Mt Cook: Silence and wonder in the mountains

By Josie Dale

It's hard not to be distracted by the scenery on the road to Aoraki Mt Cook, writes Josie Dale.

Aoraki Mt Cook towers above the remote landscape. It was Sir Edmund Hillary's first big climb before he scaled Everest. Photo / Simon Baker
Aoraki Mt Cook towers above the remote landscape. It was Sir Edmund Hillary's first big climb before he scaled Everest. Photo / Simon Baker

It's a magnet for mountaineers from all over the world. Snow or floods have often blocked the Mt Cook road. Tired and hungry travellers would turn up at the nearest lodging, Lake Pukaki Hotel, at all hours. Stories of innkeepers and guests are legendary.

During the 1940s, proprietors of the day, the Grahams, were renowned for brusque but kind-hearted hospitality. One fussy English tourist's main complaint was flies buzzing around while he occupied the long drop toilet. Exasperated, Mrs Graham snapped: "Why don't you go out there at meal times. The flies will all be in the dining room then."

We drive to the mountain, taking the private canal road running between Tekapo River and Lake Pukaki.

Built in the 1970s, it's closed during high winds.

To the northwest, Aoraki Mt Cook towers above its neighbours. Australasia's highest mountain reaches 3754m.

It was 10m taller until, in 1991, over 12 million cubic metres of rock and ice fell off its Northern peak.

I spent my childhood in the Mackenzie basin. The mountain is a familiar well-loved sight, and apart from the canal, the landscape is unchanged. Tawny tussock-covered hills subtly tinted with light and shadow roll fluidly up to the foot of the Southern Alps. There's a refreshing sense of remoteness.

The canal road emerges near the Mt Cook Alpine salmon farm at Lake Pukaki. Buy some salmon here. It's straight from the pond fresh.

Alongside the farm numerous campervans and cars are parked up. Fishermen sit patiently hoping to bag "the big" brown or rainbow trout, or even an escapee salmon. Lake Pukaki's water is a distinctive milky blue, caused by finely ground glacial rock particles.

Those of pre-decimal currency vintage may be familiar with Five Pound Note Island. Thanks to the Waitaki hydro-electric scheme, it was submerged in the 1970s.

Sadly, the historic hotel is gone and only anecdotes survive. It too was a victim of the hydro-electric scheme. Now the nearest hotel is five minutes drive away at Twizel.

It's 50km from the main road to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Drive carefully. The spectacular mountain scenery around every bend is a dangerous distraction.

Nearer Mt Cook village we have a clear view of Mt Sefton looming impressively behind the Hermitage Hotel. Visitors often mistake it for Mt Cook.

Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park covers an area of 700km/sq, 40 per cent of which is covered by glaciers. There are19 peaks over 3000m tall. No wonder it's a magnet for mountaineers from all over the world. Together with Westland, Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks it's a Unesco World Heritage site.

Before he "knocked the bastard off" in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary honed his mountaineering skills in the Southern Alps. The ascent of Aoraki Mt Cook was his first major climb. Adjacent to the Hermitage, in the shadow of Mt Sefton, his bronze statue gazes out to the mountains.

The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at the hotel is worth a look for its interesting museum, theatre and planetarium.

We head off from the village to walk to the Hooker Glacier terminal lake. We're too late to see the iconic but misnamed Mt Cook lily in flower. Actually, the world's largest buttercup, clumps of its hand-sized shiny green leaves are easy to spot.

Swaying swing bridges cross the Hooker River twice. A large tourist group clad in beige "mountaineering" gear turns back at the first bridge, happy with their "fast food" version of a mountain tramp.

It's a raw, beautiful place. The silence is broken only by an occasional rumble from the surrounding mountains, or the screech of a kea. We can see the blue/white face of the Hooker Glacier at the head of the small terminal lake. Freezing greyish water supports floating chunks of ice. Down the valley, Lake Pukaki sparkles in the distance. It's an easy two-hour downhill walk back to the village.

There's a range of accommodation, from camping and backpacker lodges to the Hermitage Hotel. Tonight we're opting for a motel.

The setting sun glows red over the mountain. "Look," I say. "Tomorrow will be fine. There'll be time for another walk before we leave."

My better half sighs. "Maybe," he replies.

- NZ Herald

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