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