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Wednesday 13 Mar 2013
Mount Cook, New Zealand

Icebergs in Mordor

My original plan had been to stay in Queenstown for four nights until Wednesday 13th March.  However, because I had jumped onto an earlier bus at Wanaka in order to keep up with the friends I had made, I had arrived in Queenstown two days earlier. The summer wait lists for the Stray buses can get quite long, so rather than cancel my Wednesday booking in favour of Monday's wait list, I took a chance and hoped there would be enough space on the bus for me to just hop on.  Luckily there was, which gave me a couple of extra nights to spare before my flight from Christchurch on Friday. Lauren and I stayed on longer in Mount Cook National Park.  What a great decision!

As the crow flies, Mount Cook is actually very close to Franz Josef.  The Sefton and Hooker Valley Glaciers are just the other side of a range of peaks from the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, but a long way apart by road.  Mount Cook village nestles at the foot of Mount Sebastepol and Mount Sefton and is home to only a few hundred people, almost all of whom work in the mountaineering and tourism industry in some capacity.  There is a famous Heritage Hotel, now on its third incarnation (due to fire and avalanche damage) which was home to Sir Edmund Hilliary as he got his first taste of mountaineering.  It now houses the Sir Edmund Hilliary Alpine Centre museum among other things.  It also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Overlook Hotel where Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick's The Shining was filmed. (In fact, the hotel staff filmed their own version of the Shining one winter to alleviate the boredom!) 

From our lodge, we had a stunning view up the Hooker Valley towards Mount Cook, surrounded by enormous peaks and the Sefton and  Mueller Glaciers.  Really not a bad place to spend a few quiet days.Lauren had been justifiably fed up with talk of glaciers after her helicopter trip up to the Franz Josef Glacier was cancelled three days in a row due to bad weather.  Me turning up in Wanaka with photos of the great weather we had on our trip really hadn't helped matters.  Mount Cook offered us a chance to see a glacier from a different perspective as we took a trip round to the Tasman Glacier Lake.   

The Tasman Glacier runs about 11km down into the valley floor where its terminal face flows into a milky white lake, surrounded by rocky moraines.  As the glacier has retreated over the years, it has left huge swathes of rubble and boulders all across the valley floor, looking like some kind of alien landscape.  (In fact, some of the filming for 'Lord of the Rings: Return of the King' took place here - Sam and Frodo making their way past Minas Tirith and the gates of Mordor, then struggling to climb the scree and boulders on the side of Mount Doom, heading for their final showdown with Gollum.) 

We followed a 20 minute trail through the moraine until we reached the lake, followed by a gaggle of Chinese tourists in decidedly impractical shoes and outfits! At the lake edge we were given life jackets and divided into three small rigs.  Our skipper encouraged us all to feel the water temperature for a few seconds - around 2 degrees on the surface and a lot colder underneath - just in case any of us had ideas about swimming.  We then spent an hour on the lake, going close enough to some icebregs to touch them.  We saw a couple bginning to roll, but had to stay a safe distance from the bigger ones in case they decided to suddenly split or roll over - icebergs usually reveal only 10% of their actual size, so when one looks like it is towering 20' above you, you know there is going to be a mini tsunami when it starts to roll over.

We were really lucky with our timing, because two weeks ago they had the biggest glacial calving they've ever seen in the lake - yes, that is the right spelling, apparently glacial icebergs are known as calves.  As the face of the glacier is pushed further into the lake, the pressure on the front ice gets greater and greater, until it gives way and breaks off along the internal cracks caused by meltwater run off.  The newly calved section of ice crashes down into the water and rolls until it finds its natural buoyancy.  These new icebergs drift up and down the lake with the wind, slowly melting and rolling as they become top heavy.  Initially, these new icebergs are still quite dirty with the grit and debris collected from the glacier's passage down the mountain.  As they melt, this grit (known as glacial flour) is suspended in the lake, creating the inpenetrable milky water. Then, as the compressed ice underneath is first exposed, the icebergs have a deep vivid blue colour.  As this begins to melt, the ice fills with tiny fractures which reflect light differently so our eyes perceive the iceberg as white.  Dad and I watched a BBC programme on glaciers and 'megabergs' (enormous calvings) just before I came away, so it was really interesting to see it up close with my own eyes like this.

The meltwater eventually runs through the gravel of the moraines and flows into Lake Pukaki, an enormous reservoir further down the valley, and loses some of its glacial flour on the way.  It settles further in the lake leaving only the finest particles still suspended.  This gives Lake Pukaki an impossibly vivid tuquoise colour.  I watched the lake for 20 minutes as we drove in and still found it hard to believe my eyes.

Our Lodge had a special deal going which included dinner, a drink, 24-hr internet and entry to the 3D cinema up at the Alpine Centre. I made the most of it with a delicious rare ribeye steak and a pint while watching the sunset lighting up the face of Mount Cook.  Yes, a very good place to spend a few days.

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  • Tasman...

    Mount Cook

    New Zealand

    Tasman Glacier Lake
  • Tasman...

    Mount Cook

    New Zealand

    Tasman glacier lake
  • Tasman...

    Mount Cook

    New Zealand

    Tasman glacier lake
  • Tasman...

    Mount Cook

    New Zealand

    Tasman glacier lake