Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

New Zealand: Mount Cook & the Southern Alps

At dawn, I signed out of my hotel in Christchurch. I carried my bags to my rental car in a very pebbly parking lot around the corner of the hotel. To my dismay, I found my car blocked by a car that was sitting about two feet from the rear end: there was nowhere for me to get out! There was no one around and I didn’t want to miss a lot of time, so I proceeded to maneuver my car.  A few inches forward, then a few inches back, until I was able to go up over a small embankment between two posts—only inches from each side of the car—then down over the sidewalk and curb to the street. Finally, free at last!

In addition to this experience in creative parking, I had to get used to the driver being on the right side in the car but driving on the left side of the road, just opposite of the USA and most other countries. I have driven alone in Australia, Ireland, and Great Britain, but it is something that I don’t do that often, so I had to stay focused. On this day, I was on my way out of town, heading southwest to Mount Cook.

New Zealand is not heavily populated, and not many cars were on the narrow, paved roads, compared to what I am used to back home. It was raining and the scenery is so beautiful. Everywhere you see green: there are pastures, trees, and shrubs, with a farm here and there, and cows and sheep grazing in the fields. There are rivers and streams and hills in all directions. New Zealand is so clean, too.

Lupine along the road to Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lupine along the road to Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

For most of the day I drove from Christchurch, stopping for a coffee break and a church fair along the way. As I drove higher in elevation and closer to the Southern Alps, I caught glimpses of glaciers and snow-covered peaks. By late afternoon, I reached the Mount Cook National Park and checked into the Hermitage Hotel, a place of great history. Sir Edmund Hillary was a New Zealander. He hiked many times on Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, and in the Southern Alps; he was a trail blazer here. I learned a lot about Hillary when I trekked with Jamling Norgay in the Himalayas several years ago.  Hillary and Tanzing Norgay, Jamling’s father, were the first to summit Mt. Everest in 1953. This is one reason I was interested in coming here.

The weather was fair and the sky was clear; I enjoyed hiking in this perfect weather. I also had a ride on an Argo eight-wheel all-terrain vehicle, which took a rough route along a river into the center of the Southern Alps. My driver stopped and we walked up a steep little hill created by the murrain of a melting glacier hundreds of years ago. On the other side was a small glacier lake. I was not concerned about crawling over rocks, as there are no poisonous snakes, spiders, or dangerous animals in New Zealand. There are opossums and snooks, hawks and falcons. The vegetation is lovely and along the road to Mount Cook are fields of beautiful lupine, in shades from light pink to dark lavender.

Aside from hiking, I also took a helicopter ride over and around the peak of Mount Cook. Up and down and around the passes, all covered with ice and snow, and we came so close to hitting a peak—and then just in time, we rose above it! We landed on the upper part of the Franz Joseph Glacier. I walked around a bit and it was pretty awesome. There is some receding of the glaciers here, but not quite as severe as in Alaska. Although I have climbed on other high peaks, being here was a very special adventure.

(posted April 26, 2016)

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