01/13/2009 65 °F
Before going to sleep, Dawn had expressed her interest in heading out on a pre-dawn hike to watch the sun rise over the mountains. It sounded like a good idea, but it didn't work out quite as planned. I woke up and got ready for the hike. However, Dawn found out she was able to get a spectacular view from the window in the room. She didn't feel the need to hike to watch the sun rise when she could view it while staying under the warm covers. She snapped some pictures, without even leaving the bed, and then passed back out. Since I was already up, I decided to sign-on to my computer and get some work done until she woke up.
We ate a quick breakfast and got on the trail before 8am. The base of the trails were located at a camp site further up the road, but there was also a trail from the village to the base. Looking to get a little more distance in and take time to enjoy our surroundings, we opted to hike from town. During the night, clouds had replaced the clear skies. One mountain in particular had very ominous looking clouds (which is why I posed like an orc coming down from Mount Doom—a Lord of the Rings reference), but overall the clouds provided a pleasant shade from the sun. After about 30 minutes, we reached the base of the Hooker Valley Glacier Hike.
Our hike would lead us up the mountains, past the Mueller Glacier, over two swinging bridges, and finally arriving at the base of the Hooker Glacier. A good portion of the trail was along the old glacier bed, which meant we were walking over the rocks left in the glacier's wake. This can take its toll on your feet, but the views made up for any discomfort I felt in my feet. We shortly came upon the Mueller Glacier and walked up to a lookout to take a better look. In the valley of the mountains in the distance, we could see what appeared to be a giant pile of gravel with a lake and river flowing from it.
The glacier was actually under the rocks and extended beyond our view up into the mountains. The large amounts of melting ice from the glacier formed the overflow in the lake, which then drained down to the larger lakes we saw yesterday through the river. The water was moving very fast, and created a roaring sound as it crossed under the swinging bridge and over the rocks. I couldn't suppress the thought of falling into the icy cold water and breaking every bone in my body as the force of the water slammed me into the rocks. Thankfully the bridge held as I walked across (although I swear I heard some of the ropes start to snap).
The trail extended on, and we briskly climbed over the rocks making our way up the mountain. When we had stopped to look at the Mueller Glacier, two Germans had surpassed us on the trail. I was thrust back into the times of WWII, and I had the sudden desire to beat the Germans to the end of the trail. Dawn must have felt the same way, because without speaking a word, we both increased our pace to get back ahead of "ze Germans." Don't ask me how I knew there were German or even why I felt the need to beat them up the mountain, it was just something that had to be done. We stayed around one another for the rest of the hike up the mountain, but took the advantage when the German woman had to stop for a potty break in the tall grass. We smiled as we passed them, and the German guy smiled back, but I could see the competitive glint in his eye as he realized that we would reach the glacier before him.
After 2.5 hours of hiking, we reached the base of the Hooker Valley Lake. Chunks of ice could be seen in the lake, and little pieces floated by as they were washed down the river. It wasn't immediately apparent that we were on the edge of a glacier. Once again, it looked like a pile of rocks. The Hooker Glacier did have a distinct ege to it where the ice was visible. It doesn't look very tall, but the ice wall can be hundreds of feet tall (again the distance plays an optical illusion making the mountains and glacier look smaller than it is). Dawn snapped some pictures, we both ate some granola, and rested our legs before the hike back down.
Everywhere you looked, all you could see were mounds and mounds of rocks. Little rocks, big rocks, round rocks, every type of rock imaginable. Most importantly, there were an infinite number of flat rocks. When you see a flat rock next to a lake, what immediately comes to mind? You must see how many times you can skip the rock across the water. It seemed that every person that came to the end of the trail threw a rock into the water. I don't know if it some ancient human instinct to do this, or if it is because there is nothing else to really do at the foot of the lake. A couple of kids next to us were throwing some of the larger rocks trying to break the larger chunks of ice floating by. An older gentleman standing behind us started complaining to his partner about how the kids had no respect for the lake. The rocks were millions of years old and the ice had been there longer than they had been alive. I started to agree with the guy, but then I saw the billions of rocks everywhere and changed my opinion. Isn't every rock millions of years old? For every rock that these kids threw into the lake, there was another million. The ice would melt within the next few hours as it went down the river. The kids weren't doing any real damage, I think the guy was just upset that the kids seemed to be enjoying the lake more than him (and hearing the constant ka-splush as the rocks were hurled into the water interrupted the moment of taking in the beauty of nature).
