On a road trip from Christchurch to Dunedin, I took the scenic route.
Instead of driving straight along the coast, I decided to go inland. My plan was to hang out around Lake Tekapo until dark, as it’s in a Dark Sky Reserve and I want to try my hand at night time photography, and then spend the night at the campground in Mount Cook National Park, where I would hike the Hooker Valley Track.
As usual in travel, my plan was unsuccessful. The sky was changing colors quickly and dark clouds loomed when I arrived at Tekapo.
Not seeing any stars tonight.
I continued on to Mount Cook as the sun set. Wow did it get dark fast. The rain started pouring down and I had to grip the wheel so tightly with both hands to keep the car under control in the powerful wind. I drove in along the side of Lake Pukaki, praying the whole time I wouldn’t get blown into the water.
It was so dark I couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of me. I was so relieved to make it to the campground. I had to run to the bathroom before I could settle in for the night – one of the scariest experiences of my life. The lights wouldn’t turn on so I had to use a flashlight and could hear the wind howling outside. I definitely thought I’d entered a horror movie.
“This is how it ends.”
I ran back to the car as fast as I could, hung up towels in the window, and attempted to sleep.
I shivered the whole night, and by the time the rain stopped and the sun finally came up, I had decided there was NO way I was going to attempt a hike. The wind was still blowing strong, and I hadn’t dressed for the weather.
I took the towels down from the window and was astonished at what I saw: massive, snow-peaked mountains all around! It was so dark driving in I had no idea those monsters had been there all night.
Hiking the Hooker Valley Track
I got out of the car and went to the bathroom (less creepy in the daylight), and it was actually warmer outside than in my car. So I decided to take a shot and try the hike. After a few false starts on the wrong trails (almost ended up on the 7 hour Mueller Hut hike) I began the 13 kilometer tramp. It was a little boring at first, mostly surrounded by hedge with a just okay view of the valley. I was starting to think it wasn’t worth the trouble when I rounded the corner and saw the most beautiful valley in front of me: the sun just starting to wake up to light the mountains and the icy blue river below.
“HOLY CRAP.” Yes, I literally screamed.
I ran down to the river, found a nice sitting rock, and took in the moment. How often do we do that anymore? It was so exciting and peaceful and fulfilling in a weird way all at once. I can’t accurately describe the moment with words.
I eventually continued down the path that was all my own, as no one else in camp had woken up yet. After a few terrifying swing bridges (they were swinging a particularly large amount in the remnants of the stormy wind of the night before) and feeling like a hobbit, I quickly found myself at a glacial lake, complete with small icebergs, at the base of Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. Again, I just sat and took it in for a while.
“I can’t believe I almost didn’t do this hike,” I thought to myself. I’m still grateful I pushed myself to do it. Whenever someone says to “picture your happy place,” I put myself on that hike, sitting next to the river, with that feeling of peace and oneness with the world.
So go out of your way. Take the scenic route. It may be longer, it may be inconvenient, and if you’re me, you might think you’re about to die. But in my experience, the risk always pays off. It’s how the best stories are made.