High in altitude and high on natural beauty!
We love big mountains. After all, our home in Colorado is just a stone’s throw from Rocky Mountain National Park, which features some of the most beautiful alpine landscapes in the U.S. So we were super excited about spending time in New Zealand’s high country counterpart – Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
Our first attempt at catching a glimpse of Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,724 meters (12,218 feet), had been a few weeks earlier from Lake Matheson on the West Coast. It was a bust.
Located on the southeast side of the big mountains, Mount Cook Village receives about 4.5 meters (180 inches) of precipitation annually, and on average, it rains (or snows) nearly every other day. We were cautiously optimistic about having one sunny day during our three-day visit, and as it turned out, we got two.
So we soaked up great views of Aoraki/Mount Cook from the ground and air, both far and near.
In addition to the big mountains, there were plenty of other things to see and do. Let’s begin with (more than) a few photos from our amazing flight-seeing excursion with Air Safaris out of Lake Tekapo.
We saw lakes and rivers:
And other expansive views as we made our way toward the highest peaks:
Then we got up close and personal with the snow, ice, and glaciers. The brownish tint on the glaciers is from smoke, ash, and dust that blew in from Australia’s huge bushfires last summer.
A memorable experience that was a little pricey but worth every penny. Next, it was time to do some hiking.
Tasman Lake Track
With a surface area of 100 square kilometers, Tasman Glacier is the largest and longest glacier in New Zealand. Snowmelt from the glacier feeds Tasman Lake, which was our first hiking destination of the day.
It was a short walk that required climbing 330 stairs, with beautiful valley views along the way. The lake itself wasn’t particularly picturesque, and we didn’t get a good look at the glacier, but the snow-covered mountains in the distance created a nice backdrop.
Hooker Valley Track
The popular Hooker Valley hike is an 11 km (6.8 miles) out-and-back trek featuring stunning views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and other snow-covered peaks. If it’s a clear day. We missed out on the full effect because of a few stubborn clouds, but nonetheless, it was a beautiful walk on a gorgeous late summer day.
Lake Tekapo is a small town (estimated population 369) located on the shores of a beautiful lake with the same name.
Lake Tekapo also lies within the 1.1 million acre Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, which was the main reason for our visit, as we had booked tickets for a nighttime star gazing experience with Dark Sky Project.
Incredibly, the sky was 100% clear that night, and moon rise didn’t occur until well after the conclusion of the program, so viewing conditions were ideal. We located the Southern Cross and learned how to use it to find due south. We viewed various stars through telescopes. Our guide was an expert in astrophysics and shared an abundance of scientific information about the universe, but to be honest, it didn’t stick.
The experience, though, was terrific, and chances are good that we will do more dark sky star gazing during future travels.
Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
Sir Edmund Hillary, a native New Zealander, was a famous mountain climber, explorer, and philanthropist. In 1953, he and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first known persons to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
The Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village contains a small museum dedicated to Hillary’s life and legacy.
We briefly perused the exhibits, then headed to the theatre to watch the 1 hour and 15 minute documentary, Hillary on Everest. It was a candid and moving review of Hillary’s life both before and after the historic Mount Everest accomplishment.
Released in 2003, the film features Hillary on camera during the latter years of his life (he died in 2008) sharing deeply personal feelings about the triumphs and tragedies of his life, including the deaths of his beloved wife, Louise, and daughter, Belinda, in a plane crash in 1975.
If you visit, I highly recommend taking time to see the movie!
And that brings our visit to New Zealand’s high county to a close. Fond memories and even a handful of pretty good photos. Here are a few more that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else in the narrative: