Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Southern Alps

Some of the biggest landmarks in New Zealand carry names most lacking in imagination. The two biggest islands are the North Island, and The South Island, and some of the regions are the West Coast, Southland and Northland. Our destination for this trip would be the Southern Alps.

More specifically, the Mackenzie Basin. (The blue stripe in the center of the red square, is Lake Pukaki.)

Our kids spend are used to a mountainous landscape, living in the Jemez Mountains at 7200 feet, and spending time in the Rocky Mountains whose southernmost ranges lie in nearby Colorado as well as New Mexico. The thought of and endless scenic drive with young kids being told to look up from tablets, and out the window at scenery, didn't seem appealing. So how could I make this trip memorable to them? I decided that we should try to get to one of the glaciers of the Southern Alps, and to New Zealand's iconic Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. (It rises 12316' with a distance of less than 25 miles to the sea).

There has just happened to be, a fantastic documentary series on TV called 'Wild About New Zealand', each episode showcasing one of the National Parks. Charlotte was watching with me late one Tuesday evening and it was an episode on the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. The footage of the scenery was amazing, it really made us want to go there! It ended with a visit to the Tasman Glacier, at 27 miles long, it is the longest in New Zealand. As elsewhere on the planet, the glaciers are receding, at a faster rate than ever. After what I read in Wikipedia about the 600m deep Tasman Glacier, I was aghast:

The glacier has retreated about 180 metres (590 ft) a year on average since the 1990s and the glacier is now in a period of faster retreat where the rate of retreat is calculated to be between 477 to 822 metres (1,565 to 2,697 ft) each year. It is estimated that the Tasman Glacier will eventually disappear and the terminal Tasman Lake will reach a maximum size in 10 to 19 years time.

It is quite clear that glaciers are a disappearing phenomenon, if we don't see one this decade, we may have missed our chance! The most famous and accessible glaciers are the Franz Joseph and the Fox Glaciers on the West Coast. Still, it would be a 4-5 hour drive along windy mountainous, possibly carsick-inducing, roads. Then, I knew our hiking range would be limited with a 5 year old, and even a 7 year old. To hike a rocky moraine, to hopefully see the receding glacial terminus off in the distance - would this be the glacier memory I was looking for for them? And that is how we came to book a helicopter tour.

In October in New Zealand, the seasons are still transitioning from winter to spring, even if it is officially spring. As you travel south you expect a drop in the mercury. Clouds, wind, some rain, and a damp chill is what I packed for - nothing but winter layers. I absolutely did not expect the fantastic blue sky day we were blessed with for our journey to the Mt Cook region! The snow capped landscape looked stunning. I stopped often to take too many photos, because it just kept getting more and more amazing. We stopped at two of New Zealand's most picturesque lakes, Lake Tekapo, and Lake Pukaki. The kids really enjoyed getting down to the water to throw sticks and skip rocks. And they really seemed to feel the grandeur of the breathtaking scene they were standing in. It was just a wonderful road trip, perfectly warm for an ice cream stop at Tekapo village as well.

Lake Tekapo (above and below)
Lake Pukaki, above, and the three below.

Over fish and chips for tea at Omarama, I asked the kids, "after taking a train, a ferry, and a car, what different form of transportation do you think we are taking at Mt Cook tomorrow?". It took quite a few guesses to get to helicopter. And then, wow, we were all incredibly excited for the next morning!

We woke to a day not quite the perfection of the previous day, but fine with high clouds. The only concern was going to be the wind, especially higher up in the mountains. We had a 45 minute drive to Glentanner, where the heliport was, right at the western end of Lake Pukaki. Our booking was for 10:30AM. Indeed, wind was a concern for the helicopters, fortunately they were still operating, unfortunately on just a truncated route. We wouldn't be able to do the tour I booked, crossing the main divide was out, so we wouldn't see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the western side. But we would still see the Tasman, and be right up in the peaks. We'll take that!

The lower Tasman Glacier is grey from rock debris cover. I was expecting to see it white. But it is still clear that we were looking at something you don't typically see. Keep in mind, that that lake in front of it, is 7km long. (Below)

My parents came with us too.

You can just make out the Tasman Glacier Valley (above).

This region of the Alps is really only accessible by expert climbers and mountaineers, people preparing to summit Mt Everest, etc., so it is a rare view for us ordinary people from where we were perched, it was an amazing experience. We are right across from Mt Cook, for these photo opps. It was windy, but really not too cold.

Mt Sefton, above.
Lake Pukaki, looking east.

I now have two kids who aspire to be helicopter pilots. The third one would prefer to keep her feet on terra firma and perhaps do the marketing or accounting for the Ulrich Family Helicopter Tours business.

We definitely missed having TJ with us for this experience, it was a memorable morning. However, I have a pretty good inkling, that there may be some heli-skiing for him with the kids, in the not-so-distant future.