Mt Cook & Arthurs Pass

Published: June 23rd 2010
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Early start after the windy night being rocked about in the van and straight off, back tracking 20km to Port Chalmers and heading north again. First stop - Shag Rock (or Scum Rock as we later named it). Shag rock is a small DOC wildlife reserve for bird life and seals. Huge numbers of the blubbery hulks were just laying around on the beach and on the grass for us to walk amongst but unfortunately as the weather was atrocious for yet another day, we settled for a view from the van. We had a coffee next to a small inlet that had collected a tremendous amount of sea foam. Once in the gulley, the captured white scum was blown all over the place by the strong winds, including onto the sides of our van, not dissimilar to a nightclub foam party.

Onward again we stopped at the Moraki Boulders which are a collection of huge spherical rocks with strange patterns clustered on the beach. These huge geological formations start their life buried in the adjacent mud cliffs and, as the tide (or time) slowly erodes the cliffs away, end up on the beach being battered by the waves before eventually being cracked open. A few of the boulders on the beach were cracked open to show a honeycomb centre of yellow crystals. The things are really like giant stone malteasers and seem so out of place just sitting there on the beach.

From here we headed to Omaru- a once prosperous port town in a state of decay except for some beautiful grand old buildings on the main street that were built during more prosperous times. We watched a 15 minute film in the local i-site about the history of the place (as much to warm up an dry off as anything!) which told of its rise to riches and decline. We went up to a penguin look point high up on the cliffs but without the aid of binoculars, wouldn't have been able to see anything anyway.

It was a quick lunch of instant noodles and bread before we set off inland in the direction of Mount Cook. The main road north was closed due to flooding a little beyond Omaru and all the traffic was being diverted a long distance inland before looping back to the coast but fortunately for us, it was the turn off we wanted anyway. About 50km inland our luck held out and the weather began to clear. We were starting to see snow capped mountains and a dozen huge green reservoirs that had been created in a long chain, flowing from the mountains down to the sea and providing the nation with power. Just before dark we reached a small town surrounded by mountains which had a convenient basic DOC campsite on the outskirts. We parked up near the river (although not too near after all the flooding we'd seen!) an called it a night before our onward journey the next day to see Mount Cook, NZ's highest mountain.

Thankfully the river didn't flood any further and get us whilst we slept so we were okay to head on up to Mount Cook via the small, amusingly named town of Twizel for a few supplies. The road up to Mount Cook village is a branch off of the main road running for 55km and for part of the way following a huge turquoise lake that is the result of glacial melt which has run down the valley. I asked someone later on that day as to the reason for the strange colour and apparently it is due to the crushed up rock that is present in the ice because of the glacial erosions which they call 'Rock Flour'. This runs down the rivers and collects in the lake, remaining suspended there and giving the lake its beautiful colour.

The road climbed steadily and the snow thickened until we reached Mount Cook national park where it shortly ended in a small village. The low cloud had obscured any views of the mountains and the weather was bitterly cold with the ground being thick with snow. We weighed up our options (of which there weren't many) and chose to go for a two hour walk through the snow to one of the glacier faces that was near Mount Sefton. We followed the path markings through the fresh snow, untouched except for the small tracks of rabbits that scurry between the buses. Despite the lack of any mountainous views, the walk was actually very pleasant through the snow. We reached Kea Point for a view of the glacier face where it begins to melt into a small lake and stood silently listening to the creaking of the fresh compacted snow that had fallen on the surrounding mountains and the occasional avalanche.

Retracing our steps back to the village, we had a look at the DOC visitor centre that had some interesting displays on the area and also in the Edmund Hillary Centre located in a large, expensive hotel designed to part tourists with their cash. We really wanted to see the mountains with a clear sky but it showed no sign of clearing so decided we'd stay around until the following day and try our luck. We freedom camped outside of the national park, and had a surprisingly decent night's sleep.

