Mt. Cook


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Published: February 25th 2014
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Mt. Cook Road Trip


Almost four months of living in New Zealand and I still haven't been to the South Island. Hell, I can see it from Wellington. So close yet so far. Good thing Nimarta and I have booked an Air New Zealand grab-a-seat deal to Christchurch for the Wellington Anniversary weekend in January. Flight to Christchurch on a holiday weekend for $98 round trip. Yes, please! I don't even have to leave work early, since the flight is 6:45 from Wellington. We are trying something new today. The bus from the city to the airport takes a while and costs $9 each way and parking at the airport is highway robbery. So we are going to park in a neighborhood near the airport and walk to the airport. Brilliant, right?

Actually, it is brilliant. We find a road near Crawford Green park with no parking rules. Open parking to all. Perfect. We park in front of a random house and get out of the car. The owner of the house comes out. At first I think "oh crap she's gonna yell at us and tell us to move" but I'm pleasantly surprised by her words. She asks us where we're going, totally aware that we are parking in front of her house to go to the airport. We say we're flying to Christchurch for the long weekend and she wishes us a good trip. How awesome is that!? We'll be parking in front of her house again, that's for sure.

The walk to the airport is about a kilometer. Totally worth the free parking. Check in is a breeze, as it always is at the Wellington airport, and our flight leaves on time. It's a quick flight over to Christchurch, less than 45 minutes in the air. When we land the tell us the weather. 15 degrees. That's like 59 degrees Fahrenheit. It's the middle of summer for Christ's sake! Good thing we came prepared for a weekend in the mountains and have clothes for this uncharacteristically cold weather. We hop off the plane and pick up our rental car in no time at all. Soon we're in downtown Christchurch, the gateway to the South Island.

If the name Christchurch sounds familiar to you that's probably because it was in the news quite a bit back in 2010 and 2011. Christchurch was hit by two large earthquakes that devastated the city, especially the city center. 185 people were killed and many buildings were damaged or collapsed. You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Christchurch_earthquake. The Christchurch earthquakes are one of the main reasons I'm living in New Zealand now. I came down here to fill a need for structural engineers. I work mostly with local buildings in Wellington, a much more seismically active zone than Christchurch, but have helped out on a few old and new buildings in Christchurch as well. As a result of the Christchurch earthquakes, almost all buildings in seismic zones in New Zealand are being assessed for seismic strength.

It's January of 2014 so it's been just about three years since the second of the two major earthquakes down here. A lot has happened in three years. Damaged buildings have been torn down. The government has approved a plan to rebuild the city, called the Christchurch Rebuild (http://www.rebuildchristchurch.co.nz/), and new buildings are starting to be designed. Christchurch currently has more downtown parking lots than probably any other city in the world. That means cheap parking! Most of downtown was actually blocked off for the last three years and has just reopened. We are staying at the downtown Ibis Hotel, which itself has just been reopened after being seismically upgraded.

The parking lots near the hotel are $2 but we find a free spot on the street so that will do. There is a new building going up a few blocks down the road, and a few old buildings that are closed and empty. Right across the street is Container City, a city block full of shipping containers that were turned into shops, cafes, and bars as a temporary way to bring some industry to downtown. I definitely want to check this out while I am here but it closes at 5 so we will have to go tomorrow. We check in to our room and go up to the sixth floor. From here we see our proximity to the historic Christchurch Cathedral, that was badly damaged during the earthquakes. It's right next to us. This blows Nimarta's mind. She hasn't been here since before the earthquakes and had no idea we were right at the Cathedral. Everything looks so different, she tells me. She doesn't even recognize the city.

From our room I can see a building I assessed on Colombo Street. It's one ugly building that really should be torn down purely from an aesthetic point of view, but it is strong and not in need of major upgrades, hence why it survived the earthquakes with no visible damage. I'll have to go walk by it later. But now we need to get some dinner. Christchurch isn't somewhere you can just walk around and find a restaurant anymore. One day it will be again, but for now we have to get in the car and head away from downtown. We don't go far, only to Victoria Street, where we see a couple restaurants and bars. By the time we park and check out the first restaurant it's almost 9:00. It's a bit fancy and pricey so we walk down the street trying to find something else. Many buildings are empty, but this was to be expected. There is a Mexican restaurant and a Spanish restaurant but they are both jam packed with people, most drinking at this hour. We are about to go back to the expensive place when we notice a souvlaki stand at one of the bars. Nimarta has talked about Christchurch souvlaki stands and is desperate to try one. At this point I'm starving so it's fine by me. We order souvlakis and sit at the bar to wait, and drink beer of course.

