We switched up the itinerary a little bit and drove to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. We wanted to see the tallest peak in all of New Zealand along with other beautiful mountains and a majestic valley carved by two separate glaciers. Mount Cook or Aoraki (translated from the native Maori language meaning “cloud piercer”) stands just over 12,300 feet (3754 meters) above sea level. Not a huge mountain by the world’s standards, but a fierce one none the less. With it’s jagged peaks, sheer drops, ice and unforgiving weather, it’s a favorite amongst mountaineers from all across the globe and one made famous by Sir Edmund Hillary when he trained here before his historic first ascent of Mt. Everest.
We stayed at the only DOC (Department of Conservation) site in the park, which was $20nzd/night for two people. Since DOC sites are not powered, they are usually around $12nzd, but this one was $20nzd because it is considered a scenic campsite. Scenic is an understatement. This place is gorgeous, and with a fresh blanket of snow just a couple of days before we arrived, it was even prettier. We arrived to find clear blue skies and a crispness in the air. After checking out one of the best visitors centers since we arrived in NZ, we set up camp and enjoyed the view. Jason hiked a short trail (30 minutes) up to Kea Point for a better look at some of the mountains while Simone did some reading and relaxing back at camp. That crispness in the air turned out to be 0c, or 32f at night. We bundled up in hats and whatever warm clothes we had to sleep in since we only had a comforter on the bed. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to stay two nights.
On the second day we were there, Jason again took off on a hike, this time early in the morning as the sun was rising to make the three-hour return trip through the Hooker Valley to see Hooker Glacier and get a different view of Mount Cook. Simone would be sure to keep an eye on things in camp as she stayed huddled in her cocoon. The hike through the valley leads you over rocks, streams, and rivers created by the runoff of snow and the melting of ice from both the Hooker Glacier and those glaciers hanging off Mount Sefton. As you cross the second of three modern suspension bridges you can see the old footpath, created by the pioneers of this valley off to the right that looks much like a goat path and is partially buried by rock slides. After the hour and a half hike in you are rewarded with one of the best views of Mount Cook and one of the few views of the Hooker Glacier. On the return hike, you are rewarded with a fantastic view of the valley and surrounding mountains. There is also a memorial to stop off at that is dedicated to those that lost their life in the park, many of whom were climbers. Another would be added to this list just a week after we left when a climber fell to their death while ascending Mount Cook.
On our third and final day we headed over to Tasman Glacier on a boat tour that took us on the lake for a closer look at the glacier and the “ice cubes” that had calved off of it in the prior months. Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest glacier with a length of 17 miles. It is also as much as 2.5 miles wide and as much as 2,000 feet thick in spots. Cruising around in the boat, you get a feel for how big these “ice cubes” really are and learn how much is not even showing. Glacial ice that floats in the water is only 10 percent exposed, the remaining 90 percent is under water. These large pieces of ice could potentially roll if the weight is shifted when pieces break off. Knowing that, you want someone confident in control of the boat. Our boat captain was learning. She did take us over for a look at the face of the glacier (which you can only get a good look at in a boat) and talked about a bit of history. The tour was pretty good, but at a price of about $125USD per person, we think that half of that would have been a more reasonable price for what you get. Our recommendation if you go is to drive yourself over, do the easy ten minute hike and get a view for free, then decide if it’s worth taking a tour out on the lake. They also have kayak tours, but both are guided due to the glacier and ice.
When you choose to venture out to this beautiful park and want to hike, be sure to check the weather, be well prepared with clothes, good hiking boots, food, water and make sure to get out on the trails early, especially in the busy season. If you get good clear skies, this is also one of the best places in New Zealand and possibly the world to star gaze. If you’re in a campervan, fill up on fuel and food in Twizel or Pukaki, because you would have to take out a loan to afford them in the park. Also fill up your water tank and empty your grey water tank because there is only the one DOC campsite out there. And of course charge those camera batteries, you’re gonna need them.