The Kiwi pensioner sat next to me was anxiously looking out of the window. First flight nerves, I thought. She finally pointed out a snow-smothered summit poking proudly through the clouds.
I made an ambiguous “oh-ooh” noise, pretending I recognised it. It was an undeniably dashing bugger and I was intrigued, so I made plans to go for a closer look.
Highest mountain in Australasia
At 3754m, Aoraki/Mt Cook isn’t high by world standards. But it is the highest mountain in Australasia – a very large region indeed.
It looks like a mountain from a children’s book, with big muscular shoulders sloping away on either side, except that the top of its head has been lopped off, giving it an abrupt and slightly dissatisfying apex.
It looks daunting yet handsome, with the gleaming glacial lake in front of it a vast carpet leading up to a throne.
Peak a boo
Aoraki/Mt Cook is often hooded by cloud, so only a privileged few ever get to see the very top.
The peak is king of the World Heritage-listed national park of the same name, about halfway down the South Island.
The park is a beautiful yet (as I find out) cruel kingdom of rock and ice.
Around 40 per cent of it is glacier and it includes the Tasman Glacier – New Zealand’s largest and longest – and another 18 peaks over 3000m.
Maori legends about Mount Cook
According to Maori mythology, a young boy called Aoraki was with his brothers in a canoe when it got stuck on a reef and tilted to one side.
The boys sat on the wreck but the wind froze them, turning them into stone and creating the South Island’s rugged spine.
It’s offensive to the Maori to climb to the top of the summit – effectively the head of one of their ancestors – so most right-minded mountaineers stop just short.
Climbing Aoraki/Mt Cook is a serious activity – it’s a technical peak – and someone dies on it nearly every year.
Tramp around at Aoraki
At first I’m happy enough to stare at the magic mountain and do a series of short walks to viewpoints, neighbouring peaks and glaciers.
The best tramp takes you up to the Mueller Hut. It’s an exhausting four-hour ascent, which rewards me with a cosy cabin and five-star views of the glorious giant.
The hut warden says the last five sunsets have been cloudy, but I watch Aoraki/Mt Cook in wonder as pinks, mauves and oranges splash across it, like an amazing silent disco I wasn’t invited to. As my camera purrs, I can’t believe my luck.
The next day I pick up a hitchhiker. He is elated (if smelly), raving about a tramp over Aoraki/Mt Cook’s shoulder.
The two- to three-day Ball Pass Crossing is more a route than a trail (no signs means navigational skills are needed) and the pass is blanketed in snow. Although he warns me he found it pretty hairy in places, I have to do it.
Safety first in New Zealand
The Department of Conservation (DOC) calls the route “demanding”, but I’ve done plenty of tramping in New Zealand – how difficult can it be?
I hire crampons and an ice axe, talk the route through in Cook Village’s DOC office and start out, full of gung-ho hubris. I think I am uber mountaineer Reinhold Messner. But I’m about to become a different type of mess.
On the second day, after carefully climbing an icy gully, I come to scree (an accumulation of broken rock fragments), and so remove my crampons. I reach a patch of compact snow that bars my path and disappears off the side of the mountain somewhere. It seems friendly enough so I don’t bother sitting down and reattaching my crampons.
About three strides later, after an unexpected, though I like to think nevertheless convincing, Laurel and Hardy impression, I find myself hurtling uncontrollably downhill.
Self-arresting with the axe doesn’t work – the snow is bulletproof. I carry on sliding with increasing speed, towards the end of the runway, and possibly the end of – well, me.
Descend carefully on Mount Cook
It seems my only option is to try and snag myself on to some fast-moving rocks to my side. A few reluctant sideways rolls take me off the snow and into the relatively welcome rocks.
They stop my descent, and thoughtfully seek out any remaining patches of uncut exposed skin and have their wicked way with them. I am a bloody mess. But I’ve never felt so alive.
About an hour later, while my mind is blown by views of peaks and high fields of snow and I relive my lucky escape, the answer to the Aoraki/Mt Cook conundrum comes to me. Maybe this mountain is relatively unknown because it’s dangerous, and Kiwis don’t want inexperienced pillocks like me killing themselves on it.
Quite considerate, really.
Essentially New Zealand
Ideas for travel in the Land of the Long White Cloud
1. Take in the wondrous scenery on one of the country’s many well-maintained tramping tracks.
2. Hear Maori stories, partake in their traditional customs and visit their ornate wooden meeting houses.
3. Do one of the many Lord Of The Rings tours and see the sites for Isengard, Edoras and Rivendell, or go in a hobbit hole.
4. Bungee jump in the country that created it. Suspended above a canyon, the 143m Nevis Bungee is particularly pant-ruining.
5. Visit windy Wellington, the country’s capital, and kick-back in cosy cafés, smart bars and cool museums.
6. Swim with seals or dolphins, and spot sperm whales off Kaikoura.
7. Hike on one of the west coast glaciers and get happily lost in the ice kingdoms.
8. Take an overnight boat cruise on the fjords of Milford or Doubtful Sound.
9. Experience the thermal spas, geysers and other-worldly smells of Rotorua.