In 2014, while on motorhome trip around the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island with the kids, we paid a flying visit to The Hermitage Hotel in Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. So sensational was its location and views of the famous mountain, so dramatic the scenery in the park, we vowed to return one day and stay a while.
In November Roslyn and I flew to Queenstown in the South Island to fulfill that bucket list item, and to revisit Mt Aspiring National Park in Otago. We ditched the idea of another motorhome trip and picked up a 4WD SUV at Queenstown Airport and headed into town for the night before heading north to Mt Cook.
With our borders closed Queenstown was quieter than I’d ever seen it. Normally packed with international visitors, the resort town in normal times can be a nightmare of clogged traffic, rarely sighted parking spaces, and queues for restaurants. For many tourism businesses trade is down by 50 per cent or more since Covid, revenue 10-20 per cent of normal takings. Some operations have folded while others are being kept afloat by domestic tourism and intermittent government subsidies. The Australian travel bubble which opened in June 2021 is expected to make a positive difference, especially for the winter ski season.
Crowds or not, Queenstown, ringed by the astonishing Remarkables mountain range, is stunning at any time of the year. We took a walk around the harbour and peninsula where Queenstown Gardens is located. There we sat on a bench and looked out over Lake Wakitipu, watching the sun disappear over the mountains in a riotous golden swirl. Finding a table for dinner was easy.
The approach to Mt Cook National Park is made alongside the large and impossibly blue Lake Pukaki. Like the nearby Tasman Lake, its incredible colour comes from fine silt particles, or glacial flour in the water, a result of glacial erosion. We had booked a Tasman Glacier boat trip the following day, so decided to have a look at Tasman Lake that afternoon after checking in at The Hermitage.
There’s a steep track that winds its way up to a viewpoint over the glacier lake. It’s worth the climb, not only for the incomparable view over the bright blue lake and glacier wall, Mt Cook and snow-covered alps, but for the vista behind you stretching away towards the Mckenzie Basin.
The Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest, stretching for 27kms with a depth over 600m, flowing from the Southern Alps to the Mckenzie Basin. It’s one of the only lakes in the world with its own icebergs. The glacier is melting, fast. In 1973 there was no terminal lake at all, but by 2008 it was 7kms long and 200m deep.
I highly recommend the glacier lake trip, which has to be booked through The Hermitage Hotel. We gathered with other hotel guests at 9am the following morning for our bus trip to the glacier lake. After an informative commentary on the geology of the area, we were dropped off and walked 15 minutes to the dock at the moraine wall where we boarded three motorised dinghies.
It was a cloudless blue day, perfect for seeing the glacier wall which had calved overnight, scattering small icebergs to float like glistening jewels on the milky blue water. Overhead a helicopter took people to land on the glacier high up in the mountains. The dinghies won’t go within 200m of the grubby glacier wall for safety reasons, and I was quite happy to keep my distance. Even in the sun, the wind sweeping over the lake was icy. The thought of tumbling into the water didn’t bear thinking about.
The glacier trip was part two of a long, tiring day that would include a 10km trek. I had been up before sunrise on the balcony of our 6th floor room to take dawn photos of the mountain. From The Hermitage the view is straight down the Hooker Valley to Aoraki Mt Cook. The outlook from its bedrooms and dining room has to be among finest of any hotel in the world, even if the hotel itself is not the most attractive.
The Hermitage is designed in a dark grey granite, to blend in with the mountains. If it was located in a town or along the coast the hotel would dominate its surroundings in a negative way, but here, among the snowcapped peaks, it looks almost puny.
This is the third iteration of The Hermitage. The first was small, not much more than a cottage, built in 1884 under the direction of Frank Huddleston a surveyor and watercolour artist from Timaru. A larger one was built in 1914 to cater for increased demand, but it burned down in 1957. The government quickly built a new one in the modernist style you see today, in 1958.
The 10-storey Aoraki Wing with its spectacular views was completed in 2001. We moved into that wing for our last night, on the 9th floor. Huge glass windows to Mt Sefton and Mt Cook fill your vision as you enter. A telescope is provided for each of these premium rooms.
Although Covid caused an announcement that The Hermitage would close indefinitely in May 2020 with the loss of 157 jobs, it thankfully reopened in September. It was very busy when we arrived, and the wonderful staff were obviously thrilled to be up and running again.
Among the attractions the hotel offers is a Sir Edmund Hillary Museum and a cinema which shows films about the area and mountain rescues. A fine statue of Sir Ed, who honed his pre-Everest mountaineering skills on Mt Cook, stands gazing down the valley looking towards his beloved mountain.
