Aoraki/Mount Cook To Evansdale Glen

A Walk In The Snow, A Walk The Badlands, A Walk In The Bush.

Travel writing and photography by John Caswell

Some people are blessed when it comes to clothes shopping. They have an innate ability to trust their inner voice and listen to intuitive hints when shopping. Somehow, without trying, they understand both fashion and style. Unfortunately, I possess neither of these. I have a long history of poor choices that prove my hunches and gut feelings should not be listened to. I am not allowed to shop by myself. It’s not that I can’t, it’s just that my fashion judgement can’t be trusted. 

Recently, in need of some new footwear, I took my wife’s advice and went shopping for a pair of shoes. At the time, my wife and daughter were having lunch. So, they both happily agreed to act as consultant and advisor on this much overdue trip. 

After a brief time being distracted by items I didn’t need, I found my way to the shoe section. I then commented to my advisory group that I had spied a suitable pair in the preceding aisle. Not long had they disappeared around the corner when over the top of the aisle came a high pitched exclamation.
“Oh hell no!”
“What’s wrong with them?” I exclaimed.
“Well, there’s nothing right with them!” they both retorted.
I was then lovingly taken by the elbow and guided to a section that I was told had a much more suitable selection for me to consider. Here, I found several other men also looking at shoes. Unfortunately, the aisle was now in danger of being overrun with advisory support group workers, all affectionately holding elbows. 

What this has to do with anything at all is that I was heading off to the alpine village of Mount Cook and needed some new shoes for my rock hopping expedition.

A Walk In The Snow
Having arrived in the alpine village the night before, the day was clear and the village was covered in a deep blanket of fresh snow. The previous evening, I discovered that it had been snowing for a staggering 16 hours. Now, in the bright morning sunlight, the village took on a magical, story book feel. Scanning the scene around me, I quickly deduced that my newly purchased foot attire wouldn’t be up to the job and alternative footwear would be needed. Gumboots! Today’s expedition involved a 10km round trip hike through the Hooker Valley to the Hooker Lake. A trek I’d very much been looking forward too. Now, with the heavy snowfall, I found myself eager to get going. 

I quickly devoured some toast in the lodge kitchen/lounge and joyfully took in the sights and sounds around me. Not only did I have a magnificent view of the snow covered mountains, the family next to me had just discovered they had locked themselves out of their room. While the mother of the family (who had just returned from buying milk) quickly disappeared to arrange access to their trapped belongings, the rest of the family happily tucked in to the breakfast that sat in front of them. At one point it did cross my mind to point out that finishing all the milk while she was absent fixing their current predicament might not be the best idea. But, keen to get going, and not wanting to spoil the surprise, I gathered my camera gear and headed out into the snow. Bound for the Hooker Valley.

Covered in deep snow, the track led up the Hooker Valley towards Aoraki/Mount Cook. It started by passing close to Freda’s Rock. It’s named after Emmeline Freda du Faur who was the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook. This amazing accomplishment she achieved in 1910 and remains forever immortalised in New Zealand mountaineering history. I happily followed the snowy path, kicking snow and trying to decide if it would be socially acceptable to throw snowballs at strangers when Mueller Glacier and the first swing bridge came into view. The path crossed the Hooker River and carried on to the second swing bridge. 

It was somewhere between the Mueller Glacier and the second swing bridge that I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I might be getting sunburnt. I rummaged through my bag but soon realized that bringing sunblock really would have been a good idea. resigning myself to the fact that I was going to end up very burnt, I pushed on. 

Passing the second bridge, the track opened to the wider valley floor, and even deeper snow until I arrived at the third swing bridge and headed for the glacier lake. 

Upon arriving at my destination I came across a view that is pretty well unimprovable. Mountains, rocks, snow, ice, a glacier and lake in every direction. The last 20 metres of the track is a gentle incline until reaching the top of the path where it opens out to an amazing view of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Hooker Glacier and the Southern Alps. This is one of the beautiful things about Aotearoa, if you are prepared to walk then you’re in for some spectacular scenery. 

