Monday, March 10, 2014

New Zealand Day 26: Aoraki/Mt. Cook and the Mt. John Observatory

I wish we didn't keep pulling into campsites after dark, but it has one fun advantage, which is that we wake up in the morning and get to be surprised by lovely views! Glentanner did not disappoint in that regard:

Yep, that's Aoraki (the Maori name for Mt. Cook, the highest peak in NZ) towering over the end of the lake, as seen from our campsite. Sweet as! (That's kiwi-speak for awesome.)

The view inside our campervan was a bit more crowded. We call this the laundry jungle, and apparently it actually confused B when she tried to come down to us in the morning. Oops.

As usual, it took approximately three times longer than you'd expect for us to get long that by the time we drove 20 minutes up to the end of the lake to Aoraki/Mt. Cook village, and checked out the DoC visitor centre with all of its exhibits on the history of mountaineering in NZ, it was lunchtime. We picnicked in the camper, with terrific alpine views out the window.

Finally, it was time to hike. Our goal was the Hooker Valley Track, which is a fairly flat 5K out to the Hooker Lake at the base of a glacier coming off Aoraki. My Frenzy guidebook called it "indesputably the South Island's most scenic day walk," and we sure had a lovely day for it. The other big advantage of this walk is that it is pretty gentle and has views from the start, so we decided to approach it like the Kepler segment earlier in the week: everyone starts together, and then turns around as needed.

Here I am at the trailhead, with the lovely Mt. Sefton and its glaciers in the background.

Alex peeled off for a few minutes early on to check out the memorial to those who have died in the park, mostly climbers:

After ten or fifteen minutes there's this lovely view over glacial Lake Mueller, again with Sefton in the background.

And then the moment B had been waiting for: the first swingbridge! It wasn't as swingy as she likes. In fact, all the bridges looked like they'd just been replaced this summer.

Very fine engineering work. Over we go!

The path then became very rocky for awhile.

About halfway up the valley we turned a corner and started to see Aoraki again. The summit is almost always in cloud but was clear for large portions of the day—stupendous!

Here we are at the end of the track, with glacial Lake Hooker in front of us. Yup, those are icebergs floating in the lake, calved off the glacier. Sadly no birthing activity while we were there!

A nice family shot:

My mom turned around partway along, and dad headed back as soon as he reached this viewpoint. Alex and B and I hung around for awhile taking photos and checking out the icebergs. B was desperate for a big one to come close enough to shore that she could float away on it, but luckily for her parents that didn't happen.

Alex did bring some ice back in his handkerchief for my folks, however:

He and my dad were wishing for some Scotch to go along with it.

We had figured that B would likely turn around partway through but she was determined to go the distance and did very well. She had a bit of a meltdown in the last half mile as she got really tired, but got through it.

Once back at the campervan and reunited with my folks (who had found a comfy spot at the Old Mountaineers' Bar and restaurant to wait), we were back on the road again, headed for the next big lake to the northeast, Lake Tekapo.

As we came around the southern end of Lake Pukaki, we were treated to this vista:

We stopped the vans and jumped out so Alex and my dad could take photos. 

Then onwards to the only holiday park in Lake Tekapo village, which was...a little sketchy. Alex made us some supper while I got B into the shower (in the van since there were only pay showers at the campsite!). 

She was very upset with the two of us because we had planned an adventure for the evening: a tour at the Mt. John Observatory. This had been one of Alex's main desires in NZ and I'd been planning it for months. They actually don't allow children under 8 as it is cold, dark, and doesn't even start until almost 10 PM. 

As we headed into town to catch the shuttle up the mountain to the observatory, the sky would be best described as partly cloudy. We were able to make out Orion (upside-down here) and the Southern Cross. When we arrived at the office, they told us that the clouds were continuing to come in and it would likely be a behind-the-scenes tour rather than a stargazing one, but they'd get us outside to observe if possible. We weren't really in a position to re-book, and I figured Alex might be best entertained by the behind the scenes stuff anyway, so we went. 

It was terrific! The whole area is a gold-level International Dark Sky Reserve (the only other two are in Ireland and Namibia), and the observatory is a working one, with researchers carrying out joint NZ and Japanese projects. The rules about the dark sky reserve dictate that there be no white light on the mountaintop (we were issued small red flashlights and told not to even turn our phone or camera screens on, and the bus went the last few hundred feet without headlights), and that the surrounding area use only sodium bulbs, which are set up to focus light downwards and don't create that glow that most towns have at night.

The biggest telescope, 1.8 metres, is tasked for MOA, a project that is trying to discover planets outside the galaxy by looking at the way that light is bent around the gravitational fields of stars (I think I've got that basically right). We had some great guides who explained about the research that was happening, and then they took us into the cafe for hot chocolate and a lovely presentation about the southern skies (it was raining by this point, so this took the place of actual stargazing!). The observatory has two astrophotographers who do amazing work. If you are there on a stargazing night and have a DSLR camera one of them will mount your camera and teach astrophotography techniques.

Even with the cloudy weather, we had a great time. It was quite technical stuff so we were happy discover that we could honestly tell B she would've hated it. Maybe someday we'll go back on a clear evening.

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