Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

View from our patio at Aoraki Court Motel

A close second to Milford Sound, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park was high on my list of places to visit in New Zealand. After our overnight in Wanaka, we were off to this highlight. The road took us through Lindis Pass and yet more desolate mountains, uniformly tan and dotted with clumps of spiky brush. We stopped at a scenic overlook describing an early release of the Scottish red stags that have so thrived in New Zealand. We drove a short stretch across the Ahuriri River before crossing that river to turn north then along Lake Pukaki, now with wide dry fields where Google Maps showed a much wider lake. As with many places we’ve traveled, climate change was making itself known here.

We received a friendly welcome at Aoraki Court Motel and were soon checked in to a spacious room with kitchenette and a sliding glass door opening to a patio with a spectacular view of the mountains. [See lead photo above.] The weather gods were still smiling and the deep blue of cloudless skies made a perfect background to snow-topped peaks. We split a local beer on the patio, basking in the sunshine and the view.

Even the view from our bed at Aoraki Court Motel was awesome.

Scanning a binder of local hiking trails we realized we still had time for an afternoon hike near the motel so made a quick job of changing shoes and heading out. The hike was an easy ramble with lush greenery-framed paths and views over the valley in which the motel sits, a pretty and fun teaser for what awaited us the next day. We made it an early night, looking forward to getting closer to Mount Cook, glaciers and mountain lakes the next day.

Our weather luck held for the most part (more about wind later) and we started off in high spirits for the Hooker Valley Track. We found this track to be an easy three hour or so hike, well laid out and very popular. We decided to head to Kea Point first and were rewarded with dazzling views of Mount Stefton, The Footstool, Mueller Glacier Lake and Mount Cook. White clouds crested a ridge and spilled down the far mountain slope beyond a tall moraine wall left by the glacier.

At Kea Point

We retraced our path from Kea Point to continue on to the iceberg lake that was our Hooker Valley Track destination. As we continued on our hike, the already stiff wind began to increase. It raced down the mountains and along the valley causing us to lean in to move forward. Several suspension bridges over rushing pale blue water and deep gorges became more and more exciting as the wind continued to grow. Vegetation swayed around a long raised boardwalk across a high valley plain.

At last, we arrived at Mueller Glacier Lake where dirt-streaked icebergs floated in the opaque pale water. A signed warned us of the hazards: 3C (37.4F) water temperature, unstable icebergs, waves caused by a calving glacier. Only moraine skree seemed to border the lake now, but it was still a beautiful and unique spot. We hiked to a point near the “beach” at the water’s edge, but high winds made going further seem unwise as well as pointless. Several times, I was nearly blown off my feet and the wind came and went unpredictably on the narrow path.

Icebergs floating on Mueller Glacier Lake

The wind was an interesting and increasing challenge, periodically blocked by terrain, then slamming into us full force when we rounded a particularly large boulder or came around a slope. Recrossing the suspension bridges got to be downright scary on our return. At one point, I thought to pull out my phone mid-bridge for a pic, but I needed my hands free to hold on to the cable rails. I could see, too, that there was a good chance of my phone being ripped out of my hand by the mighty wind. Oh well, we had plenty of photos and I opted to hold on. David had fun snapping my pic from the far side, though, as I crossed behind him buffeted by the wind.

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