Hanging in the Hooker Valley

August 2022

What a start to a trip 🤦🏻‍♀️ … a few months ago, one of the ladies I had been doing some weekend walks with suggested that we do a walk to overnight in the Hooker Hut, a lesser known hut on the very popular track near Aoraki Mt Cook.  

Despite it being not very well know, it only sleeps 8 people, so is often booked up, particularly in the weekends and so we could only get 3 beds on a Friday night in August – I was one of the lucky 3 who got a spot!!

I was really excited about this mini getaway and I had been tracking the weather from as far out as you could and it was looking good. Sunny (and freezing) after a good dumping of snow earlier in the week.  I had also spent way too much money on a new sleeping bag and walking poles (both of which I hope I will get good use out of).  Have I said I was excited about this lol.

We were heading off early with Heidi, who lived the furthest north driving and doing the pick ups as she headed south – great plan … until her car would not start!  She waited 10-15 minutes and it still would not start 🤦🏻‍♀️ unfortunately she really wanted to drive herself and had to call AA, so it was decided that Katherine and I would head off together and Heidi would join us if/ when she could!!

It was a beautiful day and lots of snowy vistas made it an easy drive.  After a quick stop in Geraldine and Tekapo and of course the obligatory photo stops, we arrived at the White Horse Campground in Aoraki Mt Cook national park just after midday.   (If you are a regularly reader, you will know that this was the site of a rainy camping trip between Xmas and new year at the end of last year.)

We had lunch and kitted up, ready for our walk which started along the wonderful Hooker Valley track.  This was the 3rd time I had done the walk and the first time I could actually see Mt Cook – it was such a stunning day.

Quite a few people we passed, asked us where we were going as we had bags much bigger than was necessary on the easy 2-3 hour walk – it didn’t help that I had a kettle hanging off the back of my bag (as Heidi was supposed to bring a pot and with her not coming, it was a last minute addition).   Not one of those who asked even knew that there was a hut there and one guy even point blank told us that we were wrong and that there was no hut!!! That’s how much of a hidden gem it is!

Even the instructions to get to the hut on the official Department of Conversation website were vague and luckily I had printed off someone’s blog which gave step by step directions.

We stepped off the track just after the picnic table on to a slightly trodden path through the tussuck.  It turns out there is now a small arrow on the boardwalk pointing to it but it is probably not something you would notice unless you were looking for it. 

Thankfully, it also seems they have put more orange marker posts out now, than there were when the blog writer did the walk, but you still had to keep a good eye out for them in the tussock as the track was not well  formed and it is definitely not a hut you could stumble across accidentally (which makes all the more special). 

It was a great sight to see the cute green and orange hut with the surrounded by the most stunning view of Aoraki Mt Cook – I would definitely get a heart full of mountain views on this trip.

The Hooker Hut has existed in its current state and location only since 2021 when it was placed there, fully refurbished, but it’s interesting life began in 1910.  At that time it was located on the moraine wall beside the Hooker Glacier.  By 1948 it was in very poor condition due to the severe alpine weather and lack of maintenance.  Its demise hastened by the receding of the glacier which created cracks in the building. 

And so started its numerous relocations.  First uphill from its original location (by plane and parachuted to the new site) in 1961 and then again in 1994 as the moraine wall cracked further.  Not long after its second move, heavy rain washed out the track to access it, and then, the final straw was an avalanche striking the hut in 2004.

In 2015 it was dismantled, flown in sections to nearby Twizel where the restoration took place.  Covid 19 lockdowns and weather delayed the reassembly but finally in 2021 the hut was back in its new location.

The hut sleeps 8 (in bunks with mattresses), and has a wood burning fire (with a good stock of wood onsite) and a gas cooker – it is actually pretty well kitted out for a DoC hut.  The toilet is a nice long drop (if you can use nice and long drop in the same sentence) set a little way away from the hut.  Everywhere has an amazing view – the picnic table on the deck, the bedroom, the kitchen/dinning room and of course the toilet. 

As the first people to arrive for the day, we got our pick of the beds, we set up our sleeping bags etc. and put the kettle on for a cuppa and a relaxing afternoon admiring the views.

The temperature dropped quickly as the sun started to go down and we soon were ready to try and light the fire.  It took a few attempts and we were grateful (for the second time) for the blog I had printed out as we used the paper it was printed on to help start the fire 🤣

By the end of the day our hut mates had arrived, a Japanese family (living in Christchurch) and a French guy in New Zealand on holiday for 1 month.  (We were more and more grateful him as the time went on – you will see why.)

