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Arthur's Pass Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

7th January 2012

A Day of Turquoise Blue Lakes Ending up by the Largest Mountain in Australasia

Geraldine Buskers
    I was serenaded by the sweet sound of rain through the night. The couple in the next pitch to mine were packing up and moving south to find better weather. So was half the campsite by the looks of it.
    The chap, Tony, moved here from Bromley 14 years ago, and has never looked back. He and his kiwi wife had a simple plan, follow the sun until it was time for them to pop across the Christchurch to see their daughter. "They've still got the shakes there," he said. "At least five tremors last night, all over five on the scale." Blimey, they must have been occurring all the time when I was there and I didn't even notice them. I must be an insensitive soul.
    My quandary this morning was do I stay put in a rainy town where there is at least something to amuse myself with, or do I head up to Mount Cook where it could be equally wet. There I could either hike or shelter in the car. None of the weather forecasts were reliable.
    To stall the decision making, I decided to explore what there was of the small, affluent farming town. It abounded in food stores, arty-crafty shops, woollen goods stores and cafes. The town's claims to fame were the world's largest jersey stored at the back of the sweater shop, registered in the Guinness Book of Records as weighing 5.5kg and measuring roughly 1.5m by 2m, and also a 42m-long half-scale tableau of the Bayeaux Tapestry entirely made from tiny pieces of spring steel broken from the patterning disks of knitting machines. I found the store where these marvels resided, but decided to forego the pleasure. Shame on me.
Panorama of Lake Tekapo from the Village      (please use scroll bar)

Church of the Good Shepherd - Notice the Plain Glass Window Behind the Alter
    There was a small farmer's market in some church grounds. I entered and checked out the farmers' produce, the flowers, the jams and chutneys, and the stall selling combined salmon and bacon pies. I opted for a bacon buttie from a stall, and was casually walking along munching it when I realised I hadn't paid for it. In my horror, I returned to the stall apologising profusely. The lady who had served me laughed, "Just pay this man standing at the next stall." He in turn laughed, telling me, "You wouldn't have got past old John there on the gate." They were a friendly bunch. I watched some old time buskers doing a fine rendition of folk music as I scoffed the rest of the buttie, and threw some change into the hat. The singer shouted his thanks with an enormous toothless grin. The rain certainly didn't deter the sense of humour and bon homie in this town.
Sheepdog Statue
    I struck off after Geraldine and started to head inland on SH79, passing Geraldine Downs on my right. Once I reached Fairlie, "the gateway to the MacKenzie", I blinked and almost missed it. A statue of James MacKenzie and his dog, aptly named Friday, stood in the village. MacKenzie was a colourful character, a Gaelic-speaking Scottish immigrant, who was a notorious sheep rustler and escapologist. When it was realised that it was too much effort to try and keep him imprisoned, he was given a free pardon. Soon after, he quietly disappeared, and there was uncertainty as to whether he left for Australia or America. I picked up SH8 and headed into MacKenzie Country, a long swathe of undulating grasslands grazed by sheep.
    In MacKenzie Country I found myself gliding through fields ablaze with rich-hued lupin, regarded as a weed in this country since it pushes back native species of plants, and broom, my destination being the Aoraki Mount Cook area (Aoraki meaning "cloud piercer"), the dominant piercer being Mount Cook, at 3754m, New Zealand's highest mountain. The road took me by the southern shore of Lake Tekapo, the country's highest large lake (710m above sea level). The lake possessed an incredibly turquoise colour, created by "rock flour": the glaciers in the headwaters ground the rock into fine dust. These suspended particles, in combination with the sunlight, created the lake's unique water colour, similar to many of the lakes I had seen up in the Canadian Rockies.
     Watching over Lake Tekapo, framed by colourful lupins and a stony beach, was the tiny, solitary, stone Church of the Good Shepherd, built in 1935 in memory of the pioneers of the MacKenzie Country. The Church offered awe inspiring views of Lake Tekapo and its surrounding mountains through the alter window (who needs stained glass behind the alter when you have a view like this), and had been host to thousands of weddings since its dedication. Close by was the bronze statue of a sheepdog, a moving tribute to the hardy high-country collies "without the help of which the grazing of this mountain country would be impossible."
Panoramic View from Mount John Observatory      (please use scroll bar)

