This is part 8 in a series about my November 2016 trip to New Zealand, booked off a $215 mistake fare.
Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook are southwest from Christchurch, with Lake Tekapo pretty much equidistant from the coasts of the South Island, and Mount Cook further west. There are several routes inland, though they all meet up for the last 90 minutes or so, so I decided to just go with the shortest one, which Google estimated at 2 hours 40 minutes from the Rydges to Lake Tekapo.
The drive started out fairly boring, with industrial parks, followed by lots of farms and cows and sheep on flat land. Once out of the greater Christchurch area, it was pretty much all 2 lane highways, with passing lanes every 5 km or so. The speed limit was mostly 100 kph, about 62 mph, and I was generally able to move at that pace. I got used to the left side driving pretty quickly and had some podcasts to keep me company. Aside from a stop at the Cookie Time Factory Store about 20 minutes in, I drove straight through – taking about 3 hours. About 90 minutes in, just past the town of Geraldine, the road got a lot more picturesque – though no pics since I was driving.
Lake Tekapo is a very pretty lake in the Mackenzie District. There are a number of lakefront resorts around the lake, and at the southern end is a very tiny “town” – more accurately, a strip mall. There are watersports and helicopter tours available, but I just made it a lunch stop, which was probably the right move.
Pulling into town, one of the first things you see is the Church of the Good Shepherd, the first church in the district – built in 1935 – and an extremely, extremely popular tourist stop. When I pulled up, there were several buses of Chinese tourists, so I couldn’t get many great shots, but you get the idea.
I headed to the strip mall, where there a few food options – a Chinese restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a coffee shop, and a pub-type place, Mackenzie’s Grill, which I settled on. Yes, another place where I ate a sandwich and fries in New Zealand, but it was the only place with a view- and had outdoor seating, which was nice but for some aggressive birds.
There was a small supermarket on the strip as well, which I stopped in to pick up some nourishment for the drive and my time in Mount Cook/Aoraki Village. (Aoraki is the Maori word for Mount Cook) Then it was back in the car for about an hour and a half of some of the prettiest driving of the trip, finally reaching the Mount Cook Visitors’ Center.
Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, and is the center of Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park, with over 100 peaks and 70 glaciers. Hardcore mountaineers can do overnight treks, and there are shelters throughout the park, but there are also a number of day hikes of various lengths and difficulties.
Mount Cook “Village” basically consists of two clumps of buildings close to the entrance of the park. The largest is the Hermitage Hotel, a fancy hotel, which also has a museum/planetarium in it. Then there’s a Visitors’ Center and a restaurant that seemed to be closed, the Old Mountaineer’s Café, as well as what seemed like a low-endhotel, the Aoraki Alpine Lodge,. Court right nearby. A bit closer to the highway is another clump, with the Aoraki Court, where I stayed, and the Mount Cook Lodge, a very basic motel, and a youth hostel. A lot of folks stay in the town of Twizel, outside the park itself, 45 minutes south of the park, as that’s more of a real town, but given my limited time, I spent the extra money and stayed in the park.
It was already 3pm by the time I reached the park, so I headed right to the Visitors’ Center hoping to get some good trail advice and hit the trails with plenty of sunlight. Unfortunately, I didn’t get great advice, and ended up parking in the wrong place and walking a 20 minute segment that I should have driven to the Hooker Valley Track. Once I was there, though, it was lovely. It was a 90 minute walk in each direction; the path was well maintained and not very strenuous the whole way. The most difficult portions were the suspension walkways that dot the path. There are big signs warning that a maximum of 10 people can be on them at a time, which often made me nervous since groups of tourists would get on the bridge and stay on them with selfie sticks while I was trying to cross.
Some of the Chinese tourists were entertaining, particularly in how inappropriately dressed (and shoed) they were for the hike. Many people don’t make it the whole way down, and the crowds thinned out as I got towards the end. It’s a beautiful walk, and the stillness and quiet was really lovely. You can hear the water and nothing else. It wasn’t very sunny, so some of the pictures probably don’t do the scenery justice, but I highly highly highly recommend it.
I got back to my car and drove the short distance to Aoraki Court, which is a motel consisting of several low barracks-looking buildings. I checked in at the first hut, and was handed a key and a bottle of milk, before driving over to the building my room was in. The room was fine, and I would describe it as a studio. Some rooms have great views, but mine was mostly of another room. I didn’t keep the drapes to the sliding door open anyway as there was no privacy at all– the nature of one story buildings I guess.
There was a full kitchen, which I didn’t use but is good considering the relatively few options in the village. I had gotten an email from the hotel before arrival which tells guests about the nearest supermarkets and the few restaurant options, which is helpful. There were multiple warnings about a prohibition on cooking fish, which I found amusing.
While everything was very new, the mattress was way too soft for my comfort. In addition, for the second time in 2016, there were blood spots on the sheet (which the manager insisted weren’t there before I arrived when I mentioned it at check out). The bathroom was very basic, and there was no shower enclosure, just a curtain around the corner of the bathroom and a drain in the floor. Still, the room met my needs. It’s not cheap, coming to $167 for the night even with a 18% Cheaptickets coupon in the shoulder season. You’re paying for view and location, and it was great to wake up in the morning and smell the fresh mountain air and go for an early morning hike before hitting the road.
After a short rest, I headed for dinner. The only open options were at the Hermitage Hotel or Chamois, the pub at the nearby Mount Cook Lodge next door. I went with the latter, which had pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, etc. The restaurant had a very 1970s ski lodge vibe, which was cool, and had a wide range of guests – including very few Americans and lots of European 20-somethings. I had a steak which was surprisingly good, and enjoyed the great views, before walking back to the motel and had a lowkey relaxed evening catching up on computer stuff and watching some TV.
I checked out of the hotel at 8:30 and drove to the Blue Lakes parking area, where there are two short tracks, the Tasman Glacier View and Blue Lakes trails, which are more accurately described as one trail that splits into two. You can do both in under an hour, though they are more strenuous than Hooker Valley, both in steepness and in paved-ness. I found the Blue Lakes underwhelming – they’re actually green, as explained by a sign by a plaque on the Tasman Glacier View trail– though very peaceful at that hour. The Tasman Glacier View trail, with a couple dozen steps was totally worth it, as it led to perhaps the most breathtaking view – and the highest point of my hikes – I had in Mount Cook.
And then I hit the road and headed south.