We were quick to get the kettle on the boil to rehydrate the dehydrated meals and lots of cups of hot fruit tea as the sunset and the temperature continued to drop (apparently to -7 overnight)!  The meal was not amazing but it was ok and it filled a hole.

Thankfully, the family took over the fire care so we could just relax and enjoy the sunset and headed to the warmth of our sleeping bags to wait for the moon and stars to rise.  The moon was a huge full moon and long before it rose above the mountains, it lit the snow covered mountains around us and they glistened in it’s light – it was incredible.

Finally the moon rose above the mountains (just after 9pm) and by 1.30am when I got up to go to the toilet, the night was almost as bright as day – no torch needed. It was so bright that the only star visible to the naked eye was a planet – Neptune (thanks to my star walk app)

It was just so surreal being surrounded by the glowing snow, the bright moon and hearing avalanches crackling off in the distance (this was basically happening every hour or so around the valley).

And let’s not forget our possum friend. A huge friendly possum who clearly had no fear of people, coming right up on to the deck to see what food scraps he could find!!  Of course, I had to explain to all the foreigners how terrible they are for New Zealand despite their cuteness.

I did not have a terrible night’s sleep and was nice and cosy in my new sleeping bag.  It helped that the French guy volunteered to get up every couple of hours to put more wood on the fire to keep the hut warm (first ‘grateful for the French guy’ moment).   As always, I woke up early, got up just after 7am and headed off to the Hooker Lake at the end of the track before all the day walkers came in.  It was just beautiful sitting in silence by the frozen lake, watching the rising sun hit the tips of the peaks around us.

We headed back to the hut for coffee and breakfast but discovered that the water tank had frozen over (should have thought about that knowing it was going to be so cold)!  Thankfully French guy to the rescue (wish I had asked him his name lol).  He had to climb to the top and break the ice from the top to fill out kettles and water bottles.  (‘grateful for the French guy’ moment two)! 🤣

It was such a wonderful night and I will definitely book again for next year – it’s truly a million $ view with a $25 per person price tag 👍🏻

On our way back to the main track we passed some guys kitted up with skis and climbing gear – they were going to climb up one of the mountains and ski  down – and I thought I was being adventurous spending the night in the hut 🤣 – they put me to shame.

Back at the car park it was nice to de-backpack and take off some layers before heading over to the next valley to see the Tasman Glacier and Lake (where I went on a boat in December).  We went up to the look out to see the ‘blue lakes’ which today are decidedly green.   Accordingly to the sign, they were named in mid 1800’s when they were filled by the glacial meltwater making them that wonderful turquoise blue.   Unfortunately today, as the glacier has receded so much, the meltwater no longer flows in to the lake and the lakes are predominately filled by rain water which supports the growth of green algae – making the lakes … well … green lol.

From the Blue Lakes look out we continued on to the look out over Tasman Lake and the Tasman Glacier – it was a bit of a walk up it was worth it.

By this time we were ready for some proper food, so we headed up to the Hermitage for lunch before heading back to Tekapo to meet up with Heidi, the 3rd member of our party who finally made it to Tekapo after missing the hut last night.

I thought we had had enough ‘wows’ for one weekend, but Tekapo was putting it on for us too.  We were staying in a cabin by the lake and it we had such a great view of the snow covered mountains reflecting in the lake.   And we all know I do love a good reflection.

After a soak in the hot pools we had a lovely dinner and I stopped to admire the huge moon again, this time shining over the lake.   

The night time view was not to be outdone by the dawn.  I was lucky to wake up just in time as I headed down to the toilet at 6.30am, just when the sky was the most stunning pink and purple hues overs the lake.  It was perfect timing as it did not last long and the pink hues soon turned to yellow/orange. 

After a beautiful morning walk along the waterfront and breakfast as my favourite Tekapo spot (the Greedy Cow Café) we jumped in the car for the 3 hour drive home.  What a weekend – I don’t think I have said ‘this is perfect’ or ‘just stunning’ so much in 2 days in a long time 😂 (I should probably mention that Heidi’s car was making strange noises so we left her in Tekapo – waiting for the AA again!)

Wintering in Wanaka

June 2021

A few days before we were to start our road trip south, the region had a 1 in 100 year rainfall, causing severe flooding and damage to many bridges and roads. At one point the roads south were all closed with a number of bridges damaged – to get from Temuka to Christchurch, normally a 2 hour drive, was taking 13.5 hrs … taking the scenic route through the mountains, up the west coast and then back across the mountains!

