Water and fire
A long day's journey for a Hooker
by Thor Iverson
Some things are worth getting up early for. Unfortunately, this breakfast isn’t one of them. In a country that seems to pride itself on hearty, satisfying breakfasts, the exceedingly pathetic few bites served in the cramped quarters of the coffee shop at The Hermitage don’t serve to fortify us for much of anything, let alone the major hiking we intend to do this morning.
Alas, the weather is no more on our side than the breakfast. Clouds continue to obscure our view of Aoraki Mt. Cook (and nearby Mt. Sefton), and the threat of rain continues to loom. However, we’re not here long enough to wait out the weather, which could be even worse later, and so hike we must. Outside the hotel, a statue of New Zealand’s most famous son, Edmund Hillary, points the way. Or at least, we think he does; right now, he’s pointing to a fluffy pile of low-hanging clouds.
A glacial escort
That the Hooker Valley is glacial isn’t something one needs to know in advance. The evidence is all around: carved-out channels, churned-up and deposited boulders of impressive size, remnant shards of ice towering over frigid ponds, and a shockingly cold river. On a good day, the retreating glacier itself can be seen, a twisted rivulet of ice and snow against the slopes of Aoraki. However, this is not “a good day,” and while visibility allows occasional glimpses of Aoraki’s lower half, even that is shrouded in a crystalline mist.
And yet, there’s a persistent (if occasionally harsh) beauty to the landscape. Some of it is rent and torn, leaving ashen piles of Mordor-esque slag surrounding chalky, turquoise-white pools. Some of it is vertical, with brown and grey slopes giving way to fresh, gleaming whiteness. Some of it is watery, with bubbling creeks turning to slashing rapids, then back again. And some of it is even green…low-slung against the wind, ungenerous and thorny and even a bit mean, but green nonetheless. Overall, it is a testament to the powerful, inexorable force of nature, which pulls and tears and lashes this land with its strongest weapons, but nurtures life in its wake.
Despite the dubious weather, the valley is a joy to hike. A bush-sheltered path becomes rocky steps, then wind-cut stone outcroppings, then a careful descent into hopeless grey pits that emerge stream-side. The gentle slush of the river crescendos, precipitously dropping away to leave one dangling on a swaying, unsteady swingbridge, then pinning long lines of carefully-stepping hikers against a sheer cliff face, clinging to ropes and rods hammered into the rock and protected from fatal rockfalls by only a net and a prayer. Later, it’s a painstakingly-constructed footpath winding through a chilly marsh, occasionally pausing to let the visitor ford their own unique crossing over creek-smoothed stones. A careless step will plunge their foot into the searing, icy pain of the slow-moving glacial runoff.
It is, in other words, an absolute blast.
Unfortunately, it is not the only blast this morning. The gentle, chill breezes of morning freshen, picking up icier temperatures from higher in the Southern Alps, then bringing with them a persistent rain. As the valley rounds a bend, heading straight for the glacial terminus (and Aoraki above it), their force doubles, then trebles. The wind goes right through our protective gear, while the rain becomes a constant stab of frozen needles against the tiniest bit of exposed skin. Theresa looks up at me, the message clear in her eyes. Even though we’re almost all the way to our destination, there’s simply no way we can continue.
As if to punctuate this point, the roar of wind and water grows into the rhythmic thrumming of a low-flying helicopter, fleeing the tumult in an aborted attempt to ferry unlucky tourists somewhere atop the glacier, and careening madly back and forth as it is buffeted by the swirling gale.
In the warm comfort of our chalet, we nurse our wounds and dry our clothes. Our break quickly becomes lunch, and lunch in turn becomes an indulgent nap. Though there’s time for a quick beer in the interim.
BannockBrew “Wild Spaniard” Best Bitter (Central Otago) – Another brewed offering from Akarua, straightforward but good in a very English way. Yeasty and hoppy, with a clean, dry aftertaste and good balance. Nice.
Stealing a peak
Re-awakening in the late afternoon, we find exterior matters have improved. The key sights are still shrouded in clouds, but the sun that bathes the far end of Lake Pukaki has now reached us…though given the late hour, it shines the majority of its warming gaze on high mountain slopes. The rain has stopped. It’s time for another hike.
A few minutes’ drive away is a haphazard pile of rocks, which has somehow been organized into an arduous “staircase.” This is the beginning of the Tasman Glacier walk, a long slog through the striking, pitted remains of glacial retreat (though one pockmarked by both beautiful, crystalline-emerald lakes and desolate, icy pools of milky mint green), and though we won’t do more than five percent of it, the glacier itself isn’t our goal. We’ve noticed that the clouds that block our views along the Hooker Valley don’t seem to be in evidence above the Tasman River. Since Aoraki Mt. Cook rises between these two valleys, we hope to be able to steal a glimpse from the other side. And, at the top of the climb, our guess is rewarded.
We do, indeed, get to see the unmistakable tripartite peak of Mt. Cook. It gleams pristine white-blue in the low-angled sun, a whipped-cream curl of cloud clinging to its windy precipice. But the view is a fleeting one, with lower-hanging mists moving in and out of the picture…and, finally, obscuring our vista. We leave, generally satisfied, and head back to the village.
The only food-service operation in Mt. Cook Village that isn’t run by The Hermitage is fairly new, but it’s superior to everything at the main hotel except for the upscale Panorama restaurant. It’s The Old Mountaineers’ Café, Bar & Restaurant, with a spectacular view of the (still-shrouded) mountainscape, very good basic fare, and one of the cheaper internet access options in the village. It’s the latter that actually brings us here, but we end up staying for a while, enjoying both a break from the main hotel’s “hostage” dining concept and a quick bite along the way: a delicious bowl of tomato soup with smoked salmon that warms both the body and the spirit. I settle back with an enormous “jug” of Mac’s Black and stare out the window, reflecting on a difficult but ultimately quite satisfying day. Suddenly, I’m rewarded as the clouds momentarily part, revealing the very top of Aoraki lit up like a torch. The peak gleams in reddish-orange fire, sputters, and then – as the sun dips behind some distant barrier – flames out. It’s an inspiring sight.
Back at the chalet, we graze on leftovers and – at long last – some wine.
Springvale Estate 2002 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Creamy peach and butter replace the oak influence here, but the dominant characteristic is thick citrus fruit. The wine’s dense at the core, lighter around the edges, and very guzzle-riffic, though I can’t imagine it will age.
We’re exhausted but happy…and yet, a bit melancholy, for tomorrow signals the slow denouement of our New Zealand journey. We passed the halfway point a while ago, but other than a brief stopover north of Christchurch, there’s only one destination left. Leaving’s going to be hard.
Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.