Aoraki/Mt. Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand (a tad over 3700 meters, or 12,200 feet). One of the first people to climb Mt. Cook was Jack Clarke…but sadly, no relation (I think). Its more (most?) famous climber was Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed the mountain in 1948 as a young teenager, and of course he is most famous for his ascent of Mt. Everest. The weather was spectacular this last weekend (a stunner, is what they would say here), and that was a perfect time to visit this amazing area of New Zealand.
The drive to the tracks (hiking trails) of the Mt. Cook area follows the shoreline of Lake Pukaki, the largest of 3 alpine lakes in the Mackenzie District. A number of trails begin near the White Horse Hill camping ground, including the Hooker Valley Track, which just has to be one of the most beautiful walks in all of New Zealand. It’s not long (only 10km up and back) nor arduous (you only gain 100 meters in elevation), so be prepared for more traffic than your normal Kiwi walks (but still way less crowded than most US trails with such easy access).
I took over 50 photos on the hike….thank goodness no one uses film any more…and I must have stopped a dozen times on the hike up to Hooker Lake. Distance-wise the hike should only take 3 hours…but allow a lot more for pictures, playing around on the THREE suspension bridges you go over on the way up to the lake, and for just generally playing around in Hooker Lake, trying to grab ahold of part of an iceberg.
About an hour’s drive from Mt. Cook (the trailhead) is Lake Tepako…which was basecamp for my long weekend. It’s another large alpine lake, surrounded by beautiful dry mountains. This area of the Mackenzie basin is a dark sky reserve…and it lives up to is name. When the sky is clear (it was all 3 nights there), you can see the Milky Way (easily) with your naked eye. Just incredible. Mt. John, just adjacent to Lake Tepako, is home to New Zealand’s largest telescope (and it’s no accident it was placed here).
Lake Tepako is famous for several things…it is probably one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand since in the Spring it is surrounded by millions of flowering lupins. It’s late summer here now, so I missed the lupin, but got in on the poppy bloom (and felt right at home, with those California poppies). Lake Tekapo is also home to the Church of the Good Shepard (which many people photograph in the nighttime, with the Milky Way in the skies above the church…but I was unable to capture that image).
There are several canals which bring water from these alpine lakes to other areas of New Zealand. In these canals are some of the largest trout you will ever seen (many over 25 pounds). I didn’t fish the canals on this trip, since that gives me an excuse to come back again some other time and try my luck.
With three days of magnificent summer weather, I knew not to get my hopes up once I headed back to Dunedin. Sure enough, while the 25C (77F) days are a warm and wonderful memory, my current reality has been two straight days of rain and 15C (59F). But, hey, it was awesome while it lasted.