Thankfully road crews had opened most of the roads by Friday when we left, though some of roads had severe damage – that said, the snow that fell on the mountains in the same storm made for a beautiful views (despite starting off in the fog).  Truly Mother Nature at her best .  (Sorry, not sorry for all the photos lol).

The drive to Wanaka takes around 5.5 hours and we had planned to stop around halfway in Fairlie for lunch at the ‘world famous in New Zealand’ Fairlie Pies … unfortunately it seemed that everyone else seemed to have the same idea and there was a long queue out the door!  We are not fans of queuing, so we pushed on to Tekapo where we bought Fairlie Pies in the supermarket 😂.   The lakes and the snow covered mountains were looking beautiful and it is such a stunning drive.

As usual, I was keen for an early night after settling into our accommodation, and then up early for a morning run.  It is definitely my favourite time of day, and it was so beautiful to run around the lake, with hardly anyone around.  Of course it also meant we got “that Wanaka tree” to ourselves for a few minutes.  As this was a trip with friends, I did not have much planned and didn’t expect to get out and about and do my normal exploring, but I certainly intended to find a good balance.   Rain being forecast for most of the weekend was not going to stop me lol.

After a day spent with friends, I was keen to head out early again to visit some of the sights in the area.  First stop was the famous Cardrona Hotel.  I drove the 20 minutes to the hotel through the morning fog which had cleared a little by the time I arrived.  It was earlier enough that there was hardly anyone around, but not too earlier that coffee was not available😂

The Cardrona area was settled in the 1860s as people flocked to the area to find their futures and fortunes in the gold in the nearby hills.  The Cardrona Hotel was established in 1863, to service the booming the population and it is one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels.

By the late 1890’s most of the prospectors had moved on in the hope of more lucrative areas and the town dwindled to just a few farmers and many of the buildings were moved down the room to Wanaka (which was called Pembroke at the time). 

Today of course, Cardonna is famous for its ski field, and what better than a few drinks in the old Cardonna hotel after a long day on the slopes. 

My next stop was to be the Blue Pools in Mt Aspiring National Park.  From Wanaka, it is about an hour drive around Lake Wanaka and its neighbouring Lake Hawea.  The roads are narrow, winding and one way in some cases, but beautiful views, a little moody and gloomy but still beautiful.

From the car park it was about an easy 30 minute walk through a mature beech and podocarp forest and given the threat of rain, there were not a lot of other people around.   The forest walk was lovely and as always, I got distracted by fantails 😂, but there was no standing still for too long because of the sandflies 😬😬 – they were pretty savage!  The light rain also was become a little heavier, so I picked up the pace to my destination, the Blue Pools.

Not surprisingly, the pools get their name from the colour of their water, the result of light refraction on the clear, snow fed and icy cold water.  It was beautiful, but the Jet boats hooning up and down the river definitely disturbed the peace and bird song!  I guess they are fun if you are on them, a just a little bit annoying if you are not!

I had hoped to do one of the long walks around Wanaka, in particular Roy’s Peak, but the weather forecast was really not great so on our last morning we decided to do one of the short walks around the town – Mt Iron.  A 4.5 km loop, up a hill on the outskirts of the town which gives beautiful 360 degree views around the area. 

We were early enough to avoid the crowds (the walk is very popular with locals), and it was nice to stretch our legs before the drive home.  Next time I will make it up Roy’s Peak!!!

Not to be outdone, the drive home was equally as stunning as the drive down.  In fact, I am not sure any road trip in New Zealand can disappoint – regardless of the weather.

Exploring my big backyard

(June 2020)

Finally, I am writing about 2020 (just a week or two short of the end of the year lol) – I am sure I will not get so far behind in future!!

And what a year it has been, no one could have predicted that when I returned to New Zealand in early February, it was to be the last time in the 2020 that I would be out of the country!  Still, I am not mad about it.  As everyone is probably aware, New Zealand went “hard and early” when it came to our COVID-19 response.  We had a very hard, 5 week lockdown starting at the end of March, much harder than I have seen in other countries, and after a few weeks of lesser restrictions we came out the other end of it towards the end of May.  Since then, life has almost returned to normal and we have been able to move around the country relatively freely (and mask free).

We have had a few blips along the way with some community transmission in small numbers which has resulted in some localised lockdowns and mask requirements (mostly in Auckland) but I for one am enjoying exploring my own backyard.

I was fortunate to have lots of wonderful family camping holidays exploring New Zealand growing up but there are so many places I had not visited since then, so it seems 2020 was the year for re-exploring this wonderful country I am so fortunate to call home.

