01/22/11 - Aoraki Mount Cook
We headed out on the Hooker Valley Trail just as the sun was breaking up the cloud cover. We’d bundled up for our adventure, as it was rather cold out that morning, but in the quickening warmth we were stripping off layers and strapping them to our pack. As we headed up the first small slope, we saw the valley open up in front of us, expanding outward and upward. We were in awe of the beauty laid before us. Snowy granite peaks pierced the sky while serene waterfalls trailed down their faces like graceful tears. The plants were lush and otherworldly. I’d never seen a mix of vegetation quite like this.
It looked like someone had taken plants from the mountains, the desert, and the tropics, mixed them in a giant pot and scattered them over the valley floor. The birds and insects buzzed with delight.
New Zealand seems to always have a sweet smell in the air, but up by Mt. Cook that scent came to full blossom upon the wind. The air was crisp and clear, the likes of which I had never experienced. It’s difficult to describe, but imagine having 20/20 vision and putting on a pair of glasses only to realize you’d been missing a whole dimension of the world around you. There was nothing between us and the vegetation, nor the mountains in the distance. No fog, no smog, only air so clean we could feel the space between us and the earth diminish and fold. The difference was that distinct, and we rejoiced in it.
Pictures were snapping like crazy. We knew we couldn’t capture the full splendor of the view, but we had to try. In one direction we’d turn, gasp, and take a photo. Then we’d turn 180 degrees, gasp, and take another photo. It was so impressive and gorgeous we were nearly crying at the beauty surrounding us. I know I’m gushing, but if there were ever a place to gush about, this would be it.
The weather was absolutely perfect. People on the trail were commenting as they passed by how sublime the day was, how incredible the view. You could tell each person was thrilled to be right where they were. As I rounded a bend I heard the crash of water rushing and caught a glimpse of the first of two suspension bridges we were to cross. Yet again, we turned to each other with pure joy glowing on our faces. Suspension bridges!! It doesn’t get better than that!
The water was grey and milky, like liquid clay. It roared below us while the bridge swayed and bounced beneath our feet. These bridges were no small affair. You could see how expertly they’d been erected, with thick wire and massive bolts anchoring them to enormous boulders at both ends.
Further in we heard a sudden crack of thunder. Huh? But the sky was clear! Katie swiftly gripped my arm and pointed upward. An avalanche was pouring down the side of a mountain right before our eyes! Snow showered upon the crags below and ripped an angry rumble through the valley. The sound it made did indeed mimic to perfection the intensity of a thunder storm. Katie was quick enough to snap a picture of the event before it was all over (God bless her). Just as quickly the moment was over, and the calm of a moment before returned. We couldn’t believe our luck. To have seen something like that with our naked eyes! I never would’ve guessed it to be possible.
After crossing a second suspension bridge, I struck up a conversation with a nice elderly Kiwi woman from Dunedin. We chatted about what a pristine day we were having, and she told us about the best place to park our car when we got to Dunedin. How thoughtful!
It was here that the trail turned into a boardwalk weaving through tall grass. The sun was at its brightest, and we could finally see Mount Cook standing tall at the center of the range. Our glimpse of it was fleeting, the clouds quickly shrouded it once more, but we were grateful to have seen the peak, if only for a moment.
Once we passed over a small slope ahead, we were finally greeted to the sight of a milky lake with small icebergs floating upon it. At the end of the water you could see the gravel-ridden cliffs of Hooker Glacier. We ate lunch on the edge of the lake. Bumper Bars were the only item on the menu. These delectable treats had become our new favorite hiking meal. We’d discovered them in a convenience store in Christchurch, and as the label says, they are "full of good stuff." Grains, apricots, and chocolate, to be precise. Yum!
After lunch I busied myself with trying to skip a rock out to an iceberg. I got very close but couldn’t quite hit it. Then Katie gave me a rock she’d been holding – BAM! Nailed it. She really knows how to pick 'em. ;)
We thought we were done with all our crazy photo taking from the hike in, but on the hike back out we were just as picture happy. We snapped a sizable amount by the time we made it to our campsite where we had to quickly switch gears. We were now on route to the Hermitage Hotel, where our boat ride out to the Tasman Glacier awaited us.