Polar Adventures on the Flanks of Mt Cook.
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Schedule of the Visit.
- 1A Day at the Mont Aoraki/Cook.
- 2The Conquest of the Highest Mountain of the Country.
- 3Hiking and the Suspended Bridges in the Valley.
- 4Meeting with the Winner of the Mount Cook.
- 5A Zodiac Among Icebergs.
- 6The Best Season to Visit Mount Cook.
A Day at the Mont Aoraki/Cook.
In 1953, the Aōraki/Cook National Park of New Zealand joined the World Heritage of UNESCO. This universe of rock and ice has 158 summits capped by eternal snows.
Such a landscape seems to have been carved by giants. Legend says that the sons of the God Rakinui were exploring the ocean when their canoe struck a reef suddenly.
While the boat began to sink, the three brothers took refuge on the part still emerged of the waters but they ended petrified by a freezing wind.
Over time, the canoe was changed into stone to become what is now the South Island of New Zealand.
The sons of the god Rakinui formed the chain of the Alps, and Aōraki the elder brother became the highest summit of the country.
In reality, the Alps of the South are born of the clash between the tectonic plates of Australia and the Pacific.
Actually, the entire mountain range continues to rise at a rate of few centimetres each year.
Westerners have baptized the Mt Cook in honour of the famous English explorer.
But the Maori still consider the sacred mountain as a gateway to the divine world. In 1998, the British Crown returned the domain to the tribe of the Ngāi Tahu.
Since this date, the highest summit of the country bears the name of Aōraki/Cook.
Hiking in the mountains, museum devoted to mountaineering, navigation on a lake constellated with icebergs...
This is an original itinerary that I have composed to take you to the discovery of one of the most beautiful places of New Zealand.
The Conquest of the Highest Mountain of the Country.
The road that runs along the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki joins the valley of Tasman where there is a tiny alpine village at 760 meters of altitude.
The Summit of the Mt Aoraki and its 3754 meters is just in front of us, partially hidden by the Mt Wakefield.
This is the historical base camp where the first expeditions to the summit took place.
The culmination of New Zealand was finally overcome during the Christmas of 1894. Since then, a hundred professional mountaineers try to repeat the feat each year.
The admirers of the “Lord of the Rings” will recognize the dangerous mountain where the ring community faces a snow storm triggered by the evil sorcerer Sarumane.
The reality, alas, joins the fiction! During the last century, 200 people have lost their lives while trying an ascension which requires a great deal of alpinism experience.
Steep slopes and unstable snow are conducive to avalanches.
In 1991, a landslide took away 12 million cubic meters of rock and ice in a moment.
The vibration was felt by the population living 50 km around and the mountain lost ten meters of its height!
That is why the main excursions in altitude impose the need to have a professional equipment and to know how to use it. About twenty huts welcome the mountaineers or skiers deposited by helicopter.
Skiing on Mt Cook requires helicopter drop-off.
You will have understood that these routes are not intended for most of us. In any case not for me who is not a certified mountain guide! Fortunately, there are few hikes which are quite easy to follow, like the “Hooker Valley Track” which is a three-hour round trip.
Hiking and the Suspended Bridges in the Valley.
The track is very well drawn and perfectly marked, but this is not a reason not to take the basic precautions before the departure. It is recommended to pay a short visit to the iSite to collect a map and seek advice about the weather conditions of the day.
But today with such a great blue sky, our major concern will be to prevent sunburn thanks to solar cream. However, the alpine climate can change very quickly and the strong frozen winds that blow on the slopes can take you by surprise. You should consider keeping a sweater and a windbreaker in your backpack.
The hike starts from the village and the elevation is low. This is not a difficult path, but you should consider the trekking boots and a walking stick for the comfort. The rest of the equipment goes without saying, with water bottles and some energy bars...
There are no forests in this national park in New Zealand but 300 varieties of beautiful plants.
With a few exceptions, all the flowers are white.
Some are truly unique in the world, like the Mt Cook's Lys with its petals wider than a human hand (you can even drink the rain water preserved in the petals).
There are also many opportunities to observe the Thars of the Himalaya and the chamois jumping from one rock to another, risking their lives.
These are two magnificent species introduced at the beginning of the last century. Elsewhere on the path, you may succeed to spot a rare species of gecko often camouflaged in the grass if you watch carefully.
Two suspended bridges allow the trekkers like us to cross the rivers formed by the melting of the glaciers.
This is the part of the trip that I prefer, but I reassure those who have the vertigo: we are not into Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.
The bridges are very stable and you simply cannot fall in the furious mountain river below!
The Hook Lake awaits us on the other side of a bridge, lost at 1218m of altitude. I am short of superlatives to describe the breathtaking view of the glaciers and the Mt Cook.
Here again, the pictures do not do justice to the beauty of the landscape.
