“You’ve almost reached the steep bit,” was the line each passing hiker gave us with a smirk as we made our way slowly up through the Southern Alps.
In about four hours, we’d trudged a kilometre towards the skies and our legs were burning and our hearts pounding. But suddenly, clambering over the crest of what seemed like just another ridge, it was impossible to do anything but stop and gawp.
The sight that had been patiently awaiting us was nothing short of stunning. We were at an altitude of 1,800m, atop the Sealy Range, and there was not another soul in sight. All around us, however, was the rugged, snow-capped beauty of the Southern Alps, with the dashing MtCook rising higher than the rest. And best of all, nestled in the snow, was the Mueller Hut, our home for the night.
We’d been planning to spend the day driving all the way across Canterbury, from Queenstown to Christchurch, when we decided on an impulse detour to Mount Cook, a detour we quickly realized was one of the best decisions of our South Island roadtrip.
Flanked by turquoise waters and fields of woolly sheep, we snaked our way towards Mt Cook Village, which basks contentedly at the foot of the imposing peaks about an hour or so from the main highway.
New Zealand has almost 30 mountains that rise over 3,000m, and over two-thirds of them are in this area. Put simply, in a country made for the big screen, this is where they come for the money shot.
Biggest of the lot is Mt Cook. At a height of 3,754m it is Australasia’s highest peak, despite shrinking slightly after a massive avalanche in 1991. It’s also proof, if proof were needed, that the Maoris are masters in the art of naming.
It was called Cook, in honour of Captain James Cook, by an early British settler in 1851. However, the famous sea-faring explorer never even set eyes on New Zealand’s highest peak, which in my humble opinion makes it a rubbish name.
Hit the hut
Yet the mountain’s Maori name is Aoraki, which translates from the Ngai Tahu dialect to mean Cloud Piercer, which basically sounds like some sort of all-powerful comic book superhero. Not much competition really.
As long as the clouds haven’t hooded its handsome looks, which they often do, your first full sighting of Mt Cook should stop you in your tracks. Despite being small by world standards, New Zealand’s highest is one seriously sexy lump of stone.
Think gleaming black rock and glistening snow reaching skywards like a natural cathedral, with a vast glacial lake spreading a striking blue-green out in front of it.
Its beauty is only intensified by its sense of danger; professional mountaineers die every year trying to conquer this technically difficult peak. After all, this is where Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Everest, practised his craft.
Luckily, there’s still plenty of smaller walks which (reasonably fit) beginners can happily stumble along to enjoy dramatic views of the mountain and glacier.
Arguably the best is the simple, albeit painful, 5.2km trek to the Mueller Hut. The climb is gruelling, but there’s no denying that finally seeing that hut after walking straight up for four hours is a euphoric moment.
After leaving the White Horse Hill campsite by Mount Cook Village, the walk soon takes on a steep pace. The view simply gets more stunning with every minute, as we clear more ridges, bringing more peaks and lakes into view, meaning that taking yet another photo becomes an all-too-easy excuse for another stop.
And unfortunately the people who warned us it would be steeper weren’t joking. After reaching the Sealy Tarns, a couple of small pools with a spectacular lookout over Mueller and Hooker Lakes, the gradient suddenly increases and the pace slows.
But with the mountain steeper, we rise quicker and suddenly, out of breath, we’re there, just a short scramble from our beautiful red home for the night.
The hut, which has been keeping hikers warm since 1915, sits on an area of flat ground just below the summit of Mt Ollivier, the first mountain that Hillary ever climbed.
However, the hut we carry on towards is not the original building but its fifth reincarnation, thanks to the punishing surrounding landscape repeatedly reclaiming it as its own.
Now supposedly in an avalanche-safe spot, it’s the one hut you can reach for an overnight stay while still enjoying a genuine alpine experience.
Once safely inside with trusty noodles on the stove, we huddle together with the 10 or so other hikers, also staying at Mueller, to watch the sun set spectacularly over the Southern Alps. With the occasional glimpse or sudden thunder of a distant avalanche, we swap tales of the road before wearily trundling off to our bunks.
We’re up with the first light to enjoy cereal bars and an incredible sunrise. But with the road to Christchurch awaiting us, it’s soon time to stretch our weary muscles again, as we set off down the mountain and back to our campervan, stopping only to tell fellow hikers, “you’re almost at the steep bit”.
Damage and the details: Beds at the Department of Conservation’s Mueller Hut cost $35/night. Sign in, pay and get advice at the Mount Cook Visitor Centre (Ph: 03 435 1186, doc.govt.nz) before you go. Conditions are best from November to March.