I've heard of this bar we are at. It's one of the new ones that popped up after the earthquakes. It's mostly outdoors, with only a small indoor portion. Normally this would be great on a summer night, but it has dipped down to 13 degrees (55 Fahrenheit) and it's so windy the heaters are struggling to stay on. This is summer, I think to myself. Our souvlakis arrive and we chow down. They aren't very good. Must have been better before the earthquakes. We head to another bar where we get to sit inside an old city bus and drink. I try some local Christchurch microbrews, $12 a pop, and we call it a night. Back downtown, the wind has picked up. Where am I? Wellington?

We get up relatively early Saturday morning so we can check out Container City before venturing off on our road trip. We go to a little cafe and get an excellent breakfast. There's a certain charm about Container City. I hope it stays around when the city is rebuilt. Our destination for tonight is Mt. Cook National Park, home of Mr. Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain, southwest of Christchurch by about 150 miles. But first we want to drive over to Arthur's Pass National Park, not exactly on the way, but not horribly out of the way either. We head west on Highway 73 and the Southern Alps come into view. This is the largest mountain range in New Zealand, spanning almost the entire west coast of the South Island.

After passing through some small towns we start climbing up into the mountains. It's hard to see exactly where the road leads but we are definitely headed up. The mountains here are rocky and barren, not a lot of trees to be seen. Some of the peaks are covered in snow, even a month into summer. Eventually we reach Arthur's Pass National Park. There are more trees here and it's much greener. There are not a whole lot of sites to see though. We stop at the visitors center for a few minutes and get some lunch. We don't have enough time to get out on any hikes here so this was more of a journey just for the beautiful drive. Time to head down south to Mt. Cook!

If there was a direct route to Mt. Cook we would be there pretty soon. But we have to head back east in order to go south and eventually back west. We take the Highway 72 cut-through and pass a few small towns as we head south. There is not a lot out here though. It's different than the North Island, where you're always passing rolling green hills. Here, we are on the Canterbury Plains. The Southern Alps are to the west, but for now there are no hills. It makes the drive quicker though. We stop for more food in around Geraldine and before we know it we're at Lake Tekapo, a small tourist hub on a giant blue lake. We park and walk down to the lake. It's a popular spot to take pictures, though, so we are not alone. We are not here long before we get back on the road. Mt. Cook is not too much further.

By the time we hit the edge of Lake Pukati, Mt. Cook is not visible. On a clear day I know you can see it from here. But it's cloudy today; you know my luck. The road to Mt. Cook follows the edge of the lake for about 20 miles as we approach the park. There are not a lot of cars on this road. It's a dead end. If you're not going to Mt. Cook Village you're going the wrong way. It's so empty out here that we even stop on the side of the road to take some pictures of each other sitting and jumping on the road in front of the jagged mountains. We still can't see Mt. Cook but its neighboring mountains are rocky and glacierized, so there are still beautiful views.

We roll into our campsite at about 7:30. The sun will be up for about another two hours, but it's pretty dreary out so it's starting to get a little dark. There is only one campground at the park and it's open camping. By this I mean it's not like a US national park where they have designated spots for campsites and you find an open spot and take it. Here at Mt. Cook the campground is just a parking lot with some grass. Set up
First Site of Mt. CookFirst Site of Mt. CookFirst Site of Mt. Cook

Very cloudy first day, can't quite see the top
your tent anywhere you want. There are no designated spots, which mean there is also probably no maximum number of people that can use the campsite. The ranger tells us it's going to be windy tonight, up to 100 kmh, so she recommends we get as close to the bottom of the hill as we can. We find a spot near the bathrooms in between a bush and the hill and set up the tent. Setting up Nimarta's fancy tent takes us about 30 minutes, since it's confusing as hell. I miss my $20 Walmart tent. 5 minutes tops! After jamming the pegs into the ground we find as many big rocks as we can and place them on the rain tarp. Don't want that thing flying away tonight.

