At the Roots of the Mountain

Here we are, travelers, at the end of the journey. Well, this journey anyway. So don’t get too sad. There are more to come!

Our trio was headed back north. Hannah and Luke were due in Fairlie in a few days, and I was off to Nelson for my first WWOOFing stay (we’ll get to that later). But before going back to the real world there was one last stop to make. We were headed to Mt. Cook, or Aoraki as it is also known. And this time, I was sure to have enough gas to get me there and away.

Civilization slowly vanished around us, replaced with mountains and wide plains. I got to drive by what I think might be my favorite place in NZ (maybe tied with Hobbiton), Lake Pukaki. We didn’t stop, but I still managed to enjoy the view of the lake as we drove along its coast. Lake Pukaki was replaced with a wide valley flanked by peaks of the Southern Alps.

Soon we arrived at Mount Cook Village, a tiny place with not much more than a few places to stay, a petrol station and a cafe. It’s a great place to go if you want to get away from life for a while. The three of us were staying at the Mount Cook YHA. It’s a cozy place with a cabin feel about it. We checked into our room then slipped into the kitchen to grab some water for our noodles before clearing out so they could finish cleaning.

Since our time here was short, and it was too nice a day out to waste it sitting inside, once we were settled and fed we stepped back out into the nippy air and drove back the way we’d come to Tasman Valley. We followed another winding road through the valley until we came to the carpark at the end. There were several other people out this afternoon. The trail wasn’t very long; it would take maybe a half hour to reach the end. But it was uphill almost the entire way, and there were lots of stairs. Ugh.

Before we started, I once again tried to find the perfect combination of clothes, so I would be warm, but I also wouldn’t be sweating my ass off after 10 minutes of walking. I’d been working on this for a while. Off we went, up the hill, through the bush. Aside from the other people on the trail, there was barely a sound to be heard. The higher we went, the better the view of the valley was. It looked almost infinite as it stretched toward the horizon.

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At the end of the trail was Tasman Glacier Lake. It was a mirror amongst the gray scree of the mountain slopes, catching the last of the day’s sunshine. The surrounding snowcapped peaks reflected in its surface, and seemed to hang suspended over the endless sky below. At the far end, fragments of the glacier floated near the banks. Most were two-toned, great chunks of them turned black by the earth.

There was a fair-sized group at the viewing platform when we arrived. We took a moment to sit and catch our breath on a rock before wandering away from the crowd and over the rocks. The actual glacier was at the other end of the water, nestled amongst the mountains and covered with dirt and stone, making it look like it was just another part of the landscape. But it was still there, hanging on in this ever-changing world.

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The sweat had dried and the chill was beginning to make its way through my clothes again just as we began to head down the hill. The sun had vanished behind the mountains a while ago, and in not much longer it would be dark. I was expecting a nice quiet night back at the hostel, and it was for the most part. But unbeknownst to me, something big was going on in the UK.

We all know about Brexit by now, right? If you don’t, where exactly is that rock you’ve been living under? Over the course of making tea, Hannah and Luke were constantly checking the live stream of the polls, discussing the matter with a fellow Brit who managed the hostel, and just generally having a mild freak out about the whole thing. Not to say that England leaving the EU won’t have any effect on me, but at that exact moment, it didn’t. All I could do was commiserate with Luke and Hannah.

The drama spilled over into the next day, but just for the morning. Again, as I’m sure you know, England did indeed leave the EU. The topic was discussed over breakfast but when we left to do the Hooker Valley Track, our minds moved onto other things. The last time I was at Hooker Valley, it was midnight, and Mom and I were trying to get some star gazing in. We’d driven a ways into the valley in hopes for clearer skies but had no such luck.

This time I would actually get to see the valley. The drive to the trailhead was very similar to the Tasman Valley road. The sun was out in force when we arrived at the carpark. This time I felt sure I had achieved the perfect clothing combination, and I followed Hannah and Luke up the path feeling confident I wouldn’t be sweating my ass off, at least not too much. The track was quiet starting out, and stayed that way most of the walk.

