Vern: The rising sun popped out of the ocean, lit up the green slopes and beamed through the east-facing window of Simon and Kelly's farm house. After a quick breakfast we bundled into the car and caught a ride with Kelly out to Mount Cook National Park. Mount Cook is the highest peak in NZ and was one of the many peaks summited by local, Edmund Hillary, before he went on to climb Everest. The Maori name for the mountain is Aoraki which means 'cloud-piercer' and as we neared the park, it was clear that it had certainly punctured the duvet of cloud but it wasn't coming up the other side.
Kelly and Simon had suggested the 7-hour trek to the Mueller Hut for great views of the mountains, and suggested that we should be able to do it in five but that we might need some crampons for the upper part of the trail. The guy at the visitors centre looked us up and down and advised that the upper trail was really only for skilled mountaineers. He suggested instead that we start with a two hour round trip to the Red Tarns, a favourite with the locals.
This was not so much a scenic trail as an hour-and-a-half climb up a rough staircase gouged into a mountain side. Finally it flattened out into a pretty snow-spattered walkway round a few tarns (ponds) which were not particularly crimson, though the view of the mountain range and the valley bowl were worth a photo or two (and we tried to keep the light snow off of the lens to get these). On the way down we overheard a local doing the stairs for fitness bragging to a tourist on how she does these every day. Well, how she used to, but hasn't since summer. Which was ended nearly a year ago.
Next we set out into the Hooker Valley on a path out to the Hooker Glacier. However a sign at the trail head revealed that while a swing-bridge was being repaired the three-hour path had been reduced to a mere 15 minutes and ended at a lake-lookout point. We stood for a bit wondering whether to bother, when a weathered-faced man headed toward us up the trail turned the corner up ahead. He was carrying a huge canvas backpack, with coils of rope, hooks, tools and day-glo odds-and-ends hanging off it on carabiners. In one hand he held an ice-axe and in the other he firmly gripped a rifle. Our eyes bulged as he brushed gruffly past us. "Well he's a bit over-prepared for a fifteen minute walk!" I said what we both were thinking. A man in the parking lot who was getting out of his campervan and lacing up his boots to do this walk also stared in puzzlement at this prudent pathfinder and then hopped back in and drove off. Presumably headed back to town to get tennis raquets to strap to his feet before attempting this quarter hour expedition.
The walk was oddly uneventful and didn't take long, and so in spite of the Visitors Centre employees lack of faith in us we headed up toward the Mueller hut. The climb was agressive and often a scramble over patches of ice, stairs which had eroded away and boulder faces. But the steepness meant we ascended quickly and soon we could seen a blue glacial lake in the distance and then another and then the Hooker glacier. We clambered up a boulder which jutted out of the cliff-side and provided a fantastic view of the valley bowl and the mountain range rising from it and we decided that this was our summit. A little short of the snow-line, it was the best view that day. And just for a moment, the weather cleared a little revealing a little Toblerone wedge at the apex of Mount Cook.
We traipsed back down, picked up Kelly who been volunteering - painting a hut for the Mountaineering Club - and she drove us back to Pleasant Point.
Their friends Dan and Belinda, also young farmers, joined us for a mouth-watering BBQ feast (and berry & cream dessert) that evening. While we were standing around the BBQ Dan asked me if South America was "good value" and I responded with 10-minute monologue on the economics of travelling round that part of the world. "So you had a good time then," he summarised after I had concluded. (I'd been ready for Q&A). Later as the dinner conversation flowed the Kiwis described friends, holidays, parent-sin-law and dessert, amongst other things as "good value". Turns out it's just a turn of phrase (similar to "cool"). Well I hope he enjoyed my lecture.