By this point we are in need of dinner so we head into the village to check out the restaurants at the Hermitage Hotel (http://www.hermitage.co.nz/). There is a fancy restaurant and a more laid back cafe, but the cafe closes at 6:00 so at this time our only option is the fancy restaurant. The menu is what we were expecting: mains from about $30-$40. They also have a large buffet that everyone seems to be eating from. This buffet looks amazing so we inquire about it. $62.50, we are told. Damn, there's a good hole in the wallet. It sure does look good though.... There is one other restaurant in Mt. Cook Village that will be open at this time, over at the lodge down the street. We decide to go check it out and see how it compares. It's definitely a more laid back setting, but the cheapest thing on the menu is a burger for $24. Meals are $29 and over. If I'm gonna spend $30 on a meal might as well spend $60 on unlimited meals. We decide to be baller and do the buffet. Back to the Hermitage we go.

We get a seat right by the window that faces Mt. Cook. We would have a beautiful view of the light fading on the mountain right now, but the skies are grey and gloomy. That leaves us plenty of attention to focus on the food. There is a sprawling salad bar, multiple cuts of meat and more salmon than you can shake a stick at. Hot salmon, cold salmon, smoked salmon (there's shrimp stew, barbecue shrimp, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp). Hopefully you got that reference. I fill my plate with all the types of salmon I can find and devour at least $60 worth of the pink fish in one sitting. And this is real salmon too, not that Atlantic salmon crap. New Zealand salmon is comparable to sockeye, the real deal. It's no Vegas buffet but they have different ethnic foods, and nice cuts of meat. The desert table is huge and like in Vegas I decide I need to try one of everything. By 9:30 we are stuffed. Had to get our $62.50 worth!

After dinner we relax at the hermitage bar for a while before venturing back to our campsite. The wind is really starting to pick up now. We could be in for a long night. we settle into the tent and try to go to sleep, which doesn't come for a few hours for me. Even then, I wake up constantly throughout the night to the sound of swirling wind. Living in Wellington, loud winds in the middle of the night is something I am familiar with. That still doesn't mean I can sleep in it though. Nimarta does a slightly better job of sleeping than I do but come morning we are both pretty groggy. The site of low hanging clouds and fog we are greeted with when we exit the tent doesn't increase our mood either. Looks like it's not going to be a very nice day.

For a National Park, there aren't a whole lot of hiking trails in Mt. Cook. The main one takes you to the edge of a small lake at the foot of Mt. Cook. This is the most popular trail in the park (there are only a few others) and that is what we plan to do this morning. It's cloudy and foggy, but not raining, so we think we should be fine. Then we feel the wind. Apparently the 100 kmh gusts from the night before have not stopped. Well this should be interesting. We hop on the trail ahead of a big group of Japanese tourists (seriously, they are everywhere, do Japanese people ever work?). I've got a backpack with some water and food, but it's only like a 3 mile hike each way, mostly flat, so we don't even really need it. The wind blows strong as we start the trail. Damn that's cold!

The wind is the biggest struggle on this hike. If you've never been in 65 mile per hour winds before it can be quite a nuisance. You feel like you're going to be blown over at any minute, though it's probably not going to happen. There are multiple narrow dangling suspension bridges over the rivers that we have to cross. On a normal day these things swing under the weight of the trekkers. But today they are swinging on their own in the wind. Crossing the first bridge is a wild experience. I make damn sure to hold on to the railings.

About a mile into the hike we get our first view of Mt. Cook. The skies are grey and dreary but we can actually see the mountain, though maybe not the top. I'm not quite sure what the top of the mountain looks like so it's tough to tell. It looks mystical with the grey sky and smearing clouds. I'd prefer a clear blue sky but at least we can see the mountain. We continue on as the wind picks up. During a gust I basically have to stop and just hold on. I would not make a good hurricane weather reporter.

Eventually we reach the end of the trail. We are standing at the edge of a small lake full of little icebergs. It reminds me of the iceberg filled lake I hiked to in Glacier National Park in Montana last year. But unfortunately it is not a clear blue color like that one. The sediments from the mountain have stained the lake a light brown. It looks like the water at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Some of the icebergs are still white though. We were planning on having some lunch down here, but good god the wind is crazy. It's stepped up another level down by the lake. It's really starting to get cold too. I really wish I would have brought pants. My shorts are not keeping my legs warm. As much as I want to stay and enjoy the mountain I can't take the piercing wind. We've got to go! We take some additional pictures and get back on the trail.

We try to walk fast on the way back. The clouds have lowered now and there is really nothing to see. It looks like it's going to rain. Sure enough, about 30 minutes from the campsite it starts to rain. 100 kmh winds + rain = sideways rain. It might be the middle of summer but damn that rain is cold! I've got my rain jacket but my legs are exposed. We still pass brave souls heading on towards the lake. Gonna be a nasty hike for them. The rain is starting to pick up so I tell Nimarta we need to pick up the pace. I really don't like rain. Some people love it. Not me. I loved living in Vegas where it hardly ever rains. Seattle is not my place. We are moving fast now but the rain is pouring down. Finally we reach the car in a steady downpour. Nimarta checks the tent and I jump into the passenger seat of the car to change.

