New Zealand: Aoraki-Mount Cook

Having left Fiordland in the rearview mirror I began my crawl North. I had another one of those nights where I wake up and have no idea where I am. I’m in Lumsden. I’m always in Lumsden. I needed the WiFi. I had my first job interview in three years. I didn’t even put a tie on. I still got the job at Kentishman Hops. From now on you can call me Hop Cutter Chris. I’ll be working the 2021 Hop Harvest in the Nelson-Tasman region. What does this mean? A temporary pause on disappearing in to the wilderness for days at a time. A temporary pause on all adventures for a while. What does that mean? In the morning I made a decision on what it means. First I book Mueller Hut in Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park. A destination to aim for. After that, if there’s time I’ll head to the Nelson Lakes for a crack at the Travers-Sabine circuit. Even with those plans put in place I realise I still have time to do Earnslaw Burn. Too many people have told me how good it is. Another return trip to Glenorchy isn’t too far out of the way. What else am I going to do with my time? Make the most of it. Back to Frankton, back on the Road to Paradise to Glenorchy. Twinkle twinkle little cars and vans in the parking area. How I wonder how busy the valley is. To be fair to everyone else already here, I’m unreasonably late. I start slow, thinking I’ve got all day but I don’t. It’s 3pm by the time I get walking. If the Department of Conservation timings are any good I’ve got 4-6 hours of walking. I might have left it too late.

The air is hot. Sweat hangs off me. The track is a nightmare after consecutive Great Walks. Tree roots, slips, bogs. I struggle over tree trunks. I get briefly lost on the gravel of a huge slip. I was following footsteps rather than signs. I count the people out as I pass them by, not that it matters. I didn’t count the number of cars.  There can’t be many left. One woman passes me by and says “nearly there.” I have no idea if she means for her or for me. I’d say neither. Half way at best. The track sticks to the bush, sheltered from the sun. A blue shadow lurks beyond the trees, the inner valley of Pikirakatahi – Mount Earnslaw. Occasional glimpses of snow. I tire quickly. I tell myself I’m fine. It’s fine. I’ve done worse than this. The Mangakino Pack Track from way back when comes immediately to mind. I’m fitter now, more experienced, better prepared. The track stretches through comfort and pain. Before I finally reach the bush line and everything gets easier. No more trees, no more tree roots. The sun has gone over the wall. The warmth is gone but light remains. I pass two tents on the river’s edge. The well received advice is to keep going. It’s getting late. The view is already “oh wow,” the next obvious place to pitch a tent will do. The dark edge of night begins to creep across the ice. I get the tent up. I make dinner. I have a pilsner. Celebrating getting a job but also almost a year without one. A lot has changed in that time. You’re stuck indoors watching whatever is trending on Netflix. I’m watching a glacier slowly disappear. When it’s gone, it’s gone. I watch the light fade too. At least that will be back in the morning. The sky still blue for now. I can’t believe I’ve done this. I came late, instead of doing nothing. I battled through. I laugh a couple of times at how ridiculous this all feels. I am pleased. I’d not want to have Earnslaw Burn left on the didn’t have time list.

The last time I saw the stars was with Jannik on Stewart Island. There was one brief half-asleep wee at Liverpool Hut. Staying up until the day gets dark is far easier in the winter. I stand outside the tent, waiting for the blue to fade to black. Light from the first stars begins to reach me. One, then two, then three. I’ll be surprised if I’m awake for many more. The first constellation appears, one of the only ones I can name. Orion. But it’s too late, I am too tired. I can hope I’ll need a wee in the night. I did not wake up to see the stars. I slept so soundly to the tune of the running water deep in the valley. I expected to wake up to fog. Instead I had clear blue skies. Several hours until the sun will reach the valley floor. I take my cup of tea and journey towards the rock wall and ice fall. There are more obvious camps deeper in. Flattened grass and stone circles around fire pits. Two green dome tents are a little closer to the action. The Earnslaw Glacier is breathtaking. A slump of ice feeding a dozen or more cascades and waterfalls. All of which flow into the Earnslaw Burn. I can’t believe the scenery is still able to blow me away. Another sensation on the Road to Paradise. I sink my now empty mug into the stream and drink deep on the cold, fresh water. A new roar begins behind me, above the water. I hope it isn’t the rest of the ice about to fall. A helicopter speeds down the valley. Landing on flat ground. The pilot gets out, leaving the rotors spinning. Checking whether or not he can bring his scenic flight passengers up for the day. I suspect he’ll be back. The helicopter disappears over the valley wall. Time to make my own slower, longer exit.

