Sorry Wanaka, I found a new favorite place: Mount Cook National Park. We only ventured over for the weekend–less than 48 hours at that–but as we rounded Lake Pukaki in our jam-packed SUV and the snow capped mountains greeted us on the horizon, my heart was already happy. The feeling only grew bigger as the mountains grew taller. Mount Cook had been on my New Zealand bucket list (more like a jumble of places floating around in a thought bubble) since I arrived, and at this point I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance to see the Lonely Mountain up close. So in lieu of working on my research paper this weekend, I worked on that bucket list.
As I mentioned previously, I did something to aggravate my ankle so I’m just going to take a moment to remind everybody to take the time to stretch and take care of your body so you can do the things you want to do. Some of my friends decided to hike up to the Mueller Hut instead of staying in the village and normally I’d be up the mountain in an instant. However, I knew better than to test my luck on a trek with 2,000 steps. I was disappointed at a missed opportunity, but I’d rather have a functional ankle for the rest of my life. I’m not a risky person in general, but that was still too much risk for me.
Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed in this trip. I forgot how much joy being in the mountains brings me and the Hooker Valley Track ran right through the middle.
It’s good for the soul to be amazed once and a while. There’s a little corner of us reserved for such moments, and when our eyes fulfill it, the world gets lighter, hearts happier. It creates a temporary perspective, where nothing is as bad as it was a minute ago. It’s like medicine (and not the grape-flavored kind), filling the body with a bit of strength and squirreling it away for a time when you need it the most. Without these moments of amazement, we are hollow. I’m not a religious person, so if I had to create a spirituality, it would certainly involve this.
It would certainly involve mountains, to start. And Mount Cook certainly had plenty of those to spare.
The weekend started before dawn, perhaps the reason the four hour drive felt like a flash. The landscape grew its mountains fairly quickly as we approached the park, and soon it was like being surrounded by old friends.
We hopped out of the car and into the loveliest visitor center I’ve ever seen, with a view of the park’s namesake front and center. All their fun facts about the park were clean and organized, very pleasant.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news. Three of our group’s Mueller hut hike hit a hiccup (say that three times fast). The hut was full. Since it was going to be below freezing weather, not all of them were prepared enough to go. In the end, two of them ended up making the hike, while we gained another for the valley loop.
That being said, we couldn’t have asked for better weather. Not a cloud in the sky, sun beating us with the potential for sunburn, sweat dampening the layers we thought we were going to need. The trail was simple, but stunning. Dirt track weaving through the mountain valley, leading to that classic wooden planked track I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of somewhere. Each step brought a new view of Mount Cook, which I’m sure I over-represented in my personal pictures, but certainly don’t have enough room to put here. With a mountain that photogenic, I couldn’t help myself. This was a mountain I am so glad I checked off my bucket list. I truly could have spent much longer than a weekend just watching the mountains in their quiet magnificence. However, I had a research paper due on Wednesday, so a weekend was the best responsibly irresponsible thing I could do.
Believe it or not, some study abroad students do work, hence why my blog has been a little quieter lately. Catching up on classes, working on papers, discovering new libraries–it’s not the glamorous side of study abroad that Instagram hears about. This weekend was my break, but certainly not a last hurrah (there are plenty of weekends left, and I have a ticket to Australia…).
Anyway, we made it to the mountain view. Every one split off to admire the mountain in their own way. Since the shade was rapidly spreading over the valley, that meant I had limited time to take my token flag picture. Cue the self-timer and a mad scramble over dangerously loose rock. I did this a few times, and after the third I decided not risk risk another ankle-twisting dash and accept the results.
Once the sun dipped below the peaks, the warmth we’d felt earlier left with it. Layers went back on and we trekked back out, with food and drinks on our minds.
We may have splurged a little on accommodation for this trip–instead of camping in below freezing weather, we opted for one of the lodges. Food and drinks came from the hostel down the road (the fish and chips were decent, and massive.)
The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than the rest of the gang. At 6:45 I was out, bundled up, and walking through the darkness to find a good shot of Mount Cook, preferably with a rock for a tripod. The only sound around me was that of my own feet. I went down the walking tracks for about fifteen minutes before I came across what looked like a service road going uphill. Uphill was good, there was bound to be a view. Eventually I wandered by an open meadow surrounded by shrubs, overlooking the valley in a clear enough view of the mountain. And there was a rock.
Half an hour before sunrise, I was crouched in the frost covered grass and waiting for that moment of fire to spread across the sky. The longer I watched, the more the sky shifted. At first it was only a subtle pink glow brushing the clouds, so quiet that if you didn’t stop to look you might miss it. People tend to berate the presence of clouds, but I realized without the clouds, the show would be quite different. As the sky lightened, the birds began, gossiping about a stranger in their midst.
The glow sank away with the cloud layer and I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t move over Mt. Cook. The sky went silver for a while, and I thought that was it. My socks were getting wet–standing in a meadow in socks & Birkenstocks in 30 degree weather was not one of my better ideas. However, I was looking in the wrong direction. I took a glance into the valley behind me and the glow of sunrise had caught the clouds. The show had started. Wind tossed snow from the peak of Mt. Cook, and the light caught it like a flame. The gray was suddenly replaced by strips of pink, building the fire of the day. The alpine glow had appeared and I was thrilled.
In a span of minutes, the show faded. The fire gentled. One peak remained in alpine glow as the others settled into the day and I wandered back to find breakfast.
We finished the trip with a short jaunt to Kea Point as we waited for our friends to make it down the mountain. Unsurprisingly, we found more views of Mt. Cook and still astounding scenery.
Yet our weekend wasn’t quite over. On our drive home, I checked another sight off my NZ bucket list: the Dog Monument. A monument dedicated to the collie dogs who have worked so hard across New Zealand. And since the only dogs I’ve ever had are Border Collies (the best breed, don’t even try and argue), I really wanted to see the statue. Plus I finally got to stop in Lake Tekapo, instead of just whizzing by.
The water wasn’t as blue as it was the first time I drove by, but the Lake was still lovely. We split up again because of different lunch ideas, but we all eventually made it to the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Dog Monument. The church was a beautiful, simple and with a view.
Piles of souvenirs later, we were back in the car and heading home. I can’t describe the drive much because I was asleep. We did, however, finally stop at the town with the giant salmon.
It was hard to go from this weekend and right back to work but I managed. It’s all about balance right?
“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – J.R.R Tolkien