Find that mountain

Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.



NZ Lifestyle Magazine Group


Stenciled on the window of the Lake Pūkaki Visitor Centre: "Ki te tūohu koe, me he mauka teitei ko Aoraki anake / If you must bow your head, then let it be to the lofty mountain Aoraki." Set amid the venerable Southern Alps in Te Wāhipounamu (the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area), Mt Cook's 3724m of upwards thrust make this mountain the best in show. It knows everyone wants to see it — which may well be the reason that it often coyly tucks its peak behind a passing cloud (Aoraki means “cloud piercer”). There are many ways to pay tribute to New Zealand's tallest mountain: by air, by foot, by car, by armchair. By air Getting the measure of Aoraki/Mt Cook and its mountain neighbours from the air is one of life's treats, and there are several flight operators. Mt Cook Ski Planes & Helicopters pilot Andrew Gutsell says there's no better way of absorbing the region's topography: “Seeing the Southern Alps from the ground is like getting to smell fresh coffee but not drink it. To truly experience the scale and grandeur of the mountains and to be totally immersed in their beauty, you need to fly. After 14 years of working around these peaks, I still have moments that take my breath away.” Andrew and his fellow pilots have a range of bird's-eye offerings, ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. One of these options involves an ingenious Kiwi design. Harry Wigley, the founder of the company, was one of those number-8-wire-ish sorts. He came up with the idea of laminating retractable skis onto kitchen Formica and fitting them to the bottom of one of his planes. With the help of a hinged axle, the skis could be activated by a lever the pilot reached by leaning out of the the window. It worked a treat. Harry made aviation history by landing the first plane on the Tasman Glacier in 1955 (Sir Edmund Hillary was one of his passengers). These days, the aircraft sport an advanced version of Harry's nifty ski-feet, but you can see the original Auster plane at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. Aoraki/Mt Cook Airport, Mt Cook Road. (03) 430 8026, It seems the topography of Aoraki/ Mt Cook and the surrounding peaks is imprinted on the genetic code of the Rayward clan. Richard Rayward started Air Safaris 50 years ago, his son Tim first began flying from Lake Tekapo when he was 16, and now one of Richard's grandsons is learning to fly. Tim reckons he's probably circled Aoraki/Mt Cook nearly 10,000 times. “After almost 35 years in the job, I still get the same thrill flying throughout our beautiful area.” Tim's favourite route: The Grand Traverse (a thrillpacked scenic smörgåsbord). 8 Rapuwai Lane, Lake Tekapo. (03) 680 6880, By foot The Department of Conservation Aoraki/ Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre bursts with information on how to get the measure of the area's natural riches. Staff steer walkers towards gentle 10-minute wombles or the more puff-producing multi-hour jaunts. The Hooker Valley Track (3-hour return) is the walk about which everyone talks. It's not arduous, and covers three swing bridges, mountain views, and the icebergs at the Hooker Glacier terminal lake (unless it's winter and the lake is frozen, which is also a thing of beauty). Give Freda's Rock (just 20m in) a friendly pat in passing. It's where self-taught Australian mountaineer Freda du Faur had her famous photo taken — the one (left) where she looks all poised and commanding in her frilly blouse, skirt and hob-nail boots — after becoming the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1910. It's said that she relished looking as feminine as possible after significant mountaineering feats to upset critics and wobble the stereotypes of physically active women. If an aerial view is preferred and calf muscles are compliant, the Red Tarns Track is a steep, 2-hour-return trek from Aoraki Mt/Cook Village. That tallest peak and its companions are visible for those relishing a bit of elevation. More tree-keen sorts could try the Governor’s Bush Walk. It's an easy 1-hour loop track through silver beech forest with pīwakawaka/fantail and kea for company, up a ridge with great valley views and a pop of Aoraki/Mt Cook, if the clouds are kind. DOC Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre, 1 Larch Grove, Aoraki/Mt Cook Village. (03) 435 1186, By car The drive to Aoraki/Mt Cook Village is a treat in itself. The drama of sneaking up on that capricious mountain makes clapping eyes on it all the more thrilling. When Glacier Explorers guide Gerry Lemon first landed a job in Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, the commute along SH80 was hazardous to his continued employment. “The first three months, I was stopping every other morning to take photos and getting to work late. So I had to stop it.” Peter's Lookout (about 10km along) is one such photo prime spot. The road skirts the edge of Lake Pūkaki for an ample chance to ponder what a lake looks like when fed a diet of glacial flour. It's a magnificent trick: the fine rock particles from the surrounding glaciers reflect blue light when suspended in water (something Sir Peter Jackson used to his advantage in The Hobbit). Driving time: 45 minutes from Twizel to Aoraki/Mt Cook. From an armchair Sir Edmund Hillary once said, “It is an act of worship just to sit and look at high mountains.” There are some prime places for sedentary mountain worship in the heart of Aoraki/Mt Cook Village. The Snowline Lounge & Bar in the Hermitage Hote (pictured above) is such a spot: log fire, whisky, and impressive mountain views. The Hermitage Hotel, 89 Terrace Road, Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, (03) 435 1809 If it's sunny, the outdoor tables and wraparound mountain views at The Old Mountaineer’s Café Bar & Restaurant are ripe for Aoraki courtship. Charlie and Mary Hobbs opened this place 18 years ago after enduring nearly a decade of bureaucratic bother to do so. (Mary wrote a book about it called Matagouri and Other Pricks.) Formally opened by their friend Sir Ed, it's high on mountain verve and rustic charm. 1 Larch Grove, Aoraki/Mt Cook Village. (03) 435 1890, on Facebook. Take a look at Cliff Whiting's mighty carving of the legend of Aoraki in the DOC Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park Visitor Centre. To Ngāi Tahu, this mountain represents the most sacred of ancestors. Aoraki and his three brothers, sons of Ranginui/Sky Father, were voyaging around Papatūānuku/Earth Mother when their waka was stranded after hitting a reef. When Aoraki and his brothers clambered up their overturned vessel, the frigid south wind froze them into stone. That's how Aoraki became the highest peak and his brothers some of the principal mountains of the Southern Alps. The mountain was later renamed by European settlers to Mt Cook (even though the famous Captain Cook never sighted the peak himself). Its original Māori name, Aoraki, given by Ngāi Tahu, was officially recognized in 1998 and has since then preceded the interloping sailor's moniker: Aoraki/Mt Cook.