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New Zealand - Aoraki - Mount Cook

We left Wanaka to head north towards Mount Cook. On all of Rachel's previous visits to New Zealand, and when we recently passed it heading down the west coast, the mountain has been elusive, always hiding in the clouds.

On route we stopped the night on the shores of beautiful Lake Ohau, which has sadly since been devasted by a forest fire that burnt through 5000ha of the Mackenzie Basin and destroyed at least 48 homes. Let's hope recovery efforts allow people to get back on with their lives as quickly as possible.

We drove from Twizel, passing Lake Pukaki and along the Tasman River valley to reach Mount Cook National Park. The mountain scenery and views along the lake were spectacular, but no view Mount Cook. We did a short hike to Lake Tasman with views of the Tasman Glacier in the distance before settling in for the night at the National Park campground. We were determined to wait for the mountain to reveal itself and the forecast was promising. There was plenty of snow on the mountains, the ground was frozen and it was definitely windy - maybe sufficient to blow the clouds away? While we thought we heard thunder during the night, it turned out to be the rumble of avalanches in the ridge behind the car-park.

The following morning it was freezing but, with beautiful clear skies, we headed off on the Hooker Valley Track to Hooker Lake and views of the mountain range including Mount Cook. The four hour hike took us past Lake Mueller having to negotiate long icy stretches in a shadowy valley that hadn't yet warmed up. Snow is fine, but I am never a happy bunny on ice... Bambi looked more graceful. A great hike and Mount Cook really did reveal itself.

In Tekapo, I tried fishing for salmon - unsuccessfully and over the following few days we fished the Tekapo Canal and discovered a great camping spot at Lake Alexandrina. Having watched anglers land enormous salmon, all escapees me thinks from the salmon farms in the high country, one finally took pity on me and gave me a lesson. Happily, I caught a fish - one tiddler.

In Lake Tekapo - a Dark Sky Sanctuary - we did a bit of late-night stargazing on big scopes. The night sky was amazing, and we got to see Saturn with its rings and Jupiter with four of its moons, but we thought we were headed for Mount John Observatory on the hill over Lake Tekapo - not a dug out in a farmer's field. And boy was it cold!!

It was in the cold mountains that we ran out of gas. Now we normally cook outside on our Coleman unleaded burner, but the inside stove is vitally important in winter for our morning cup of tea, saving us from having to get dressed or face the cold. The only place locally that could refill a 4kg bottle was in Kurow, downstream from Lake Aviemore and within the Waitaki wine region. So, a short 136km detour for gas, a quick tasting session and we decided to head to Oamaru. Our guide book (Rachel's really) promised penguins and we certainly have not seen enough of these on this trip (according to Rachel you can never see enough penguins and there always seem to be a species we have not come across before despite extensive penguin spotting in Chile, Argentina, Antarctica and the Falklands). As we were not too far away, we decided to see a bit of the East coast early.

Apart from having a few penguins, Oamaru, the town, has a lot of great looking Colonial and Art Deco buildings and the brilliant Steampunk HQ. It also has a hospital - more on that later. The sea-front is mostly old industrial and not particularly pretty. The town sort of sits with its back to the sea.

Arriving in the afternoon, we went to a hide on the cliff top. Over an hour or so we spotted five penguins from a long distance. We were told that there were about 12 Yellow-Eyed Pengiuns (Hoiho) nesting on this beach (6 pairs), so not very many. The species, endemic to New Zealand, is endangered and has experienced a significant decline over the last 20 years. Rising ocean temperatures and an infectious outbreak in the mid 2000s have played a large role in the drop, so we were pretty happy with what we'd seen. In addition, we had the bonus of seeing a beautiful Golden Pheasant by the cliff path - probably an escapee from the local aviary.

Back in town, we settled at a campground on the edge of the botanic gardens.

In the morning, I made good use of the local hospital. I was sitting in the van when I suddenly felt nauseous and an excruciating pain in the right side. After two or three staggers to the bathroom and not managing to vomit, Nurse Rachel persuaded me that the hospital was in my future - luckily a two-minute drive away. The hospital staff were brilliant, putting up with me in a state of agitation, feeling like my body was in full distress. It was super weird and turned out to be a kidney stone on the move; moving to the bladder. Six hours and some great painkillers later, I was discharged. I am not looking forward to the day it decides to start travelling again. The stone, which measured 6.7mm on the X-ray (7mm is operable), is in reality a spiked golf ball.

As we rounded back to Wanaka, we visited the strange Moeraki Boulders, which we had last seen 1994 - they were definitely worth the revisit.


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