South Island meanderings…December 2017 (Part 2) … Mt Cook National Park & Hooker Valley Track

06 Dec – After spending a very quiet night on our own on the edge of Lake Pukaki we packed up and started to head for Twizel.  Then made a spur of the moment decision to go to Mt Cook instead and spend a couple of days at the DOC camp there. Wanted to do a couple of walks that we didn’t do on our last visit because a blanket of snow was covering everything.   Conditions looked perfect this time around.

We turned right before the Village and arrived at the carpark where the walk to view the Tasman Glacier and Lake starts.  The morning had started out cloudy but the sky had now cleared and the mountains were looking glorious again. We did this walk many years ago but a new track has been formed since, that overlooks the lake from an elevated position.  This of course meant a lot of steps uphill but it was certainly worth the effort in the end.

On the track looking back down the Tasman Valley

The face of the glacier has certainly receded a lot further back nowadays and consequently the lake is much larger. 

Obviously the new track had to be made or visitors would never have seen it.

Tasman Lake

Tasman Glacier
Edge of the glacier wall (there is ice under all the gravel on top)
Mt Cook is the twin peak on the left of photo

The walk also features the Blue Tarns along a side path in a narrow gully.  But they are now green!

Not much water in the pools – middle one is almost dry!

Signboard is a bit faded but it explains better than I can, why the pools are now green in colour.

Having seen a good overview of the Blue Tarns we decided not to do the walk but head for the White Horse Hill DOC camp to find a camp spot before the place got too crowded.  It was a good decision as we still found a good spot, any later we’d have been struggling to find a level place big enough for us.  The camp was pretty ‘chokka’ by nightfall and the adjoining Day Carpark also full.

Far end of camp with Mt Sefton in background

We were surprised to see the large area that the campsite covers – when we were here in June 2016 the majority of the space was under snow and ice with only one carpark area usable.  On that occasion we chickened out and drove out – while turning around, our wheels were spinning and slipping on packed ice and the road in was just one way on two tyre tracks.  With more snow forecast overnight, it was a wise decision at the time.

Next morning we got up early to walk the Hooker Valley Track – wanted to set off so that we wouldn’t be walking in the hottest part of the day.  Didn’t quite work out as we waited for early clouds to disperse first so we’d get to see the views and in the end it was around 1230 when we got back.

The track starts from the DOC campsite which used to be the site of the old Hermitage Hotel, which was washed away by a big flood down the Mueller River back in 1913.  The hotel was rebuilt further down on the edge of the valley and the Village has grown up around it.

The Hermitage

The track firstly took us towards the Hooker River and we stopped at a great Lookout giving great views of the Mueller Lake with Mt Sefton and Mt Footstool behind it.  The Lake is fed from the Mueller Glacier which is out of sight up the left-hand valley at the head of the Lake.

We then descending down to the river to cross over the first swing-bridge.

Hooker River flowing from Mueller Lake

As we headed upstream we watched for ice falls from the face of the mountains opposite.

We’d hear rumbles first and then see a delayed reaction of ice falling like a waterfall down the sheer drops.  

Melting ice cleft

Neville managed to catch one on the camera video.     Link on U-Tube: 

On the next rise in the track we looked back and took this panorama shot of the Mueller Lake and you can see where the lake curls around the hill towards the Mueller Glacier and downstream towards the Valley beyond.

The second swing-bridge at the Hooker Bluff wasn’t too far and the track in this section was shaded and quite cool as the sun was still below the range that runs between the Hooker Valley and the Tasman Valley.

Coming to the end of the Bluff we got our first sight of Mt Cook…just awesome!

The furtherest peak is actually the highest point

We then came out into the sunlight and it was magical as we continued up the Valley.

Through this part of the valley we were looking out for the Mt Cook Buttercup – it’s flower being the largest of any buttercup in the World.   It was discovered in the mid-1800’s by Scottish Botanist David Lyall who declared it to be a Lily (which became it’s popular name).  A decade later flowering specimens were collected and it was then correctly identified as being a Buttercup.  The flowers form carpets in the Spring and sadly we were near the end of its season, however, we were still lucky enough to spy some in the more shaded gullies as we walked along.

Another flower exclusive to the Mt Cook region is the Mt Cook Daisy.  This was much harder to find as it’s flowering season is also over.  The following are the best specimens we found.

 

Occasionally we heard a helicopter and had to look hard to spot them as the sound was echoing off the mountains giving no indication as to where it actually was.  Spotted one as it passed in front of the peak of Mt Cook, before it circled and headed back to the airfield down the valley.  On a day like today the passengers were sure being treated to fabulous views.

The third and last swing-bridge eventually came into view so knew we were on the final stage of the track.

