Saving the Best for Last - Sky High in the Southern Alps

Published: March 28th 2017
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High on LifeHigh on LifeHigh on Life

High above Hooker Lake (and in the shadow of Aoraki) near the top of the Mueller Hut Track
After enduring a weekend of virtually non-stop rain which thwarted any sightseeing plans we might have had for Lake Tekapo or Lake Pukaki, Linda and I had headed to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park on the Monday with very low expectations indeed – and as a result had been pleasantly surprised when we were able to complete the 10km return hike from our campsite at the White Horse Hill DOC campground to the large lake at the foot of the Hooker Glacier without being rained upon at all.

But if we had considered this small mercy to be a blessing, then we were about to be bestowed with a miracle! Rising from our slumber on Tuesday (14th March) to find the first small patches of blue sky that we had seen in four days, we were nevertheless in no hurry to get moving as the weather forecast posted at the visitor centre in Mount Cook Village had predicted a cloudy day with showers clearing in the afternoon... in other words, a continuation of the grey skies and low clouds that we had gotten used to over the previous few days.

So it was with an increasing sense of
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Roadside view of Maukatua / Mount Sefton after the weather finally cleared
optimism that we noticed the patches of blue sky overhead getting larger by the minute, until by the time we had finished our breakfast (at around 11am!) it seemed that the clouds had almost completely disappeared from all but the highest peaks surrounding the campground. Cautiously optimistic that this unexpectedly good weather might at least hold for a few hours, it was decided we should take a short drive into the next valley to check out the Tasman Glacier, which at 24km in length is the largest glacier in the country - even if it is shrinking at an alarming rate of around half-a-kilometre per year.

Shortly after leaving the campground I happened to glance over to my left, and there thrusting skyward in all it's glory was the magnificent triangular peak of Mount Cook (known to Maori as Aoraki – meaning 'Cloud Piercer'), the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3724m. Immediately pulling over to the side of the road so that we could hop out and take a better look, I was suddenly confronted by the even more spectacular sight of Mount Sefton (known to Maori as Maukatua) rearing up directly behind the village; it's fearsome South
Green LakeGreen LakeGreen Lake

Mountains reflected in the first of the 'Blue Lakes'
Face covered in snow and ice as numerous hanging glaciers lay suspended from it's upper slopes.

The shock of suddenly seeing this gargantuan cliff-face plastered with compacted snow towering two-and-a-half kilometres above the valley floor - where there had been nothing but grey clouds the day before - was certainly one of the more exhilirating moments I have experienced on this trip... and immediately brought to mind the moment I cycled around a bend in the Canadian Rockies to find the equally monstrous Mount Temple glowering down at me! There's nothing like a mighty mountain to take one's breath away upon first introductions...

Arriving in the Tasman Valley, we first headed to the no-longer-correctly-named Blue Lakes – where a pair of unmistakably green lakes have taken the place of their original blue counterparts as a result of the Tasman Glacier receding in height (as well as length) and therefore no longer draining into these lakes, whose only source of water now is rainfall. Hence the change in appearance!

From there we climbed up onto the terminal moraine left behind by the Tasman Glacier after it's last advance, to view the 7km-long Tasman Lake that has formed at
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Linda striking a pose in front of Tasman Lake
it's base. If there is a more alarming warning sign with regards to global warming than this lake – which has grown from a mere puddle to it's current size in less than forty years – then I have yet to see it. Will there even be a glacier left to look at in twenty years time; or will the lake have swallowed up the rest of the valley to reach the base of the mountains by then?!? Who knows.

Returning to Mount Cook Village to find that the day's weather forecast (posted at the DOC's national park visitor centre) had been updated from 'cloudy with showers clearing in the afternoon' to 'mainly fine' at some point in the last 24 hours, we then headed back to the campground and tucked into a filling lunch, before I set off to re-trace my footsteps from the day before along the Hooker Valley Track. To say that the views were a little different when compared to the day before would be a gross understatement – in fact I could hardly believe I had enjoyed the trail so much the day before, given that all but the bottom few hundred metres of
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Maukatu / Mount Sefton rising up beyond Mueller Lake, with the Hooker River flowing out of it
each of the surrounding mountains had been completely obscured by clouds!

And what magnificent mountains they were! If the sight of Mount Sefton rising up beyond the village had taken my breath away earlier in the day, then the view of that same mountain rising up directly behind the glacially-fed Mueller Lake from a viewpoint near the first swingbridge on the trail left me positively awestruck! And with the sunlight shimmering on the lake's milky blue-grey surface, it was all I could do to find myself a quiet spot away from the crowds and just soak up this incredible spectacle.

