Camping with Kea

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Stunning day hikes in the foothills of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.

 

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Piercing birdcalls break the silence in our tent, deep in the night under the Milky Way. Sleepily I recognise the kea’s call as I roll over on our tussock bed. The sounds of nature are harmonious when compared to the noisy campers who arrive at 2.30am, opening and shutting their van doors as they set up their tent.

Our tent palace sits among a series of smaller domes scattered in a grassy meadow beneath Mt Sefton at White Horse Campground at Aoraki/Mt Cook. The DOC (Department of Conservation) campground is bursting with cars, vans and campers while a constant stream of people hike up the Hooker Valley Track from the trailhead nearby. My partner Rick is unimpressed with all the cars parked for a kilometre or so down the road.

“It’s great to see so many people out walking and enjoying the dramatic scenery,” I say. Rick mutters about staying in a quiet spot away from all the people.

“It’s not going to happen right now,” I reply, entranced by the craggy face of Mt Sefton towering over the southern end of the camp-ground. I camped in this place as a kid and want to stay here again, as the trailheads for a number of walks are nearby. Although there are a lot of cars and people around, it is easy to find an open piece of ground to pitch a tent. Sites are not allocated at White Horse, and as with most DOC campgrounds the only facilities are toilets and a large shelter to cook in – there is no power or showers. We check-in for three nights with plans to tackle a number of day hikes as well as visiting the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at the Hermitage and the DOC Visitor Centre. Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park sits in the Southern Alps near the source of Lake Pūkākī in the centre of the South Island. New Zealand’s greatest alpine park has the highest mountains, with 19 peaks over 3000 metres, including Aoraki/Mt Cook our tallest mountain. Large glaciers cover 40 per cent of the park; the Tasman Glacier is 27 kilometres long and is slowly carving the valley sides. Milky lakes and rivers are a feature of the park, filled with suspended glacier-ground rock sediment that makes the water opaque.

 

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Mountaineers regard the area as the best climbing region in Australasia, but you don’t have to be a climber to enjoy Aoraki/Mt Cook as there are plenty of mountain walks to alpine tarns, herb fields, and swing bridges leading up the Hooker Valley to a spectacular glacier and mountain views. At Aoraki/Mt Cook Village where the historic Hermitage Hotel sits, there is a range of accommodations from backpacker lodges to luxury hotel rooms. 

A couple of kilometres across the meadows is White Horse Campground where we are staying for $15 a night per adult as compared to $300–$600 at the Hermitage, depending on your taste. Down the road, 18km is Glentanner Park Centre with a fully equipped campground, powered campervan sites, motels, cabins and backpacker dormitories. There are also outdoor adventures such as helicopter flights with snow landings, glacier trips, heli-skiing and hiking, mountain biking, fishing, hunting and ice climbing.

 

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Back at the campsite, we are settling in after carrying many loads from the car across to the tent. After pitching the tent we are both hot. It’s 25°C, and one of us is a little cranky. I look up at the brilliant blue sky and think this will be a perfect evening for photographs. Who knows whether the next few days will be this clear and I am anxious to capture some fresh photos of Aoraki/Mt Cook after seeing some great images on Instagram. Yes, I have fallen for the Instagram bug and have seen the potential for great photographs of icebergs floating in milky lakes surrounded by high peaks.

The Hooker Valley is the recommended hike (10km return) if you only have a day at Aoraki/Mt Cook, and judging by the number of people we saw heading up the trail it must be worthwhile. We decide to take a late-afternoon hike up the trail, but not necessarily intending to hike all the way up to the glacier lake. The light is warming in the late afternoon and I am excited to get on the trail. As we head up the valley through the tussock-covered ridges we visit the viewing point for the Mueller Glacier. From here the trail drops down to the first swing bridge across the thundering Hooker River. Crossing the river is dramatic as the grey glacier water plunges down through the maze of river boulders. How did they build swing bridges across the wild river, I wonder? As we travel further up the valley it opens up to a stunning view of the distinct peak shape of Aoraki/Mt Cook. The trail wanders up an open tussock valley, across two more dramatic swing bridges to the Hooker Lake at the end of the trail.

