After seeing Bill to the bus terminal I set about restocking for the next section of the trip and booking transport out of Queenstown for the next morning. The plan is to spend a few days in Mt Cook National Park though I haven’t really studied maps or have any idea about routes. I’m considering travelling along the Tasman Glacier and then utilising a pass to return via the Murchison Glacier. As I have no idea what is involved with glacier travel there seems little point in committing to the scheme. As with all initial trips to a new area I seek only to familiarise myself with the landscape and get an idea as to what’s possible.
Back at the park I spend time washing and drying my clothes and am reminded of the camaraderie that develops between people who stay in these parks. Though Queenstown is not a place I can easily equate with the quiet ocean hamlets that used to dot the Australian east coast twenty years ago I can appreciate that this is the current New Zealand equivalent. The motor home is king but I wonder if it is not Europeans and Americans who have driven this demand for the concept of a “driving season”, the holiday on wheels. It’s not for me and I’ll be pleased to be moving on in the morning.
As luck would have it I’ve got a decent discount with the top end bus company and instead of a stomach churning race against time I find myself in the hands of a company catering to tourist who want the country to unfold before them and to have the opportunity for photos and stories. It is a clear day and Mt Cook is startlingly visible from the approach road alongside Lake Pukaki. The only other occasion I have been along this road in 1995 was memorable for the darkness of the day as rain laden clouds hung menacingly over the valleys. Mt Cook may as well not have existed on that day. Several passengers are dropped off at the hostel. I feel a pang of envy at those who are knowledgeable enough to book ahead. They must know what they’re doing, I think to myself.
The bus continues towards the famous Hermitage Hotel which in previous incarnations has been the base for many notable expeditions and explorations. There is little rusticity to the current complex which appears designed solely to cater to cashed up tourists who are unlikely to wander further than the boardwalks and manicured paths. With some trepidation I collect my pack and wander through the labyrinth of levels that make up the hotel and exit via the foyer. At the Information Centre I wait in line to ask about huts within a days’ walk of the village. I’m informed that there are two choices, Mueller Hut and Ball Hut. Both are full and Ball Hut is likely to remain so for several days. The attendant is vague about the booking system at Ball hut, climbers go in and seem to stay for several days. The attendant steers me in another direction, indicating that camping is available in the vicinity of Mueller Hut. This surprises me as the hut is at 1,800 metres and it’s hard to imagine a manicured camping ground at such as altitude. Emboldened by this news I ask about camping opportunities at Ball Hut only to be advised that the hut is bolted into the rock that dominates the area. It seems that securing a tent would be very difficult.
Armed with the route guide and my camping pass I embark on the track to Mueller Hut. It is a relief to start moving away from the buildings and tourists. Kea Point Track is hardly a bastion of solitude however as numerous parties are passed on their way back to the car park. In my enthusiasm to escape I’ve neglected to collect water, anticipating that there will be numerous streams flowing between here and the mountains. Unease grows with every dry bed passed but not enough for me to divert to the camping area near Foliage Hill. The Huddleston Glacier makes a scenic reference point for the initial approach towards the turnoff to the Sealy Tarns. The ice tenaciously clinging to the flanks of below Tuckett Pass has a blue tinge and is crenulated like tassels. Purple tubular flowers stand sentinel along the path, sturdy stems pointing upwards, making the most of balmy sunlight but also well prepared for the high winds that regularly sweep through the mountains.
It is strange to see Mt Cook so visible and exposed, so used to it being hidden behind a cloak of mist and cloud, like a mystic talisman unfit for human eyes. To gaze on it seems almost disrespectful and it seems more appropriate to keep my head bowed. Instead I photograph the upper flanks and remarkable south ridge lead towards the high peaks.
The initial climb quickly leads to an elevation that makes it possible to look down on the Mueller Glacier terminal lake. There is a tenebrous brown umbilical chord linking this body of water to the more distant pool lying at the foot of the Hooker Glacier. This attachment is more commonly known as the Hooker River though such an infant water course is better thought of in terms of foetal metaphor. Both glaciers are covered over in protective layers of moraine. Where once the mess of rock obscuring the beautiful ice below might have been resented in this climate of global warming it is reassuring to think of the inevitable retreat being gamely delayed.
