Aoraki/Mt. Cook: Magnificent glacial lakes and stargazing
I had painstakingly planned my New Zealand South Island roadtrip for weeks prior to arriving. But the wind and rain of the south and southeast coast over the past few days made me keep a good eye on the weather forecasts for the coming days.
So there I was, sat in my campervan in Moeraki, rocking in the gale-force winds, when I basically ditched my organised spreadsheet (did you expect any less?) that laid out my route up the east coast (including alternatives) and go inland and up to find Aoraki/Mt.Cook.
The scenery that greeted me was completely different to the coast, with snow covered mountains surrounding me.
Then there was also the stunning sapphire blue waters of Lake Pukaki that reminded me of the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
The sight sure did make a change from the weather I had been experiencing the past few days and I drank in the sublime delights of the passing scenery. Before I knew it, I was already there.
Trusting my NZ Frenzy guidebook, I chose the Hooker Valley Track, as it was a beautiful day with only a bit of cloud cover.
The path is actually a well-laid out path, with wooden boards for a large part of it, rather than anything I would actually call hiking. Nonetheless, the overnight snow blanketed the ground with a layer of pure white snow, and with each breath of the fresh mountain air and each crunch of snow under my boots, I could feel my soul recharging.
Over bridges and alongside streams I went, with not too many other people on the path with me. The scenery was great - milky grey rivers leading to/from icy lakes, flanked by mountains on either side.
But after 2 hours or so of walking, I got to Hooker Lake. It simply took my breath away.
The photos I took barely convey the immense beauty of what I saw, and I got strangely emotional at the sight.
It's not often that I am happy to just sit still when outdoors, but I just sat myself down and for the next half hour or so just took in the sight without really needing to say or think anything.
Some larger and higher quality photos on my Flickr album, help conveys the scenery a lot better, so check it out here.
I was rather bemused by most people, who stopped at the picnic tables at the end of the main path, and just had a look at the lake from up high rather than walk the extra 2 minutes down to the edge of the lake. The view from the lake shore is indisputably 100x better than from the picnic tables! But hey, their loss, and I appreciated the solitude (perfect place for a fortress) to enjoy the view for myself.
On the walk back, I got chatting to a girl who had been working in the area for months and had walked the path 8 times or so who said she had never seen it this beautiful. You can keep your American Express. This was privilege.
That evening, I stayed at the YHA in the small village because temperatures were predicted to drop to a cool -4 degree That, and the hostel also has a sauna!
In fact, I was enjoying getting myself warmed up so much that I ended up being a little late for the planetarium visit I was attending, which was followed by stargazing at the 'secret location' that turned out to be the Mt.Cook airport nearby.
It was a fantastically clear night, with no moon, so visibility was amazing and we got to see a quite a few stars and the odd galaxy through the powerful binoculars and telescope that were set up. The group's clear favourite was Saturn; its rings really do look like how they are depicted (I'd always assumed that there was a degree of artistic licence involved)!
Also, I saw something like 8 shooting stars in the space of just over an hour that we were there, which is pretty much more than I've seen my entire life combined up till that point.
The next morning, after packing up and heading to my campervan, I was sure glad that I had spent the night indoors (with heating).
After I had blasted the campervan's heating for a good 10 minutes and melted enough frost to be able to drive, I headed back to the Aoraki carpark and made my way to the start of the Sealy Tarns Steps.
Dubbed the Stairway to Heaven, these steps are pretty crazy cool in that the 1,810 steps take you high up the mountainside, giving a fantastic view from up high of the glacial lakes and valleys below.
On this day, it was pretty crazy cool because...
...of the thick layer of ice and snow thanks to the snowfall 2 nights ago, which was melted by the weight of walkers yesterday, and re-frozen by the subzero temperatures last night.
Never one to back down without giving things a good go, I decided to attempt them anyway.
In hindsight, probably a rather stupid move, though (I thought) going up the steps was difficult but not impossible.
My reward for persistence was a pretty good view of the two glacial lakes that were on different levels.
On a different day, I would probably have ooh'ed and aah'ed at the view, but the magnificence of the view from the shore of Hooker Lake the day before had really spoilt me and set the bar so very high.
That, and the fact that I was huffin' and puffin' so much from the climb, that I was literally steaming as I had to strip off my (light) jacket shortly into the climb.
As I got higher, the ice got thicker and I nearly slipped a couple of times.
So despite the fact that I was probably 80% or so up the 1,810 steps to the Sealy Tarns, I decided that I didn't want to risk breaking my ankle, especially as I was the first up those steps that morning and no one else was around.
I said just now that, in hindsight, going up the stairs was a fairly stupid move? Well, it properly became apparent just how stupid when I started my descent.
Slip and slide. Slip slip, slide.
And when your momentum is heading down the steps, that's not a good thing!
Despite me having pretty good dancer's balance, I was fighting a losing battle against the ice. So rather than risking what would have been a rather dramatic tumble down the icy steps and Sealy'ed my fate, I ended up sitting on the ice and doing some (semi) controlled sliding on my bum.
Probably a good thing that there was no one else around to see me do that!
When I (eventually) got to the bottom (no pun intended) of the steps, I did bump into a couple of groups of people who were just about to start their ascent. I did warn them how icy it was, but they too decided it was ok, so hopefully they were fine.
Back at the carpark, I had a quick lunch, which the resident ducks must have smelt.
Next stop, Tekapo, another lake famed for the alluring shades of blue of its waters.
Before heading into the town itself, I went up onto the Mt.John University Observatory.
Nice little winding road up the hill, which was fun to drive.
At the top, people were setting up some very fancy looking telescopes for the evening's stargazing and photography. I just had some coffee and took in the views.
Down in Tekapo, I did a very quick photo stop at the Church of the Good Shepherd, which coincidentally was also the name of the church in Malaysia that I went to for a few years when I was young (seems a lifetime ago now).
At that point, I was pretty exhausted, both physically and of all the sights.
So, for something different, I went to the Tekapo Springs spa, and spent a few hours soaking in the hot pools, shaped like the 3 lakes in the vicinity - Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo.
Just after it got dark, I got talking to an American guy in the pool. At first Skylar was talking about meditation and consciousness, so I thought he was just a New Age friendly type, or perhaps he was flirting with me.
Turns out he was some sort of missionary, and kept trying to subtly turn the topic to Jesus and prayer.
By then, I was genuinely starving, for food, rather than spiritual guidance, so I wished him a good trip and goodbye.
Back in Tekapo town, I found a fantastic Japanese restaurant, run by real Japanese people (lots of Japanese places in NZ are actually run by Koreans). I spotted the difference straight away not just in the taste, but the impressive knife skills in the finely shredded vegetables in my starter sushi.
If you're ever in Tekapo, I can highly recommend Kohan for Japanese food.
All in all, Aoraki/Mt.Cook and Tekapo was definitely one of the highlights of my time in NZ, and I'm so glad that I deviated from my original plan to be there.
Check out my Flickr album for more and better quality images.
Next: I go in search of seal pups and see the city of Christchurch, that is still very much in the aftermath of the earthquake.