 

Mount Cook National Park Hooker Valley Track Suspension Bridge Walk

 

The afternoon light is just leaving the lake as we arrive, with Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Southern Alps bathed in the late-afternoon light. I see a few icebergs floating in the lake as I race around the rocky lakeshore to capture the last shafts of sunlight on the brown milky lake. The day cools down as we trek back down the trail, arriving at camp at sunset. The long twilight in the South Island is helpful as we make dinner, noticing it’s after 9pm. Kea are circling the sky and I hear the thunderous sound of avalanches tumbling down the face of Mt Sefton. The first stars appear in the night sky as I wash our plates.

The sounds of kea circling over our tent wake me in the morning. The screeches are so close it sounds like they are sitting on our tent. I peer outside to investigate. The kea are perched high up in a tree a short distance away. I get my camera and wander across to the bathroom where a kea is balanced precariously on the peak of the roof, yet dancing along and chattering noisily as if quite at home. I notice two more in the meadows area foraging, while a ranger watches their antics. The kea burrow their beaks deep into the stony ground to find insects, gleefully hopping around enjoying their morning feed. According to the ranger, kea have only recently returned to visit the campground after a number of years away.

Kea are a nationally endangered species, with only a few thousand birds remaining. Named by Māori for the sound of their call, kea are endemic to the Southern Alps and are the world’s only mountain parrot. They are considered by scientists to be one of the most intelligent birds and it is this intelligence and curiosity that makes them vulnerable. A kea flies onto the roof of a camper and the ranger gently shoos the bird away. It is a pleasure to spend time watching these curious birds, and easy to fall for their cheeky ways. After half an hour they soar up in sky calling to each other as they circle higher, disappearing into the hills.

 

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It is important to keep the campsites clean so no food is left for kea to scavenge, and all rubbish is locked in an enclosed area in bins so naughty kea can’t feed on campers leftovers. After all we have encroached into the kea’s natural habitat and it is our responsibility to make sure we both coexist together in harmony.

With kea in mind, we hike to Kea Point – a short hike, about an hour return walk from the campground or two hours from Mt Cook Village. The track wanders through subalpine grasslands to a viewing deck with views of Mt Sefton, Hooker Valley, Mueller Glacier Lake and Aoraki/Mt Cook. My peaceful moment is soon engulfed by a throng of Korean ladies all posing with perfect smiles for photos on the viewing deck. I watch the show unfold amid excited chatter. Rick is given a handful of Korean sweets to sample.

“Where are mine?” I ask as he quickly stashes them in his pocket. We look for avalanches on the face of Mt Sefton. Sometimes I see what looks like a waterfall but is actually snow falling off a cornice, and this is verified by the delayed thundering sound of an avalanche as it echoes down the valley. High above Kea Point track, tiny figures step up the mountainside on the way to Sealy Tarns (3–4 hours return) and on to the Mueller Hut. On my last visit to Aoraki, I hiked up to the tarns. The steep track is quite a work-out but the view at the Sealy Tarns is worth the effort. On a clear still day Mt Sefton and Aoraki/Mt Cook are reflected in the small lakes. I also saw a kārearea or New Zealand falcon and a wide range of alpine plants.

 

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Later in the day we drive over to the Blue Lake carpark, the trailhead for Blue Lake and Tasman Glacier view track. We walk around the Tasman Lake Track (50 minutes return) and scramble up onto the moraine to get a view of the Tasman Glacier terminal lake. We are near the outlet, the source of the Tasman River, where milky water races over rocks and down to Lake Pūkākī.

Our visit to Aoraki/Mt Cook was not complete until we had visited the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre at the Hermitage and the DOC Visitor Centre and read the remarkable history of the area. (This is covered in a separate feature.) If you haven’t been to Aoraki/Mt Cook, part of the ‘wild, dramatic and breathtaking’ Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Site, I’d highly recommend a visit. We had lovely fine days in early February so we could see the high mountaintops of Southern Alps. The scenery is awe-inspiring and the night sky is full of stars. With international visitor numbers down, it is a perfect time to explore our New Zealand treasures. 

 

Story supplied by NZToday-RVLifestyle magazine. 
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