The track is a steep lung burner and little excuse is needed to seek respite in sightseeing and photography. Panting and parched, looking upon deep pools of icy water is a slightly ambivalent affair. I’m intrigued to see a group of kayakers paddling amongst the detritus. One would want to carefully avoid falling into such chilling and murky water.
Most of the walkers on the track are packless tourists do the day walk to the tarns. Given the gradient of the inclination I’m prepared to let several pass only to find that they are not able to keep up the pace. As I’m carrying 15 kilos of equipment I’m not impressed by their lack of fitness and there is no way I intend to let them overtake me again. Thankfully the tarns intervene in this gruelling challenge before I collapse in a quivering heap. It has clearly been a dry summer as the edges of the tarn are marked with the rings of steady decline. It takes several attempts to fill my water bottle before obtaining a sample without the small amphibious creatures that rely on the tarn for their livelihood. I feel slightly guilty about making demands on their capital.
The Sealy Tarns are exactly halfway to the hut so an extended break is justified, particularly when the vantage provides views that won’t be accessible from further up the ridge. There is a steady flow of people arriving from below so I move to the very edge of the precipice in order to gain a few moments mountain solitude. Beyond the tarns the track continues to steepen and involve scrambling through boulders and along narrow ledges. The route is well marked by orange poles and visibility is at an optimum. A small snowfield is reached just below the ridge-line of the Sealy Range and such is the through traffic that the snow has the consistency of mush. Over the years the hut has been expanded to 36 bunks and that combined with campers and day-walkers all making a return trip have combined to leave a considerable footstep.
There are several parties making their way with me towards the hut. Most of these are young couples from Europe and America. My favourite includes a young woman whose technique with walking poles involves spreading her limbs as widely as possible so that she cannot possibly have any stability or power. As we commence the steepest section of the climb just underneath the ridge I’m tempted to provide unsolicited advice but think better of it, lest I seem pushy.
Topping the ridge is a bracing experience as we are blasted by a fierce wind howling in from the direction of the Mueller glacier. There is a rocky knoll overlooking the glacier that makes a natural viewing platform so we drop the packs at the plateau and begin the short scramble. From the knoll we are able to observe the more scenic mountain glaciers that are free of moraine. The most striking of these is Frind Glacier which swings steeply towards Mt Sefton and the main divide. It’s an awe-inspiring place that even the three hour walk does not leave you fully prepared.
Cameras come out and the couples take turns photographing each other. When one couple walks away the other complains that the photographer had her thumb over the lens. I offer to take another photo and hopefully am able to keep digits out of play. In benign conditions, windless and cloudless, it makes sense to absorb the vistas like a sunbather on the beach. One could visit this place another ten times and not be blessed with such a day. Mueller Glacier offers fascinating scope for imagining journeys into the heart of the Alps. Even an acolyte like myself can fancy descending onto the moraine of the glacier and tramping to Barron Saddle Hut, located tantalising on a bend in the river of ice. Eventually it is time to keep moving, for I do not quite know where I will be spending the evening, unlike those booked into the hut.
The route swings in the opposite direction to the glacier, heading slightly in an easterly tangent while the Mueller boldly strikes out for the west. Poles provide reassurance through crumbly greywacke boulders that lead to a surprisingly level plateau and well worn indentations on compact earth. An old guide book warns travellers to keep a close lookout for the hut but that must have been referring to a much smaller, more hidden building for the current edifice is hard to miss. Built on stilts, painted dark red, it’s silhouette against the stark snow slopes and greywacke towers of Mt Olivier is prominence personified.
