Day 2: Aoraki/Mount Cook

by Mary Beth

The following day dawned cloudy, but the clouds evaporated as the sun came up. It was our day to visit the mountains: Mount Cook Village, a village at the base of the tallest mountain in New Zealand, Aoraki/Mount Cook. Aoraki was the original name given to the sacred mountain; it was naturally renamed by an English explorer. The original name breaks down to Ao (which means cloud) and Raki (which means the sky or the heavens). According the Department of Conservation, Aoraki was the first child of Raki, the heavens, and Te Po, the darkness, before Aotearoa (New Zealand, the long white cloud) existed. Aoraki and his brothers came down from the heavens and paddled around the ocean in a canoe, but due to a failed incantation the canoe tipped over, and the brothers were turned to stone and earth; they became the mountains, and the canoe became the land. Aoraki is the largest of the four mountains. It is such a culturally important and sacred mountain that traditionally the Maori did not climb it, but that did not stop the Europeans, who started climbing it in the 1800s.

We decided against attempting to summit the mountain.

“Bottoo rum! Bottoo rum!” we heard from the back seat as soon as we were all in the car, and so we started the trip with some rollicking pirate tunes. Cora fell asleep peacefully as soon as she heard the aggressive “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest…”

The drive up into the mountains was breathtakingly beautiful. We even saw a rainbow.

It becomes obvious why clouds figure so much into Maori names for their land

Annie looked out the window once or twice, with encouragement, and acknowledged there were mountains there.

We pulled the car over, a handful of times, to look at the view and take pictures. Annie declined to get out. She would get out when we arrived, she said. She had borrowed some small plastic dolls from the house and was playing with them.

“Wow! Annie, look at that!” I said. “Look at the mountains!”

Annie explained that she had already seen the mountains, and there was no need to keep looking at them. She was contemplating the little Strawberry Shortcake figurine she had brought along, and pondering more important questions, such as – What does Strawberry Shortcake do? And why does she have a green and pink color scheme? And is she real? These were far more engrossing issues than the mountains.

We stopped at the visitor centre, and while Peter went to get advice on the best kid-friendly hikes in the area, Cora went up and down and up and down the stairs, saying quietly to herself “Ho ho bottoo rum,” over and over again.

As we drove the eight minutes to get to the first hike, I was giving directions to Peter and discussing how to manage food, when we realized suddenly that we were having to shout to be heard.

“What’s going on back there?” I shouted towards the backseat.

“Cora is saying Kittens and I am bored of her saying kittens!” Annie whined.

“Kitten,” said Cora.

“Stop saying Kitten!” said Annie.

“Kitten,” said Cora.

“Please stop saying kitten!”

“Kitten,” said Cora.

“Please, please stop,” she begged, weeping now.

“Kitten,” said Cora.

Annie pretended to ignore Cora. She started singing to herself and looked out her window.

“Kitten,” said Cora.

Annie sang more loudly.

“Kitten kitten kitten!” said Cora. “Kitten kitten!”

I put on pirate music and everyone calmed down.

The girls were in agreement: the first hike was awful. It was cold out, and the warm clothes didn’t seem to agree with anyone. Annie had lost her winter coat a few days before the trip, so we had bought her a second-hand coat, but the only one we could find was several sizes too large. We were foolish enough to bring the stroller, not wanting to have to carry the girls the whole way; Cora spent much of the hike climbing into the main seat, then the underneath-seat, then on and off the footrest. Annie took off her coat and jumped into the main seat of the stroller just after Cora vacated it, and sat hunched backwards, curled up in a ball, with her forehead pressed into the backrest of the stroller. She was encouraged to turn around so she could at least look at the beautiful mountains while she rode. She explained that she had to huddle up backwards because she was cold.

“Do you want to put your coat back on?” I asked.

Annie didn’t answer.

Cora got bored crawling around on the stroller and demanded to be picked up.

Cora periodically ran around on the trail, without making much progress
Annie was not interested in admiring Lake Tasman

We took a muffin and soup break, hoping this would invigorate the children. Then we went on a hike called Kea Point Track. We were hoping to see a kea, which is an alpine parrot, but we were not successful – Cora hypothesized that this was because the parrots were hiding. The girls had a little more energy from the muffins. With the top of Aoraki/Mount Cook towering above them, Annie was actually excited. “I want to go to the mountain!” she said, a statement she repeated with increasing frustration as the hike went on.

