Posted by: scribe9 | March 16, 2010

Mt. Cook

From Milford Sound, we headed north. We skipped Queenstown, which is a popular tourist town with direct flights to Sydney as well as other New Zealand towns, because we aren’t into extreme sports or the other tourist delights offered there: bungy jumping (yup, that’s how they spell it, and they should know—we went past the bridge where it was first done); jet boating; whitewater rafting; canyoning; riverboarding; paragliding; hang gliding; zip lines; off-roading with four wheel drives, dirt bikes, quads (ATVs); etc., ad nauseum. Some people say that New Zealand became the center (well, probably centre) of extreme sports because the rest of life there is so tame. We don’t mind it, and we’re not adrenaline junkies. So sue us.

We saw a couple of dairy and beef herds, but thousands and thousands of sheep. We went through Arrowtown, a very cute old gold mining town, where we stopped for tea and a hot cross bun.

The problem with the preservation of such towns—and I love seeing old buildings—is that the only way to save them seems to make them all the same: full of galleries, gift shops, restaurants, and upper-middle-class tourists.

We spent the night in Cromwell. It’s essentially a new town, built in the last thirty years when a reservoir forced evacuation of most of the original town. A bit of the old town is still there—the Masonic Lodge from 1900, an old hotel, and the gold-mining town that got rebuilt above the new water line—but that part’s mostly deserted, and life goes on up by the highway, in a town that was carefully planned with loads of sporting venues (there was a big swim meet at the pool the morning we left). Cromwell looks and feels like it’s in south-central Washington. It’s a fruit-growing center; here’s the display on the highway.

 Everywhere we go there seems to be a vineyard.

I’m not sure who’s going to drink all the wine.

The road to Mt. Cook was great—smooth, well-graded, only a few single-lane bridges. To be fair, bridges are horribly expensive, and there’s not a huge amount of traffic, so the single-lane bridges make sense here. It’s not always clear how they decide who gets right-of-way, so we suspect that when it doesn’t matter, they allow someone in the Ministry of Transport in Wellington flip a coin.

Some of the area looked like the part of the Warm Springs Reservation that’s up on the plateau, or other parts of Central Oregon. Some plants even look, if one glances casually, like juniper or sage. Clearly similar ecological niches are being filled, but the scent of juniper isn’t there. Apart from truly damp places, I don’t recall any scents.

Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. It’s 12,349 feet and some of its companions

 are over 10,000 feet, so it’s much more impressive than Mt. Cook in Queensland, Australia, which is only 1414 feet. Captain Cook looms large in the history of New Zealand, having visited three times and having mapped much of its coastline, while he just mapped the eastern coast of Australia and claimed it for Britain.

Mt. Cook is now officially Aoraki Mt. Cook. Aoraki is the Maori name, which means “cloud piercer.”

We stayed at The Hermitage, the hotel nearest Mt. Cook, which is home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre and Sir Ed Bar. Sir Ed said that he had to be scared witless at least twice during a climb to make it a good one. He summitted Mt. Cook six years before summitting Everest.

We weren’t about to summit Mt. Cook, but before our hike we fueled up. The Hermitage had a huge breakfast buffet, suited to various nationalities: miso soup, rice, seaweed and the like for the Japanese; cheese and meats and very liquid yogurt for the Europeans; Marmite for the British and Vegemite for the Australians. Never heard of those last two? They’re very dark, redolent, supposedly highly nutritive spreads made from yeast that remind me of soy sauce, and I know only one American who likes either of them.

The weather, which had been cloudy the day before, had cleared in time for our hike to a glacial lake near the base of Mt. Cook. We walked on or around several moraines, and across streams and around lakes that were the grayest I’ve ever seen even though the sky was a deep, clear blue:


There were two hanging bridges, and a walk along a cliff face.

Hikes always make me grateful for the people who engineered and built the paths and bridges.

Along the trail was a somber memorial to all the people who had died on the surrounding mountains, the vast majority of whom were men under the age of 24.

The lake had a few icebergs in it, two black with debris and a couple which had dropped all the gravel and were white. There were a couple of pools that had settled enough to show some blue: 

One glacier that directly feeds the lake has been retreating for years. We saw a picture of schoolgirls walking on part of it during a day trip in the twenties, but that part melted decades ago.

Mt. Cook got a thirty-foot haircut in an avalanche twenty years ago, and is on the Pacific plate that’s subducting under the Australian plate. This is a very active country.



  1. The subject is fully clear but why does the text lack clarity? But in general your blog is great.

    • Thanks. What did you find unclear?

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