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A much needed break
The constant car seat sitting of our nomadic life was beginning to give me a bout of cabin fever (not to mention a flat butt!). So Ryan and I decided to stay an extra night in Wanaka. It would be a welcome rest, and good base camp as it was centrally located to a few hikes we were hoping to go on. Plus, there was the added bonus of getting a few more meals in at Amigos Mexican Grill! Ole!
The best laid plans: Roy’s Peak
Our first pick for the day was to hike Roy’s Peak and take in a bird’s eye view of the the gorgeous topography surrounding Wanaka. However, after some quick investigation, we discovered that the path to the peak crosses over land that is privately owned by a farmer. The trail was closed for the next few weeks (October 1 – November 10) due to lambing season.
Plan B: An Excellent Adventure
So, we went with plan B: mountain hunting. Our destination: Mount Cook National Park. Our target: Aoraki (or Mount Cook), the highest mountain in New Zealand. On our way there we passed through a few little townships and got an eye full of the ever-changing landscape that is the South Island. We passed thru the small town of Omarama and drove by the Clay Cliffs – tall pinnacles of silt and gravel surrounding narrow ravines. They are a geological wonder that evokes feelings of Utah and New Mexico cowboy flicks from the 1950’s or Beggars Canyon on Tatooine.
A picnic in Twizel
After driving for about and hour and a half we stopped in Twizel for a bit of a stretch (do some lunges!) and a bit of a nosh. We dined on a lovely picnic lunch, champagne ham on whole wheat rolls with apples. Simple and tasty. After lunch we drove through the town to take a look and came upon a very blue waterway. A canal that connects the local Lake Ruataniwha – a man made lake for the purpose of hydroelectric power generation- to the nearby Lake Pukaki and Lake Ohau. There were a few locals relaxing on the banks with fishing lines put in, but the water was so clear we could see all the fish! And if we can see the fish, wouldn’t it serve to assume the fish can see us?
We did our own bit of fishing in the trunk of the car and came up with a bag of Swedish fish, Whitaker’s chocolate, and tangy sticks (procured from the glorious bulk candy bins at Pac n’ Sav). We took our prize and went for a short stroll on the high flat berms running the length of the canal. The blue water was mesmerizing. But Aoraki was calling, so we pulled our gaze from the depths and headed off!
As we drew closer to our destination the visage of the Swiss Alps rose up around us out of nowhere. That is the fascinating and amazing thing about mountains in New Zealand. They seem to rise straight up out of the earth! No foothills, no rocky preamble. Just, BAM, mountain range. Flat land, flat land, MOUNTAIN.
About 12 km outside of Twizel, we turned off State Highway 8 on to SH-80 and began to travel along the west bank of Lake Pukaki. On our left was a snow capped mountain range. It’s sides draped in the deep green velvet of pine. The range sloped so abruptly it seemed to be spilling across the highway directly into Lake Pukaki, which was situated immediately to our right. You would think that by now we’d be going, “Oh, more super blue water? Same ol’, same ol’.” But you would be WRONG! How could you not marvel at the vibrancy, be dazzled by the clarity. To this day, I still look to my minds eye and wonder at how BLUE the water is in New Zealand.
Rounding the bend and Mount Cook appeared. Stunning. We pulled over onto a wide gravel turnout called Peter’s Lookout. A spot the offers incredible views of Aoraki looming over Lake Pukaki. Ryan snapped pictures and then sent his drone out until a bus full of tourists pulled over. As the bus disgorged it’s cargo we exchanged knowing looks and headed back to the car.
We pulled over a few more times to take more pictures. The road seemed to lead straight into the heart of the mountain.
Mount Cook Village
Mount Cook Village is a tiny alpine hamlet. It’s the closest settlement to Mount Cook. Thus, it serves as a base for many hikers, trampers (backpackers), skiers, and climbers. It is home to a single 5 star resort, a few lodges, and some camp grounds.
Ryan and I chose to take a look inside the Mount Cook Visitor Centre. We were pleasantly surprised when we discovered much more than a rack of maps and postcards. There were multiple exhibits about the land around Mount Cook – including the flora & fauna, and the indigenous tribes. The exhibit Ryan and I found most intriguing was the extensive history of all the mountain climbers who have challenged the heights of Aoraki. One of the most fascinating cases was that of Freda Du Faur. She was an Australian born woman who challenged the norms of femininity and the sport of mountaineering at the same time. She became the first woman to summit Mt. Cook and did it in a skirt!
After wandering around the visitors centre for over an hour, we decided to set off on a hike – but which one? There were quite a few to choose from. We wish we could have done them all (Next time Hooker Valley, next time), but, we settled on a hike to the nearby Tasman Glacier and Lake lookout. Our track took us by a few small bodies of water called the Blue Lakes; but, due to rain and silt they were far from any shade or hue their moniker would suggest.
The trail lead to a staircase that zig-zagged up the hill side. After many stairs we came to the look out. It was a stunning view of New Zealand’s longest glacier. The milky turquoise lake was surrounded on all sides with loose rubble and debris, left by the glacier, that reminded me of chocolate cookie crumbs. Floating at one end of the glacial run-off were…iceburgs! Iceburgs! On a lake! We got a true measure of the magnitude of the glacier. We realized that the tiny specks zipping around at the base of the glacier were tour boats allowing traveler an up close view of the icy cliffs.
Where the wind blows
After a while the wind started to pick up and we turned to head back down the trail. That is when we truly noticed how grand the valley leading up to the mountains is. We imagined the glaciers that might have carved thru the rock, and watched the rivers winding thru the basin. It truly is a magical place.
Our stomachs began to comment on the time that had passed since our picnic lunch. So we followed its urging towards the car. We said goodbye to the mountains and headed for the nachos, I mean hotel.
We made a second brief stop in Twizel to fill up our fuel tank. While there, we discovered that not only is Twizel a tourist spot for biking, skiing and star-gazing, but that it also serves as a base camp for Lord of the Rings tours. The battles of the Pelanor Fields were fought and filmed in the surrounding countryside.
Ryan and I pushed off and retraced our journey back to our home base in Wanaka. We were eating nachos and quesadillas by 7pm. We sat at a high table facing the large plate glass windows lining the lakeside wall of Amigos. The sun was starting to go down. We finished our meal and strolled down to the lake for our last stop of the night: That Wanaka Tree.
A tree that started out as a fence post and has grown to become an Insta-famous draw for tourists and photographers alike. While there is much controversy and eye-rolling over the popularity of this particular tree – you can’t deny the appeal. A lone willow, that appears to be rooted in nothing more than water, bends gracefully towards the surface of the lake. And with the surrounding area being incredibly picturesque on its own, well! you’ve got a recipe for 100,000 clicks of the shutter.
We made our way to the waters edge and joined the ranks of photogs setting up tri-pods or grabbing selfies with friends. We watched the sun disappear and Ryan snapped off a few photos in the remaining light.
Foot-sore and satisfied we headed back to our lodging and settled in for the night. I broke out a single use travel packet of Tide detergent (love these!) and washed some clothes in the large whirlpool tub in the bathroom. Pants and underwear were left drip-drying in the shower and on towel racks. We did a bit of star-gazing and headed to bed.