Thursday, March 11, 2010

Kiwi Quest 2010 - Hiking Day 9

Photos: 1) Spectacular sunset at Lake Pukaki 2) The Hooker River with Mount Sefton on the left and Aoraki (Mount Cook) straight ahead 3) A windy day in the Hooker Valley at Mount Cook National Park. That's Mount Sefton behind me. 4) Spaniard. A plant you should avoid touching if at all possible. It will draw blood, trust me. 5) The Hooker Glacier dwarfed by the 3,754m Mount Cook. This was our view at lunch.

Well, today was a little less strenuous than yesterday, but the scenery was spectacular as always.

Up "early" as usual at Buscot Sheep Station, we are rushing to meet our departure time that we had agreed on the night before. This is because there are two hikes taking place today, evenly divided among us as it turns out. Sophie will be taking Louise, Gerald, Mirjam, and Sean up to the Sealy Tarns - and hopefully Mueller Hut - while Kirsten, Jane, Juli, and I will be left to our own devices in the Hooker Valley, tramping our way out to see the Hooker Glacier. For me, there was no waffling over which trek to choose: the Mueller Hut hike is basically non-stop uphill for hours (in the sun) and it was strongly reinforced to us that whoever is doing that hike MUST stay together. I would have liked to have seen the views from on high, but I knew right away it wouldn't be on this trip. That's alright. Glaciers are pretty cool and now I have another reason to come back :)

Soon we're all piled back in the van, heading down the road to Mount Cook National Park, the jumping off point for both hikes. Since the Hookers will be expected to finish our hike first, we get entrusted with the van keys. Hoorah! Oh wait, it's kind of hard to joyride a right-hand drive van towing a big green trailer... Well, we'll just have to behave ourselves then. A quick making of lunch and distribution of snacks, rapid lightening of packs and reapplication of suncream, then the Mueller group is off to refill their water bottles and tackle the mountains. Good luck, guys!! We'll see you in about 6-7 hours.

The hike through the Hooker Valley is described to us as pretty flat terrain, an out-and-back on a well-marked trail populated with plenty of tourists, and is expected to take us about 3 hours. After yesterday, all I heard was "flat". I'm even wearing my running shoes today and my still-tender feet are quite grateful. It's a nice sunny day, still pretty hot in the high 20s (maybe even 30C), so we don't want to linger too long without shade. We're humping day packs today which is also a nice change. Water? check. Suncream? check. Raincoat? check. Wool sweater? check. Lunch? check. Let's go!

Right away, this hike is different from our previous ones. We're stopping often to take lots of photos, explore little side trails, and laugh at ourselves trying to climb onto giant rocks. There are lots of people around (we're not used to seeing almost anyone on our hikes!) and I'm not at the back of the group for once. It's nice to have a more leisurely pace because it gives more opportunity to really appreciate all of the beauty that surrounds you. Hey, look! My old friends spaniard and madagari are here too.

Soon, we come to a bridge spanning a river full of very grey, rushing water. There's a lake over there, near the base of Mount Sefton, and it's grey as well. We realize that the discoloration is due to the high sediment content of the water coming down from the mountains all around us. Thankfully, we don't need to use this water to refill our drink containers. It's pretty in an unusual way but looks unappetizing. The trail is a bit up-and-down, a wee bit of scrambling over rocks too, but overall, it's pretty easy. We pass a number of people wearing all kinds of footwear from hiking boots like the rest of my group to flip-flops, or "jandals" as they're called down here.

Whew, it's windy today! I'm going to have to abandon my hat soon for fear of losing it. At least the wind is helping to keep the heat down. Now we're picking our way along the side of a mountain, high above another river, but at least there's a fence on the outside of the path here. We did pass a sign that says not to stop in this section because of the danger of rock falls, but do they really mean those things? We have to stop at the end of the path here where another bridge crosses the river to let the people coming toward us clear off the bridge, then it's our turn and boy, it's great fun! I try jumping a bit to see if the bridge will move, but it's pretty solid. I look down over the sides at the river rushing underneath, and we stop in the middle to take a few photos of Aoraki/Mount Cook who is coming into better view.

Hiking, hiking, up and down some low hills and berms. Stop next to the river for some photos and posing on rocks, then back down the path and eventually across a third bridge, this time over a lovely clear blue stream. We take a few minutes to sit in a shelter hut and use the facilities, then back on our feet to get to the Hooker Glacier for lunch because we're close and getting hungry too. It's not very often that I get to dine in the company of an 11-kilometre long glacier that is the source of the Hooker River, at the foot of Aoraki.