On numerous occasions since we arrived on the South Island I have gotten the feeling that with decent weather the Southern Alps hold their own against the best that the Swiss Alps or the Canadian Rockies have to offer (and I of all people certainly don't make that claim that lightly!); and looking out over this scene I couldn't help but draw the same conclusion once again... and that was before I crossed the second swingbridge on the trail and came face-to-face with Aoraki / Mount Cook's cloud-piercing profile dominating the valley ahead!

And so, having wandered
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View of Aoraki / Mount Cook rising up at the head of the Hooker Valley
dumbstruck in Mount Sefton's awesome shadow for the first hour or so of the walk – though it's fair to say I spent more of this time taking photographs than actually going anywhere - I spent the remainder of the walk ogling Aoraki's angular peak, as it rose skyward almost three thousand metres above the glacier (and it's ever-expanding meltwater lake) at the head of the Hooker Valley.

Back at the campground that evening we were treated to the sight of a small group of Kea (the world's only alpine parrot, which has earned cult celebrity status in New Zealand for it's boundless cheekiness) flying overhead; and though we were denied any close-up views of these large, intelligent and quite beautiful birds, we could only interpret this as a good sign – as their numbers have been declining in recent years as a direct result of their increased interactions with humans. We certainly had no trouble hearing the birds as they flew overhead though, with their bizarre high-pitched shrieks prompting Linda to comment that “they sound like a person doing a really bad impression of a bird”!

Given that Linda had not only missed the sun-drenched hike up
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Mount Sefton's hanging glaciers reflected in one of the Sealy Tarns
the Hooker Valley that afternoon but in fact almost all of the hikes that I had done on the South Island, I was pleasantly surprised when she announced that she was going to join me for the hike to Mueller Hut the following morning – even more so after I explained that the hut lay more than a thousand metres above the campground at White Horse Hill! But true to her word, as I set off from the campground just after nine o'clock the next morning in pursuit of the day's first warming rays of sunlight, she was right there beside me - marvelling at the magnificence of Mount Sefton's gargantuan South Face just as I was.

After starting out with a nice flat walk across open grassland in the shadow of the mountains lining the eastern side of the Hooker Valley, we soon found ourselves climbing steeply through a low forest of such variety that we could have been forgiven for thinking we were in a botanic garden, and under the full glare of a blazing hot sun – all of which had me immediately switching from long pants, jumper and woolly hat to shorts and singlet, within
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View of Mount Cook and Hooker Lake from just above the Sealy Tarns
ten minutes of setting out along the trail!

It was at this point that we started up the latest incarnation of the 'Stairway to Heaven' – a moniker that seems to be quite popular throughout New Zealand – which in this case most certainly lives up to it's nickname, for the trail consists of over 2200 steps as it climbs relentlessly up the sides of the Sealy Range, before finally levelling out (only very briefly) at the Sealy Tarns. With a pair of tiny alpine tarns occupying a narrow ledge that overlooks the entire Hooker Valley - from the campground at White Horse Hill to the pyramidal peak of Aoraki, with the glacially-fed Mueller and Hooker Lakes in between – there could scarcely be a more scenic place to stop and rest anywhere in the national park; a fact that is only enhanced by the perfect mirror-image reflection of Mount Sefton's hanging glaciers in the waters of one of the Sealy Tarns right beside the trail.

But alas, for all of the steps that have to be climbed to reach them, the Sealy Tarns still only mark the halfway point on the climb to Mueller Hut – and
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Close-up view of Maukatua / Mount Sefton's fearsome South Face from Mueller Hut
if anything the going only gets steeper and rougher after reaching them! Following a poled route up the mountainside, we first had to negotiate a path consisting entirely of rocks; then clamber across a field of large boulders; before encountering perhaps the most arduous part of the climb on a steep slope of loose gravel, during which we struggled to maintain both our footing and our balance.

But eventually, about an hour after leaving the tarns, we reached the ridgeline and followed a short side-trail to end up at a large rocky outcrop occupying one end of the ridge. From here the mountainside fell away to both the north and the east, offering the most jaw-dropping views yet of Mount Sefton's awesome South Face laid out in full view - seemingly within touching distance – on the opposite side of the Mueller Glacier.After soaking up the views for long enough to regain our breath, we then turned our backs on the Hooker Valley and proceeded a short way up the other side of the ridgeline – crossing a small patch of lingering snow along the way – to where the Mueller Hut lies in splendid isolation amidst a barren
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View of Aoraki / Mount Cook rising up beyond the beautiful blue expanse of Lake Pukaki
field of rocks and rubble. Sitting back on the balcony of the Mueller Hut at 1830 metres above sea level, I then surprised Linda by pulling a couple of cans of Garage Project's delicious craft beers out of my backpack – a special treat I had kept quiet about on the three-hour climb to the hut!

