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.

The Hermitage Hotel

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.

Mount Cook lilies.

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.

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.

Mount Cook


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New Zealand 2014: Christchurch and Aoraki Mount Cook


Christ’s College was built in 1925 in the Gothic and Tudor perpendicular style. The structure was reenforce against earthquakes in 1987 and only suffered minor damage during the 2011 earthquake.

As I’ve mentioned in several blog posts, I am not a fan of long flights. After three hours, I’ve hit my limit for sitting in one place. But the flight from Brisbane to Auckland was quite pleasant—the seats roomy, the service excellent, and the food tasty. For once, I was a tad disappointed when we landed three and a half hours later.

And what I dislike even more than a long flight is riding in a puddle jumper plane. David tries to appease me by saying, “It’s a regional jet.” Regional jet or puddle jumper, being sandwiched in a seat on a small plane for more than an hour is murder. Thankfully, the “regional jet” from Auckland to Christchurch landed just twenty-five minutes over the one-hour limit. But who was counting?

With back-to-back flights and a layover in Auckland, we arrived in Christchurch at 8:00 p.m. and drove straight to our hotel—the George. Tired and hungry, we wanted to dump our luggage in the room and grab something to eat. The hotel has a fine dining restaurant, Pescatore, but we wanted light fare, so we ate at 50 Bistro—tomato bisque followed by grilled scallops. We finally climbed into bed at midnight and I snuggled up to George, the keepsake teddy bear left on our bed during the first-night turndown. A nice touch. I still have George and he is such a good traveling companion, always well-behaved and welcomed at lodgings worldwide. You can follow him on Facebook  http://www.facebook.com/TheGeorgeBear.

Christ’s College

We woke to a chilly, overcast day and walked into downtown Christchurch. There were still some signs of the 6.3 earthquake that hit the town in 2011, and I thought about the two thousand people killed in the quake. One shop owner shared her story and the deadly details hit home, as I’d had my share of earthquakes over the years—Mexico, South Africa, and a number in Southern California. We spent the morning exploring Christchurch and wished we had allowed more time for sightseeing. But a reliable source (David) told me we will return soon to explore some more.

In the afternoon, with David behind the wheel of our rental, we motored onto State Highway 8, the Inland Scenic Route to Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village, about a four-and-a-half hour drive. Before we set out, the receptionist at the George said, “This is New Zealand. The journey is as exciting as the destination. Take your time and enjoy.”  And indeed we did, driving past acre upon acre of farmland, pasture upon pasture of countless sheep, cattle, and deer farmed for domestic sales. I fell in love and wanted to take home a lamb.  

David will be the first to admit that he does not have the “farming gene,” so he surprised me when he said, “I could live here and I’d farm.” What? I asked him to repeat that statement, and he has, many times in the past three years. In fact, he liked New Zealand so much that we plan to return in 2018. And I can’t wait to head Down Under again.

For one, I missed out on visiting Lake Tekapo, an alpine spot at the foot of Mount John. I was captivated by the deep turquoise of the lake’s water, which is created by rock flour from the surrounding glaciers that is suspended in the water. The glaciers in the headwaters grind the rock into a fine dust as they make their journey down toward the lake. Lake Tekapo is set against a backdrop of snowcapped mountain peaks—a magnificent blend of white and turquoise. I also wanted to see the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo, so both the lake and the church are on my must-see list for trip two.

Nestled in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, the Hermitage Hotel was the perfect base camp for our hiking and ATV adventures, which is why we chose it. The building is not the typical log or timber lodge you’d see in the US or Canada. The commercial looking, blue-gray steel structure rises from the valley floor like a metal giant, and not everyone thought the modern architecture was appealing. “Military barracks,” I overheard one visitor say. Personally, I found the style intriguing, and we had a wonderful stay.

The first night, we ate in the Panorama Room. The porcini mushroom appetizer was good, but the entrées stole the show. I had smoked salmon with a potato mousse and baby peas. David ordered the venison with blueberry and juniper sauce and grilled vegetables—both meals cooked to perfection. For dessert, a sampler of homemade ice creams.

Damage to Christchurch Cathedral after the earthquake.



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