While taking beautiful pictures, please keep an eye on your backpacks, because a smart creature may steal your sandwiches ...
The Kea is a mountain parrot known to be the most intelligent bird of the world.
Just like the ones living near the Milford Sound, the Keas are often able to open your backpack to search the food inside.
Even if the Kea is very cute bird, it must not be the fed by humans, because it must stay able to feed himself alone to survive in the wild.
We are back to our point of departure after 3 hours of hiking. The morning is coming to an end but it is far too early to start another physical activity. How about a quick visit of the alpine village prior to a good lunch?
Meeting with the Winner of the Mount Cook.
It’s just impossible to miss the The Hermitage. The five-star hotel and its six floors occupies a great part of the village.
Built in 1958, it replaces a previous hotel devastated by fire and floods. This elegant wood construction also possesses a museum of excellent quality.
The statue that thrones near the Hermitage should remind you someone... Well, you may have recognized Sir Edmund Hillary whose portrait appears on the five dollars’ bank note in New Zealand. He was a climber of international renown, known for being the first man to ascend Mt Everest in 1953.
Before traveling to Tibet, Sir Edmund Hillary trained himself with the difficult ascent of Mt Cook in the company of his faithful Sherpa Tensing Norgay. A few weeks before his death in 2008, this Kiwi alpinist became a national glory, and he inaugurated the “Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center” that we are going to visit.
The museum will delight visitors passionate by mountain sports. The free section is not only devoted to Sir Hillary adventures, but also dedicated the exploits of Freda du Faur, (the first woman to have climbed Mt Cook), orMark Inglis who lost his two legs during a first attempt before gaining the peak twenty years later!
I suggest having lunch now before continuing the visit. The café at the Hermitage is quite expensive, but the Mount Cook's view from the terrace is spectacular and the pizzas are more than correct. If you agree, I propose a toast in the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary!
Several documentaries are projected in the paid-access section of the museum.
The first movie is naturally about the winner of the Everest. Then comes “Mount Cook Magic”, projected in 3D and which gives the sensation to explore ices caves and to climb a frozen waterfall.
Pour une fois, la 3D relief est utilisée à bon escient et l'on aurait presque le vertige !
Primeval New Zealand presents the emblematic animals of New Zealand and their distant ancestors, with many special effects created by Peter Jackson’s studio. The room is then transformed into a planetarium to present the origin of black holes and the search for an extra-terrestrial life.
The absence of pollution makes it possible to observe a perfect starry sky.
Another great activity if you have enough time, is to join a guided tour to contemplate the stars of the milky way. The absence of light pollution and the purity of the air provide conditions for optimal observations. But we have spent enough time in a museum for today ; it’s time to get some action and to finish the afternoon, I scheduled an expedition to the North Pole!
A Zodiac Among Icebergs.
With 29 km long and 3 km-wide, the Tasman Glacier is the largest in New Zealand. Fed by the snow falls, it descends on the eastern slope of the Mt Aoraki/Cook to give birth to a lake on which we are going to navigate right now.
The small excursion organised by Glaciers Explorers dure environ trois heures. lasts about three hours. The hiking equipment that we used this morning would do, but I recommend adding an extra sweater in your backpack and opt for waterproof trousers.
The departure point is set at the Hermitage Hotel reception. A bus ride in the valley of Tasman allows us to reach the parking where a hiking trail is located. A rocky trail leads to the Tasman Lake and its extraordinary landscape in just a half-hour.
As high as a building, the imposing glacier front overlooks the lake. Many ice blocks formed several centuries ago fall into the water where they drift during several months and melt slowly.
This lake created by the global warming was not there 30 years ago! Its original milky colour is caused by the presence of “farine de roche” which is composed of sediments carried by the glacier during centuries.
The distribution of the lifejackets begins before embarking on a zodiac boat. The wind blows strongly when the boat speeds increases. This is why you should not refuse to wear the wax proposed to you by the tour operator (you might also get drenched during the trip otherwise).
We will respect a safety-distance at 600 m of the glacier because a gigantic ice block fell a few days ago. The mighty wave which was formed would have capsized a zodiac boat like ours. The glacier seems peaceful but it is dangerous and the water is very cold, so we are not going to take any risks.
The zodiac navigates quite fast near the drifting icebergs. Some ice blocks have the size of a car; others measure more than 30 meters! From time to time, the ice blocks swing to reveal the spectacular azure colour of the iceberg that was under water before.
The Glacier Explorers zodiac slalom between the icebergs.
With great caution, the pilot manoeuvres slowly while approaching an iceberg to the point where you can even touch the ice. But the most fascinating moment happens when you discover original crystal sculptures floating on the surface of the lake.