The Hooker Valley Track is about a 3 hour return trip, but it is a very easy walk. The ground rises and falls in gentle hills. There are no stairs to speak of (if I recall right), and there is even a toilet near the midway point. But the views are fantastic, and the end of the trail provides a spectacular view of  Mount Cook, as well as another glacier lake. We kept up a fairly brisk pace the whole way, which I later found out was because Hannah was afraid the clouds would move in a she didn’t want to miss the sun at the lake.

We passed gently gurgling rivers and wandered through tussock and boulder landscapes, all the while surrounded by towering peaks covered in brilliantly white snow. The track has several suspension bridges to cross, and we bounced our way over these with a note of buoyancy in our steps. We stopped for a toilet break when we came to it, and took a moment to look inside a small shack that was covered in names, dates, countries and quotes from the wide collection of travelers that had taken this walk before us.

Of course, we added our own inscriptions before we left. We picked spots on the left hand side of the entrance. I guess I was feeling a bit cheeky that day, because I put my name, where I was from, and declared proudly “Our mountains are better.” With our names forever scribed onto the corrugated iron of the shack, we had a quick snack then left to finish our tramp.

More and more rock began to dominate the landscape as we moved closer to the lake. Soon we were making the last climb. The viewing area housed a large picnic table where people were sitting and having lunch or taking a breather. Off to the left of this area was another path that led down the the shore of the lake. This is where the three of us headed.

We picked our way through the rocks to the water’s edge. The lake had frozen over, but sections right up against the rocks had been broken by people treading over them. I took a few pictures, then Luke, Hannah and I joined in with a few other people who were throwing fragmented pieces of ice across the frozen surface. They shattered into bits and skittered off over the frozen water, making a sound like fine metal scattered across stone.

Down the shore, the lake fed the start of the Hooker River. I climbed over some large rocks here to a get a better view of the rapids. The water was colored like diluted milk. Some calm sections hugging the banks looked almost like the ice on the lake. A few droppings were left on one of the rocks, but I can’t for the life of me think what animal left it. There are so few mammals here!

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After a bit of exploring we all came to sit and have another snack. We passed a few minutes waiting to see if large sheets of fractured ice would fall prey to the current and get washed away down the river. Then we wandered away from each other of a bit. Luke and Hannah stuck to the water’s edge, throwing the occasional chunk of ice and seeing how far it would go. I hung further back on the bank, carefully finding my footing amongst the rocks.

I left Luke and Hannah below and returned to the viewing platform to find a nice place to sit and take in the view. I tracked their progress below until they disappeared and then reappeared several minutes later on my right. They had free climbed it up the slope. And, I found out, they ran into some shit. Literally. Luke had slipped and ended up landing in some goat poo. (Oooh, that’s probably what pooped on the rocks. Wild goats.)

I helped clean up his jacket a bit before we took our last view of the lake and headed back to the car. Hannah and I attempted to get a few photos now that the light was more in our favor, but mostly we just enjoyed the stroll and passed the time talking about whatever came to mind. We got started on tea shortly after arriving back at the hostel. Three hours of walking makes you hungry!

With our bellies full, we retired to the lounge and ended our night with a viewing of Finding Nemo. An oldie but a goodie. We also had a couple golden kiwi fruits as a treat, and the feeling was unanimous: they were amazing! You know it’s true when you each tell each other at least once. Since then I’ve only had the golden kiwi fruit. So good.

Okay, I appear to have gone on a kiwi fruit tangent to avoid wrapping this narrative up. That night at the Mount Cook YHA was our last together. Early the next morning I would be making the 9 hour drive (Luke and Hannah nearly fainted at the thought) back to Nelson to start my WWOOFing stay, and they would be making the much shorter two hour drive to Fairlie to settle in for their winter jobs. I was glad to be headed somewhere I could stay for a while (or so I thought) but I was going to miss the time with Luke and Hannah.

But this wouldn’t be the last I saw of them before we both leave NZ. I’ll be seeing them again, even if only briefly, this September. Besides, the ground work has been laid for future trips to Colorado and England. Till our next meeting.

~Ren

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