We made our way back down the trail, through the base camp, and along the trail back to the village. We ate a quick lunch. We still had 400 km (250 miles) to tackle before arriving at the Albatross Center in Dunedin, and we were getting a later than expected start.
Leaving Mt Cook (A), we planned to travel south and eastward to get back to the east coast. We were going to stop in Oamaru (B) to see the Moeraki Boulders and continue onto Dunedin (C). Dawn had scheduled a tour of the albatross nesting grounds (the only human inhabited nesting grounds in the world) on the Otago Peninsula (D).
The trip down from Mt Cook offered some spectacular views. It was going to be several hours before we stopped again, so Dawn made sure I had the route down (follow the only major road going through the middle of the country until it reached the coast) and then settled in for a nap. We would come back to this region at the end of our trip to see the Franz Josef glacier, which is on the other side of the mountain range. The west coast is only 30 km away, but it would be a 5 hour road trip to get there. There are no roads that go over the mountains, the mountains are too steep and the roads too expensive to build. The stretches of untouched natural beauty is just astounding. Here are some of the views coming down from Mt. Cook.
We were getting close to Oamaru when I had to come a stop. Dawn popped up (probably to chastise me for stopping before it was scheduled), and then she saw the reason I had to stop. The road was being used the herd cows to a new pasture.
Again, the biggest highway in the country was being used to herd cows. This should give you an appreciation of how unpopulated this country is and how little people travel the long distances between the towns.
We eventually came to Oamaru and began looking for the roads to take us to the Moeraki Boulders. We got our first view of the east coastline, and of course the first thing you notice is that there are no houses, no beach front vacation homes, and not a single person on the beaches. It was as if the entire coastline was a national reserve that prevented humans from messing with it.
The Moeraki Boulders were not exactly something I was excited to see, but it was something to break up the long road trip down to Dunedin. We were in a time crunch, but Dawn claimed it would be worth it to take a stroll down the beach to see some rocks. The Moeraki Boulders are significant because they are spherical balls littering the short beach and shallow surf. The boulders are formed by minerals building up around a central core. Eventually these balls were covered by mudstone, and then eventually uncovered by the waves. Some of the boulders can be seen sticking out of the cliff line above the beach, several more of the boulders being carried out to see by the waves. Some of the rocks had burst open showing their calcite centers. We did end up taking several pictures, check out the photo gallery for all the shots.
After hitting the road again, we finally came to Dunedin. The first town of any real size we had seen since leaving Christchurch. If I remember correctly, Dunedin was one of the first inhabited areas by both the Maori and Europeans when they settled New Zealand. The city wraps around a large bay created by the Otago Peninsula. We were headed out to the tip of the peninsula to see the only albatross nesting ground that humans can access in the world.
Usually albatross create their nesting grounds way out in the windy seas. They don't have any natural land predators and spend most of their lives out on the water (they only return to land every 2 years to lay eggs). Albatross use the swirling winds around Antartica to circle the bottom of the globe feeding on squid. They spend a lot of time off the rich feeding grounds south of Argentina. They mate for life, but only see their mates every 2 years when they meet to lay an egg. The first albatross originally came to Dunedin theoretically because of competition for good nesting sites and nesting material. I think we saw 7 total birds at the nesting grounds (I thought we'd see a whole lot more).
When I think of an albatross, I immediately think of the Disney Rescuers movies. The lead characters rode around on an albatross that had trouble taking off and landing. After seeing these birds in action, I see that it wasn't just the bird in the movie, all albatross have trouble taking off and landing. This is because their wings are built for gliding, not flapping. They have a wing span of 11 feet (it's hard to think of a bird not larger than a goose having a wing span of 11 feet). They usually nest on windy places because they need the wind to take off. They don't land gracefully, rather slam to the ground in a crash landing. They are very majestic fliers though, rarely flapping their wings. We were lucky enough to see two of the birds flying around.
It had been a long day. Before heading back into Dunedin, we watched the sun set over the bay. I was ready to curl up in bed and get ready for another long day of driving. Tomorrow we would take on the Southern Scenic Highway.