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Weekend Tramps

16-18 April 2010

As the British founders had intended when they arrived 158 years ago, CHCH remains steeped in colonial heritage and the tree-filled parks and old stone buildings ensure that CHCH is likened to England. It’s a beautifully sunny day and K very kindly drives me around CHCH and we have lunch in a vegetarian cafe and according to their website: ‘The Lotus-Heart is independently owned and operated by students of Sri Chinmoy. We aspire to create a small corner of the world that is inundated with the spirituality and philosophy of our meditation teacher and to offer a peaceful oasis with music and videos to inspire the heart’. The food is amazing (when it arrives as the service is appalling but since it is prepared with ‘love and care’ we feel that we cannot complain otherwise we’ll be cursed with bad karma for the rest of our lives)

We head for the hills and a drive over Port Hills, past the Gondola and signs for paragliding (on the radio news on the drive back from Mt Cook, there are reports of a paraglider having a serious accident and being hospitalized, so I take this as my sign....). We stop for tea and an Afghan biscuit in the now trendy suburb of Lyttelton, which is southeast of CHCH and the Port Hills slope down to the city’s port. An Afghan biscuit is a national favourite and after tasting one, I can see why:

We are being weekend tramps early tomorrow, so after picking up J from work we go home and get ready for our big weekend ahead. I am amused by the word ‘tramp’ as here it means ‘hike’ and not a smelly, old guy or a woman of ill repute and I quite like the idea of being a tramp for the weekend.

It’s a 4 hour drive to The Mount Cook Alpine Village in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, driving along the foot hills of the Southern Alps and rolling Mackenzie countryside. We stop off in Tekapo for me to take some photos of the lake. The Tekapo lake is the most amazing colour I have ever seen and due to its high altitude above sea level, the area holds the reputation of having the cleanest air in the southern hemisphere.

Mount Cook is NZ’s highest mountain standing at 3,754 metres and is known to the Maoris as Aoraki ‘Cloud Piercer’ and when are arrive at the Mt Cook visitor centre, the mountain is completely surrounded by cloud and it is drizzling. After a Team Tramp talk, we decide to risk it and pay for a night’s stay in the Mueller Hut at the end of the Mueller Hut Route (start is 765m and the Hut is 1,780m) and fill in the ‘Trip Intentions’ form. For the privilege of being the last climbers of the day, we are given the unenviable task of collecting the names of the people in the hut and giving them to the warden who will radio in at 7pm (I cock this up and have to pass over to Sherpa K amidst much laughter from everyone else!)

‘At 1800 metres on the Sealy Range (nearly half as high as Aoraki/Mount Cook’s summit), the hut provides a 360-degree panorama encompassing glaciers, ice cliffs, vertical rock faces and New Zealand’s highest peaks. It’s a great site for hearing and viewing ice falls, alpine sunrises and equally unforgettable sunsets. Climbing to the hut through alpine scrub, herb fields and scree slopes can be an achievement in itself, or the start of further opportunities for the more experienced.’

The hike is only 5.2 km but when one is tramping up some very steep gradients, it feels like a whole life time. I am lucky to have two excellent sherpas with me and K suggested that I hire a trekking pole which helped a great deal with my dodgy knee. When we reach the Sealy Tans (half way), we decide to carry on up to the top even though the steepness of the next climb makes me want to vomit and I have had to banish all thoughts of nice hotels and comfy beds from my mind. It did help that the weather cleared quite early on into the climb and Mt Cook was clearly visible and it was a perfect temperature to continue on this masochistic climb.

The climb after the Sealy Tans is mostly off track and you have to follow the orange markers and rock carins but the breath taking (that may be just me) view of Mt Sefton and the Muller Glacier when you get to the summit is, well, spectacular. I am pleased that I decided to carry on and after a 20 minute section of clambering over boulders, the Hut is in full view and we are just in time to see sun set over Mt Cook.

There are 15 of us in the Hut and it’s not bad as huts on top of mountains go (not that I’ve seen many) It has a kitchen, two sleeping rooms with ‘bunk’ beds and a long drop outside. The long drop is the worst smelling long drop I have ever encountered and it makes me want to wretch very time I go in there but the alternative is a ‘poo pot’ and I have to draw the line somewhere!

The rest of the climbers are a mixture of Kiwis and Europeans and one of the Kiwis takes a shine to us and we avoid him by making a sharp exit to the balcony after dinner to watch the stars before retiring to bed.

We get up for the sunrise and after a breakfast of porridge and tea, we make our way back down the mountain. It’s a gloriously sunny day and I find the tramp down quite difficult as the backs of the legs begin to ache and shake and I feel like I about to have a sense of humour failure (if you ask J, I did). It is also quite warm and I don’t think I would have made it up yesterday if it had been like this. Still, I make it and feel a great sense of achievement as we munch our sandwiches in the car park before heading home. I must point out that I didn’t even have heavy rucksacks to carry like K and J, so I don’t know how they did it.

We collect our prize for making the radio announcement which is a poster of Mt Cook (circa 1980) and begin the long drive back to CHCH. It has been an amazing weekend and I hope I can walk tomorrow and don’t look too much like John Wayne.

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