The return trip will be in the reverse direction. If you want to take a photo of the group, it is now or never. Some travellers bring back a piece of authentic New Zealand's iceberg with them (perhaps in the hope of tasting it during the appetizer?) In any case this guided tour will remain as a great moment of the trip.
There is also a kayaking version of this exploration of the lake, but it is quite disappointing and I don't recommend it.
The Best Season to Visit Mount Cook.
The day that we have just spent is an excellent compromise between adventure and relaxation. The schedules are well balanced to grant enough time to fully enjoy the activities of the National Park.
The vast majority of the 250,000 annual visitors will just come to admire the landscapes in the valley, but the more fortunate can book a flight over the mountains. It is even possible to land by plane (sic) or by helicopter on the surface of a glacier to go skiing off-track.
Unfortunately, all these activities are greatly dependent on the weather. It is not uncommon to have to wait several days to see the sun again. With 149 days of precipitation each year, I recommend that you book your activities the night before, even if you expose yourself to find fully booked activities.
However, the Hermitage museum is great if the weather is bad. But if the weather channel announces some fog, you can forget the panoramas and the hiking program. Therefore, to avoid a major disappointment, you should escape immediately to Christchurch or any other place where the weather is better.
Spring is my favourite season because the valley is covered by flowers. Autumn and winter are the seasons where you have the most chance to get a blue sky. Remember also, that even if the Mount Cook Village is built in the heart of the New Zealand Alps, the place is quite warm in the summer.
It may be difficult (if not impossible) to find an accommodation on site between December and February. Fortunately, the proximity of the city of Twizel solves the problem. Twizel is indeed a good alternative because the restaurants in the Mt Cook Village are rare, and the hotel rooms are very expensive (except in low season).
When the sun shine in the sky, this is one of the most beautiful places of New Zealand. But if you have already visited the Fox Glacier or the Franz Joseph, you can just admire the view of Mt Cook from the village and skip the tour on the lake. Don’t forget to send us pictures of your trip!
Is it still necessary to introduce Ben the Kiwi? He is the mascot of Kiwipal and a recognized expert in New Zealand. At the end of this article, he will be pleased to answer all your questions about Mount Cook.
Questions & Answers.
What can I do for you? If you are in a hurry, you can just make a quick move between Twizel and the Hermitage. The excursion on the glacial lake is not essential to me, but the Hooker Valley trek is fantastic!
- All topics ... 38 answers in total
- Accommodation, Campsites and Huts 7 answers
- How to Go to the Park 6 answers
- Tours and Excursions 6 answers
- Glacier Explorer 6 answers
- History and Legends 5 answers
- Restaurants 3 answers
- Hermitage Museum 2 answers
- Practical Information 2 answers
- Weather 1 answer
Accommodation, Campsites and Huts
- Do you recommend the Hermitage Hotel?
The five-star hotel was renovated in 2001. Room rates range from $150 to $325 per person. If you can afford this luxury, you're in luck! The hotel also offers more affordable chalets and motels.Hermitage hotel
- Is there accommodation for backpackers?
I recommend the excellent YHA in this region.Mount Cook Backpacker YHA
- Is there a campsite?
The campsite at Glentanner Park is 24 km before the village, at the mouth of Tasman River. It offers unobstructed views of the valley and offers bungalows with or without a kitchen. Please note that electricity is not available for camping cars, and the shower (extra charge) is located outside the campsite.
- Can we book Beds and Breakfast here?
To my knowledge, there is only one, the "Lake View Homestay". I did not test it, but I had many good feedback about it.
- How many beds are available in the huts?
The 18 shelters managed by the DOC are equipped with 2 to 30 beds. Get more details at the Village i-Site or at the DOC.
- Do you recommend staying at Twizel?
The town (with no particular charm) is only 65 km from Mt Cook and is the best solution to spend the night nearby. Built to accommodate the workers who built a dam the city was supposed to be destroyed after the work. The population decided to stay, and many residents have opened B & Bs that welcome passing travelers. It is also a town that attracts trout fishermen whose rivers in the region are full.
- Do I have the right to use mountain refuges?
Hikes involving one or more nights in a refuge must be booked at the i-Site of the village.
How to Go to the Park
- Is there an iSite on site?
The i-Site is in the center of the village. Open every day from 8.30am to 6pm (5pm in winter), it delivers hiking maps, gives the weather forecast and allows to book outings.Mount Cook iSite
- What is the nearest town?
Twizel is only 65 km away.
- Is there an airport?
The small airport which is 5 km before the entrance of the village is served by low-cost companies.
- Can we come by bus?
Intercity and Great Sights have stops at The Hermitage, departing from Queenstown or Christchurch. From October to May, The Cook Connection connects the Mt Cook to Tekapo via Twizel.IntercityGreat SightsCook Connect
- How do I book a helicopter flight?
