TWIZEL, NEW ZEALAND — The hiking gods must have read our post, because we had a perfect day at Aoraki, a.k.a. Mount Cook National Park.
The start to our day was delayed slightly by a chat with our hosts about the habits of different cultures, veering into the politically incorrect, that was triggered by the discovery that our breakfast food was warm because previous guests had turned off the refrigerator.
Once we hit the road, we stopped at what we thought was an information center but turned out to be a classic tourist trap, selling salmon and trinkets. At least the view was great, of snow-covered Mount Cook across the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki.
We were both surprised by the distance to the national park, but the drive was gorgeous, with Mount Cook and a range of snow-capped mountains visible for the entire drive. A supposedly short stop at the DOC visitor center to pick up a map turned into a longer visit when we saw the excellent exhibit about mountaineering history.
There was a replica of a cozy (?) historic backcountry hut as well as stories of a number of dramatic mountain rescues. The longest rescue involved Sir Edmund Hillary — just Ed at the time — when his friend’s rope broke, and she was knocked unconscious and broke a leg. The rescue involved cutting a path through dense bush to get the person out. Other rescues featured the “Middle Peak Hotel,” a crevasse near the top of the mountain where climbers tried to ride out storms.
Most exhibits included women climbers, including Freda Du Faur, the first woman to climb Mount Cook in 1910. She was an accomplished mountaineer and completed a number of other firsts in the area; the rock where a famous photo of her was taken is a short way from the main trail.
After a quick lunch of pasta salads at a picnic table with a nice view of the Muller Glacier (pronounced GLAH-see-er in New Zealand), it was time to hit the trails. Like almost every visitor to the park, we settled on the Hooker Valley Trail, a three-hour round-trip featuring three swing bridges and stunning views of Mount Cook and the Sealy Range with its glaciers and waterfalls.
At the trail head, we noticed the campground, which is first-come, first-served. Beth had read about it while planning the trip, but didn’t want to risk it being full. Yet there seemed to be ample space for campers, and at $13 per person, it was a bargain for the perfect location beneath the mountains, especially when compared to the $300+ rooms at the nearby Hermitage Hotel.
The trail winds its way through a glacial moraine and ends at Hooker Lake, at the foot of Hooker Glacier. The scenery here is truly stunning, with a view of the glacier, icebergs, Mount Cook and the narrowing valley, so we spent some time there, a little past the picnic tables where most of the other hikers stopped for a picnic. It was surprisingly serene and peaceful, despite the munching hordes at our back.
On our way back, we heard what sounded like cracking ice on the glaciers up in the mountains, and we thought we saw an impromptu new waterfall rushing down for a short time — or we might have just imagined it.
Our hosts in Fairlie expected us at 18:30, so we had to forgo another short hike at the Blue Lakes. We stopped briefly in Lake Tekapo, where we were underwhelmed by the supposedly stunning views, but how can any place compete with a hike among snow-capped mountains in beautiful weather?
At our AirBnb, we met our hosts for the night, Chrissy and Greg, two jovial and well-traveled Kiwis who share our passion for bike touring in Europe. We traded stories over drinks in the kitchen, and then it was time to go out for dinner, which turned out to be an adventure.
Despite its small size, Fairlie is famous for its bake house, which specializes in both sweet and savory pies, and has a number of restaurants. Greg tried to get us a reservation at the Red Stag next door, but its owners were traveling on the west coast.
So we drove to the second choice, a quaint restaurant in a former library, but as soon as we walked in, we were pushed back out with a rude “We can’t seat you now.” No worries, because there is a bar in town with good food, we were told, so we went there, only to find that because they didn’t have any customers, they closed early.
With the bake house also closed, we had one choice left: the Chinese takeaway. Beth chose the chicken with cashews and vegetables, a better choice than Torsten’s sweet and sour chicken, which was an alarmingly bright orange color and tasted like bad candy. The dinner was nothing to write home about, but the day in the mountains will stay with us for a very long time.