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Mystical Mt. Cook

...we are keen on alpine hiking

semi-overcast 18 °C

I am excited to explore the area around Duntroon as it is on the “Vanishing World Trail”. A trail has been formed connecting numerous cool fossil and geographical sites. We take a shingle side road from Duntroon to the town of Earthquake where ancient baleen whale fossils have been uncovered in the limestone dating 24-27 million years old. The landscape here was formed from a major landslide thousands of years ago. Massive chucks of limestone have been pushed upwards and split apart forming cliffs over a few million years. Boulders of limestone that have broken off and now rest scattered through the valley. The limestone was formed by sandy sediments originally deposited in shallow seas far off-shore. We walk slowly past the cliffs touching the Kokoamu Greensand layers that date back to 29 million years old.

Greensand Layer in Limestone Cliffs

Greensand Layer in Limestone Cliffs

Back on the road towards Mt. Cook, we make a quick stop at an ancient Moari Rock Drawing site. But due to a car sized boulder breaking off the cliffs and falling onto the trail below, the area is closed off. Up the road along the Waitaki River we go, gradually gaining elevation. We take the scenic route across the massive Aviemore Dam and along Lake Aviemore before crossing back to the main road via Benmore Dam. The Waitaki River is dammed eight times, generating heaps of NZ power.

We pass through Omarama, where Wrinkley Rams is located. Wrinkley Rams is a merino sheep farm where the semi-enviro conscious merino wool clothing company, Icebreaker, gets their wool. I say semi-enviro conscious because originally the entire company was New Zealand based, but now they ship the wool to China to have the clothing sewn.

Merino Sheep at Wrinkly Rams

Merino Sheep at Wrinkly Rams

Past the town of Twizel we pull off for lunch and a quick fishing mission. After casting into the trees on the other side of the river and loosing an awesome lure I pack up my gear and we continue on. The mountainous scenery increases as we approach Mt. Cook. We enter into Mt. Cook National Park and suddenly I realize that I had set my shoes on the roof of the car to dry out when we stopped for lunch some 70 kms back. Julie pulls the car over calmly while I am freaking out. I get behind the wheel, pull a u-turn and blast off back down the highway. Luckily my kickers had rolled off the highway and were patiently awaiting my return.

The quiet drive back up to Mt. Cook seems to take forever but we finally reach the end of the road and the home to some spectacular scenery. Mt. Cook is nestled in a valley with soaring peaks and melting glaciers on all sides. We make a short visit to the info centre to check the ever changing weather for the next few days before setting up camp at White Horse Hill Campground.

The chilly mountain air greets us early as we crawl out of the tent clothed with toques and layers to stay warm. Our plan is to hike up to Mueller Hut for the night but low cloud cover forces us to switch to a day hike up into Hooker Valley instead. Clouds float aloft the peak of Mt. Cook and we are told that the sacred mountain rarely chooses to emerge from its cloak of mist to show its face. But as we hike into the Valley the sun slowly burns off the cloudy skies and numerous peaks begin to appear, one of which is Mt. Cook. The majestic Aoraki (Mt Cook) is NZ's highest peak at 3754 m and is a World Heritage Site as this National Park covers more than 70,000 hectares of alpine landscape. Views along the trail include Mueller Glacier melting and draining into the grey and murky Mueller Lake. As we pass through the Valley, around the Mt. Cook Range and cross the Hooker River twice, Hooker Glacier comes into view. It is slowly melting, forming the frigid Hooker Lake where ice bergs float in the cloudy waters like ships out to sea. The chilly morning has turned into a beautiful shorts and t-shirt type day as we set up our pick-nick lunch along the rocky shore and gaze at the steep rocky screes across the Lake. As we head back towards camp we notice that Mt. Cook is once again hidden behind its cloak of clouds. We are fortunate to have seen the peak of the mountain today.

Mueller Lake and Mt. Sefton

Mueller Lake and Mt. Sefton


Aoraki/Mt. Cook

Aoraki/Mt. Cook


Aoraki/Mt. Cook

Aoraki/Mt. Cook


Hooker Lake and Mt. Cook Range

Hooker Lake and Mt. Cook Range


Butterfly on Mountain Daisy

Butterfly on Mountain Daisy

Back at camp Julie decides to give her bad knee a break, put her feet up and dive into a book for the afternoon, while I hike my way up to the Red Tarns. The alpine ponds are coloured red from red pond weed and sit peacefully high above the Village in a flat area upon a steep ridge. From here panoramic views of Mt. Cook Village sit in the shadows of the scattered clouds. I return to the campsite to find Julie relaxing in the sun, reading her book, with a big smile on her face. After an early dinner we stroll through subalpine grasslands and scrub to Kea Point for the sunset. The point over looks Mueller Glacier and its lateral moraine (a wall of gravel) left from years of retreat. Mt. Sefton rises above the Mueller Glacier, Hooker Valley lays beyond its lateral moraine wall; and Mt. Cook towers in the background covered in clouds. Our eyes are busy with the views as our ears listen carefully to the frequent crashing blue thunder in the distance.

View of Mt. Cook Village from Red Tarns

View of Mt. Cook Village from Red Tarns

In the morning we pack up camp and point the car towards Methven. The four hour drive is through rolling hills of paddocks filled with sheep. Despite all the sheep here in NZ, sheep milk and cheese are hard to find and the meat is more expensive than beef and chicken! NZ exports most of their sheep products and locals end up paying export prices for items grown in their own country. Along the way, we make a quick stop at a roadside market in Geraldine where Julie finds a sweet deal on a handmade merino and mohair wool hat. She is really stocking up anything made from natural fibres.

We make a detour towards the Peel Forest, a remnant of a magnificent podocarp forest that once covered a huge area in mid-Canterbury but now only 783 hectares remain. It is rich and diverse and holds ancient giant totara, matai, and kahikatea trees. Totara trees can live to be 2000 years old and as we take a short hike through this pristine area we come across one that has a circumference of 9 m and is over 1000 years old. It's roots are massive and stretch for meters above the ground before disappearing into the earth. We give the tree a big hug before continuing on.

Massive Totara Tree in Peel Forest

Massive Totara Tree in Peel Forest


Totara Roots in Peel Forest

Totara Roots in Peel Forest


Totara Tree in Peel Forest

Totara Tree in Peel Forest

Julie wants to drive up the Rangitata River to Erewhon Station. The loose shingle roads wind up the valley past huge farms and pastureland. Far off in the distance mountains grow to soaring heights with rocky scree slopes pouring down from the peaks. The massive Rangitata watershed originates in the Southern Alps and flows east to the Pacific Ocean. It's an interesting area although far from pristine, as all the trees have been clear cut and irrigated paddocks take over.

Rangitata River Valley

Rangitata River Valley

From Erewhon Station we make our way to Heron Lake for dinner and possibly to camp. The campsite seems deserted as the strangely scattered old trailers look like they haven't been used in ages. The only picnic table that isn't ready to crumble sits nearby a newer trailer but nobody is home. So we use it and prepare a quick dinner of felafel before making our way back to civilization. The gravel roads are wreaking havoc on our poor car and Julie's knee. Nothing stays put on the dash and everything from map books to her camera has fallen onto her already tender knee. We freedom camp in a roadside picnic area near Methvan for the night, resting up for our next big adventure in Arthur's Pass in the morning.

Posted by ontarions 19:26 Archived in New Zealand

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