The Majestic Mountains of the Southern Alps – Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand

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New Zealand is notorious for its awful weather. Before setting off on our 7-week roadtrip around the country, we’d heard our fair share of other travelers’ tales of cloudy days and rain-soaked misery. A friendly local in Marlborough suggested we keep a loose itinerary and travel with the weather, pointing out that the high mountain ranges that divide the country in two often result in variable weather conditions either side of the range. Generally, if it’s sunny on the Eastern side, it’s rainy on the Western, and vice versa.

The mountains themselves tend to be almost constantly cloud-covered, since they form a buffer for weather between both sides of the range. Without a rare, perfect day, it’s nearly impossible to see their majestic peaks.

Luckily, a one-in-a-million day like this presented itself while we were wrapping up our stay in beautiful Akaroa. Immediately, we made plans to head to Mt. Cook – New Zealand’s highest peak located in the center of the Southern Alps range.

It would be a long day in the car, travelling from New Zealand’s rugged coast to its mountainous interior. To line our stomachs for the drive, we stopped at a supermarket and picked up a couple of mushroom bacon frittatas. Since we didn’t have time to stop and fire up our propane stove, we decided to take advantage of the sunny weather and our all-black dashboard to heat up our tasty lunch!

Toasting our lunchtime frittatas on the car's black dashboard.Toasting our lunchtime frittatas on the car's black dashboard.
Toasting our lunchtime frittatas on the car's black dashboard.30-Nov-2011 10:33
 

After a few hours of passing picturesque green hillsides and rolling foothills, we started ascending through a series of steep switchbacks. Soon, we spotted the magnificent snow-capped Southern Alps mountain range. Even though we were in a hurry to make it to our holiday camp before sunset, the view was simply too breathtaking, and we found ourselves pulling over to soak it all in.

Our trusty little Jucy rental car and New Zealand's Southern Alps.Our trusty little Jucy rental car and New Zealand's Southern Alps.
Our trusty little Jucy rental car and New Zealand's Southern Alps.30-Nov-2011 17:14
 

One such place was Lake Tekapo. We were incredibly lucky to have such a clear day, with the smooth waters of this turquoise lake reflecting the impressive mountain range in the distance.

Lake Tekapo's smooth, turquoise waters.Lake Tekapo's smooth, turquoise waters.
Lake Tekapo's smooth, turquoise waters.30-Nov-2011 16:49
 

Here, we stopped by the Church of the Good Shepherd, perched on the lake’s edge. It is quite possibly the most stunning location for a church anywhere in the world.

The Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo.The Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo.
The Church of the Good Shepherd on Lake Tekapo.30-Nov-2011 15:19
 

We could have spent a long time here, and even debated changing our original plans and spending the night here. Eventually, though, we decided to press on and head for the Glentanner Holiday Park in order to be closer to our final destination, Mt. Cook.

As we approached the holiday park, we caught sight of the magnificent Mt. Cook – New Zealand’s highest mountain at 12,320 ft (3,750m).

Approaching Glentanner and Mt. Cook.Approaching Glentanner and Mt. Cook.
Approaching Glentanner and Mt. Cook.30-Nov-2011 17:27
 

We had to rush to make it to the holiday park before they closed for the evening, but luckily we made it there just in time. Unfortunately, we had failed to stock up on food to cook, and with no supermarket around for miles in this remote part of the South Island, we would have to wing it with our existing provisions. With equal dashes of luck and creativity, we were able to whip up a fabulous meal, complete with a fantastic bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Our holiday park has a picture-perfect view of Mt. Cook, so with the sun casting its final rays on the peak, we tucked into our delicious dinner on one of the outdoor picnic tables.

Dining with a view at the holiday park.Dining with a view at the holiday park.
Dining with a view at the holiday park.30-Nov-2011 18:37
 

We turned on the heat in our private cabin and settled in for an early night. The next day would involve a lot of hiking and we needed the rest!

Sunset on Mount Cook.Sunset on Mount Cook.
Sunset on Mount Cook.30-Nov-2011 19:02
 

The following morning we awoke to another perfect, clear day. After making ourselves a filling breakfast and packing a hearty lunch, we headed for the Mt. Cook National Park, making our first stop at the fantastic visitor center. There, we picked up a map of the popular Hooker Valley Walk, which we were told was the best day hike.

Erik admiring the view.Erik admiring the view.
Erik admiring the view.01-Dec-2011 08:44
 

By mid morning, we were on the trail and walking in to the Hooker Valley. The trail took us over small hills, past pretty blue and green glacial lakes, and over rushing rivers.

A milky glacial lake and snow-capped mountain range on the Hooker Valley walk.A milky glacial lake and snow-capped mountain range on the Hooker Valley walk.
A milky glacial lake and snow-capped mountain range on the Hooker Valley walk.01-Dec-2011 09:02
 

And of course, one of the major attractions – the gorgeous mountain views.

The Mount Cook Lily (really a buttercup).The Mount Cook Lily (really a buttercup).
The Mount Cook Lily (really a buttercup).01-Dec-2011 09:54
 

The trail ends at the Hooker Glacier terminal lake. At this point the wind had picked up considerably, and we were getting a little cold. Luckily, we found a slightly sheltered area to sit where we could observe the glacier and enjoy our lunchtime sandwiches.

Our lunch spot at the Hooker Lake and Glacier.Our lunch spot at the Hooker Lake and Glacier.
Our lunch spot at the Hooker Lake and Glacier.01-Dec-2011 10:33
 

We reversed back down the same trail and decided to jump in the car and head down a long dirt road to check out the nearby Tasman Glacier. At 27km, this is the longest glacier in New Zealand. Sadly, the effects of disastrous climate change are most obvious here. The glacier has recently been retreating at a rate of 1km per year and is expected to disappear completely in the next 20 years.

The Tasman Glacier - New Zealand's longest.The Tasman Glacier - New Zealand's longest.
The Tasman Glacier - New Zealand's longest.01-Dec-2011 13:38
 

While impressive, the moraine covering the glacier gives it a “dirty” appearance – a far cry from the classic Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia.

Rounding out an action-packed day in Mount Cook National Park, we jumped back in the car and headed back to the Visitor Center, where we learned more about New Zealand native, Sir Edmund Hillary – the first climber to summit Mt. Everest. Hillary learned mountaineering here in the Southern Alps, and cut his teeth on Mount Cook before joining expeditions to summit the world’s great peaks.

Erik in one of Mt. Cook's old shelters, on display at the Visitor Center.Erik in one of Mt. Cook's old shelters, on display at the Visitor Center.
Erik in one of Mt. Cook's old shelters, on display at the Visitor Center.02-Dec-2011 09:48
 

The center also offered a planetarium and large-format movie theater. We let our aching feet take a rest and spent the rest of the day watching movies about Sir Edmund Hillary, the night sky, and outer space.

Back at the holiday park we cooked up another nice dinner and prepared for our next stop – Oamaru.

2 thoughts on “The Majestic Mountains of the Southern Alps – Mt. Cook, South Island, New Zealand

  1. Casey

    Hi, I loved your pics of New Zealand with the blue skies and snow capped mountains taken of Hooker Valley. That is the kind of scenery I want to see in New Zealand. What month were those Hooker Valley pics taken? (that information will help me decide which month to go). Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Erik Post author

      Hi Casey!

      These pictures were taken in early December. We were extremely lucky with the weather – it is usually cloudy there. As suggested with this post, the best thing to do is keep an eye on the weather and stay flexible with your schedule.

      Reply

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