Visit the official website of the organizer:Fox Glacier Helicopter
- How much does the helicopter tour cost?
One can expect to pay between $210 and $390 for an outing of 20 to 45 minutes.
Tours and Excursions
- Can you give me the list of nearby hikes?
Here is the official brochure of the Department of Conservation:Mount Cook Tracks and Walks
- Can you ski at Mt Aoaraki / Cook?
Many companies offer ski touring spread over one or more days. It is an overpriced activity ($1650 per person) that cannot compete with the pleasure of skiing in Queenstown or Wanaka.Mount Cook Skiing
- How about the « Blue Lakes & Tasman Glacier track»?
It is a short hike of about an hour which allows to admire the panorama and the rivers of the valley. The path leads to a viewpoint on the Tasman Glacier and on the blue lake (which is actually green!)
- How about the « Red Tarns Track »?
After a 3-hour round trip, the hike follows a bridge and then climbs up to Red Tarns where microscopic algae color the ponds in red. The panoramic view of Hooker Valley and Mt Cook justifies the trip, but beware of snow in winter.
- How about the « Kea Point » track?
The easy two-hour round trip allows you to discover the fauna and flora. A simple pair of sneakers will suffice. The highlight is at the belvedere which offers an exceptional view of the Mt Cook. Many keas will escort the walkers.
- Would you recommend kayaking on Lake Mueller?
Glacier Sea Kayaking is organizing this tour, but I did not hear very good reviews. This is cheaper ($110) than exploring Lake Tasman by boat. A kayak experience is required and beginners are not accepted.Glacier Sea Kayaking
- How fast does the glacier move each day?
I heard a rather macabre anecdote. Two mountaineers were buried by an avalanche in 1914. The body of one of the victims was found on the spot. But the other body was found only 12 years later and 2 km away. Starting from this, one can estimate that the glacier advances to the rhythm of 40 cm per day.
- How much does the Glacier Explorers tour costs?
It costs about $130 per person.
- How to get more info about the zodiac tour on the lake?
Visit the website of Glaciers Explorers:Zodiac tour with Glacier Explorers
- Are there many icebergs?
Their number is random and depends on the advance of the glacier. Depending on the season, you can count them by tens or on the fingers of the hand. Imperatively ask the iSite question before booking places.
- Can we go to Lake Tasman on our own?
You can reach the parking area from where the hike starts. Follow the fork in the direction of Tasman Valley Rd at the end of the village. Continue on foot for 30 minutes up to the lake.
- Can we use toilets at Lake Tasman?
There are no toilets throughout the entire circuit.
History and Legends
- What does Aoraki mean in Maori language?
It was long considered that the word was derived from "Aorangi" which means "Cloud Piercing". It is actually a Maori name of the Ngai Tahu tribe.
- Who owns the Mount Aoraki/Cook?
It belongs since 1998 to the tribe of Ngai Tahu. The agreement with the government provides that the mountain will one day be offered to the nation.
- Who discovered the mountain?
The mountain has been known for several centuries by the Maori. The first Occidental who saw it was probably Abel Tasman, on 13 December 1642 while traveling along the coasts of New Zealand.
- Who climbed the mountain first?
The summit was reached on Christmas Day 1894 by a team composed of New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham.
- Why is the Hermitage Village so small?
It is a sacred place for the Maori who do not enjoy to see people climb a mountain they consider an ancestor of the tribe. For this reason, and because we are in a national park, there are no private homes here.
- Can we go shopping on site?
Only one small grocery store (overpriced) exists at The Hermitage. It's better to shop at Twizel or elsewhere on the road.
- Are there restaurants in the Hermitage?
The hotel has two restaurants and a café. Which leaves the choice between a refined kitchen, a buffet or a brasserie.
- Are there other restaurants than the one at the Hermitage?
The only competitor is called the Old Mountaineer's Cafe. Mountain atmosphere with fireplaces and local organic products. Probably the best value for money of the village. They serve the three meals of the day, but you have to book.Old Mountaineer's Café
- What is the entry price at the museum of the Hermitage?
The ticket costs $16 for a 20-minute film. A day pass of $27 allows you to watch all movies.
- How to get more information about the Hermitage Museum?
Visit the official website:Hermitage museum
- Is there a petrol station?
The Hermitage Hotel gas station is one of the most expensive in the country. It only accepts credit card payments unless you have rented a room at the hotel. Plan to refuel at Twizel before the trip instead.
- Is there a bank in Aoraki / Cook Village?
You will not find any bank on site.
- What is the usual weather in the village of Mt Aoraki / Cook?
We are only 30 km from the Tasman Sea. Temperatures fluctuate between 15 and 25 ° C in summer, and -5 ° and 10 ° in winter.
On the Country Map
Mount Aoraki / Cook is part of the Southern Alps in the Canterbury region of the South Island.
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