The hazards of exploring the alpine wilderness, showcased in the cinema, are brought home when you walk the valleys below glacier-laden peaks in ever-changing weather and hear thunderous avalanches rumbling in the distance. Near the beginning of the Hooker Valley Track is poignant memorial to all who have died climbing here: “In memory of those who perished in this national park”, reads the plaque on the cairn-like monument. Nameplates of too many who died are attached to the stones.
The 5km Hooker Valley walk to the Hooker Lake at the foot of Mt Cook is the area’s most popular trek. We set off around 3pm when it was very hot. Before too long we were desperate for shade and going through our water supply at an alarming rate. We couldn’t just fill our bottle from the alpine Hooker River, as I’d fondly imagined. Its water is a milky grey due to suspended glacial rock flour in the water. The river carries 20,000 cubic metres of sediment down the valley every year.
We are not walkers, per se, and in the heat we found it quite hard going, measuring our progress by each suspension bridge we had to cross. I don’t do suspension bridges, but on this occasion I had no choice. It wasn’t so bad, even if I did find myself being uncomfortably bounced by people striding along in the opposite direction while I clung on stoically, swaying, to the railings.
Roslyn and I both agree: it’s the most impressive walk we have ever done, so beautiful it’s enough to bring one to tears. I’ve never felt quite so awed by nature and magnificence as I did on the Hooker Valley walk: the mountains rising steeply around us, scarred by massive landslides; the glaciers hanging off Mt Sefton above Mueller Glacier Lake; the roaring grey river washing over giant boulders; the diversity of alpine vegetation.
After crossing the Mueller Suspension Bridge, the landscape changes as you follow the Hooker River to its source, the glacial lake below Mt Cook. The valley suddenly opened up and a brilliantly constructed boardwalk took us over snow tussock, spear grass, large mountain daisies, and the iconic Mount Cook Lily which sprouted in beautiful clumps at the pathway’s edge. At the end, above the freezing glacial lake, Mt Cook rose into the blue sky above us, jagged, dangerous, dazzling, wonderful. What a finish. Now we just had to walk all the way back.
The next day, as we prepared to leave, the weather suddenly closed in over the mighty mountain. We congratulated ourselves on doing our wonderful walk the pervious day and headed south, vowing to return to Mt Cook one day and do it again. Our destination was Wanaka where we would be staying with friends who had moved from Auckland to the shores of Lake Wanaka.
In 2007, a year after we first arrived in New Zealand, we went to Wanaka and Queenstown for a wedding anniversary. On that occasion we spent a lovely day in Mt Aspiring National Park nearby. I took some nice pictures, but when we returned to our motel room and I attempted to download the photos to my laptop, all the files corrupted and I lost them all. I was mortified. In 2020, it was time to put that right.
The weather was glorious, puffy white clouds on a deep blue sky brushing snowy mountain peaks, the scenery even more impressive than I remembered. Mt Aspiring – isn’t that a wonderful name?– is one of New Zealand’s tallest mountains and gives its name to a vast national park which straddles the “main divide” of the Southern Alps. This great wilderness has everything: glaciers, mountains, snowfields, beech forests, rivers, waterfalls, green valleys and river flats where sheep and cattle roam.
How is it that one country can be so beautiful, so ridiculously rich in extravagant panoramas, and yet so empty? That is what strikes you as you drive through landscapes which seemed to have been created solely with the travelling photographer in mind. It’s an occupational hazard for anyone travelling with me that their journey is going to be interrupted with frequent, unscheduled stops. In a car this is much worse than in a motorhome, the latter not conducive to parking on winding country roads at just at the perfect spot.
Most of the navigable car route through Mt Aspiring National Park is on an unsealed, dusty road which fords streams and cattle grids and carries you along sections of the gorgeous, blue braided Matukituki River. It’s a journey to be taken leisurely, where frequent stops for photos are as natural as the bleating of sheep or the sound water tinkling over the rocky riverbed.
One of our stops was at Wishbone Falls which we could see tumbling 77 metres down a mountainside in an idyllic valley. It’s a short walk from the roadside through fields to what is a popular swimming spot, apparently. The water in the shallow waterfall pool was icy cold. At the foot of the waterfall is a strange sculpture, called Iris, by Simon Max Bannister. Inspired by the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris is poised to catch the falling prisms from the waterfall spray in the disk she holds.
We sat next to Iris, dipping our feet in the refreshing water, hot sun on our backs, butterflies flitting by, listening to the water music. Aspiring Park Paradise.