Fortunately for us, the following morning was beautifully clear and you could see for miles at all of the surrounding white lakes. We drove straight back up to the village and began the 3-4 hour walk to Hooker Lake/Glacier near Mount Cook. As it was still early we were the first ones on the snowy track which crossed a couple of icy rivers over creaking suspension bridges before eventually bringing us to a sign warning us that we were entering an avalanche zone. We reached the glacier lake shortly after for some fantastic views of Mount Cook set against the blue sky with barely a cloud in sight. The walk back was just as stunning as we had good views of the equally impressive Mount Sefton.

About halfway back along the track a tour group of about 50 American tourists met us coming the other way, disturbing what had been otherwise a very peaceful morning. This made us glad that we'd got up and out so early since the picture perfect valley had been a delight to trek through with only the sound of creaking ice shelves and our own footsteps in the snow.

Back at the village we treated ourselves to hot chocolates in the Mountaineer's Cafe which had a big glass windows overlooking the snowy valley, only slightly disappointed that the staff wouldn't let us charge our laptop in one of the many power outlets even after we'd forked out for expensive drinks- very miserly!

Just after midday with the sky still clear we headed back down the long road to the main highway stopping at viewpoints next to the big lake and also being amazed how much more we could see without the low cloud- possibly 50 or so snowy mountains that had been shrouded in cloud making them completely oblivious to us on the way in. It was so clear that you could even see all the way to Mount Cook from back on the main road and the previous day we'd just had no idea!

Next stop along was lake Tekapo which had seen even heavier snow fall. The crystal blue lake set amongst a pine forest with snow covered ground and sunny blue skies made it one of the prettiest views we'd seen so far. Unfortunately, the lake side parking had the dreaded no camping signs so we admired the view whilst chatting to a German girl who was also there enjoying a few glasses of wine from a freshly opened box before heading out of town. Much to our luck, the town hadn't adopted the Queenstown/Wanaka policy of plastering no camping signs for miles out of the town and we stumbled across a picnic area that was perfect for the night, even having a drinking water tap! We picked a spot near the river and camped for the night in the snowy picnic area delighted with this good fortune.

Waking the next morning we were amazed at how cold it was - bloody freezing! Not quite able to bring ourselves to getting fully out of bed, we made tea for ourselves to warm through our chilled bodies, then set about packing up. Despite the grey weather (getting used to it by now) we began the day's drive with our initial stop being the town of Geraldine. Not being put off by the coach-load of Japanese tourists that met us by the i-site, we quickly mad our way to the library for some internet and - as an added bonus - use of the public toilet that had warm water for washing. Washing long hair in a sink is an art you know :-)

Geraldine does not have much going for it but does hold one record: the world's biggest jumper (as accredited by the Guinness Book of World Records). We had to track down such a treat and were pleasantly surprised at not only the woollen wonder, but at the metallic version of the Bayeux tapestry. The owner of the shop has a passion for the subject and has spent the last 25 years of his life creating this masterpiece from metal pieces taken from sewing machine cogs and painting them ith the story - exactly as the original. Even more impressive is that he (with the designs from his daughter) had completed the story, unlike the French one where the end is missing and - how dedicated is this - is about to start compiling a similar piece on the battle of Stamford Bridge against the Vikings which is 'omitted' from the tapestry.

So impressed were we with this work we purchased a double CD from him that had tons of games and information about that period in history, a piece of work that indulges his other passion for number puzzles (several of which are hidden within his metallic marvel). While we waited for a version to be placed on Warren's mini hard-drive, we escaped to the local fish and chip shop for sustenance and afterwards stocked up on supplies before embarking on the road north-west.

A brief cup of tea at a carpark at Mount Somers and a quick photo opportunity at Rakaia Gorge (I almost missed the viewpoint!) were the only distractions between us and reaching Arthur's Pass. The pass was opened up in the late 1800s as the inhabitants of Christchurch (East coast) wanted to get in on the gold-mining action on the West coast, but the pesky mountains were proving to be a barrier to this. Even as you approach the range the snow topped peaks are really spectacular and we very much felt a warm happiness overtake us at the thought of being surrounded by such views again. As it was late we decided that we would save the bulk of the pass for the next day - to be able to really appreciate the scenery - so camped in a free DOC site next to a lovely lake that was ideally situated for our purpose.

