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Aoraki/Mt Cook reigns supreme in its namesake national park, permanently cloaked in snow and ice — even in the height of summer. No matter Mother Nature’s mood, the promise of dramatic scenery is always part of the package. In fact, much of the Mackenzie region, which enjoys an altitude more than 700m above sea level, boasts snow-draped landscapes deep into spring.
After enjoying an early winter break in Tekapo, I drove across Mackenzie’s arid plains of snow-speckled golden tussock, as Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park’s theatrical vertical grandeur shuffled into view. This gilded landscape of awe and saga — the shifting light, the ruffled immensity, the loneliness — compelled me to pull over to take another photo.
After taking my fill of Pukaki’s luminous beauty, and the distant vistas of Aoraki, I followed the western side of the lake to Mt Cook village, where a world of wondrous walking opportunities await. The most surprising aspect to Aoraki/Mt Cook’s surrounding terrain is just how easily accessible it is.
I also adore the Kea Point Track, which starts from The Hermitage and can be easily completed within 2 hours. It’s also a relatively flat walk, emblazoned with golden tussock and subalpine grasses, leading you to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. The walk culminates with sumptuous close-up views of Mt Sefton, The Footstool, Aoraki and the Mueller Glacier lake. The monastic silence is pierced only by the thunderous booms of calving ice, breaking away from the glacier at its terminal. My third must-do walk is in the Tasman Valley, a 8km drive from the Hermitage. The short 40-minute return walk to Tasman Glacier Lake slinks past the Blue Lakes to a viewpoint on the moraine walls, lording over Tasman Glacier’s terminal face.
Needing a caffeine fix, I headed to the charismatic Old Mountaineers’ Cafe, close to the Department of Conservation visitor centre. Under the command of Mary and Charlie Hobbs, The Old Mountaineers’ Cafe was the subject of a rip-roaring David v Goliath battle 20 years ago, before it could be built and finally opened by Sir Ed Hillary.
If you’re itching for some aerial spectacles, to fully appreciate the grandeur of New Zealand’s sky-piercing giants, take a scenic flight.
I drove back to the southern end of Lake Pukaki, where some pristine picnic areas await you under the pine trees. Turn left off the main highway, just as you approach the base of the lake. Right across the road, for a night of supremely languid boutique indulgence, with an unbeatable perch discreetly overlooking Lake Pukaki’s long vista towards Aoraki, is Lakestone Lodge. Exclusively located just above the southern shores of Lake Pukaki, this contemporary off-grid, solar-heated eco retreat has been ingeniously designed to maximise the panoramic views.
You could not get a more primo location to watch the sun dipping behind Mt Cook/Aoraki.
Mike Yardley is a freelance travel writer.