Flashback: Aoraki, New Zealand: FIIIIIINAALLLYYYYYYY!!!!

For some reason, maybe to escape the sadness and longing I feel whenever I think about New Zealand, I hadn’t even bothered to stick the memory card of my camera into my work laptop’s card reader. When I finally did, I was sent into a whirlwind of flashbacks and memories of tales gone untold. In my haste to catch up to what I’m doing now, I ignored all those amazing things I’ve done to bring me here. So to do those stories justice, I will be featuring ‘Flashback’ posts ranging from crashing a party wearing nothing but a frisbee, to trespassing on Shania Twain’s property, to seeing a glacier in the middle of summer.

In no specific order, the first installment is the story of how I finally visited Mt Cook (or Aoraki, its Maori name).

If you remember, ten months earlier I was on my way to Mt Cook — less than 45 kilometers away, in fact — when two hitchhikers convinced me to change plans and go to Wanaka instead. A little more than a week before I left town and almost exactly 10 months to the day since my first attempt, I finally found time — and a gap in the weather — to head to the mountains.

The weather was forecasted to be horrible the day I left, but I was putting my faith in meteorology that the following day would be fine. In the South Island of New Zealand, this is a very risky thing to do. No doubt, as I drove North from Wanaka, the sky was a dark grey.

But fortunately, things were at least patchy by the time I reached Mt Cook. Now before I left, Nugget gave me a piece of advice about Mt Cook: ‘You know, it’s the only town that doesn’t have a police force. That’s because everyone who lives there is a black belt in Karate. Apparently one of the teachers in the school is a Karate instructor and that’s basically all there is to do in Mt Cook village, so everyone’s really good at it. So if you go out and get drunk, don’t mess with anyone, cause they’ll probably kick your ass.’

I can’t speak for Nugget’s accuracy in describing the people of Mt Cook Village, but I was certainly en guard as I drove towards town. The ominous rain clouds were pushing over the mountains, threatening to rain on my parade, so to speak, and it only served to give the whole valley, including the Village, a very ominous look.

I didn’t bother stopping in town, and drove straight to the camp site, paid my dues and set up my tent. I was in my sleeping bag and on my way to sleep by about 8:30.

Things hadn’t changed since Tasmania. The ground was just as cold and uncomfortable, the sleeping bag was just as confining, and the night was just as restless. I woke up several times during the night before I gave up and started getting myself ready for a day of hiking.

After a quick brekkie of peanut butter on bread, I started out on a track that left from the campsite just as the sun was coming up. There were a few walks in the area, and I chose the Hooker Valley Track which leads you across two swingbridges towards the terminal lake of the Hooker Valley glacier. After about an hour of walking, I reached a shelter where hundreds of past trampers had left messages carved into the wooden cabin. As the sun rose above the mountains the sky cleared and the temperature warmed up. The clouds receded over the range and opened up some amazing photo opportunities.

I walked back to the campsite and packed up the tent. I drove into town and stopped at a carpark near the start of another walk called the Red Tarns track. A restless night’s sleep and a long morning walk had really taken it out of me. I fell asleep in the driver’s seat of the car for about 30 minutes, then woke up and had a lunch of … peanut butter on bread.

Now the Red Tarns walk admittedly began with a steep climb to the lookout on a mountain towering about the Village. I soon found out that it didn’t just begin with a steep climb, it was a steep climb. Immediately after leaving the Village, began a series of stone and wooden steps that didn’t end for about 45 minutes. It was exhausting. I consider myself a pretty strong walker, but even I had to pause a few times. It certainly didn’t help that I was wearing jeans and carrying my backpack.

I made it to the top and took a well-deserved break while capturing some of the views.

I looked at the other day walks in the area, but most of them just doubled over the longer ones I just did. And Mt Cook Village wasn’t exactly a lively, upbeat town, so killing some time was out of the question. Believe it or not, the reason that made me finally decide to head back to Wanaka a day early was the prospect of sleeping in that tent on the cold ground again.

But on the way out of town I passed a sign pointing to the Tasman Valley and some more day walks. Eager to make the most of the trip, I turned down the gravel road which wound around mountains bordering a wide valley.

The road ended in a carpark and a Department of Conservation shelter which marked the start of a couple short walks. I did the Tasman Glacier View walk and ended up at the top of the hill, overlooking the valley, with a view of the Tasman Glacier in the distance and what was left of the smaller Murchison Glacier.

The Murchison Glacier has an interesting story. Until basically yesterday, geologically-speaking, the glacier occupied the entire valley, but the glacial ice slowly moved and melted away, carving out the incredibly vast valley, and leaving behind Lake Pukaki (funny name, I know, but itself mesmerizingly beautiful).

What’s left of the Murchison Glacier is this:

Incredible, huh? When I crested the hill and saw the murky brown puddle with gravel covered icebergs, I was just as surprised as if I had seen a towering wall of ice. Although the glacier still descends under the topsoil, it is rapidly melting away.

After some snaps of the two glaciers, and having had enough of a crying child, I headed back down to the carpark and on my way back out of town. I had picked up some brochures of other national parks and walks in the area, in case I felt like stopping by for some hikes before driving to Wanaka. There were a couple I wanted to do near Lake Pukaki, but by the time I got the Lake I decided to just keep moving. There was one thing I wanted to do first. Ten months earlier, we stopped here for pictures on a very overcast day. Although, that weather influenced one of my most favorite pictures of my whole collection:

Still, I wanted to see what the lake looked like on a cloudless, beautiful day. The answer? Breathtaking. So beautiful, in fact, it’s now header picture #8 at the top of this blog. Artistically speaking, I think the overcast one still looks more appealing, but the … well, blue one just looks so inviting. I never figured out the reason why, but I believe the reason the water is so blue (and it is really that colour, not some trick of the camera) is because of some sediment deposited in the lake beds. Many of the glacier-fed lakes and streams in the South Island were of that colour.

I got back home to Wanaka content with my trip to Mt. Cook. I had finally conquered my white whale. A running joke around Wanka was how I had been in the country for so long, yet had barely seen any of the country. And even though I was suprisingly OK with that, the one thing I knew I had to do before leaving was see Mt. Cook. And I had finally done it, just in the nick of time.

Catch all the pics from Aoraki here.

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