Wednesday 24 May 2017 News Updated at 11:05 AM IST
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Parked in nature - Deccan Herald
Parked in nature
Shruthi Srinath,
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Purity: A view of Hooker Valley that includes its swing bridge. Photo courtesy: Canterbury-Tourism, Big Sky Stargazing, David Wall & mtcookskiplanes.com
From darkness to light’ is a celestial story, of course. As for its illustration in real time, I begin to look at the expanse of the lit southern sky as I stand enveloped by the blackness of the dark-sky reserve in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island.

Far, far away from city lights, and undisturbed by light pollution, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark-Sky Reserve (recognised so in 2012) brings the brightest speckled sky just in front of the eyes.
Half a sphere of stars becomes the overhead cover and all that vision can hold.

The first settlers of New Zealand, the Maori, drew directions from reading these very starry maps. And preserving this purity of stellar light is to be respectful of them and their culture, so the island believes.

The reserve, one of the only 11 in the world, encompasses the villages of Twizel, Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook, as well as the Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park, my host for the next three days, thanks to the hospitality of Tourism New Zealand.

Also within the national park is the Hermitage Hotel, where the Digital Dome Planetarium show informs that the southern night sky shines differently from the northern night sky. So to connect the dots, I reach the stargazing site, the Hillary Deck, after a 10-minute bus ride from the hotel.


As the night grows...

The practical lessons in astronomy come from the expert guides on site, who have suggested to the stargazers to wear layers and exercise their imagination. Through laser beams they begin to point out the who’s who of Milky Way and beyond. But as a Northern Hemisphere rep, and for whom just the visibility of a billion stars has become a treat enough, I wonder if I should tune in.

Of course, yes, because that’s when I would see the four bright stars belonging to the Crux constellation as the Southern Cross, used as a guide to locate the celestial South Pole, much like the way Polaris or the North Star directs one towards the celestial North Pole. And also watch two smudged patches called Magellanic Clouds, the dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way that are visible only from the Southern Hemisphere.

As I trace a scorpion in the sky, I get a sting from the cold of the alpine night. "Try a few jumping jacks,” jokes one of the guides, who estimates the temperature to be between 5 and 10 degrees celsius. (Can I exercise my imagination now?) One last glance through the telescope, the guide says, for the sky has brought up a surprise. It’s orange, it’s ringed, it’s Saturn.

Closer to the horizon, moonlight illuminates one snowy slope of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest peak in the Southern Alps at an elevation of 3,724 metres, a reminder that grand geographical features decorate South Island everywhere.

The recall of Aoraki (Cloud piercer in Maori language)/Mount Cook never fails to include the fact that it was a training ground for the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. The tall man, and lover of tea, scaled this peak not once but twice before he set out to successfully scale Mount Everest.

The Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre pays tribute to this great explorer through showcasing some iconic photographs featuring his feats, and also the history of Mount Cook. Outside, a smiling statue of the man stares at the Southern Alps.

To experience the best of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and its dramatic features, the sun must send blessings. On this April morning, the blessings are bright. In the sunlight and from a distance, the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake - born in 1973 as a puddle when the Tasman Glacier (the biggest in New Zealand) began to retreat - appears as a dirty cement-coloured waterbody over which some icebergs float. But to understand its specifics is to sit in a pontoon boat helmed by a guide, and listen to the stories of slow transformation of the natural forces.

As the boat begins its journey on the lake, it cuts through the fresh surface ice that’s from the previous night. It’s perfectly safe to eat, the guide assures. So I pick up an icicle and add my own flavour called enthusiasm while savouring it.

Soon, the guide makes a quick sideway bend and fishes up a huge ice crystal. Passing it around, he says that ice crystals in millions are the building blocks of glaciers and help them move as a single unit. The crystals are so dense that a chunk in the glass containing Old Monk whiskey would last you for seven hours.

Icebergs of all sizes and shapes are another feature of the lake. Upon closer look, one iceberg particularly gives off the colour steel blue. The answer to it is the absorption of all colours of the light spectrum by the ice except blue. When the iceberg is exposed to sunlight, its crystals turn white over time.

Some icebergs looked nothing less than ice sculptures - one of crocodile, for sure - on a floating grey carpet.

The milky-grey colour of the terminal lake is due to the high concentration of glacial rock flour, which is created when the glacier moves through the valley and crushes the Sandstone, Greywacke and Schist rocks abundant in the national park. Naturally, this water does not support any life form. However, as its water joins the fresh water of Lake Pukaki, the heavy rock flour particles head to the bottom.

And, speeding in the boat one last time on the lake - which is utmost thrilling and bumpy, and washes the face with chill air, I get off the boat, to head to the next national park attraction.

The morning proceeds into a warm late afternoon as I board a ski plane at one of the smallest airports in the world, the Mount Cook Airport. The lanky pilot, Ross (Anderson), who has been taking to the skies for 30 years now, flies over glacial streams, valleys and snow-capped peaks, before landing on snow, from where the Southern Alps shimmer all around.

Snowballs clash in the air and land on people’s faces in a mock fight that I’m part of, while Ross keeps himself cosy by puffing a slim cigarette, knowing the visitors’ drill all too well, perhaps.
The number of ways to explore this national park seem endless. But for the day, this is the last one.


Bumpy ride, smooth walk

A bumpy ride on a Monday morning is perfectly acceptable if the ride is along a narrow pathway through the Tasman Valley, on a canary-yellow 8-wheel ATV (All Terrain Vehicle), with a good ol’ gentleman like Graham (Macdonald), who lets me ride it for some distance. A short climb up the valley leads to a vantage point from where the whole of glacial lake sits still, with years of history underneath its surface.

On the way down the valley, the absence of any vegetation except for a few hardy shrubs - like the native shrub Matagouri aka 'wild Irishman’ or 'standing face-slasher’, whose thorns were once used as tattoo needles by Maori people - is stark. The extremity in weather conditions has shaped this landscape thus.

Back in the lower altitude, and after gulping down a sizable portion of lunch, I begin the walk through Hooker Valley.

The one-hour walk is along a flat pathway that has tussocks on either side. Here and there, the Mount Cook buttercup, a wildflower, bobs and sways to breeze’s tunes.

On this way, I visit the Alpine Memorial, a tower made of stones from the region, dedicated to the lives lost there. As the last stop of this walk, the viewpoint of Mueller Glacier and the first swing bridge bring about a scenic curtain call to my stay at the national park. Indeed, New Zealand is best enjoyed outdoors.


Fact File


Getting there

Canterbury Trails offer a
personalised scenic drive from Christchurch Airport to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
www.canterburytrails.co.nz/


Accommodation

The Hermitage Hotel
www.hermitage.co.nz


Where to eat
  • The Alpine Restaurant
  • The Panorama Room
  • Chamois Bar & Grill
(All within the national park)


Activities

Big Sky Star Gazing
www.hermitage.co.nz

Glacier Explorers
www.glacierexplorers.com

Glacier Highlights Tour
www.mtcookskiplanes.com

Hooker Valley Track Tramping
www.mackenzienz.com/tours

Museum visit at The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
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