Justine Tyerman is a New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor. Married for 36 years, she lives in rural surroundings near Gisborne on the East Coast of New Zealand with her husband Chris.In this piece, she finds one of the only flattish walks in the Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park.
The ranger at the information centre gave me a peculiar look when I asked about flat walks in the area.
"I don’t really do hills," I said to the impossibly-fit young fellow who looked as though he could sprint up Mt Cook before morning tea.
Without displaying too much overt disdain at having to tear himself away from a real McCoy mountaineering pair who were seeking advice before setting off to tackle the Caroline Face with their crampons and ice-axes, he indicated that inferior species such as ourselves might like to attempt the hike up the Hooker Valley – apart from the walk from the carpark to the Hermitage, this was one of the few flat walks in Mt Cook National Park, which was, by definition, rather more full of mountains than flat places.
Ignoring his scorn, we laced up our tramping boots, took up our day packs with survival gear just in case, grasped our walking sticks and headed for the track. We might have been mere day hikers but we were keen to look the part in this hearty alpine environment… as opposed to the Japanese ladies with their parasols and high heels and the Aussies with their jandals, or thongs as they call them.
After we had successfully negotiated our way out of the carpark, we crossed a swing bridge, skirted around a cliff face on a well-formed track with safety rails, ambled up a wide valley with a profusion of wild flowers, along a board walk to protect the delicate eco-system, past a sobering memorial to all those who had gone beyond the flat walks and died trying to climb the peaks in the park… and then quite suddenly, we were in the presence of the almighty Aoraki, the Cloud Piercer – although there were no clouds to pierce that day.
No matter how often we view her and from what angle, Mt Cook is a stunner. I had an overwhelming sense of spiritual ownership that Maori talk of when they refer to their maunga, their mountain.
There are few places in the world where you can stroll through spectacular alpine terrain right to the foot of the country’s highest peaks in an hour or so without guides, oxygen and a team of sherpas or yaks carrying your life’s necessities for the next few months.
Sitting at the foot of our mountain, eating our sandwiches in T-shirts and shorts on a clear summer day, we watched a group of elderly German hikers peel off, fold and carefully place every item of their clothing on a rock before donning swim suits for a dip in the Hooker Glacier lake, complete with icebergs.
Justine at the glacier lake. Image credit: Justine Tyerman
Hmmm… swimming with the icebergs. Not likely to catch on in a big way, but a fascinating spectator sport all the same. Pretending the water was not ridiculously cold seemed to be part of the ritual which they had evidently performed many times before around the world.
As the only non-German, non-swimmers in the immediate vicinity, we were asked to be official photographers of the event. Sadly, we never thought to record it on our own camera.
We couldn’t drag ourselves away from the national park that day and decided to pitch our wee tent just down the road at Glentanner camping ground where we could commune with Aoraki a while longer, and watch her in the splendour of sunset and sunrise.
As the sun dropped behind Aoraki’s massive bulk painting the snow-topped peak pink and scarlet and gold, the view from our tent awning was far superior to even the best suite at The Hermitage. It gave us a smug sense of satisfaction… along with the exhilaration of having climbed to the dizzy height of at least 150 metres on our eight-kilometre flattish walk.
Next day, I watched Aoraki, as I always do, until she dropped out of sight just beyond Lake Tekapo knowing we would see her again in her winter uniform a few months later.