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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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