Of course, I am not the only one ‘stuck’ in New Zealand, and I discovered Venus Adventures (https://www.venusadventures.travel/) through an ad on Facebook.  Julie, the founder, is a Kiwi who now calls Egypt home and arranges tours for woman around the world.  She had been in New Zealand visiting family when COVID hit and she was stuck here.  When lock down finished, she looked at ways to keep her business going in this new world and came up with the idea of small group short getaways in New Zealand.

I joined one in June to the beautiful MacKenzie Basin, just a short 3.5 hours drive from Christchurch.  Of course, I could have easily gone there for a weekend on my own (or with friends), but I know I would have missed out on some of the quirkier activities we did so for me, it was definitely worth it. 

And so I joined Julie and a couple of other ladies from Christchurch on the road down to Twizel which was to be our base for the long weekend.  Our first stop was in Geraldine, a small town founded in the 1840s.  Fun fact, Geraldine was a ‘dry’ town until 1950 – that means no alcohol could be served!  Today it has grown up from its small farming beginnings and now has a population of just under 3,000 and is a hub for artists and artisans including some great cheese and chocolate (two of my favourite things 😊).

Back on the road and our next stop was in Tekapo.  Tekapo is one of the main stops on the normal South Island tourist route and it is normally packed all year round, mostly with international tourists.  It was eerie to see it almost empty. No tourist buses and campervan filling the overflowing car parks.  No queues of people waiting to take photos of the ‘insta-favourite’ The Church of the Good Shepherd, overlooking the lake.  It felt wrong not to stop and take a couple of snaps in these strange times.

We had a quick photo stop on the shores of Lake Pukaki.  It was a beautiful clear day and we could see all the way down to Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak at 3,724m.  We were heading back down this way in a couple of days so hoped to see it again then.

Sunset was on its way by the time we arrived at our accommodation on the shores of Lake Ruataniwha, just outside of Twizel, in the heart of the MacKenzie Basin.

The MacKenzie Basin (also known as MacKenzie Country) was named after a Scottish sheep thief.  He was imprisoned, escaped and recaptured numerous times and was admired as a rebel who challenged the wealthy land owners of the time.  The area is an outdoor adventurers dream, full of mountains, braided rivers and lakes.   Due to the extensive network of hydroelectric schemes in the area, there are also a number of man-made canals – often controversial, the hydro dams have altered the landscape, changing existing lakes and creating new ones.

As the temperature dropped, the moon rise was stunning from the house, and the morning was just as beautiful as the sun came up over the snow-capped mountains.  I made an effort to get up and out early to take some photos of that wonderful ‘golden’ hour and I am so glad I did as within 1 hour the clouds had closed in and it started to snow – and boy did it snow!

We started our days activities having a quick look through the small town’s shops (and avoiding the snow) and thankfully the snow had stopped in time for us to head off for our sightseeing.  First stop was the High Country Salmon Farm (https://www.highcountrysalmon.co.nz/).  Interesting to see the how the farm works, but I seem to have taken more photos of birds than fish lol.  Firstly, because it was far easier and secondly because they looked amazing on the crazy bright turquoise water.   Many of the lakes and water ways in the region are this colour (or similar) due to the glacial flour (extremely fine rock particles from the nearby glaciers) content – when the sun hits the surface at the right angle, it reflects off the particles transforming it to a brilliant blue.

We drove past a couple of the Hydro power stations (and lakes created by them), including Waitaki Power Station (built in 1928-34 and is the oldest of 8 stations on the Waitaki river) and Lake Waitaki and onwards to the small town of Kurow, just 8 kms from the power station.  A little known fact, Waitaki and Kurow are considered the birthplace of the world’s first social welfare system.  Doctors in Kurow developed a system to provide free medical treatment to the power plant workers and their families if they paid a small amount in to a ‘fund’.  Two of those doctors who were material in the creation of the ‘fund’, later became MPs and the national social welfare scheme was based on this in 1939.

Today Kurow has a population of just over 500 (when I said small town, I meant it!) and we were here to visit Ostler Wines (https://www.ostlerwine.co.nz/).  According to their website, “wine is liquid geography” and the wine grown in the Waitaki Valley is “38 million years in the making”.  As we entered the old Kurow Post office on the main drag, we were greeted by Commander in Chief Jim Jerram (an ex-doctor) and his wife Anne.  We were lucky enough to taste a number of their beautiful wines and enjoy one of the best platters I have had and it was clear just how passionate Jim was about his wines.  Such a gem to find in such a small town (give them a call in advance if you want to stop by just to be sure they are open).

