Imagine your grandma’s face. She’s lying down and you are a wee one sanding behind her looking on from eye level. You lean in to see if she’s awake. You squint at her face…
That’s sort of what the South Island looks like. It’s got a big mound at the top and heaps of beige craggly valleys that wind away from its famous peak. Your grandma’s nose – that’s Mount Cook, and her crinkled nasal-labial folds – those are the rest of the South Island. That white makeup she’s put in to cover up her age, that’s the glaciers. I’ve been living on your grandma’s face for six months driving my way through her wrinkle-roads and I’ve finally made my way to the base of her nose…
We awoke to the baritone hum of a horn and peered our eyes into the fog of a storm cloud above the train station in Timaru. Moseying over to the information center, a woman hurriedly approached asking, “where are you headed?” Eager to share her information, she added, “’cause the road down to Dunedin is flooded and the way back to Christchurch is a mess. West is just about the only direction you can go, but you won’t see much over there in this weather.” Just our luck, we happened to be heading west.
Before leaving, we stopped for coffee and picked the brains of an overly made-up barista at a rundown Timaru sports bar. Handing her our South Island map, she took the pen out of her hair and marked it up with X’s and O’s – a virtual what and what not guide to Southern Canterbury.
The rain weakened to a mist while we sped past rolling hills of amber bush. At Fairlie the landscape changed and the road ascended Burke’s Pass to the expanses of Mackenzie Country. This plateau from which the iconic peaks of Aoraki Mt Cook National Park rise were named after the legendary James ‘Jock’ Mackenzie who drove his stolen flocks to the then uninhabited region in the 1840’s. Gaping at the beauty of the area and realizing its potential for settlement, others soon followed.
If Heaven has a lake, it probably looks something like Lake Tekapo.
Its banks are filled with the kind of dreamy liquid only imagined in Japanese Anime. It is the kind of place lovers in a fantasy film finally beat all odds to live happily ever after. Lake Tekapo is unreal.
The blazing blue of Tekapo and it’s neighboring Lake Pukaki is due to ‘rock flour,’ a sediment in the water left over from a stony-bottomed glacier that moved across the land’s surface, grinding out fine particles (fairy dust) which now lay suspended in the glacial melt water.
All around us, the mountains of the Southern Alps stretched up into an ocean of graying white. Blotchy clouds presented the possibility of mystery – a chance to enjoy the seen and fathom fantastical illusions for the obscured peaks. The sky-blue water of Lake Tekapo below the textured grey clouds above produced a peculiar feeling of a world turned upside-down. Lake Tekapo enraptures you in a land of fairy tales. It’s no wonder the small, stone Church of the Good Shepard on the southern edge of the lake is one of the South Island’s most popular locations to wed.
A small sign on the church read, “closed due to the weather” but we explored it’s exterior nonetheless, leaving before a deluge of Japanese tourists arrived on their whirlwind tour of the country. On the far edge of the lake, we ventured to a spot where late fall leaves of a mustard yellow dangled next to unchanging pines above the robin egg blue of the lake. The color palate of Lake Tekapo in the late fall was masterly.
Above the lake, we braced the freezing cold in bathing suites, easing into a heated spring. Above the spring, air blurred against the mysterious heat in a sticky, gummy clam. For once, we welcomed the rain as it pounded our heads in a gentle massage while we sat in the 41-degree C water.
In New Zealand, they do not talk about snow in relation to geographic location but rather altitude. Snow, with its magical ability to transform, edits the landscape. It highlights every wrinkle and underlines every edge. It ages a mountain. It gives it wisdom and distinction. Snow creeps down the mountain to reach the ground where it trips and traps us helpless humans. Felipe and I had no idea it would corner us underneath the largest mountain in the country but, by the morning after we arrived at Mt. Cook, we learned we would be staying for a while.
At sunset, we hunkered down in Unwin Lodge, 3km outside of the small Department of Conservation run Mt Cook Village. Unwin Lodge is owned and operated by the NZ Alpine Club and a group of multi-national mountaineers were staying in the complex’s other rooms. Aside from a small fireplace in the living room, the building had no heat and the sight of my foggy breath would accompany me for the next few days. Made of wood and stone, the A-frame lodge had large paneled windows on either end looking across to the highest peaks in the country below a golden field of flax. By morning, the golden field was covered in thick white.
The mountains surrounding Unwin Lodge contain the majority of New Zealand’s highest peaks, nineteen of which are over 3,000 meters. There is virtually no forest amidst the ice and rock and roughly 40% of the park is enveloped in glaciers.
The Maori feel it inappropriate to stand on top of what is effectively the head of an ancestor. However, numerous people flock to this area to climb in Edmund Hillary’s footsteps to the top of Aoraki (Mt Cook). It is hard to visit Mt Cook and not feel the urge to become a mountaineer. Home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the town itself feels a tribute to him. He represents the ideals and aspirations of every Kiwi. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man (along with sherpa Tenzing Norgay) to climb Everest, is New Zealand’s greatest national hero. In a small country with few claims to fame, Kiwis are proud to have put the first human on top of the world.
The small Mt Cook Village is impeccably tidy and neatly arranged like a box of chocolates. Essentially a collection of hotels and Department of Conservation buildings, the town is organized in DOC signage and surrounded by a plethora of trails. This miniature alpine service village is located at the foot of several valleys. Think of the plaster handprint you made as a small child – Mt Cook sits squarely in the palm of the hand and each finger mold valley was carved out by various glaciers and their terminal rivers.
We explored two of these valleys, Hooker and Tasman. The Hooker Valley path was obscured by fresh snow, the valley’s first layer of the season. We marched through the crunchy powder following a clearing over and beyond two suspension bridges. Deer tracks lead us onward and we watched as rabbits hopped across our path in their early winter confusion. Two weeks ago, we swam in the Tasman Sea. Now, we were bundled in four layers of fleece plowing our way through a winter wonderland.
The Hooker Glacier, engraved in dueling horizontal and vertical edges, sat tall beyond its terminal lake. The Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest, morphed beyond its face into the clouds of the storm. Like most glaciers in the world, the Hooker and Tasman are retreating at a rapid place. The Tasman Glacier covered the distant overlook where I sat gawking just one hundred years ago. The steal-blue Lake Tasman, with its breakaway icebergs, is itself just fifty years old.
The snow-covered valleys of the Mt Cook region had a barren, end of the world magnificence. Underneath the great heights of the Southern Alps, we trekked each day through a landscape devoid of color. It was a world of violent, vibrant gray until the sunset lent a fleeting color, dousing the land it in a fiery glow and adding a touch of drama to the desolation. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, Mount Cook National Park captures the raw beauty that draws millions to visit New Zealand each year.
The snow petered out, the plows came, and I no longer had an excuse to hide in a lodge beneath the New Zealand’s greatest heights. We cleared the windows, revved up the car, and journeyed onward towards the last stop on our great South Island adventure. The real world was soon to recapture us into it’s nine to five and the snow at Mt Cook proved just a sample of what was to come as we drove south to hide out the winter at the ski fields above the lakeside city of Queenstown.