I stood and daydreamed for a bit, ate my carefully packed sandwiches, explored the different vantage spots with my camera before turning my attention to the walk back. By this time, under the hot sun, the snowy track was turning to slush and I had 5km of splashing through puddles ahead of me.

Sometime later, upon my return, I fetched a Speight’s from my improvised ice bucket fashioned from  rocks and snow and settled on my bed. My legs aching and my face burning, I started the process of uploading flash cards to my computer. My thoughts then turned to the next day which was to involve finding the Clay Cliffs in Omarama. I wondered how much walking was involved?

A Walk In The Badlands
I awoke to pain that left me in no doubt about the agony I was set to suffer for the rest of the day. Usually, these symptoms are associated with a pounding head, a throat feeling like sandpaper and an overwhelming feeling of dehydration. Today, things were different. The endless pain was not coming from a pulsating vein in my left temple, the result of overindulging the night before, but from my calf muscles.

As it turns out, walking 10 km through the snow, in gumboots, isn’t good for the calf muscles. In fact, my legs were quite determined to not do anything at all and protested most vigorously at the slightest movement.  Adding to my discomfort was my glowing red face which could have guided in low flying aircraft to land.

In the lodge kitchen/lounge I ate breakfast in discomfort under the watchful gaze of Aoraki/Mount Cook. As I ate, other guests appeared carrying hats and sunblock (bastards!) looking like a walking advertisement for Kathmandu or Macpac. I sheepishly finished my coffee and attempted to walk as normal as possible.

Later, feeling the worse for wear, struggling to walk, and with a burning hot face I headed for the Clay Cliffs of Omarama.

I wasn’t sure what the Clay Cliffs were, but they did have their very own sign post. This automatically signalled they must be of interest. After all, they don’t put sign posts up for nothing! 

The Clay Cliffs were formed a mere 1 to 2 million years ago. According to the signage, they are a classic example of a semi-arid badlands style erosion. Whatever that means! I thought the numerous towers and pinnacles looked like upside down ice cream cones. But, putting that on a billboard probably wouldn’t entice people to pay the $5 entry fee! 

It turns out they were formed by an ancient lake and river that once existed. Now, wind and rain over many thousands of years has eaten into the rock layers producing the spectacular upside down ice cream cone effect. 

Upon arriving, and judging by the amount of cars and campervans in the parking lot, I was going to have company. That’s the thing about visiting places in Aotearoa. You’ll either be completely alone, or arrive just as a bus load of tourists turn up. On this day, it seemed that Britz Campervans had decided to hold their AGM in this very isolated location. At this very moment, and they were kicking things off with a pep rally. Determined to beat the gathering crowd, and to be the only one to walk the track that day without a complaining child or a walking aid, I set off up the track as fast as my tired legs could take me. 

I was pleasantly surprised with my efforts because upon arriving at the end of the track, I was delighted to find only one other person in the area. I quickly went to work with my camera. Just as I was finishing (some 10 minutes later) the entire canyon was filled with people. Suddenly, every possible item imaginable was off loaded from backs, taken out of packs and scattered around the canyon. Clearly the entourage was planning on being present for a while as they had taken the approach of scattering themselves and their belongings around the canyon floor as much as possible. Judging by their jovial mood the pep rally had the desired effect and the canyon was now filled with all sorts of high-fiving, whooping and hollering. 

It was then that I took my leave with three lasting impressions. Firstly, some things are best seen alone. Secondly, the Clay Cliffs are well worth a visit. Thirdly, having been to the badlands and feeling a tiny bit rebellious as I travelled along a deserted gravel road, I chose not to indicate at the intersection. 

I left the Clay Cliffs behind just as the campervan contingent were threatening to break-out a picnic. Grateful that I wasn’t stuck behind an endless procession of campervans while each one worked out how to operate a farm gate while the remaining occupants took 10,000 selfies in front of a sign they clearly hadn’t read.

