We didn’t plan for our final tramp (as they say in Kiwi speak) to be the longest or most memorable. But the Hooker Valley Track was both. I wonder why?
New Zealand has tougher tracks (again, Kiwi speak here) that lure people from all over the world. They’re officially called Great Walks, and there are nine of them. They can be done in multiple days, guided or solo. Some require back-country passes and serious gear, but there are parts of each that cater to geriatrics, parents of tiny tots, or less adventurous (more lazy?) types. For now, we only fall into the last two categories.
Back in 2014, we completed part of the sun-drenched Abel Tasman Great Walk. It was a good six-hour hike along the South Island’s northern coast. (I’ll lump more about it into a future post that covers other highlights of the area.) This time around, the three hours we spent on the Hooker Valley Track was the most we could muster. There was nothing challenging about it besides a few hills and several sets of steps, but we still got a good workout given the extra 20 pounds of baby baggage one of us had to carry.
As with all of its promoted tracks (great or not), New Zealand’s Department of Conservation goes out of its way to make hiking hassle-free with well-maintained paths and detailed maps that are accessible online or at each town’s iSite. We ambled along the mostly gravel trail stopping when necessary to take photos, sip water, or snack. Thankfully, no diaper changing stops were required.
We crossed not one but three swingbridges. The first — and most impressive — spanned over icy water from Mueller Lake.
Number two, the Hooker Bluff Bridge which crosses the Hooker River, afforded the best views of the mountain we were heading towards.
The third was rinky-dink but memorable because it was here where we could’ve used that handy map (which we of course left in the car) due to confusing signage (definitely not the norm in orderly New Zealand).
We didn’t get to enjoy the spring wildflowers the valley is known for since we visited in the fall, but surely you’ve figured out by now that’s not the main draw. Like everyone else, we came for the up close views of Aoraki, which is better known to non-Kiwis as Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain.
We started our hike on a chilly morning thanks to Baby K and her love of pre-dawn wake-ups. We were bundled up in hats, gloves, and several warm layers. Truthfully, I was underwhelmed by the gray weather that matched the muted landscape full of charcoal colored rocks, murky waters, and sepia-tinged green and yellow shrubs…until the sun broke out and everything came more sharply, vividly into focus.
The timing was perfect, actually, so thanks for getting us up and moving early, Baby K. The clouds that had been ethereally lingering over Mount Cook parted as we reached the end of the track. We gazed up at its typically camera-shy spiky peak as we sat on the sole picnic table next to Hooker Lake where the track dead ends. The lake is full of frigid water (and icebergs!) that run off its glacial namesake. The moment became more appropriately serene when the gregarious group of Chinese tourists departed (not our first run-in with our current countrymen on this trip). In the silence and solitude that followed, I did what seemed instinctive in such a natural setting — nursed my hungry but happy tot as Iggy hovered, protecting us from both the wind and the next round of trampers (hikers!).
Though our only option was to follow the same path back, we didn’t mind. The landscape changed enough to keep our interest. We had the bridges to look forward to and the section of winding, narrow boardwalk that hovered over open tussock that I loved. We had plenty of baby material to cycle through to hold Baby K’s attention, too (her current favorites being Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See?, Happy Hippo, Angry Duck, and my own little ditty I call “We’re going on a hike!”). There were also the friendly smiles and funny quips that came from the people we passed when they noticed Baby K’s chubby, red-cheeked little face peeking out of the carrier. One lady laughed out to her: “You’re probably the youngest person ever to complete this track!” I wouldn’t doubt it. I’d also argue she slept more than anyone else along the way thanks to the fresh mountain air and her dad’s gentle gait.
Most trampers would’ve continued the day with a drive farther down SH8 to stop at Lake Tekapo before continuing on to Christchurch. We were contented with the equally beautiful blue water of Lake Pukaki, which you pass along the way to Mount Cook, and so headed in the oppositie direction. Back to stay one more night in our kitcshy A-frame cabin/motel in Twizel*. The next day our twice in a lifetime dream vacation came to an end as we headed back to Queenstown to catch our last flight ever back to China.
*As with most proper New Zealand names, we were pronouncing it wrong. It’s “TwEYEzle” not “Twizzle”. And, for other New Zealand bound travelers, the “Wh” is pronounced “F” — an important point because there are tons of “Wh” places like Wharariki Beach or Whanganui Bay. The more you know.