Having drunk in the views of Mount Sefton, Aoraki and their Southern Alps counterparts for a leisurely half-hour or so, we then set off back down the mountain the same way we had come; and two hours later we were back at the campground, already looking forward to the showers that awaited us at the public shelter in Mount Cook village.

Feeling suitably refreshed and revitalized after our showers, we bid farewell to the sharp peaks and wide valleys of the national park and set off back alongside Lake Pukaki towards Twizel – this time enjoying (in the rearviewmirror at least) the sort of breathtaking 'turquoise lake and white-topped mountain' vistas that we had been robbed of two days earlier. And with Linda already dozing contentedly by the time we passed through Twizel, I was left to marvel at the wide open
Martian LandscapeMartian LandscapeMartian Landscape

Coming down from Lindis Pass, shortly before witnessing yet another close call on the NZ roads
spaces of the McKenzie Country (the sort of landscape that Americans would likely refer to as 'big sky country') on my own; before the earth started to ripple and fold once more as we ascended the stark, brown slopes leading to the martian-like landscape of Lindis Pass – on the way down from which I witnessed what could very nearly have been a fatal head-on collision.

Now for the past ten weeks I have tried to present as accurate a portrayal of our experiences in New Zealand as possible, and in doing so I have offered the occasional observation whenever I have felt it necessary – whilst trying to remain as impartial as possible – but there is one particular trend that both Linda and I have noticed and about which there can be no dispute: New Zealanders are shockingly bad drivers! Repeatedly during our time on the North Island we were warned by either native or transplanted Kiwis to be careful on the roads – especially once we reached the South Island – due to the negligence of tourists, whose reckless driving (often on the wrong side of the road) had resulted in numerous serious accidents in recent
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View of Lake Hawea from the campground at Kidd's Bush

These warnings about dangerous driving have most certainly been warranted, as I can honestly lay claim to having seen the ten most dangerous pieces of driving I have ever witnessed in my life in just the last ten weeks! But despite what we had been told, it has turned out to be not the tourists but the locals that have been responsible – from the idiot towing a trailer along the expressway outside Wellington that suddenly decided to pull off the road without any warning whatsoever and almost sent the car behind him straight into the guardrail, to the middle-aged lunatic that I watched pull out from behind a campervan to overtake it on a blind corner on the way down from Lindis Pass just as another campervan was about to pass by in the opposite direction, it has constantly shocked me just how bad the driving is here; and I can only thank my lucky stars that we've neither seen nor been involved in a serious accident during this trip.

In any case, we arrived back in Wanaka without any further incident, before heading off alongside the beautiful Lake Hawea (which runs parallel with Lake Wanaka
Verdant ValleyVerdant ValleyVerdant Valley

View of the upper Matukituki Valley from the Rob Roy Glacier Track
to the East) to spend the night at the lakeside Kidd's Bush DOC campground. The next morning we set off back towards Wanaka, where I left Linda to spend the day exploring her favourite New Zealand town (which I have to admit would probably be my favourite as well) while I took the opportunity to embark on one last hike... though first I had to negotiate thirty kilometres of winding gravel road through the lower Matukituki Valley – complete with a number of stream fords in the final few kilometres – before arriving at the Raspberry Creek car park in Tititea / Mount Aspiring National Park.

Having caught sight of the 3033m Mount Aspiring (known to Maori as Tititea – which roughly translates as 'Snow Peak of Glistening White') and it's impressive collection of glaciers from both Glendhu Bay on the shores of Lake Wanaka and from my hike up Roy's Peak three weeks earlier, I was already familiar with the pyramidal peak of New Zealand's only 3000m+ mountain outside of Aoraki / Mount Cook NP. But this time I had come to the national park (which Linda and I had passed through previously on our crossing of Haast
Making the most of the momentMaking the most of the momentMaking the most of the moment

Pausing at the lower viewpoint on the Rob Roy Glacier Track
Pass) to get a good look at another of the area's high peaks with it's own impressive hanging glacier, on the aptly-named and justifiably-popular Rob Roy Glacier Track.