Threading through the boulders I keep casting towards the hut, looking for the collection of tents making up the camp site. I’m half expecting to see tents secured on the icy slopes for it’s difficult to identify where else a tent might go. About five hundred metres before the hut I notice that a resourceful duo have pitched their tent amongst the rocks. That’s clever, I think, continuing on my way. Then I notice that all around are the rock walls that we had so derided when on the walk to North Col on the Routeburn. These rock walls are all about 3 foot tall which leaves very little of the tent exposed to the wind. Better yet the walls are build so solidly that they will be no wind whipping through at the base. I have the pick of the camp sites and so choose one slightly off the ridge and with the opening pointing directly at Mt Sefton. Now this is an agreeable view!
Bashing the tent pegs into what is literally rock hard ground takes some energy but when the job is completed the canopy is taut and secure. I stand up and work the kinks out of my back. With accommodation sorted the most natural place to visit is the hut. The ground is so level that I decide to make the walk in my thongs. This makes the visit to the stand alone toilet a little precarious as one has to cross a snow field to get there.
Arriving at the hut I’m struck by a luggage room that is spilling over with climber’s equipment. I walk through the communal area and emerge on the verandah which seems to be the social focal point. As I take a seat in order to watch the late afternoon sun deepen its hues on Mt Cook, Mt Sefton and the surrounding ranges an Israeli group bring out a harmonica and bouzouki. They proceed to begin singing folk songs in their native language. A crowd wanders in and out to listen to the ballads and jigs and they continue to strum and blow on their instruments, harmonising passionately and melodically. At one point they play a Zorba like ditty to which the octogenarian hut warden joins them in a light stepping dance. It is a magical and timeless interlude. I could stay here all afternoon if not for the cutting breeze sweeping over the tops. Reluctantly I collect water and make the return trip to my tent.
I originally plan to climb Mt Olivier after tea but I fall asleep and wake in a dusky afterglow. Not to worry, I think, I do it tomorrow morning. Earlier in the evening an English pair of likely lads have arrived and opted for the camp site closest to mine which means I have to endure their conversation with another couple who pass by and make jokes about the Hooker valley. Evening views of Mt Sefton provide ample compensation.
I wake later than I would have liked and discover that it is blowing a gale. When I finally rouse myself I resolve to beat an immediate retreat down the mountain, figuring that any attempted climbs would be unsafe in the blustery conditions. Once off the ridge the wind is not so bad and the long reluctant descent commences. I walk back to the Hermitage and book the bus for the following day. I’m low on energy and beyond planning to do too much. I trudge along the Kea Point Track once more and finally arrive at the camp site near the road. There are dozens of tents and campervans in the area and all I want to do is crawl into my tent and rest. Once the sun reaches my tent it heats up considerably and my listlessness increases. Thoughts of walking to Hooker Glacier are abandoned as I drift into a restless sleep.
I wake early, aware that I have one final opportunity to reach the Hooker Valley if I leave immediately. The camp-site is still in the pre-dawn shadows and once I reach the Mueller terminal lake it is apparent that fog is blanketing all the nearby mountains. I make excellent time to the Hooker Valley terminal lake but it is too late to see Mt Cook. I’ve learnt a valuable lesson, that pristine conditions should never be taken for granted as they will not last. The lake is full of ice bergs adrift in the coffee coloured water. Mt Cook is hidden in the mist and once more the opportunity to photograph the famous panorama that is available from the Hooker valley is missed. Despite these disappointments it has been an invigorating morning and I return to camp feeling energised.
While packing up my tent I’m approached by a park ranger who chastises me for having not purchased a ticket and I feel quite embarrassed as he talks about the brazenness of campers who think they don’t have to pay the fees. I’m pleased to get away from the shame of it by hastily embarking on the walk to the Hermitage. The bus arrives and begins to collect a handful of passengers. One of these has done the Ball Pass walk and I realise that I too could have made an attempt on this if I’d set my mind to it. Instead I am on my way to Twizel from where I am collected by a bus that is somewhere between the manic time obsessiveness of Atomic Shuttle and the sight seeing luxuriousness of Intercity.
The trip to Christchurch does have its farcical side as we seem to stop for every feasible tourist photo opportunity.