Mountainous magnificence

Lake Pukaki is overshadowed by Aoraki Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Lake Pukaki is overshadowed by Aoraki Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Immersing yourself with nature’s unplugged glory is life’s restorative elixir. The majesty of the Mackenzie region could have been pre-ordained and purpose-created for restorative getaways, writes Mike Yardley.

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.

Lake Pukaki is overshadowed by Aoraki Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Lake Pukaki is overshadowed by Aoraki Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
You don’t need to be a mountaineer or mountain-goat fit to undertake intimate wilderness walks that get you blissfully up-close with our highest peaks and glaciers. Routinely decorated as New Zealand’s greatest day walk, the Hooker Valley Track is a gentle three-hour jaunt. Heading up the valley with unbelievably good views, you’ll traverse golden tussocks, swing bridges, get up close with the Mueller and Hooker Glacier, and be rewarded with views of Mt Cook and the Southern Alps. If you’re planning a trip later in the year, the added spectacle of summer wildflowers heightens the spectacle.

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.

The Hooker Valley Track with Aoraki Mt Cook in  the background.
The Hooker Valley Track with Aoraki Mt Cook in the background.
The walk has a gradual incline, but keep it leisurely paced and you’ll be fine. The glacier terminal lake is frequently speckled with icebergs, adding to the drama of this stunningly primal walk. Winter can also make the lake freeze over. The southward views across Tasman Valley are sigh-inducing. The lake is a recent chapter in our history as it was formed in 1974 as New Zealand’s longest glacier retreated. Once 100km long, it now stretches for just 27km. Part of the track leads through the glacier’s old terminal moraines (rock and stone debris left when a glacier retreats), marking the foot of the glacier and its subsequent retreat, vividly illustrating nature is ever-changing.

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.

The view across Tasman Glacier lake.
The view across Tasman Glacier lake.
You can read all about the drama in Mary’s book, Matagouri and other Pricks. Charlie is one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed mountain guides — he was on hand when double amputee Mark Inglis climbed Aoraki and then conquered Mt Everest. The convivial cafe-bar-restaurant showcases an extensive historic photographic gallery, brimming with grit, character and spirit. If you’re up for some serious alpine adventure, from heli-skiing to glacier kayaking, Charlie’s team offers a wealth of options.

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.


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