As we drove back towards Twizel the scenery as stunning.  The combination of the magnificent lake, surrounding peaks and wide open skies are a dream for photographers and pose the difficult challenge of capturing the grandeur of the ever-changing landscape.

We also stopped briefly at Lake Benmore (New Zealand’s largest manmade lake), a lake created by the Benmore Hydro Station and Dam (New Zealand’s largest earth dam).  This power station alone generates enough electricity each year to power almost 300,000 homes and Hydroelectric power currently accounts for 57% of total NZ electricity generated, so you can see the benefits of these hydro systems.  We stopped for afternoon tea in a small park by the lake and took a few minutes to read all about the local hydro systems as described in a mural – from the construction of the dam and lakes through to the conservation efforts of Meridian, the company that operates them.

Another cold night, lead to another stunning morning – and I mean stunning, so of course I was out early catching the frost on the ground and the now more than snow capped mountains 😉.  It was beautiful day in Twizel as we headed out along the canals towards Lake Pukaki (another lake filled with that glacial flour) but as we neared Mt Cook National Park the cloud came down.

Our first stop in the National Park was the small but perfectly formed visitor centre.  It has a beautiful picture window looking out to Aoraki Mt Cook (or it would if it wasn’t covered in cloud lol) and also some stunning stained glass windows of native flora and fauna.  It was really interesting to see displays of early mountaineers (both Maori and European) and the outrageous outfits they used to wear for their mountaineering.  I guess some day our outfits will be displayed in a similar way and people with think them outrageous too!

From the warmth of the Visitor Centre and Café we headed up the valley and started out on the Insta-famous (made famous by Instagram influencers) Hooker Valley Track.  Despite the snow and the cloud, the walk was still stunning but unfortunately in our action packed day, we did not have time to do the whole walk.  We did however make it up to the Aoraki Mt Cook view point – of course we could not see it but to be honest, in this instance, it did not really matter as the journey was just as worthwhile.  Yet another place that is normally crowded with mostly international tourists, but today is almost empty. Driving back along Lake Pukaki, the cloud had cleared and the lake was that stunning blue again.

We had a picnic lunch in the Department of Conservation kitchen facilities at the start of the track before heading to Omarama – yet another small town (population of around 260).  Despite it’s size it is home (or near to home) to a couple of must see sites.

Next up were the Omarama Clay cliffs – now I had never heard of them, but apparently they are one of these wonderful sites we love to describe as “world famous in New Zealand” lol.  The ‘cliffs’ are on private land and there is a small donation box as you head into the carpark and it is then just a short walk before you are in amongst the spectacular and somewhat other worldly weather pillars – a quick geology lesson.  They clay cliffs considered “Badlands” terrain, pillars developed by deposits of grey and white sandstone and claystone formed in an ancient lake, and yellow and brown river silt from an ancient river.  Over the years (thousands or even millions of them), wind and rain have eroded the pillars to leave the formations we see today.

There are no specific routes or tracks, which mean you can wander amongst them as you desire, but don’t forget to also take in the view down the valley which is just as picturesque. I did get somewhat distracted by trying to take a photo of a fantail 😉 I love fantails and just can’t resist the way they flip around, catching insects on the fly and photographing them is such a challenge lol.

After a day out in the fresh air we headed back down to Omarama for a soak in the amazing Hot Tubs (https://www.hottubsomarama.co.nz/). They are filled with fresh water (replaced after every use) and heated by a wood-fire and each group get a private tub.  We had 1.5 hour to enjoy our BYO wines as we enjoyed the amazing view as the sun sets! It really was the perfect way to end the day.

On our final morning, Julie had arranged for us to visit Tasman Downs, a small farm on the shore of Lake Pukaki.  The farm is well known in The Hobbit fan circles as the location for some of the scenes in the movies, however it is perhaps more infamous for the “Quirky Farmer”, Ian Hayman.  Ian is known for his fabulous fashion and his shoe Ferris wheel – yes, that’s right, a Ferris wheel for his shoes (of course it plays “Blue Suede Shoes” as it rotates).  Ian took us on a tour of the farm in his equally quirky car, showing us around the farm, regaling us with stories of life on a movie set and that of a high country farmer – albeit a quirky one (how many times can I say quirky in one paragraph? Lol).  You too can visit Ian through his “Quirky Farm Tours” (ok, just one more ‘quirky’ lol.) (https://mackenzienz.com/tours/ians-quirky-farm-tours/)

All that remained for the weekend was the drive home, via Fairlie for a famous Fairlie pie (another ‘world famous in New Zealand’ if I am not mistaken.

It was definitely a great start to my year of re-exploring my big backyard.