Everything is soaked so I have to empty out the backpack and set everything up in the car to dry out. Satisfied that the tent isn't going anywhere, Nimarta jumps in the car. She's worried about the stuff inside the tent but I tell her that the rain cover is going to hold and everything will be fine. At this point we have a two options: either lay in the tent and listen to the rain or go to the Hermitage and watch the rain. We choose the luxury of the hotel.

The cafe is open at 1:00 so we get ourselves some lunch. It's actually pretty cheap, which is nice after our $62.50 dinner last night. We claim a table by the window upstairs and stare at the downpour outside. None of the mountains are visible now. It's just a grey fog. Good thing we started the hike when we did - I feel bad for those people still out there. It's absolutely pouring.

The rain doesn't stop. The afternoon turns into evening and we drink a bottle of wine we bought in Christchurch as the skies darken from grey to black. In an incredible coincidence we run into a French guy we had met at a bar in Wellington almost two months ago at the Hermitage. He has been traveling around the country for the last two months and has experienced rain like this more often than not. Apparently it has been a terrible summer on the South Island. He doesn't have any particular schedule though, so he just sits in his van and sleeps the rest of the night. We have to head back to Christchurch tomorrow to catch our flight home. We can only hope this rain passes overnight.

By 10:00 the rain has slowed down to a drizzle. The worst is gone. We have spent the entire afternoon indoors at the hotel as inch after inch of rain fell from the sky. Not the ideal way to spend your time at Mt. Cook National Park. But you can't argue with mother nature. Back at the tent, we are pleased to see that no water has leaked into the tent and the rain tarp has held strong. Our things are dry and we pass out for the night, in hope of better weather tomorrow.

On Monday morning we are greeted by a site that seemed impossible yesterday: a clear blue sky. The sun is shining down on the tent and I have to adjust my eyes. Time to get up! We don't have much time today before we have to get back on the road. We pack up the tent and shove it in the car. As much as I want to see the other side of the park we decide that we have to do the same trail again today to see the mountain clearly. I decide not to bring my backpack this time as it is not a difficult trail and I won't need any water till we're done. There is no wind at all today. It is the complete opposite of yesterday in every way. It's beautiful this morning!

We start the trail at a good pace, knowing that we don't have much time. The bridges are less treacherous today and I decide to run across them for fun. The first view of Mt. Cook today is amazing. It's jagged snow capped peak clear today in a light blue sky. While it might be only 12,218 feet in elevation, small by most standards, it is not a mountain you can just hike up. It's steep as hell, covered in ice, snow, and crevasses. Edmond Hillary trained here in preparation for his ascent of Mt. Everest back in the 1950s. It's a dangerous mountain, and unless you're a serious mountain climber you are not getting to the top. We are happy just to be at it's base.

We arrive at the lake with time to spare so we can sit and enjoy the views for a while. And it's one hell of a view. It's so peaceful today. There are a few other people here, but it's quiet enough. Might as well just be us and the mountains. When we are satisfied we head back at a slight jog. We still want to drive over to another quick trail that will show us the Tasman Glacier, New Zealand's longest glacier. It's just on the other side of one of these mountains. We reach the car by 11 and head down a dirt road to the Tasman Glacier trail. It's only about a half mile to the glacier view, but it's straight up. We hurry up the mountain and are greeted by a giant glacier encompassing the whole valley below. Well, almost. It used to cover the entire valley but has receded a few kilometers in the past 20 years, according to the information sign posted at the end of the trail. Similar to the lake, the ice of the glacier is a light brown from all the sediments. I wish it could be white or a faint blue like the glaciers in Alaska but I'll take what I can get. We chill out on some rocks and enjoy the views once again for a few minutes before heading back down to the car. We have to get back to Christchurch now to catch our flight!

It's about a 4 hour drive back to Christchurch and we go the whole way without stopping. It's been a crazy weekend at Mt. Cook. From torrential downpours to beautiful blue skies we saw everything that the Southern Alps had to offer and took it all in stride. It's a beautiful place, Mt. Cook National Park. Definitely a must-see on a journey around the South Island. So long from New Zealand's highest point!


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