Mount Cook Beyond Lake Pukaki
     The star-studded night skies above Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin had been noted for their clarity. For that very reason Mount John, on the shores of Lake Tekapo, was selected as the ideal site for an observatory, the internationally renowned Mount John Observatory; truly one of the most beautifully situated observatories in the world. Surrounded by glacial lakes, moraine and the Southern Alps, the observatory offered incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside.
    I headed up to the observatory to get a bird's eye view of the area, and also see what was open to the public. I and a couple managed to get talking to Chris, an astronomer based at the observatory, and for the price of a gold coin for the upkeep of the place, he gladly shared his time and knowledge with us. There were several telescopes on the mountain top, provided by the USA, Germany, Japan and one or two other countries. In fact there was only one New Zealand telescope here. However, New Zealand totally managed the complex. As the site was being established, there had been a shortfall in funds to the tune of $0.5M. This jeopardised a lot of the work, but rescue came from a couple of local business men. They put up the funds if the complex could be opened up to the public. It was a no brainer really, and to ease the worried minds of the astronomers with regard to security, the businessmen took care of all those aspects and the staffing to boot. Hence the reason why I and about 80 others were up there on what had become a remarkably clear day.
Snow Covered Peaks Above White Horse Hill Campsite
    Chris let us gaze at the sun through a special telescope. Sunspots and solar flares were clearly visible. That was magical. In addition, he took us inside one of the domes where we could observe Venus through a 16" x200 magnification reflecting telescope. The astronomical authorities at the site were currently specialising in near earth objects. Apparently, recently an asteroid the size of a container ship passed between the earth and the moon. That would be big enough to take out the whole of Australia. There are smaller objects which pass closer than some of the satellites that orbit the earth. I suggested that there must be a policy not to inform such matters to the general public so as to avoid wide spread panic. The observatory was also investigating earth like planets in the heavens.
    I enquired about night viewing opportunities, and indeed there were, cloud cover permitting of course. However, at this time of year, the viewings don't start until after 11pm. Sadly, I would not be hanging around to enjoy the star-gazing opportunities. I would need to use my car to reach the place, and it wouldn't be good policy to return to a campsite at 2 or 3 in the morning.
Clear View of Mount Cook
    Instead I continued my way to another extraordinarily turquoise blue lake, Lake Pukaki, crossing a turquoise canal as I went. Lake Tekapo was the highest lake, which fed via the canal into Lake Pukaki, and then onto another series of lakes and dams. In the course of its journey, the waters powered twelve hydroelectric plants. Looking up the 30km long Lake Pukaki, I was treated to a picture postcard view of Mount Cook in the far distance. I took a right turn and followed the western shore of the lake through tussock lands up to Aoraki Mount Cook Village.
    The encircling horseshoe of mountains I was entering was the indicator that I was now approaching a cul-de-sac, as far as four wheels were concerned, and I soon found myself driving into the Aoraki Mount Cook Village. The village didn't appear to be anything to write home about, but functionally served as the hub for all the regional activities. On every side, the Southern Alps scraped the sky.
    The most well known building in the village was the Hermitage, possibly one of the most renowned hotels in the country due to its spectacular outlook; Mount Cook. The original hotel was built further up the valley in 1884, but a flash flood in 1913 devoured it. A second Hermitage was rebuilt on the current site, but it was devoured by fire in 1957. The current Hermitage was constructed on the same site. I wonder if a new disaster will eventually devour it.
    I cooked a meal using a New Zealand variety of sweet potato, and it was quite palatable. Because I was surrounded by high mountains, sunset was quite early, though the evening glow lasted a while down the open stretch over Lake Pukaki. I took a stroll to the Alpine Memorial which stood close to the site of the old Hermitage on the Hooker Valley Track. This memorial commemorates all people who have lost their lives on this mountain. Attached around it are individual plaques attached by friends and relatives of just some of those who have been killed, with quite touching tributes. It was a sombre reminder of how dangerous these peaks and the rapidly changing weather conditions can be.

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Arthur's Pass Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Uploaded from Omarama Glider Station on 9th January at 11:50

Last updated 8.1.2012