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How the Hooker Valley Track Nearly Killed My Dad

New Zealand is a country that inspires you to go hiking out into the wilderness.  Rugged mountains, picturesque shorelines, and golden tussock-covered rolling hills represent but a small portion of the amazing landscapes you can see if you just lace up a pair of boots, slip on a backpack, and head out onto the trail.

Sign to the Hooker Valley

A sign directing us to the beginning of the Hooker Valley Track, near Mount Cook Village.

For some people, this is pure bliss. I spent nearly three weeks hiking in the backcountry in NZ back in 2008, and I still couldn’t think of any better way to have spent that time. Others, like my dad, aren’t quite as sold on the idea…but as he wisely said, “this is the way I’ll get the best views, so I’ll do it.”

High Clouds over the Hooker Valley

We had pretty amazing views within the first few metres of starting the track.

Perhaps I should have questioned my dad’s begrudging acceptance of hiking (or tramping, as it is known in New Zealand). The main reason I didn’t was because I was so excited that I was going to squeeze in at least one day walk on an otherwise family-oriented trip.  Plus, I’d been assured that it was a fairly short walk — anywhere between 2-4hrs, depending on how many photo stops you take along the way.

The First Swing Bridge

The first swing bridge and Mueller Lake.

Listening to estimates in hours rather than distances was my biggest mistake of the day. For some reason, even though the Department of Conservation (DOC) is usually very precise on distances, it only listed the Hooker Valley Track in terms of time. If I’d taken the time to look up the distance (something that is surprisingly hard until you realise the track is available on Google Maps, which tells you it is 1h 8m of walking and 5km one-way), I might have realised it was a bit more than my 60-something father could handle.

Trampers

A few day trampers making their way along the beginning of the Hooker Valley Track.

The day we chose for our trip to Mount Cook couldn’t have been more perfect. By the time we made our way into the village it was well into the afternoon, but as we were there in the height of summer we knew we had at least six hours of good daylight left — plenty of time to comfortably finish the hike.

The Second Swing Bridge

The second swing bridge of the track.

Light cirrus clouds floated high in the sky as we began walking along the gravel path leading into the Hooker Valley. It was easy going and the path was more than wide enough for the hordes of walkers in both directions to not have to squeeze past one another. A greenish-gold carpet of tussock seemed to stretch off into the distance until it was suddenly stopped by a wall of mountains (aka the Southern Alps).

Crossing the Swing Bridge

With my boots and a backpack (and a tripod) crossing a swing bridge.

The scene abruptly changed when we walked over a small hill and found Mueller Lake stretching out before us. Below us — down the only significant set of stairs on the track — stood the first swing bridge (of three total). It spanned the raging torrent that was running out of Mueller Lake and led to a more glacial landscape beyond — a land that seemed slightly lunar with all its misplaced rocks.

Rush Hour at Mount Cook

The Hooker River rushes through rapids underneath the watchful eye of Mount Cook.

We continued walking at an easy pace over the tiny hills and valleys, bounced our way across a second swing bridge, and walked around a large bend before Mount Cook, in all its majesty, came into view at the end of the valley. This, paired with the frigid waters of the Hooker River rushing through the rocky rapids below us, was one of my favourite views of the entire track (which is saying a lot on a track as scenic as this one!).

Mount Cook Lilies

Beautiful Mount Cook lilies, which only flower in November and December.

Soon, the gravel track gave way to a boardwalk, with the grass underneath dotted with the brilliant white of Mount Cook lilies. By this point, I’d noticed my father’s gait getting steadily slower. He had already said that he wouldn’t stop my brother and me from finishing the track and that, if he felt like he needed it, he would stop and let us go on ahead.

That said, he’s a Repsher…and if I didn’t know the actual origin of my last name, I would honestly tell you that it meant “stubborn as a mule.” Even when we came across a historic wooden hut that would have been a good spot to stop in the shade, he soldiered on.

The Wooden Hut

The historic wooden hut that we came across about 2/3 of the way through our hike.

Another swing bridge and a short climb up a hill of moraine later and we were at the terminus of the track — Hooker Lake. The scene was almost too much to take in. Tiny icebergs floated in the lake below us, having calved off the Hooker Glacier that sat just underneath the towering Mount Cook.

Hooker Lake

Looking back from the picnic area at the end of the track across the end of Hooker Lake.

At the same time, though, I was concerned about my dad. Considering we were walking in and then directly back out again, he’d only just made it halfway. As he sat down at the picnic tables overlooking the lake, dumping the rocks out of his shoes, I made him drink more water…at least, until all the water we’d brought between the three of us ran out. Probably not the best planning on my behalf.

Still, he grinned and pointed out what a great view of Mount Cook we had, and how he wouldn’t have gotten that from the road.

Mount Cook and the Hooker Glacier

I agree with my dad. This view was worth the walk.

We took the walk back slowly, and it gave my brother and me plenty of time to savour the views…as well as the chance to listen intently as we heard the “craa-aaaack” of a glacier, somewhere high up in the mountains, as some of its ice began to break off. We struggled to walk at my father’s pace, and found ourselves striding ahead and then kicking ourselves as we waited for him. His smile became less of a grin and more of a grimace, but he kept moving, even when his legs started to painfully cramp and threatened to give way underneath him.