We're there! Wow, what a view!!! And holy crap, the water still has ice floes in the middle. I stick my hand in at the edge: yep, bloody awful cold. We huddle behind some big rocks for protection from the wind and haul out our semi-squished sandwiches in the glorious sunshine. We really have been very lucky with the weather on this trip. A few last gulps of water, some more photos of the spectacular scenery, then we're hot-footing it back to the van for some shade and more time to rest. We're still physically tired from yesterday, especially in the knees, so we're looking forward to a relaxing afternoon while we wait for the other group.

Finally, back at the van in the blazing sun, we get a surprise when we discover Sophie waiting for us. Um, why aren't you halfway up that huge mountain over there and where's the rest of the group? Turns out Sophie got quite ill not long after they started hiking uphill, and eventually decided to return by herself, leaving them with her cell phone, the emergency GPS locator, and the first aid kit. Yikes! This is serious. Sophie never shows signs of pain or fatigue or illness so we're rather anxious when she crawls into the van to lie down. Thankfully, our group has both a doctor and a nurse in it so we're in good hands.

After fetching some water to make a cup of tea for Sophie and to wash the dishes we have left over from breakfast, I decide it's time to mend some of my footwear with trusty duct tape as I've been meaning to do for days, as well as sort out all my belongings once again, something I do almost daily as I am living out of 3 different bags in the trailer. Well, there's no one parked near us in this lot so I spread everything out and begin trying to keep track of what I need to keep where and when I will need it next. Not an easy task with the wind and heat, not to mention the fact that people keep driving by and staring at us. I'm sure their interest has nothing to do with the fact that it appears as though I'm having a yard sale, or that I happen to be wearing one green running shoe and one brown hiking boot with pink striped socks that reach nearly to my knees. You see, I need to mend a hole in one of my running shoes, as well as part of the lace system on one of my hiking boots, so since I spilled water on the shoe, I'm wearing the other of each pair until my shoe is dry and fixed. The rest of the group finds the outfit as well as the sorting process of my gear uproariously amusing for some reason.

After a while, my gear has been more carefully returned to the different bags (where it will no doubt be churned up again by the morning), and I am quite pleased to discover far more pairs of clean underpants than I thought I have left. Sometimes, it's the little things that make a big difference... Now we're scrounging for bits of shade in and around the van, and discussing various topics, when suddenly we spot some of the rest of our group returning! We're very excited to talk to them and to see how far they got. Mirjam is missing, but turns up a little while later after having taken a wrong turn. The four of them are thrilled to have reached the Mueller Hut, and as well they should be as it sounded like quite a feat. Kirsten and Jane are quite disappointed that their sore knees did not let them partake in that experience, but both plan to return to try another time.

Sophie's feeling better so we pack up the van and head off down the road to our camping spot on the shores of Lake Pukaki for the night. It's so beautiful here! The lake is a nice light blue (glacier-fed lakes often have beautiful colours from the mineral content and sediment) and we've got a spot that is sheltered from the wind still ripping around. Our closest neighbours are around the point so it's as if we've got the place to ourselves. Boy, is it hot here once the wind is taken out of the equation! We're sweating buckets as we labour to get our tents up and the food out for dinner. A few brave ones go for a swim, and by the sound of their yelping, the lake is pretty cold. I go down to the water to explore and wade in up to my knees to check the temps. Feet? Are you still there? I can't feel you anymore! Those in the water are practicing the jump shot while I take their photos, and eventually I'm so hot and sweaty and stinky that I am persuaded to doff my shirt and wade in deeper. Hooooooooo!!!!! It's freezing!! But, actually, once you go under and keep your body underwater, you quickly go numb and it's really not that bad anymore. This is the theory they sold me on.

I change into my thermals after the freezing cold water and head off on foot to look around. As I explore the little peninsula, I see a total of 7 rabbits hopping madly about in the grasses and trees. I come around the corner from our beach and see the lake stretched before me with Aoraki and numerous other mountains visible in the distance. Un-be-lieve-able. I'm so not in Kansas anymore. Snap some photos of myself and the views, then it's time for dinner with the group and an amazing sunset that reflects quite nicely on the lake. Tomorrow, we get to sleep until 7am!

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