For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Mackenzie’s Mountain Majesty

Communing with nature is life’s great elixir.  The majesty of the Mackenzie region could have been pre-ordained and purpose created for restorative getaways. Just four hours south-west of Christchurch, Aoraki/Mt. Cook reigns supreme in its namesake national park, permanently cloaked in a glistening snow and ice pack – even in the height of summer.

No matter Mother Nature’s mood swings, whether she is throwing a torrential tantrum or lighting up the nation’s serrated spine in the golden glow of sunshine, the promise of dramatic scenery is always part of the package. In fact, much of the Mackenzie region, which enjoys an altitude over 700 metres above sea level, boasts snow-draped landscapes deep into spring.

After enjoying an early winter break in Tekapo, I purred across Mackenzie’s arid plains of snow-speckled golden tussock, as Aoraki/Mt.Cook National Park’s theatrical vertical grandeur shuffled closer into view. This gilded landscape of awe and saga, the shifting light, the ruffled immensity, the loneliness, constantly impelled me to pull over to take another photo.

After taking in my fill of Pukaki’s luminous beauty, and the distant vistas of Aoraki, I followed the western side of the lake to Mt. Cook village, where a world of wondrous walking opportunities await.  The most surprising aspect to Aoraki/Mt. Cook’s surrounding terrain is just how easily accessible it is. You don’t need to be a woolly mountaineer or mountain-goat fit to undertake intimate wilderness walks that get you blissfully up-close with our highest peaks and glaciers.

Routinely decorated as New Zealand’s greatest day walk, the Hooker Valley Track is a gentle 3 hour jaunt.  Leading up the valley with unbelievably good viewpoints like Alpine Memorial, you’ll traverse golden tussocks, swing bridges, get up close with the Mueller and Hooker Glacier, and be rewarded with celestial views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps.

If you’re planning a trip later in the year, the added spectacle of summer wildflowers like the famed Mount Cook buttercup, heighten the spectacle, and the tawny snow tussocks blaze with white and yellow flowers. I also adore the Kea Point Track, which starts from The Hermitage, and can be easily nailed within 2 hours. It’s also a relatively flat walk, emblazoned in golden tussock and subalpine grasslands, leading you to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. The walk culminates with sumptuous close-up views of Mt. Sefton, The Footstool, Aoraki and the Mueller Glacier lake.

As I experienced, the monastic silence is only pierced by the thunderous booms of calving ice, breaking away from the glacier at its terminal. My third must-do walk is in the Tasman Valley, a quick 8km drive from the Hermitage. The short 40 minute return walk to Tasman Glacier Lake slinks past the Blue Lakes to a viewpoint on the moraine walls, lording over Tasman Glacier’s terminal face.

The walk has a gradual incline, but keep it leisurely paced and you’ll be fine. The glacier terminal lake is frequently speckled with icebergs, adding to the unplugged drama of this stunningly primal walk. There were numerous ice floats on my visit in June. Winter can also see the lake freeze over. The southward views across Tasman Valley are sigh-inducing.

The lake is a recent chapter in history formed only in 1974, as New Zealand’s longest glacier retreated. Once 100km long, it now stretches for 27km. Part of the track actually leads through the glacier’s old terminal moraines (rock and stone debris left when a glacier retreats), marking the foot of the glacier and its subsequent retreat, vividly illustrating nature is ever-changing.

Gagging for a caffeine fix, I made my way to the charismatic Old Mountaineers’ Café, adjacent to the DOC Visitor Centre. You may recall The Hermitage hastily went into hibernation at the start of lockdown, although due to demand it’s reopening this month. It was surreal to see this sprawling property in such a desolate state, with not a soul in sight.

Meanwhile, under the command of Mary and Charlie Hobbs, The Old Mountaineers’ Café was the subject of a rip-roaring David vs Goliath battle twenty years ago, before it could be built and finally opened by Sir Ed Hillary. You can read all about the drama in Mary’s book, Matagouri and other Pricks. Charlie is one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed mountain guides – he was on-hand when double amputee Mark Inglis climbed Aoraki and then conquered Everest.

The convivial cafe, bar, restaurant showcases an extensive historic photographic gallery, brimming with grit, character and spirit. If you’re up for some serious alpine adventure, from heli-skiing to glacier kayaking, Charlie’s team offer a wealth of options.

If you’re itching for some aerial spectacles, to fully appreciate the grandeur of New Zealand’s sky-piercing giants, take a scenic flight. I’ve previously basked in the undiluted glory of the Grand Traverse, the signature scenic flight offered by Air Safaris. Based in Tekapo and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Richard Rayward pioneered the scenic flights and with the hands-on help of his family, the Raywards continue exhilarating visitors.

Mount Cook Ski Planes & Helicopters is another outstanding operator, with a vast array of scenic flight options, including landing and picnicking on Tasman Glacier. In deference to the ongoing border closure, the company has revamped its pricing structure to court domestic visitors. Flights currently start from as low as $110.

Back on terra firma, I drove back to the southern end of Lake Pukaki, where some pristine pockets of unpeopled picnic perfection await you under the pine trees. Turn left off the main highway, just as you approach the base of the lake toward the trees. Right across the road, for a night of supremely languid boutique indulgence, with an unbeatable perch discreetly overlooking Pukaki’s long vista to Aoraki, check in to Lakestone Lodge.

Exclusively located just above the southern shores of Pukaki, this contemporary off-grid, solar-heated eco retreat has been ingeniously designed to maximise the panoramic views. Polished concrete walls emit heat from the solar panels. The dominant colour of the walls is painted in metamorphosis, mimicking the lake’s hue perfectly. Eye-catching artwork is dotted around, there’s plush sofas and a roaring fire.

Every room and bathroom, with luxurious bathtub, reveal unobstructed views over the lake and Southern Alps, with your own private courtyard to boot. You could not get a more primo location to marvel over the setting sun’s goodnight kiss to Aoraki, as wispy orange clouds hug the ranges. Every nightly spectacle is unique, from the benign glow of a golden sunset to the tumult of mountain storm tumbling over the alps.

The creature comforts are laid on thick, from the delicious freshly cooked breakfast to mouth-watering evening dining, pre-dinner drinks, free wifi, heli-pad, complimentary bikes and spa treatments. A star feature, when ogling the universe, is the outdoor fire pit, wedged next to a mini-infinity pool and its illusory effect of seemingly flowing into the lake. Mike and Anna are charming, personable hosts who will treat you royally. Heartland hospitality at its best. Spoil yourself and stay a night.

The Mackenzie region’s vivid lakes, blue glaciers and jagged mountains are ripe for exploration in so many ways. A great starting point when planning a journey to this majestic region of New Zealand is the official website.