The Boardwalk

The boardwalk and the Hooker River.

I have to admit that I had visions of having to call emergency services to bring in a rescue helicopter for my dad. I imagined having to explain to them that, even as an experienced tramper, I took my dad out on a tramp without fully explaining how far it was and only brought one bottle of water per person. To top it off, we were all incredibly sunburned by that point — even knowing that NZ has virtually no ozone and that you can get burned at the drop of a hat, I hadn’t brought any sunscreen.

In the end, I think it was the scenery that kept him going — scenery that he could recognise and convince himself was not too far from the beginning of the track. Plus, even though we had seen the same thing on the way in, there were subtle differences as we returned. No longer distracted so fully by Mount Cook — although I kept turning around to check if it was still there — we paid attention to more subtle details.

With My Dad

With my dad near the end of the walk.

I, for one, found the alpine clouds fascinating. There seemed to be an endless line of clouds trying to stream over the tops of the mountains, threatening to go into the valley below…yet as their destination came into sight, they vaporised into nothingness.

Eventually, that first swing bridge came into sight, then the stairs, and eventually, the carpark. We’d finished the 10km roundtrip in just over 4 hours. While this is longer than most people take to finish the walk, it was much less than I’d imagined as we sat at the halfway point.

The Hooker Valley Track

Who wouldn’t want to follow this track into the wilderness?

I felt incredibly proud of my dad for struggling through. Despite being exhausted and having muscles that would stay sore for a week afterwards, he told us that he had enjoyed the hike and was glad he’d done it…at least, until I suggested we take on the 17km Tongariro Crossing next. I don’t think he appreciated that.

Have you ever brought someone along on an adventure and had it not go quite to plan? Tell me about it in the comments below.

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8 Responses to How the Hooker Valley Track Nearly Killed My Dad

  1. Tim March 18, 2015 at 11:38 pm Reply

    I’m a big fan of NZ and love your posts from this mighty fine country. Thanks for sharing Kristin and hope your dad has recovered by now.
    I once invited my parents for Sunday lunch and then took them on a small “tramp” across our local country park. My mum walked the trail with no problems at all. It wasn’t until about 10 metres from the car on our way back that she slipped down a small grassy bank…and ended up in hospital with a broken ankle! Needless to say she considers my invites with more since! Opps 🙂

    • Kristin March 19, 2015 at 7:17 pm Reply

      Hi Tim, it’s great to hear that you enjoy my posts about NZ — especially since I have plenty more to come from my Christmas travels there! And thanks for the good wishes to my dad as well. I think he’s recovered, although I don’t know if he’ll be listening to me the next time I tell him “it’s just a short walk.”

      Oh wow — that’s really unfortunate that that happened to your mother, especially so close to the end! I hope that she’s recovered from that with no lasting effects.

  2. Wanderlust East Java May 11, 2015 at 2:47 pm Reply

    Hi Miss Kriss
    Your adventure gave me learning in the nature exploration, I appreciate your effort.
    very impressed admiring your picture results, I fond in New Zealand landscape.

    Regard, Wanderlust East Java

    • Kristin May 11, 2015 at 9:36 pm Reply

      Thanks — I’m glad you enjoyed my photos of New Zealand! It really is one of the most gorgeous landscapes in the world.

  3. Meera September 12, 2015 at 8:55 pm Reply

    Great Post! Very scenic pictures. My family is planning to do Hooker Valley Track this December. As I am having a 4 year old son, could you please advise till which point I have to plan our walk.

    • Kristin September 20, 2015 at 5:05 am Reply

      Thanks very much Meera! I don’t quite understand your question though — are you asking how far you should plan to walk to? It really depends on how long you think your son will be willing to be carried/walk for. The entire trip takes around 3-4 hours and it is all fairly level (with only a few small ascents and descents) so there isn’t any specific place where I’d recommend turning around.

  4. shahril January 7, 2017 at 9:12 pm Reply

    Hi Kristin

    Great post and very nice pictures! Glad that you dad was okay. I have done the same walk back in 2006 and it was a great experience. I am planning to do it again next month when I go to New Zealand, but this time with my wife and two kids (6 and 8 years old).

    Since you just did your walk last year, you might have a better memory than me. Would you recommend for us to do Hooker’s Valley track too, rather than going for a shorter one (Kea Point track for example). I know that I would not get best view if I’d go for other track, but I am not sure if my two kids can handle the track.

    Would appreciate if you could share some tips or advise.Have a great day!

    Shahril

    • Kristin February 7, 2017 at 5:21 am Reply

      Hi Shahril, sorry for the late reply. I hope you’re having a good time if you’ve already made it over to NZ!

      I guess it depends how much your children enjoy walking. It is a reasonable distance for a small child, but I saw a number of kids on the track that seemed to be enjoying themselves. You still get views of Mt Cook well before the final descent to Hooker Lake, so you may be able to go down the track to just past the second swing bridge and turn around if they seem to be tiring. Hope you have a great trip — the whole family will love it there!

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