PEAK TIME

IF YOU WANT STUN­NING SCENERY THEN HEAD TO NZ’S SOUTH IS­LAND AND THE POST­CARD-PER­FECT MT COOK NA­TIONAL PARK

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - WORDS: CHANTAY LO­GAN

It’s the stair­way to heaven … but you’ll have to put those legs through hell first. There are 2200 daunt­ingly sheer steps on the Sealy Tarns Track, most of which seem to have missed the memo that they’re ac­tu­ally lad­ders. But it’s not the steep as­cent that will steal your breath – it’s the view from the top. Mir­rored in the sur­face of still lakes, a white-cloaked Mount Cook is play­ing peek-a-boo through the clouds. Nowhere does scenery bet­ter than New Zealand and it doesn’t get more dra­matic than the South Is­land’s ruggedly beau­ti­ful Ao­raki/Mount Cook Na­tional Park, where I’ve stum­bled on a post­card per­spec­tive of the coun­try’s high­est moun­tain from a far more at­tain­able van­tage. My calves may be com­plain­ing, but my ex­er­tions, book­ended by bot­tom­less hot choc­cies and de­li­ciously trashy TV in the cosiest of ho­tel rooms at The Her­mitage, are dwarfed by the ef­forts of those whose feet have taken them all the way. The 3724m sky­scraper was first con­quered by Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and Ge­orge Gra­ham on Christ­mas Day, 1894. Memo­rial books in the re­gion’s vis­i­tor cen­tre are heavy with the names of hun­dreds who haven’t been as lucky. You don’t need to risk blis­ters, let alone life and limb seek­ing the sum­mit, to ex­pe­ri­ence the mag­netism that in­ex­orably lures moun­taineers Hik­ing op­tions in the park are un­par­al­leled and the most pop­u­lar tracks are very well-main­tained. The crisp clime en­sures they’re not the sweaty slog they would be back home, while the scarcity of poi­sonous bitey things gives you the con­fi­dence to take the path less trav­elled. The Hooker Val­ley Track is the one of­ten seen splashed over In­sta­gram, a scenic smor­gas­bord that me­an­ders in the midst of mon­ster peaks over three swing bridges and through fields of sunny-cen­tred alpine but­ter­cups. The map says it’s three hours re­turn, but make sure you fac­tor in a fresh photo op around ev­ery cor­ner. The Tas­man Glacier Track of­fers the most panorama for your puff – an easy, flat 30-minute walk will take you through a rocky lu­nar-like land­scape to the lake at the end of the glacier. The ice­bergs, like ghost ships in a milky har­bour, are a sober­ing re­minder that the Tas­man Glacier is shrink­ing, some sources say by a very vis­i­ble 480 to 820 me­tres a year – melt­ing at an ever more rapid rate. In the ’90s when I first vis­ited this re­gion, tourists trekked up to ter­mi­nal faces (the end point, in lay­man’s terms) of New Zealand’s fa­mous glaciers; now you’ll need help to get up close and per­sonal. Mount Cook Glacier Heli­hike can drop you on white ice, open­ing a por­tal into all your frozen fan­tasies. Hitch a chop­per ride to 1200 me­tres above sea level to spend up to two hours ex­plor­ing the glacier’s oth­er­worldly sur­face with a pro­fes­sional guide, wig­gling through eerie blue caves and cross­ing sin­u­ous stream­lets. Af­ter my fill of fresh air in the alpine play­ground, I headed to the nearby town of Lake Tekapo, which spe­cialises in rest and reward. Ap­pease your aching mus­cles in Tekapo Springs’ sprawl­ing hot pools, where they’ve re­cently in­tro­duced the only guided hot pools and star gaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in New Zealand. Part of the Ao­raki Macken­zie In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Re­serve, the sparkly scene is set by some of the clear­est, dark­est night skies in the world. The guided tour com­bines as­tron­omy and sto­ry­telling and fin­ishes in a 38-de­gree hot pool where you can con­tem­plate the glit­ter­ing canopy from a float­ing ham­mock. Once re­vived, get back to cram­ming your cam­era’s mem­ory cards with en­vi­able scenery. Lake Tekapo is a strik­ing shade of turquoise caused by glacial “flour” in its ice-fed wa­ters, a wildly ro­man­tic back­drop that lures a United Na­tions of new­ly­weds to pose for pho­tos on its rocky grey shores. The Church of the Good Shep­herd is a firm favourite with pho­tog­ra­phers, its al­tar win­dow fram­ing a per­fect view of the South­ern Alps. While I hap­pily swapped din­ner for a room ser­vice cheese plate so I could spend more time feast­ing my eyes from the bal­cony of my Pep­pers Blue­wa­ter base, it’s only a short stroll to the restau­rants in the town cen­tre. Snow or sun­shine, don’t pass up the chance to visit the Astro Cafe. You can ei­ther drive or walk to the Mt John ob­ser­va­tory, where cof­fee is served with a blue-lake panorama. Take in more of the coun­try­side over the short drive to the pretty farm­ing town of Fair­lie, home to fields of daf­fodils and the world’s best pies (I’ve checked) at Fair­lie Bake­house. Don’t worry about the calo­ries – you’ll walk them off.

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