I checked my watch. I noted the time. Pleased that I still had most of the day ahead of me, I headed for the tiny nook of Evansdale Glen, then later, home.

A Walk In The Bush
I’d imagined Evansdale Glen as nothing more than a small reserve with an impracticable carpark. Maybe some scattered picnic tables, an ineffective rubbish bin and a small path leading up to a creek or stream. There’s an unwritten rule in Aotearoa. Every park or reserve must be placed beside a waterway. I expected Evansdale Glen to be no different. I’d already deduced that the place couldn’t be very big. After all, how big could the reserve be when during 13 years of driving past, twice a day, I’d never once seen anyone stop and visit. 

Arriving, what I found was something altogether quite different. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I had to double check on Google Maps that I was in the right place. After parking my car beside a sign that said, ‘Evansdale Glen Scenic Reserve’ I was still sure there must be some mistake. Yet here I was. Standing, phone in hand, jaw well and truly dropped looking out beyond a hidden bush canopy. This must be what the New Zealand wilderness is like I thought. 

With my camera on my back, blue sky overhead and a path in front of me, I headed off. The track quickly arrived at a stream where some kind people had thoughtfully put stones in to step on. At this point the local fantail population took a curious interest in what I was doing. Personally, I think they were waiting for me to slip in the stream. This determined my resolve to cross without incident. It was at this point, upon successful competition of the water-hazard, that I came across two signs. The first read “play it safe in the outdoors, alter level 2.”
The second stated that “this is a popular daywalking and overnight tramping area. Expect to encounter hunters at any time.”
‘HUNTERS? ‘Oh Jesus,’ I said to myself.
‘So, at any time I’m liable to get shot!’ What a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon I thought to myself. So, feeling like I was now part of The Lord Of The Rings I headed into the bush. 

The track which had obviously been recently maintained quickly narrowed into a gorge or ravine valley type area. Two minutes later I reached another fence line with a sign that said

“Wild animal control operations using firearms are currently being undertaken in this area.” 

This brought an obvious question to mind.

Should I be more worried about wild animals or the firearms being used to control them? More nervous than ever, I pushed on. 

As the track continued, a thought suddenly crossed my mind. Maybe the reason I’ve never heard of this place is because no one ever ventures out alive? Such are the dangers of the New Zealand bush or walking tracks for that matter. You not only have to survive the traffic just to get there (campervans), but when you do, there’s water obstacles, hunters and wild animals to elude. What a glorious country this! 

The next 30 minutes was spent following a twisting and turning track over boulders, through enticing pieces of forest and bush and alongside a river. Along the way, in parts, trees of all sizes had fallen either side of the river. The tracks in the mud, the fallen trees and the sheer violence with which they had been ripped from the ground meant only one thing. Orcs!

In a matter of moments the gully widened and I found a good stopping point. In typical New Zealand male fashion, a short 5 minute walk had ended up being an arduous unplanned journey!Without any snacks and with nothing to drink, I took stock of my situation. 

Storm clouds were closing in. I was hungry, thirsty, alone, my legs hurt, my face was sore and I wasn’t really sure where I was. To make matters worse, hunters were loose with guns, wild animals were in the area, a horde of Orcs were close by (chasing hobbits no doubt) and I had a suspicion that Sauron the Dark Lord would appear at any moment. I had too clear choices, head straight back to the car or risk everything and stay. I bravely choose the latter. 

As the light started to fade from the gorge and shadows took hold, I unlocked the car. The walk back hadn’t been nearly as harrowing. Fortunately the fantail population had found me and kept me company all the way back to the car while keeping all manner of wild animals, hunters, Orcs and Dark Lords at bay. As I headed for home I reflected on my trip to Evansdale Glen. It left me with one very clear and concise conclusion. Orcs and Dark Lords are mortally afraid of Fantails. I wondered if Peter Jackson knews this?


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