first party to climb Mt. Everest, was a New Zealander. But they wanted quite a bit of money to go through the museum (as they wanted for everything) so we contented ourselves with peeking through the windows.
We had done some great hikes and now we were ready to leave and move on to our next stop, Lake Wanaka.