It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive up the valley to reach Aoraki. The last half-hour, running close to the banks of Lake Pukaki, takes you from golden tussock into gasp-inducingly sized mountains. Each time you take the drive you notice something else, this time it was the slips on some of the faces revealing gorgeously banded rocks underneath. The peaks rise, the snow-caps them, and the braided river of glacial runoff leads you towards Aoraki village.
The Hooker Valley Track involves three swing bridges, and is a gentle 5km leading past the Mueller Lake at the foot of the Mueller Glacier, towards the Hooker Lake at the foot of the Hooker Glacier. It’s hard to fully describe what it’s like walking along a well-built path, often alongside a rushing, roaring grey river of glacier melt. The small birds that swiftly evade sight sing, while above the scree falls on the opposite banks there is the occasional call of a Kea.
Between the second and third swing bridges there’s a strangely brutalist wharepaku, a long bench for a mid-track break and a small orange triangle pointing off the boardwalk and towards Mt. Sefton. Off-track is through the tussock alongside the Stocking Stream, and you’re occasionally asked to walk on the rocky river-bed following orange-tipped polls until you loop round towards the direction you came from, on the higher-ground created by the carving of the Mueller Glacier.
There is a hut there. It’s not that well known. Our overnight bags prompted questions from fellow walkers on the track, and many were surprised to hear there was a hut there. After all, the track itself is only 5km. To reach the hut is about 5km, and there’s a good 2km beyond that. But it’s there. It’s the original Hooker Valley Hut, relocated after 110 years perched above the Hooker Glacier. In its original position it was unreachable as the glacier retreated, and the pathways slowly crumbled towards the Hooker Lake.
They opened the new hut in April last year. It’s an eight-bed, but we were lucky enough to have it to ourselves. We brought in six blocks of firewood for the wood-burner in the corner and enjoyed a coffee with a view of Aoraki as the sun set played out across the snow. It was beautiful, it was calm, it was out of mobile reception. It was cold too, the sun dipped behind Mt Sefton as we approach the hut meaning we never saw it in full sunlight and made good use of the wood-burner overnight.
The stars came out. A lot more than you’ll catch on the coast or in the cities. So many that it rendered a star-identifying app pointless, there were just so many. The broad beautiful band of the milky-way stretched between the now darkened peaks. The fire glowed in the grate, our lantern threw shadows up on the wall. It was peaceful, it was warm, it was beautiful.
When we awoke the next morning we were treated to Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Saturn all lining up for inspection under the rising moon with the sun not too far behind it. Packing up, and cleaning, we headed for the Hooker Lake as the sun began to light up the peaks to our left.
The lake itself grows year on year as the ice retreats, but the bergs that floated among the thin ice-layer that forms on the surface show the blue and grey bands of their age, some with rocks still embedded deep within them from further up towards Aoraki. It was still, it was cold, it was something to treasure.
Then we walked the 5km back, and it was nearly half 10 before the sun finally shone on us properly again. The light was good, but walking in the cold morning air is always infinitely more preferable to walking in direct sunlight. It was a one-day journey. We began our walk around 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon, and were back to the car by 11am on Wednesday morning.
In between we’d seen the gorgeous mountains of the South Island, avalanches rumble down the well-worn routes, the sunset colour Aoraki’s snowcap, been visited in the night by pests: possum and mice, watched the stars swirl and the planets rise, enjoyed a brisk morning walk to a glacial terminus and seen icebergs on the lake. A beautiful time, and peaceful with it too.