New Zealand 2: Mount Cook / Twizel

Our bus to Twizel with Atomic travel left Christchurch at 7:30am (costing $40 NZD each) and arrived at 11:30am; I had planned on updating my blog and gazing at the views but I ended up spending most of the journey snoozing. The glamorous life of a backpacker, ay. After leaving our main bags at the information centre and grabbing a chai latte for me and muffin for Claire, we set out on a walk down to Twizel river and then back up through the trees along North West Arch. Back in the centre of Twizel we stocked up on supplies at 4 Square before catching our Cook Connection bus to Mount Cook at 2:45pm (which cost $27 AUD each).

On the way to Mount Cook our driver pulled over at the side of the road alongside Lake Pukaki – a stunningly bright blue and vast lake pierced by a backdrop of Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain at 3721m. As we approached Mount Cook village we were hit by up-close views of Mount Sefton – shorter in height than Mt Cook by 600m but still spectacular to look at with the mist surrounding the peaks.

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We were dropped off at Mount Cook Lodge and Motels at around 3:45pm, where we had paid $39 NZD each for a bed in a 4 bed dorm room. Wherever you stay in Mount Cook, due to the size of the village and the fact that it is located in a valley, you will be rewarded with great views of the mountains – both Sefton, Cook and the Tasman Glacier if you are lucky. Plus the dorm rooms here are more like hotel rooms with bunk beds shoved in them, so it feels more private and less chaotic than other dorm rooms.

 

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After sorting through our bags and getting ourselves together we set off on the Hooker Valley walk just after 5pm – we started the walk by wandering up to the Hermitage Hotel to the beginning of the trail, which weaves up the Hooker Valley towards Mount Cook by crossing the Hooker River over 3 suspension bridges – it was crazy and wonderful to see the changing faces and shapes of both Mt Cook and Mt Sefton depending on which angle you were looking at it from, where the mist was moving and which direction the sun was facing. Every time I looked up it would take my breath away.

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We stopped a number of times along the way to capture photos so it took us about an hour and a half to reach the Glacier lake at the end, which runs at the bottom of Mt Cook and part of Mt Sefton. Peaceful but magnificent all at once, it suddenly didn’t feel quite so intimidating. After a 20 minute rest we made our way back along the same path and made it back to the Hermitage Hotel 3 hours after we started, where we picked up soup for dinner before having a shower and heading to bed.

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Unsurprisingly we slept well that night and we’re quite leisurely getting up the next morning, checking out of our room at 9:45 and setting off for the Red Tarns walk just after 10am. It begins at a casual pace as you walk towards Black Birch Stream and cross the bridge, yet after that is a constant uphill climb from the valley floor, through various vegetation and up to a panoramic viewpoint 300m high of the village, Mt Sefton and the valleys below.  The peaks of Mt Sefton were not visible due to the amount of most and we were also unable to make out Mt Cook from this angle, however we continued across to the pools of water filled with red pond weed (hence the name Red Tarns). Here we had a different view of Mt Sefton and could also see the climb up to the “saddle” of the mountain behind us. 

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Not ones to pass up an opportunity for a challenge we then commenced the scramble uphill, weaving over rocks, gravel and bush to find the safest way to reach the top and whilst negotiating various weathers along the way – the craziest part of this whole walk were the number of different climates we faced, from burning sun that made our hearts pound to ice-cold rain that made our noses cold and treacherous winds that almost knocked us off our feet. 

We eventually made it to the top and were floored by the panoramic views below, covering Mt Cook and Mt Sefton, the valley and village, and Tasman valley. We were so glad we pushed on and spent a good (windy) 20 minutes just taking in our surroundings. The walk back down took concentration but was less physically demanding than the way up and we made it back to our starting point 2.5 hours after setting off. 

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We therefore decided to do the Governors Bush walk before grabbing a bite to eat, which promised to be an easy loop walk with a gradual climb – well, apparently we began the loop at the wrong end as, for us, it was a steep climb up steps (I’m surprised my knees didn’t just give up on me at this point) to a “viewpoint” that offered rain pelting our faces instead, and then a gradual amble down the other side. Never mind, it just made our lunch at the Hermitage Hotel’s cafe more satisfying.

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Completely wiped out from our altitude adventure and following food coma, we spent the next couple of hours lounging on the sofas of our hostel before taking the 4pm Cook Connection bus (again, $27 AUD each) back to Twizel. Our baggage almost didn’t make it with us – the driver had forgot to put ours into the trailer and it took a fellow passenger to alert him to this once he had started moving for him to turn back to collect them – but the highlight of the trip would be discovering Claire’s missing sock at the back of the van.

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We checked into High Country Lodge Motel and Backpackers ($34 each a night for a bunk bed in a 2 person dorm) before heading out to 4 Square to pick up some dinner to have back at the Lodge – tortellini with spinach and tomato sauce, washed down with feijoa fruit cider.

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After spending far too long researching cars/accommodation/cities for our days during and after Queenstown and getting nowhere, we eventually went to bed before getting up at 7:30am (*cough* 7:45 – my alarm didn’t go off, ok?! No need for the judgey eyes) to head out on our Alps2Ocean bike ride. Alps2Ocean is a 301km cycle route that starts from the Southern Alps and ends at the Pacific Ocean and whilst you can do the whole thing in 4-6 days we picked one of the 9 sections to do in one morning. From Twizel we could do the 38km route to Lake Ohau Lodge, which would be the usual direction to go in, but as we were short on time and would be going back on ourselves anyway we opted to cycle Section 2: Braemar Road to Twizel, but the other way round first, as this runs alongside Lake Pukaki.

42km in total, we probably only coveted 20km of it each way as we spent so much of our time stopping to take photos and take it all in (as well as adjusting our bikes, taking off our jackets, putting them back on, having water stops, etc etc). Plus I should also mention we started the journey towards Lake Pukaki on the wrong road, ignoring the safe and scenic route set out for this track along the Pukaki flats and instead cycling down SH8; a main road with big trucks zooming past us. It was a slog of a ride, especially at the beginning of our journey, but with views of Mt Cook in the distance we managed to push on.

The highlight of the cycle was reaching the edge of Lake Pukaki and the literally breathtaking views of Mount Cook across the lake; bright blues, piercing whites and warm reds from the mountain filled our eye line. It is such a still, peaceful and sharp blue lake with the almost surreal grandeur of Mt Cook behind it that it was wonderful just to jump off our bikes and take it in – which we did every few hundred metres or so for the next 45 minutes as we slowly made our way alongside the lake. We didn’t get very far, but we took heaps of pictures.

As our knees started to give way and we became short in time we turned around and made our way back to Twizel, this time taking the correct path across the Pukaki flats. Cycling along the gravel across an expansive area of dry grasslands with a huge reddy-brown mountain ahead of us, it almost felt like being in the outback in Australia. Plus without the cars speeding past and the need to be overly cautious, we could almost zone out and take in the experience, reminding me if why I love to cycle – it felt freeing and liberating, whilst pushing yourself physically. 

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We made it back to our Lodge at around 12:15, which gave us just enough time to shower, change, repack, NOT eat the grapes and yogurts we had saved in the fridge as they had been ruthlessly chucked during the 3 hours we were out on bikes (no, I’m not over it yet and doubt I ever will be), pop to the shops to pick up some lunch (sushi for me, a blueberry muffin for claire) which we chowed down before being picked up by our Intercity bus to Queenstown, which was of course then half an hour late. Time for a nap on the bus before the next destination…

LS

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