Saturday, January 24, 2009

Aoraki/Mt. Cook

From Tekapo, we headed further inland to another wildly blue lake, Lake Pukaki. From here, we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Cook. The mountain was named after Captain James Cook, one of the early western explorers of the islands, but its original name was Aoraki, which means "Cloud Piercer" in the language of New Zealand's first people, the Maori.

Mt. Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand - all of Australasia, in fact - and seems to emerge straight up from the belly of the island. You drive along the flat roads that skirt Lake Pukaki almost straight to the base of the Southern Alps. This is one of the best things about New Zealand; everything - from the mountains to the glaciers and more - is amazingly accessible.

We were very lucky to have seen the Mt. Cook's peak, as it is very often shrouded in clouds. We went on a short hike in the morning to a viewpoint that gave us an awesome view of the mountain range and the Mueller Glacier. Gil continued trekking further up into the Hooker Valley for a couple of hours, but eventually those infamous clouds developed and he found himself hurrying back to town to escape the windy cold and beat the impending rain.

We spent the night at the cozy YHA in Mt. Cook Village and in the morning went on another hike to check out nearby Tasman Glacier, one of the largest in New Zealand. It looks a bit "dirty" because of the way it has advanced and retreated over time, but was still a spectacular sight to see. There are huge icebergs that fell off the face of the glacier floating in the terminal lake and we did not realize the scale of them until we spotted a small shape motoring around them, which we finally figure out was a rather large passanger boat!

Lake Tekapo

We rented a car and headed south from Christchurch, quickly figuring out why everyone says the South Island is so amazing. We cruised along Highway 1, stopping in a few towns along the route in seach of some long underwear and a mattress pads for our tent, we turned off onto a windy road twisting its way up through rolling amber foothills of the islands great mountain ranges.

We arrived at Lake Tekapo at dusk and checked into one of the local hostels (begrudgingly sharing a dormroom with some fellow travelers for the first time on our trip for lack of an affordable alternative!). We headed down to the lake for a night time strole and marvelled at the southern skies that opened up above our heads. There is an observatory nearby that supposedly affords some of the best views of the heavens in the southern hemisphere and we could certainly see why.
Our amazement of this place only grew when we awoke in the morning, because when illuminated by the sun, Lake Tekapo, and many of the other lakes in the South Island, appear to be an almost unnatural color of blue. The milky turquoise hue is due to the "rock flour" suspended in the glacial melt water, which was created when glaciers moved across the land pulverizing anything in their way.

To make the scene even more picturesque, there is a tiny stone church built along the shore of the lake. A bit more unusual is the dog statue nearby, which was supposedly built as a tribute to the sheepdogs that served the hearders that settled the area. We snapped a few classic photos here before heading out of town.