We were on the road to Mount Cook National Park after breakfast this morning. The scenery to the park wasn’t quite as stunning as some of the other vistas we’ve enjoyed, so this meant a few cat naps could be taken without too much guilt.
The first glimpses of Mount Cook a few hours later put an end to the naps, and we were on the edge of our seats looking toward the horizon. At over 12,000 feet, Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, so we were able to see the mountain long before we entered the park.
The park itself is 270 square miles, so trying to decide where to go and what to see when there were only a couple hours allotted was difficult. We picked up a walking guide at the information center and decided on one of the shorter walks to Kea Point, though the Hooker Valley track was very tempting.
We had a quick picnic lunch at the White Horse Hill campground very near the entrance to the Kea Point walking track. They have a nice enclosed shelter with picnic tables, a long wall of sinks for drinking water and washing dishes, and toilets. What more could you need?
The Kea Point track winds its way toward a viewing deck from which you can see Mount Sefton, The Footstool, Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier Lake, and Mount Cook. The grade was labeled easy in the walking guide, but those who are not sure-footed or not the least bit fit may find this walk a little more challenging than the guide denotes. The path is flat for the most part, but the gravel walkway inclines at points and loose gravel can slip a bit. There were a couple people on the trail who slid a little on the path. However, we did see quite a few older couples walking the trail pretty confidently. This trail might be a good gauge before you decide to do another of the longer walks labeled easy.
The breeze was nice at the viewing deck after the walk up. Today was definitely one of the warmest days we’ve had on the South Island; it was probably in the mid-70s. I went without a jacket and wore capris instead of long pants today, and that was a first since we left the North Island.
The views at the top of the walk were nice. Binoculars afforded us closer views of the glacier and snow pack and gave us a better appreciation of just how awesome the sight truly was.
After our return walk, we were back on the road to Lake Tekapo. Our GPS took us a bit of a roundabout way, so what should have taken us a little over an hour took a little bit more time, but we got to enjoy some lovely views of Mount Cook from Lake Pukaki. The glacial water around here is so outrageously blue! Tim kept saying that it was the color that people dye fountains and ponds, but it was entirely natural. Particles of rock brought down by the glaciers are held in suspension in the melt water, reflecting the amazing color that we see. Pictures don’t do it complete justice, but I think they come close.
We arrived in Lake Tekapo just before 5 and were surprised to find a pretty sleepy little place. The view from our hotel isn’t quite as spectacular as we had anticipated, and the views around the lake are not anything better than some of the other views we’ve seen. The village is very small, boasting only a handful of shops, storefronts offering helicopter rides to Mount Cook, and a maybe half a dozen restaurants.
The lady at the front desk had suggested Mackenzie’s for dinner, reservations recommended. Since the village and Mackenzie’s were only a five minute walk from our hotel, we walked over and made reservations and walked around the shops in town. We also walked over the footbridge to the sweet little Church of the Good Shepherd and a monument to sheep-herding collies.
Dinner was probably the highlight of our experience in Lake Tekapo village. Mom said her steak was one of the best she’s ever had. Our steaks (and, in my case, lamb and venison also) were brought out seared on one side and laying on a hot stone block. We were encouraged to slice each piece of meat and cook it to our liking on the stone. The only downside was that I felt like I wasn’t eating the meat fast enough and some pieces were getting more done than I would prefer–but it was all still delicious! The chocolate torte shared by all for dessert was a perfect cap to a superb meal.
After dinner, we came back to the hotel and got ready for what our flight attendant/trip advisor said was the highlight of a visit to Lake Tekapo: star gazing. We tried to book a star gazing experience, but all the tours were fully booked, so Tim decided he would be our guide and take us out for our own private tour. Time to shake off the dust from everything he learned in astronomy class back in college!
The view of the stars from the balcony was pretty great, but we decided to drive out of town a bit to get away from the little light pollution that came from the village. We drove 10 km back toward Mount Cook and parked in a gravel patch off the side of the road. Once the car lights were turned off, it was like magic. There were so many stars, it was like the night sky had clusters of freckles. The Milky Way was on display, and wisps of it extended far across our visual field. Mom saw her first (and second and third) shooting star, and we all marveled at the beauty. We stared as long as our necks would crane at that awkward angle before we turned back toward town and our beds.
I could take or leave Lake Tekapo–it seems like a better pit stop location for trips to Mount Cook than a destination in and of itself. In future, I would allot more time for Mount Cook–at least one full day–but I’m glad we stayed in Lake Tekapo if it was the only place like this on our trip where we were going to see the night sky like we did. It was brilliant and an amazing reminder of just how big our universe is and what a very small part we are in it.