The two dome tents are gone. I wave at the gang of four packing away. I return to my tent, half dry is dry enough. I pack up, wave again as my fellow campers pass me by. I watch them disappear over a ridge. Gone forever. The other tents are gone too. I quickly pass through the rock gardens, the alpine meadows to find the gang of four soaking up the sun before the track disappears into the bush. We take turns to lead out. Switching when one takes a break to fill up water, to have a snack. Those coming in ask “how is it?”. “Amazing, you’ll love it,” is my on repeat reply. I tell the first few to push on beyond the early campsites. Passing on the advice given to me. “Go deeper, you won’t regret it.” A lot of people head in. Not many look set for one day. Miss Influencer Abs and her Photographer aren’t equipped to stay but everyone else has a pack with at least one tent. Even when I arrive back at the track’s end more groups are loading up, heading in. At least 5 hours ahead of them. They’re as late as I was. I wave goodbye to my transient trail friends. The drive back to Queenstown is as spectacular as ever. Lowburn Harbour is far enough. It’s already late, again. Tomorrow will be a bigger driving day. A day off my feet at least. I check the incoming weather, the forecast for Aoraki has slipped. The mountains might be unsettled.

Nowhere to be for the first time in weeks. No time to be gone. I can have a lazy morning, take my time but not too much time. The sun is already warming the van. Hiking supplies first in Cromwell. Then the flat, winding brief climb over the alpine desert of Lindis Pass. Golden tussock beneath blue sky. The fire warnings are all set on high. A spark here and the whole floor goes up. Doom indeed. The cold blue lip of the Southern Alps appears again on the horizon, capped with the chipped white teeth of the range’s highest peaks. Aoraki, a deity frozen in stone, covered in a blanket of snow. Even now, in mid summer.  I park on the hill on the shores of Lake Pukaki. In awe at the size of Aoraki-Mount Cook, of the clear blue waters, of the mass of snow still present in the distant mountains. I truly do nothing for a while. Just sitting, looking. Then I read for the first time in days. Switching between soaking up the warm and letting the breeze flush through the van. I stroll down to the water to discover it’s warm. The relative calm, several days of sun. People are swimming, I assume that makes it ok. I go back and change. Only because I’m in my civilian clothes and not my hiking pants. They need a wash almost as much as I do. I stumble over the boulders into the not actually all that warm once you’re away from the shallows water. It feels good. After hiking in the heat. And it is warm, by comparison to the snow and ice melt rivers and streams I’ve become used to. I paddle up and down my stretch of shore. Then I dry in the sun, in view of all the texture of crumpled aluminium foil unrolled across the distant shore of Lake Pukaki. . This is an impossibly brilliant time in my life. I savour it. Nothing lasts forever. This might be the best look at the mountain I get in the three days I’m hoping to be here. After nearly two weeks of stable summer, things are set to break. Cloud tomorrow, rain on Monday, gale force winds in exposed places. I’m supposed to be up amongst it on Monday. And then only 10 days will remain. I still need to sort out a bank account, a tax number, maybe clothes to work in. Food to eat. A general life plan for the next few weeks. Goals. What can I achieve alongside work? Can I maintain my current fitness? Thoughts for another day. In the famous words of the Klaxons, it’s not over yet. Hooker Valley might still be clear tomorrow. The forecast may yet change again. Even if it only stretches til Monday, but I know asking for one more day might be asking for too much.

In the morning the same man twice mistakes my van for his. The first time, ok fair enough. They sort of look the same. He approached the passenger side. The second time, I start to question his sanity. He approaches the driver side, where I am sat. With the window open. I start telling him, “Not your van mate,” but he’s already got the door open before he notices. “Oh shit I am so sorry bro, your van is like much cleaner than mine too.” He disappears, hopefully embarrassed. I drive up the side of Lake Pukaki towards Aoraki-Mount Cook. Postcard perfect. You can tell, not just because of the blue sky, blue lake, golden grass, the two kinks in the black road, and the ever increasing mass of New Zealand’s highest peak but all of the postcards on sale look the same. The man in the DOC Visitor Centre is not confident about the incoming weather. “Come back in the morning, we’ll see.” Tomorrow is important to me. I really want to get my night up in the snow at Mueller Hut. This is one of the can’t miss nights still on my list. Hard to know with the Department of Conservation how much is fear-mongering and how much is actually taking my safety seriously. My alpine experience remains low. I don’t know enough to make the decision myself. I was going to have a lazy day but if I end up with one imposed on me tomorrow I might as well make the most of the still fine weather. Hooker Valley I’ve done before so if I miss it, I miss it. I wanted new views when I booked Mueller. I decide I’ll go half way. Sealy Tarns is at the end of the Stairway to Heaven. Some 2000 steps cut into the mountain side. Middle of the day heat. If only, if only I’d known it was a public holiday weekend I would have booked sooner. I could have gone up today, or yesterday even. I might have had to miss Earnslaw Burn instead. If things could be different, they would be different and I’m never sure if that’s something I want. I fly upstairs, weightless for the first time in over a month. It really has been that long since I last went out without a plan to stay the night. The viewpoint comes early, maybe I could go all the way to Mueller. I’m not prepared. I will save it for tomorrow, or some unknown future date. The weather might be ok. Someone tells me Tuesday looks worse. I go down and flake in the van. Wind spirals around the camp. A tent on a car roof snaps shut. Nobody inside. Others pull on their guys, snapping at the breeze. Dust picks up off the gravel road, flying through the open doors. The grit sticks to the sweat. I don’t pack my bag. Expecting the worst. What will that be? If they say don’t go, or if I decide not to? Not going won’t be the end of the world.  Mueller Hut will still be there. Other adventures will happen. Part of me has already accepted this fate. Of course, not going would be easier but what would I do instead? Laundry? A shower? Drive most of the way back to the Nelson Lakes National Park. At least I got a glipse of Aoraki. Saw him from a new angle. In awe the entire time, at last, the biggest of big hill country.

