Circling the Southern Alps

As you’ve probably gathered by now, the South Island of New Zealand is full of mountains. None is taller, more iconic, and more sacred than the peak that the Maori call Aoraki and that European explorers named Mount Cook.

Rising 3,724 meters (12,218 feet), Aoraki stands near the center of the Southern Alps—the great mountain chain that runs for most of the length of the South Island. Thanks to numerous glaciers, Aoraki and the mountains around it are covered in snow all year. That white coating makes them stand out from the green or brown mountains found around much of the South Island. Among those snow-topped peaks, Aoraki is especially noticeable because of its sharp, triangular shape.

To the Maori, Aoraki is the embodiment of one of the ancestor deities that created the South Island. The mountain is so spiritually significant that in a landmark law settling claims by South Island Maori, it is the first subject addressed after the government’s apology for past misdeeds. In that law, the government pledged to give Aoraki to the South Island Maori, who in turn pledged to donate it to the British Crown (New Zealand’s official head of state) on behalf of all the people of New Zealand. That law also recognized the official name of the mountain as Aoraki Mount Cook.

Melissa on a rock in front of blue water with white mountains in the distance
Melissa at Lake Pukaki, with triangular Aoraki in the distance

We got our first glimpse of the famous mountain early in our trip, when we stopped at Lake Pukaki on our way from Lake Tekapo to Oamaru. It was a crystal clear day, and Aoraki was unmistakable amid the mountains at the far end of the lake. Weeks later, after zigzagging around the southern half of the South Island, we returned to Lake Pukaki. This time, we drove the length of the turquoise lake to Mount Cook Village in Aoraki National Park, where we spent Easter weekend in a crowded hostel. (We were lucky to find beds there; we met several travelers later who couldn’t find any lodging available in the village during their trips.)

For three days, we were surrounded by glacier-covered mountains. The national park visitor center and the upscale Hermitage Hotel, where we had lunch, offered striking views of Aoraki’s triangular face. We got even better views when we walked Hooker Valley Track, which winds for 10 kilometers (6 miles) along a valley at the foot of Mount Sefton and Aoraki. Those mountains are frequently wrapped in clouds. But there was scarcely a cloud in the sky on the day of our hike, so we could see the shapes of the peaks—and the color and folds of their glaciers—with exquisite clarity.

Mount Sefton
A bridge on the Hooker Valley Track
Aoraki coming in sight along the track
Hikers resting by the lake at the end of the track

The Hooker Valley Track ended at a small gray lake fed by streams running down from the glaciers. So cold is the water that even on a hot day, the lake had thin crusts of patchy ice. Several big chunks of bluish-gray ice were sitting in the lake—bits of glacier that had tumbled down and not yet melted. They were the first icebergs Melissa or I had ever seen in person, so even though they were small by iceberg standards, they seemed wonderful and special to us.

A glacier on Mount Sefton
Icebergs in Hooker Lake

We were sad to leave the high mountains, but more scenery beckoned. Our next destination was the rugged and sparsely populated west coast of the South Island. We were only about 40 km from that coast in Mount Cook Village, but Aoraki and its fellow mountains form an impassable ridge. So we had to drive a big loop south and then northwest through Wanaka and the Haast Pass to reach the ocean.

We went to the west coast to see the different scenery that part of the island promised. I wasn’t expecting to be reminded of where I’d just been. But as we drove up the coast on another clear day and stopped at lookout points on high headlands, we saw a range of white peaks floating above the great sweep of the coast like a mirage of clouds. We’d read that European sailors passing the west coast in the 1600s and 1700s had seen high white mountains in the distance, but I couldn’t imagine what that looked like until I saw it for myself.

The Southern Alps hovering like a mirage above the west coast of the South Island, as seen from Punakaiki

For the next couple of days, as we slowly worked our way up the west coast, we got close-up views of Southern Alps glaciers at the towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. At our northernmost stop on the coast, Cape Foulwind near Westport, we were still catching glimpses of Aoraki and its range, some 250 km away. By then, when we’d seen the sacred mountain from so many angles in so many places, Aoraki felt ubiquitous—like a beautiful and magical symbol of this stunning island.

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