New Zealand 2014: Aoraki Mount Cook—Part 2

Day two in Aoraki/ Mount Cook, we layered on clothes, loaded our daypacks, and wiggled our feet into well-worn sneakers, prepared to put some serious miles on our running shoes. Our objective? Tramping, and to photograph Mount Cook. I had already been beguiled by this stunning mountain peak when we stopped at Peter’s Lookout on the drive into Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village. If you stop roadside, beware of the tourists. Some park half on, half off the road, too captivated by the view to worry about their own safety. And for the unfamiliar, tramping in New Zealand is akin to hiking, backpacking, or bushwalking. Our morning hike, and an easy one, was also the most rewarding for capturing views of Mount Cook—the Hooker Valley Track. We had planned on five hours for the round-trip six-mile walk, accounting for multiple stops to snap photos. Besides enjoying the magnificent views, we also had fun trooping across several swing bridges and counting icebergs—yes, icebergs on the glacier lake at the bottom of Mount Cook.

Enthralled with the Southern Alps, we had to drag ourselves away from them to return to the hotel. We had an ATV tour planned for the afternoon. The trip back took longer than we expected, as we had to work our way around the growing number of trampers heading in as we headed out. A local mentioned that the best time to explore the area was winter, when hikers were few. No complaints—we started out early, encountered only four hikers on the way in, and had a great time.

Back at the Hermitage, we nibbled on sandwiches and sipped hot chocolate for lunch at the Old Mountaineers’ Cafe while I waited expectantly for the cloud cover to clear over Mount Cook. No, I hadn’t taken enough photographs of the breathtaking mountain, or the vistas. Mount Cook is located in the Mackenzie Basin, a rugged and untamed valley that runs as far as the eye can see to a horizon of sharp-peaked mountains cloaked in white.

Every time I looked at this vast expanse of open land I imagined herds of elk, deer, or even a few bears migrating across the plain, but New Zealand isn’t inhabited by such large animals. The upside is, you can hike in total bliss knowing a bear won’t steal your food or charge you if you stumble upon a mother and her cubs. All you have to worry about are the mischievous keas, a large parrot species found in the forested and alpine regions of New Zealand’s South Island. They are comical but quite destructive. I saw four hop on an empty tour bus and immediately start shredding the fabric on the seats. The hysterical driver came running, arms waving and shouting profanity. Not perturbed, the parrots summarily jumped off the bus and flew away. Flower photo: Mount Cook lillies.

 

After lunch, we met our guide outside the entrance to our hotel for our tour of the Tasman Glacier, with its gigantic moraine walls, and to visit Terminal Lake. Forty percent of Aoraki /Mount Cook National Park is covered by icy glaciers.

We were joined by another couple, Diane and Denys, who we still keep in touch with via Facebook. We four climbed aboard our Argo, an eight-wheel all-terrain vehicle capable of traversing virtually anything in its path—water, ice, rocks—and off we went up the steep and rocky terrain toward our destination. The ride was quite bumpy, but well worth the trip. Awesome scenery. View the photos and judge for yourself.

On the return drive, our guide stopped to point out and identify the beautiful array of alpine flowers, including Mount Cook lilies and Celmisia daisies. But we did not see any cheeky keas. Never mind—we would spot several in the days ahead, and at their cheeky best.

That night the Panorama Room was closed, so we ate at the Alpine Restaurant, also in the hotel. The buffet dinner offered a wide variety of choices and the food was pretty good—oysters, duck, ribs, salmon, plenty of sides, and all kinds of desserts. To end the day, we watched the sunset fire up Mount Cook.

Next Week: New Zealand 2014—Te Anau.

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