Starting out by following alongside the West Branch of the Matukituki River, the trail then crossed a swingbridge to the other side of the river before taking a right-angle turn and heading up into a steep-sided gorge through a beautiful section of old-growth forest, with almost sheer cliffs rising up from the opposite side of the rushing river. But rather than trying to convey the beauty of this scene with my own words, I'll let this extract from the travel diary of an explorer named Maud Moreland - who was one of the first 'Pakeha' (European settlers) to explore the area way back in 1908 – that has been reproduced on an information sign at the end of the track, tell the story:

“We were now at the opening of a gorge that looked as though the mountains had been cleft by some terrific force: on one side they rose black and precipitous, with trees clinging to wherever they could find a little soil; but generally they were sheer walls
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View of the Rob Roy Glacier from the trail
of rock. On our side the mountains were clothed to within a few hundred feet of the top with dense bush. After a tedious climb, we at last saw the head of the gorge – a wonderful sight on which not many eyes have gazed. It is closed by a semi-circle of cliffs, precipitous and black. And wedged, as it were, between three mountain peaks, lies an enormous glacier. Not a long river of ice but a mighty mass of ice, breaking off sharp at the top of the stupendous peaks.”

It really is difficult for me to convey the sense of awe that this glacier instills, as it seemingly hangs suspended from the sky like some massive curtain of pure white ice draped over the mountainside; it's surface glistening in the sunshine whilst feeding a never-ending supply of meltwater into the raging torrent far below on the narrow valley floor.

From the lower viewpoint four kilometres from the start of the trail, the first towering waterfall could be seen plunging down from the top of the cliffs beneath the glacier; but it was the view from the upper viewpoint at the end of the track a kilometre
Beautiful BlueBeautiful BlueBeautiful Blue

Lake Wanaka
further on that really made the heart skip a beat, as at least a dozen waterfalls of every size and shape tumbled and splashed their way down the steep-sided walls of this perfect glacial cirque, carrying the meltwater from the glacier down towards the Matukituki River with a relentless fury, accompanied all the while by the most tremendous roar.

This really was one of those hikes where I found myself constantly stopping and just trying to take everything in; and the fact that it would be my last hike of the road-trip (if not the holiday) only seemed to make it all the more precious. If ever a four-hour hike were worth enduring an hour's worth of driving on rough gravel roads to get to, this would be it! Truly unforgettable.

But with one evening remaining before we were due to return our campervan to the Wicked Campers depot in Queenstown, Linda and I were determined to enjoy every second of it; and so after meeting up with Linda by the sunny shores of Lake Wanaka for a refreshing swim right in the heart of town, we went out for our third and final Indian dinner of the
Farewell DinnerFarewell DinnerFarewell Dinner

Out for Indian on the final night of our road-trip
trip; before heading to the famously funky local movie theatre, Cinema Paradiso, to catch a movie ('A Streetcat Named Bob) on the big screen.

Having subsequently spent our final night on the road at the council-run Albert Town camping ground just outside Wanaka on the banks of the Clutha River, we then packed our things, gave the van a quick wash with water from the crystal-clear river, and headed off back along the Crown Range Road towards Queenstown - topping out at the 1075m summit, which appropriately enough happens to be the highest sealed section of road in New Zealand.

After checking into our perfectly-located hostel (Bumbles) directly opposite the scenic shores of Lake Wakatipu on the edge of town, we then endured the interminable Queenstown traffic jams one last time on our way out to the Wicked Campers depot in Frankton; having spent 75 days and covered over 10,000 kilometres on the road in one of the world's most stunningly beautiful (and easily-accessible) countries.

We'd tried our hand at scuba diving in the Poor Knights Islands, caving in the Waitomo Caves, jet boating on the Waiau River and, in my case, sea kayaking in Milford Sound;
End of the RoadEnd of the RoadEnd of the Road

Linda bidding farewell to the Troublemaker outside the hostel in Queenstown
swum with seals in Kaikoura and (unsuccessfully) attempted to swim with dolphins in Akaroa; gone white-water rafting down the Mohaka, Kaituna and Tongariro Rivers; and taken scenic boat tours in the Bay of Islands, Lake Taupo, the Marlborough Sounds and Milford Sound. And yet for me at least, the greatest highlights of all had come on foot – on trails like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the Abel Tasman Coast Track, Roy's Peak, Avalanche Peak, Mueller Hut, the Hooker Valley and the Rob Roy Glacier Track.

It may have taken thirty-three years for me to make it back to New Zealand (known to the Maori as Aotearoa – meaning 'Land of the Long White Cloud') but there was no doubt in my mind that we had made the most of our time in this incredible country; and I can only hope we have the opportunity to return to these Shaky Isles again sometime in the future.

And who knows, maybe New Zealanders will have actually learnt how to drive safely by then...!

Additional photos below
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Ever-Expanding Lake

Tasman Glacier Lake - take one
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Ever-Expanding Lake

Tasman Glacier Lake - take two
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Ever-Expanding Lake

Tasman Glacier Lake - take three

31st March 2017

Amazing New Zealand
You hiked some amazing country and your wonderful photos have documented your path. Nice job on the beer surprise! What a treat.

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