Third swingbridge
Hooker River from swing-bridge

Looking back after crossing the bridge we saw a narrow waterfall on the opposite mountainside.

After the swing-bridge the track headed more uphill and a short side path led to the site of a small tarn…but not at this time of the year!   It was almost dried up and not even worth a photo.

But the views of Mt Cook were pretty special and we could see the track ahead with the last rise to spur us on.

The final part of the track in view

And so we arrived at the Hooker Lake lookout – a nice picnic area provided, which was pretty welcome for a sit-down and have a refreshment break while we took in the views.   Quite a few people already there and some had walked down another track to the edge of the Lake for an up-close view.  We thought about it but decided the elevated view was OK for us.  It was also very windy with gusts roaring down the lake trying to rip our sun-hats off.

Mt Cook & Hooker Lake

There were quite a few icebergs floating in the lake to remind people how cold the water really is.

Hooker Glacier
Face of the Glacier

End of the Lake and the start of the Hooker River
Last view before heading back to camp

We didn’t really want to leave but the morning was marching on and the temperature rising rapidly so we reluctantly headed off on the return journey back to Camp.  Across the swing-bridge and along the boardwalk enjoying the views from the different direction.

Took this photo of the Mt Cook Buttercup as it shows the large foliage leaves of the plant.  The leaves work in a special way that helps it survive in the harsh alpine environment.  All plants have pores (stomates) in their leaves which let water in and out of the leaves and nearly all plants have them on the underside so they are less prone to drying out.  As the Mt Cook Buttercup grows among rocks which heat up during the day the underside of its leaves are often warmer and it has evolved to have stomates on both sides of its leaves.  When the undersides warm up, the leaves automatically close the lower stomates and open the top ones where its cooler, which prevents the leaves from losing water.  At the end of the day when the rocks cool down the underside stomates re-open and the upper ones close again – aint Nature grand!!

Another plant flowering amongst the tussock is the Golden Speargrass (Giant Spaniard) which is member of the carrot family.  It has fierce spiky leaves and the flower forms on 3-metre tall spikes. Sure wouldn’t like to trip and fall on one!

This one was growing alongside Stocking Stream that had a little footbridge over it.

Here too, was a short path that led to the only toilet along the Track (half-way point) which was a welcome sight on our inward journey.

Looking back over our shoulders
The valley ahead
Lake Pukaki down in the haze

We were amazed by the crowds of people coming towards us on the track as we walked back.  The majority were Asians and no doubt from the Tour Buses we’d observed dropping people off the previous day.  On the narrow parts of the track across boardwalks, bridges etc we stood off to the side, for what seemed ages, while they passed by and then it was a quick dash to get to the other side before the next group arrived.

We made better time on our return walk as we weren’t stopping so much to take photos and just lingering to look at the views.  By this time the day had already heated up to the point where we felt like we were ‘cooking’.  We were so glad that we’d started out fairly early.  The walk is listed as taking 3 hours but it took us 4 hours in total which included all the stops we made along the way.

Tarn on the hill

On the last section before the camp we made a couple of short detours.

One was a short climb to look at the Memorial Tarn, dedicated to the Climbers that have lost their lives in the Mt Cook area.  We were amazed to see just how many plaques were placed on the tarn… they encircled the memorial. Took some photos of just a few of them.

In Memorium

Lastly we stopped by a large rock – famous for being the site that Freda du Faur posed for news photographs after she became the first woman climber to reach the summit of Mt Cook. (I’m afraid I didn’t look so elegant when I stood beside it for a photo though).

Old photo of Freda

Last peek at Mt Cook Summit before we got back to camp

And so we arrived, hot and weary, back at the motorhome by 12:30pm.  We could hardly wait to get our shoes off and have a welcome sit-down.  Lunch and a large cold drink, straight from the fridge, was bliss!

During the afternoon we saw more and more Tourist Buses arrive, dropping people off to start the walk.  It was so hot but many of them were well prepared with sun umbrellas to shelter them from the sun…good idea except for other walkers having to dodge the ‘pointy’ bits.  Stats show that the most popular time to start the walk is 3:00pm – right in the middle of the afternoon heat.  If they only took the 3 hours that would put them back at 6:00pm and it was still hot then.  Really glad we chose to go in the morning (this of course would probably not be a good theory if it was winter instead of summer).

Late afternoon we joined some ‘neighbours’ for happy hour.  Great conversations – couples from Whakatane and Australia.  Always interesting to exchange travel stories and experiences (and solve the World’s problems of course).

Next morning we packed up and headed out towards Twizel.  We didn’t even go into Mt Cook Village as we’d been there and done that on our last trip here.

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