It is often said that New Zealand is a beautiful country, and it is.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. In Timaru we have the best of it because the urban coastal benefits we enjoy are only two hours drive from not simply the highest peak in the land but all that is worth experiencing on the journey there.
Admittedly, grey days highlight more of the alpine harshness than its beauty, but on a clear day, the approach to Lake Pukaki begins to show the promise of things to come followed by the appearance of its barren, almost bleak, azure beauty and then on the final 55km leg up the Mt Cook Road, the sudden realisation of the true majesty that is the southern divide.
Those in search of exercise and jaw-dropping views should consider the walk up to the Mueller Hut. In fact, it is less a walk than a climb, and a steep one at that, but it isn't dangerous and for the first hour or so, positively civilised where it comprises steps; at a rough count 1800 of them, made from large wooden sleepers.
However, the good news is that while the slow trudge can be tedious, swift upward progress is made and in a very short time the view is surprisingly expansive. The routine nature of the steps makes for steady and uncontroversial negotiation, or in other words, if you pace yourself, it is not so bad.
But the bad news - there is always bad news - is that an hour later, at the top of the steps, you are about halfway up. The track is graded as moderate to hard and that is a fair description. The unfit should avoid this walk and, instead, opt for a mild hour or so stroll to the base of the Hooker Lake, or a short drive then a 20-minute walk from the car to the base of the Tasman Glacier.
However, if you can manage the climb to the ridge 20 minutes shy of the Mueller Hut you will find a rocky outcrop from where the bitterly cold and untouched rock and ice on the south face of Mt Sefton (3151m) stares back at you. The climb is so popular that silence is not always guaranteed, but from time to time you will hear a distant rumble similar that to a low-flying jet or, perhaps, a large goods train.
By the time you find the source of the noise most of the ice has fallen, but at this time of the year there is a reasonably constant melt to accompany the creaking and cracking from afar and sooner or later you will be looking in the right place when more ice breaks away from the prehistoric shelf and crashes down the gully below it. Like the noticeable retreat of the glaciers, one suspects there is more and more ice melting each summer and that one day the summer melt will be no more; but for now, it is nothing short of awesome, as that word ought to be used, to look 3km across a valley at blue-hued ice that has been sitting there, frozen, for thousands of years.
To the south of Mt Sefton is a series of peaks and glaciers than spat 10km or so to the start of the Mueller Glacier; to the north, a jagged white spine to the Footstool (2764m) then further, to the head of the Hooker Glacier, which crawls down between the Alps and the Mt Cook Range; beyond that, Mt Cook, presiding over it all, pushing far above the others to a dominating 3724 metres. The big news in town may have been a 30-metre drop in Mt Cook's official height, but don't bother telling the mountain: 30 metres out here is nothing.
The Mueller Hut is new and very well appointed. It gets plenty of use but the climb is a 6-7 hour round trip so if you leave early enough, you'll be back at the car by 3pm. Nevertheless, there are worse places to stay the night and the sunset/rises would be stunning. Some attendees are there for business; the business of climbing ridiculously steep rock and ice, and they appear on and off with their Bear Grylls mountain trousers, mountaineering boots, twin overhead ice axes and every other sort of sharp, shiny, jagged rubber, rope, titanium, colourful mountain-labelled accoutrement necessary for crawling over or hanging upside-down from the more serious terrain. It is said that Sir Ed Hillary cut his teeth on 1933m Mt Ollivier, which is just behind the hut, although deceptively, still a good 30 minutes climb away.
There can be no doubt that the place would kill the unwary, as it has from time to time, but on the right summer's day it is more than pleasant to be a guest at this council of stony ice and snow- covered peaks.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of small relief that having let you in, they sit patiently as you leave again.
The sudden appearance of cloud replacing the blue sky on a distant ridgeline and folding quickly down the slope ensures we remember where we are and who is in charge.
But it isn't necessary to climb things to enjoy the place and Mt Cook's wonder is an ongoing show. Check the weather and head up there.
- © Fairfax NZ News