Mt Cook: Swimming with icebergs

By Justine Tyerman

Justine Tyerman finds one of the only flattish walks in the Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park - even Japanese ladies in high heels and Aussies in jandals can manage the Hooker Valley track.

Aoraki-Mt Cook - the Cloud Piercer. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Aoraki-Mt Cook - the Cloud Piercer. Photo / Justine Tyerman

There are few places in the world where you can stroll through spectacular alpine terrain right to the foot of the country's highest peaks in an hour or so without guides, oxygen and a team of sherpas or yaks carrying your life's necessities for the next few months.
The walk to the terminal face of the Hooker Glacier is one such trek, ideal for those who don't like climbing but want to get deep into the mountains all the same.

However, when I asked about flat walks in the area, the Department of Conservation chap at the Aoraki-Mt Cook Visitor Centre gave me a peculiar look.

"I don't really do hills," I said to the impossibly fit young fellow who looked as though he could sprint up Aoraki before morning tea.

Without displaying too much overt impatience at having to tear himself away from a real McCoy mountaineering pair with crampons and ice-axes who were seeking advice before setting off to tackle the Caroline Face, he indicated that inferior species such as ourselves might like to attempt the hike up the Hooker Valley - apart from the walk from the carpark to the Hermitage, this was one of the few flattish walks in Mt Cook National Park, which was, by definition, rather more full of mountains than flat places.

Ignoring his disdain, we laced up our tramping boots, took up our day packs, grasped our walking sticks and headed for the track. We might have been mere day hikers but we were keen to look the part in this hearty alpine environment - as opposed to the Japanese ladies with their parasols and high heels and the Aussies in their jandals or thongs as they call them.

We passed a sobering memorial to all those who had died climbing the peaks in the park, crossed a swing bridge over the Hooker River in the shadow of magnificent Mt Sefton, skirted around a cliff face on a well-formed track with safety rails, ambled up a valley with a profusion of wild flowers and along a board walk to protect the delicate eco-system... and then quite suddenly, we were in the presence of the almighty Aoraki, the Cloud Piercer - although there were no clouds to pierce that day.

No matter how often you view her and from what angle, Aoraki-Mt Cook is a stunner. Gazing at her impressive 3754-metre stature, proud and unchallenged, I had a sense of reverence and spiritual ownership that Maori talk of when they refer to their maunga, their mountain, in Whakapapa.

Sitting within touching distance of our mountain, eating lunch in T-shirts and shorts on a clear summer day, we watched a group of elderly German hikers peel off, fold and carefully place every item of their clothing on a rock before donning swimsuits for a dip in the Hooker Glacier terminal lake, complete with icebergs.

Hmmm... swimming with the icebergs. Not likely to catch on in a big way, but a fascinating spectator sport all the same. Pretending the water was not ridiculously cold seemed to be part of the ritual which they had evidently performed many times before around the world.

As the only non-German, non-swimmers in the immediate vicinity, we were asked to be official photographers of the event. Sadly we never thought to record the surreal sight on our own camera.

We couldn't drag ourselves away from the national park that day and decided to pitch our wee tent just down the road at Glentanner Holiday Park where we watched the sun drop behind Aoraki's massive bulk turning the snow-capped peak from gold to pink and crimson.

The view from our tent awning was far superior to even the best suite at the Hermitage which gave us a smug sense of satisfaction - along with the exhilaration of having climbed to the dizzy height of at least 150 metres on our eight-kilometre flattish walk.

- nzherald.co.nz

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