Tuesday morning dawned dull and cold and presented us with 2 wonderful surprises: 1) Low cloud that almost touched the lake, obscuring nearly all views and 2) ice on the inside of our windows!Needless to say a warm breakfast was needed to warm both body and spirits before we even attempted to venture out onto the dismal pass. Low bearing, freezing fog/cloud accompanied us all the way to the village of Arthur's Pass, but amusingly this had frozen the tea-towel we had hung out of the window to dry in a rather strange way - like the street entertainer in York who has starched his clothes to appear as though he is being windswept!

To aid in the defrosting of our poor bodies we entered the DOC centre and whilst there watched a short film of the creation of the Pass. Rather cheesy - definitely, but interesting to see how the pass developed from people treking across, to stagecoach (hence the village), to train and eventually car. It took many years and a lot of hard work to create the 'road', but an impressive feat considering the terrain.

The helpful (if somewhat lonely) lady working there recommended a walk to 'Temple Basin' (the local ski resort) which would provide excellent views of the surrounding mountains so we set off to tackle it. Parking up we glanced up at the path we were about to follow we could not help but notice that the cloud was still hanging around and that we could not actually see the top, but not being daunted by such things we embarked on the rough 4x4 track that would eventually lead onto the path.

As we ascended, the temperature dropped. Now, considering it was pretty much freezing to begin with, this was amazing yet increasingly off-putting to the point where - when I could barely feel my fingers and toes despite them being in gloves and thick socks - we agreed that maybe returning later when less cloud and more sun (possibly) would provide better, warmer vistas.

Retreating, we instead embarked on the pass proper, stopping at Viaduct lookout to admire the modern 'detour' from the original route (hazardous for quakes and rockfall) and the gorge below. While standing on this windy outcrop we were inundated by those pesky birds, the Keas - minus the bars this time. The flew all around us and jumped all over the van - friendly! Escaping before one tried to steal any of our belongings, we wound our way along the pass to another point for a coffee. Here we were free from Keas for maybe 10 minutes before one tried to jump into the van (obviously thinking we were now on first name terms and could share our biscuits) while another wanted desperately to nibble our windscreen wiper rubber! Worse than bloody monkeys!

The remaining descent was rugged and eventually flattened out as we entered the valley, bringing and end to the spectacular side of the Pass. It does run all the way to Hokitika but, having already visited that side of the island, we declined going any further so pulled over for lunch and a spot of clothes mending.

The journey back (the way we had come) was steep and our little van struggled at points, although the fact that the clouds had disappeared and the sun now poured cheerily over the snowy mountains was enough to lift our spirits and ignore the odd car that got stuck behind us. Once again we parked up at the start of the track and this time we were successful in our efforts to reach the top. Once the vehicle track had ended and the route took hold it was a steep yet rewarding climb to a snow dappled area where ski huts were built looking out over a mountain view - excellent. We explored the 'resort' and found drifts of snow that, when stepped in, came up to our knees. Fab! However, there seemed to be a lack of any ski lift to bring punters up to the accommodation - only a 'goods' lift - we surmised that they probably had to climb up, as we had. Poor sods!

After collecting some snow in a bag to replenish our cool box supplies (why not make use of an abundant natural resource?) we clambered down the mountainside and drove back into the village for a hot beverage from the local cafe. We highly recommend the large hot chocolate from the cafe-cum-convenience store as, not only was it yummy, but looked more like a sundae with chocolate sauce don the inside of the glass! Just what we needed after a disappointing morning and a nice hike.

Purchasing some engine oil to feed our little thirsty baby, we left the village of Arthur's Pass and returned to the campsite from the previous night, since it was such a nice (if not chilly) place. As we watched the clouds beginning to reclaim the peaks we prepared a delicious dinner of pasta bolognese and relaxed knowing that we had at least seen the pass in all its glory.

In the morning - thankfully one minus the inside ice - we began our journey back to the west coast. The last stop we wanted to make on the 'pass' was at a series of boulders that were scattered over the landscape, existing in all shapes and sizes from those as small as a dog to others that towered over us like a house! Wandering through this boulder-field was great fun, although it is impressive to think about how they got there (glacial movement?). Back to the van we went, then off towards the Banks Peninsular.

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