I walk up the Hooker Valley in the evening. The temperature cools. I stop at the Alpine Memorial. I don’t know any of the people who have died out here but I feel a connection. These people led the way, found the passes, the saddles. Made the first crossing. Cut the tracks we all walk on today. Their epigraphs all tell similar stories. At home in the mountains and at peace. I begin to feel emotions washing through me. I have the opposite of an existential crisis. An experience I enjoy so rarely I don’t even know what it’s called. 7 years, almost to the day, since I was last here. So much had changed, so little has changed. Today, here, now, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m not doing anything courageous or questionably stupid out here. The tracks I walk are well marked, for the most part. There is almost always someone else out in the wilderness. Everyone is always keeping an eye out for one another. Then I pass someone on their way out of the valley. They don’t say hello, they don’t make eye contact. I wonder if anyone has studied the proximity and the size of civilisation you approach when people stop saying hello. Never mind. I enjoy the walk up to the Hooker Lake. The light beginning to fade already. Sun still kissing the high ice shelves. A few other people are here with cameras. I assume they’ll be here for the stars but they pass out before me. A familiar squabble breaks out over one of the moraine walls. I count two, then three. Eventually around 8 to 10 Kea come to see who is still hanging around. They land on the table, hopeful for snacks. They gnaw on the wood, on the metal bolts. They eye me cautiously. Who are you, what are you doing here? Got any snacks? I hang around until the sun disappears. The Kea don’t leave. I can’t decide if they’re here for the company. They come and land near where ever I walk to. I whistle at them, make noises at them. Crouch down to their level. Like those on Gertrude Saddle they’re curious but cautious. Flapping a short distance away when I get too close. A handful of other people have come up to the lake. Stars begin to arrive in the arriving night sky. Now is a good time to start walking out. On the footpath ahead I hear creatures. At first I assume it’s possums but three of the Kea have found something to play with. On closer look they’ve got the sun-dried carcass of something and are dragging it off the path, into the bush. Just how cute are they really? The dark blue sky turns black. More and more lights flicker in the darkness above. Eventually the band of stars that make the edge of the galaxy appear overhead. There are more creatures on the path. Possums. At least four on the way back to the Whitehorse Hill Campsite. I only ever notice the lack of traps once I’ve begun to see the unfortunate mammals labelled as pests. The night stays clear and cold. My hope increases for the good weather to stretch out. One more day. Please.

I flick the curtains. The weather looks ok. No rain. Empty fields of blue sky. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I optimistically pack my overnight bag. I’m at the visitor centre at 8:30am. Ready to go, if they’ll let me. Technically they can’t stop me. You can’t close the mountains. Unless there’s a bridge, but even then they can only close the bridge, not what’s beyond. The woman behind the counter is shaking her head as she pulls out the forecast. 90km/h winds. “You won’t be able to stand up. Let alone walk.” It’s over. I knew it was over yesterday. Mueller Hut remains on the wish list. The girl behind me cancels, and the guy after her. Next time, we all say. I have my doubts whether I’ll have a next time. The woman tells me I could go up Hooker Valley instead. Done it. Or maybe this morning I could get up to Sealy Tarns before the winds come in. Done it. One of the guys I met on the Milford Track suggested the Red Tarns. Shorter, less steep than Sealy Tarns. Something to do at least. I blast up in my sandals. I meet a couple at the top who tell me they also cancelled. You feel like you’ve done the right thing when everyone has done the same. I’m sure some people will go up anyway. With the way the morning has turned out I suspect it’ll be fine. The problem is rarely getting up, it’s getting back down again. Next time, I say, next time. Whenever that will be. Now I can spread the rest of my journey North across more days. I could get to Nelson Lakes sooner. If the weather is more favourable there then I can get on with the Travers-Sabine Circuit (if they’ll let me). I drive through the cracked crust of a caramel custard creme brûlée brown grasslands. The mountains disappear as I reach out towards the East Coast. I hope I’ll be back but I don’t know when. Maybe a year from now? Maybe 10? The road is easy, busy with public holiday crowds. Campgrounds that were empty in November have swelled. I end up in Geraldine. I have a warm shower. I do some laundry. Clean my boots. Sweep the tent. Submit an application for a bank account and feel, briefly, like a fully functional adult human. I celebrate with a fridge chilled pale ale. It wasn’t the day I wanted but I still got loads done. Tomorrow I consider a run, or maybe a proper rest. A 6 hour drive to St Arnaud is ahead of me. A good sleep is essential.

3 responses to “New Zealand: Aoraki-Mount Cook

  1. dear Christoph, it was wonderful to read your posts related to your trips around New Zealand, it really made me want to pack and go now!!! have a perfect week and cheers from Portugal, PedroL

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