Mount Cook, or Aoraki to give it its proper Maori name, is the highest peak in New Zealand. Located in the Southern Alps on the South Island, the mountain is nestled between flat plains, sheer slopes and glaciers, and has been used as a practice climb for those training for Mount Everest. It is often thought that the name translates to ‘cloud piercer’ and had it not been a spectacular blue-sky day when I was there, I’m sure the mountain would have done just that.
I was down in Queenstown when I was forced to leave (for the second time) due to a large incoming of tourists for the Easter Weekend, meaning there were no beds available anywhere. I decided to grab a bus to Wanaka for a few days, a nearby town that’s just as pretty, if a little quieter (it also has an AWESOME cinema). During those few days it occurred to me that this might be my only chance to see Aoraki/Mount Cook, another (loooonnngg) bus ride away. One night was all I would have, and due to New Zealand’s unfortunate lack of public transport, i.e. one bus a day, if that, I would arrive there at 1pm and leave at 7am. Which gave me just enough time to do the Hooker Valley Track (4 hours return) before it got dark.
Starting at the information centre, this is an easy, mostly flat trail that winds through the valley towards the mountain. Following the Hooker River and crossing it several times via swing bridges, the track gives extraordinary views of the snow-capped, towering peak. Although the 4-hour track doesn’t bring you right to the foot of Aoraki, it shows you something even better.
I was not mentally prepared for what lay at the end of the path. Maybe it was because I hadn’t read all that much about the walk, but I’m so glad I didn’t because the surprise made it even better. You don’t see it until you turn the final corner and it’s right there. The Hooker Glacier Lake…complete with icebergs. Friggin’ ICEBERGS. My mouth hit the floor. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it. The surface of the lake reflected the mountains surrounding it as it stretched away from me to the edge of the Hooker Glacier. Chunks of ice ranging in size from a few feet to many metres floated quietly across it. I’ve heard that if you stay long enough, you might see a portion of the glacier cleave away into the water. Unfortunately the setting sun allowed me only a quick stop for some photos and a cereal bar before I had to turn away and head back to the village. On the walk back, each time I turned around the mountain had changed colour – from snow white, to orange, to pink. Simply beautiful.
One quick afternoon, but it was such an amazing time. I’m so happy that I took the chance to see the impressive mountain when I could. And the drive between Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village and Wanaka is almost enough to warrant the trip. The last part of the bus ride is along Lake Pukaki, one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. Its turquoise waters have to be seen to be believed. It’s no wonder that Peter Jackson chose it as the location of Lake Town in his Hobbit films. And for all the LOTR fanatics out there (high five!), the drive also takes you past the White Mountains and Mackenzie Station, the location of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Nerds are cool.
Aoraki-Mt.Cook is accessible from Queenstown, Wanaka and Christchurch, though each journey is at least several hours. Driving is the easiest option, but there is a minimal amount of public transport in the form of buses, although this can tie you into a particular schedule.
Accommodation is varied within the small village, with a number of hotels (some minimal, some very fancy) and a couple of backpacker hostels to suit those on a tighter budget.
The area is stuffed full of hiking trails, with the Hooker Valley, Tasman Glacier and Kea Point the most popular ones. Just remember to check the weather first!
Other activities available to visitors are mountaineering, kayaking, helicopter tours and star-gazing in the only Dark Sky Reserve in the country.
Don’t forget to stop along the way and admire the stunning scenery along Lake Pukaki. Yes, the colour of the water is real!
18 hours in an amazing place, 8 of which I spent sleeping. Was it worth it? Absolutely. So even if you don’t think you’ve got enough time to go somewhere you really want to see, it could still work out if you try.
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.