Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook
My first visit to New Zealand was my last family holiday. I was 22, had spent the year before living in Canada and Scotland, and the earlier part of that year working in a bar in the port town of Fremantle in Western Australia.
I’d always been what The Lemondheads dissed as the ‘Outdoors Type’, having grown in the suburb of Illawong in Sydney’s south, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander word meaning ‘a place between two rivers’. Streets there shared backyards with bushland, many sloping down into valleys where pebbled creeks swelled to join the rivers of their namesake. I thrived on exploring the bush. I was the first to climb trees with the boys, wade into the river and, to my mother’s despair, return dirtier and more scratched up each time I’d begged to be allowed to ‘go down to the creek’.
But it was the grandeur of the Canadian wilderness that really tattooed the passport to my beating little heart. British Columbia became the pine-clad gate against which other destinations could either enter or be separated from (I’d first visited on a basketball tour at 16, and returned to live and work the moment I graduated uni).
And I only tell you this so you understand just how much my first trip to New Zealand meant to me. I ‘d found a mountain wilderness a few hours flight from home! And despite visiting Queenstown and taking jetboat rides, snowboarding Coronet Peak and visiting the land of elves and orchs (I had the Lord of the Rings guide to NZ ever close), it was Lake Tekapo that always stood out in my mind from that first trip. I’d seen mountain-fringed lakes the colour of cyan before, but tens of thousands of kilometres to the north! I was elated by the discovery that equal beauty lied in Australia’s little cousin country (Phil will kill me for saying that – how patronising!), New Zealand.
Back to 2014, as Phil and I rolled into the town of Lake Tekapo the sun was descending on a long driving day. As we checked into the Peppers Bluewater Resort (an anticipated and discounted splurge), the concierge was seriously confused when Phil pointed out we required separate twin beds in the room. You could see his mind ticking over: did you guys have a fight? Is the honeymoon over? But we didn’t bother to explain that Phil likes boys and I would never date someone who listens to as much Katy Perry and Christina Agulira as that (and is that how you spell Agulira? I guess I’ll never know).
After a relatively uneventful dinner at Mackenzies Café Bar & Grill, we went back to Peppers to warm up over a couple of glasses of CC and Dry. Mainly because we needed the warmth, but also because we were on holiday, ok?!
We needed said warmth because we were heading down to the Church of the Good Shepherd to see the Milky Way over the lake…in winter.
It was a crisp 2° at around 11pm, when we walked, clad in our warmest threads and a blanket each (missed opportunity there, Hobo Times!) along Fairlie-Tekapo Drive towards the Church turnoff.
But our attire meant little if anything at all when we reached our destination, stared up at the star-scattered expanse of night sky, and realised how little we are. Just teeny specks monumentally smaller than the seemingly teeny specks above us.
I kept squinting and focusing my attention on one little celestial cluster in the hope of seeing a satellite moving across the ink above us, as I had in British Columbia years before. And although they clearly don’t have satellites in the southern sky (Ok, not true), there was one thing that was comforting down here, the presence of the Southern Cross constellation, as opposed to the Northern Star, which made me feel far from home (and no I will not be getting the Southern Cross tattooed on my body in some form of patriot-allegiance – not now, not ever).
Speaking of constellations, Phil was wheeling his arm through the air, phone held aloft, exclaiming ‘Centaurus! Look! A Planet! Venus! Microscopium! Orion!’ and so on and so forth, reading from his rather excellent SkyView app.
But my arms were staying as close to my body as possible. It was really, startlingly cold.
When we were done spotting all the planets within sight, and standing, tiny but with voluminous awe, at the foot of a lapping but invisible lake, we hunched back along Pioneer Drive towards our tiny, but comfy (separate twin) beds and fell asleep.
Having braved midnight down by the lake, we thought sunrise would be easy as, bro. After all, there’s sun in sunrise.
But we were wrong.
Turns out emerging sun or blackness, -3° is colder than 2° and it’s goddamn lucky that Church of the Good Shepherd is a sight to behold in the crisp hour of dawn or I would have been grrruuummpy! But this interdenominational church, build in 1935 of oak and stone for the pioneer families in the area, has a special presence of its own, whether spiritual or by good design. It peers out over the lake as if watching it intently, especially at that early hour when it’s front windows hold the landscape’s reflection, as if it’s gaze. This early the lake is not vibrant as in the day, but a milky violet. Frost covers everything. It crunches under our boots.
We know the stars from last night are still there, even if we can’t see them (SkyView would confirm), but a silent crescent moon is hesitant to leave. I am also hesitant to leave.
After a buffet breakfast in the warm morning sun that filtered through the resort windows, we hit the road for Mount Cook, detouring first to the Mount John Observatory. The road that winds up towards Mount John is as satisfying as the destination. You traverse sandy-coloured plains that are surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides. And the summit reveals a 360° view of them, including a high vantage of Lake Tekapo. There is the Astro Café up top too, but we had already eaten, and had quite a drive to Mount Cook ahead.
The drive from Tekapo to Mount Cook is just over an hour and a half. Despite having vastly different taste in music, Phil and I could both agree on playing London Grammar as we drove towards the World Heritage area that is the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Hannah Reid’s soaring vocals seemed fitting. The mountains kept coming closer, kept reaching higher around us. When we finally had a view of the king among them, at 3755m and the highest peak in Australasia, the Maori name of ‘Cloud Piercer’ (Aoraki) made perfect sense.
As with my previous visit to Mount Cook, we had little time (we had to make it all the way to Wanaka and Cardrona by that evening), and couldn’t get out into the National Park on foot to explore, but rather just gaze around in wonder and visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. I remembered from last time reading in a register book about all the people who had died trying to climb Aoraki. Tales like winds coming up and pulling a whole hut over the side of the mountain, sleeping climbers and all. It certainly was an exercise for serious mountaineers, with even Sir Edmund Hillary acknowledging it as his first real climbing achievement (he would, of course, go on to be the first to climb Mount Everest with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay). What legends. We just took some photos and went on our way. SOFT.
But speaking of soft, it was time to go snowboard some powder at Cardrona.
Photos by Katie Mayors and Phil Lemalu.