“You are on the mountain!” I always answered.

“No I’m not! I’m on the ground!” Annie cried.

Even on a mountain, Cora finds puddles

We didn’t see a kea, but we saw a possum. It was snacking on something in the tall grasses by the side of the trail. It pretended not to see us, but waddled lackadaisically away from us, as if it just coincidentally happened to be moving in that direction anyway. After a few yards it couldn’t be bothered to keep up this pretense and just sat by the edge of the path, amongst the grass, its back to us, keeping still.

We all came and stood a few feet away and pointed at its gray back, easily visible among the brown grasses. “Look! There it is! Do you see it?” I asked Annie. 

“Where?” said Annie, looking straight at the possum. I guess its hiding strategy is effective, if it is aiming to hide from 4-year-olds.

“There! See?” I was almost touching it when she finally saw it.

“Oh!” she said.

We stayed and admired its back for a few minutes. At that point the possum clearly felt that there was no point keeping up the pretense that it was hiding, and it shuffled away a few steps and went back to eating whatever it was eating, hoping that if it pretended we were not there, then we would pretend it wasn’t there. We took lots of pictures.

The possum clearly knew we were not New Zealanders – perhaps it recognized our accents – because New Zealanders as a rule loathe possums, as they loathe all animal and botanical interlopers (i.e. any animals other than birds, and any plant species that has not been growing in New Zealand for the past 500+ years), but particularly the Australian ones. Annie reads a book in school called “Oh, No Mr Possum” which has, as its final message, the recommendation that Mr Possum should be put on a plane back to Australia. Outside of preschools, the favored approach is killing them, which is faster. I don’t think we’ve visited a single park or nature preserve or museum that didn’t have a blacklist of animal offenders, with possums and stoats usually topping the list, but also including rodents, cats, dogs, rabbits, and others. I found this wonderfully ominous sentence on a poster describing the history of the tahr (evidently a mountain-goat-like animal, which was introduced to New Zealand over a hundred years ago): “A culling programme was introduced, aided by the new technology of helicopters”.

While still enjoying the mental images produced by that sentence, we moved on to another, sadder poster, describing the tragic story of the native longfin eel, and the efforts to combat a decrease in the eel population, including efforts to capture live eels and move them over dams so they don’t get trapped. There was an accompanying picture of a man who is gently, lovingly gazing at a giant slimy eel he has caught in a net. He is about to move the eel to a better place, but he looks like he might want to give it a hug first. And then probably he will get in his helicopter to go shoot some goats.

In any case, we had no malicious designs on this possum, and he seemed to know it.

At the end of the trail, there was a little platform with a 360-degree view of towering snow-capped mountains. One of the mountains had blue-tinted snow that seemed to cascade down the side of the mountain; we later researched it and think that this was the Mueller Glacier, or the frozen Mueller Glacier Waterfalls. While we were staring at the mountains, we heard a distant rumble, like thunder.

“That sounded like an avalanche!” said Peter.

We scanned the mountain across from us, and sure enough, there was a little cloud that had not been there before, like a puff of smoke, just below the frozen waterfall. We watched and over the next few minutes, a faint river of white appeared just below the cloud. We heard some more rumbling and then it settled.

There is a little cloud in the center of the picture, where the avalanche started; to the left and a little lower there is a white stream that appeared a few minutes later.
Aoraki/Mount Cook is the glowing mountain in the center

We assumed that this lookout was Kea Point, so we looked for keas, but did not see any.

Cora, on the other hand, was on the lookout for kiwis. A kiwi is a flightless native bird, a symbol of New Zealand; it is extremely rare and hard to find, and doesn’t generally live around Mount Cook.

“Kiwi! Kiwi!” said Cora, looking all around. She scrutinized the scrub brush and the sheer sides of the mountains that soared up on all sides of us.

“Are you looking for a kea? Where is there a kea?” I asked her.

“Kiwa! Kiwi!” Cora answered, continuing to search.

But shadows were lengthening, and a worsening chill was creeping into the air, so we couldn’t look forever. Eventually we had to trek back down the mountain. Cora was particularly miserable because her hands were so cold again. We tried to put mittens on her hands. But as she had no choice but to instantly rip them off, they didn’t help her cold fingers very much. So she had to do a fair amount of screaming on the way back down.

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