Recently we decided to drop plans for a one-off, whirlwind tour of South Island in favour of multiple, shorter hops across the Cook Strait. I’ve been so remiss with the blog lately that I’ve already got a backlog of several such trips to catch up on! I’m going to strike while this particular iron is hot, though, and share our most recent trip: exploring the Mackenzie District in all its sweeping mountainous glory. Read on for some ideas for things to do in Mount Cook and Tekapo.
Things to do in Mount Cook and Tekapo, New Zealand
1. A helihike on the Tasman Glacier
The Helicopter Ride
We did the Tasman Glacier Helihike with The Helicopter Line. This was my first helicopter ride and it was brilliant! I was a little apprehensive beforehand but it was nowhere near as loud or bumpy as I expected. We were in the air before I’d realised we’d even taken off, it was that smooth! I was lucky enough to be assigned to the front seat. I highly recommend it for getting the full panorama as you approach the Tasman Lake and the glacier itself (see above).
Hiking on a glacier
I’m determined to write a whole post about this hike, since it felt like one of those out-of-this-world, bucket list experiences. (The perfect counterpoint to walking on a volcano when we visited White Island. Fire and ice: New Zealand has it all!)
For now I’ll just say that getting to witness the vast expanse of the Tasman Glacier up close had me completely enchanted. I couldn’t get enough of the vivid pockets of blue deep in the ice, the sounds of streams whirling into the glacier and dramatic features like crevasses and moulins.
2. Sit back and drink in the views
Highway 80 to Mount Cook Village
Driving this road was a surreal experience for me simply because I’d seen it depicted so many times (and so beautifully!) on Instagram and on other blogs.
It didn’t disappoint.
The snow-streaked mountain scenery in this area is just perfection. And our trips were in the height of summer! It must be insanely beautiful in winter.
Besides the glacial lakes up near Mount Cook itself, the two major lakes in the Mackenzie District are Tekapo and Pukaki.
Of the two, I much prefer Lake Pukaki!
It’s eye-wateringly blue and sits in front of Mount Cook itself, which means you can enjoy having them in your sights simultaneously, either down by the lakeside or meandering up Highway 80, above.
Lake Tekapo is home to the Church of the Good Shepherd, a diminutive building that gets overrun with tourists during the day as tour buses pass through. It does make a superb foreground for shots of the Milky Way, however! Speaking of the Milky Way…
3. Stargazing in the Southern Hemisphere’s only International Dark Sky Reserve
You don’t need daylight to admire natural beauty in the Mackenzie District.
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Light pollution is restricted, producing excellent stargazing conditions. We took the Earth + Sky Mt John Observatory Tour and were thoroughly impressed by every aspect of the experience.
You can see so much more than I’d previously realised with the naked eye alone! (The Magellanic Clouds, two faraway galaxies, were my favourite. They both feature in the centre-right in the bottom image above). Even more through simple binoculars, and of course an enormous amount through the observatory’s telescopes: the Orion Nebula, Tarantula Nebula and the Jewel Box cluster to name a few.
One of the coolest things? They also have an astrophotographer on site to whom you can give your dSLR. It’s then returned about 20 minutes later with epic photos like the ones above!
4. Visit an organic lavender farm
Lavender? In New Zealand?
I was a little surprised too. I had no idea the Southern Hemisphere’s largest organic lavender farm was just off Highway 80 until we drove by and saw it from the car! Even as the largest on this side of the world, it’s not terribly big. But it’s still a fun place to stop off and roam the lavender rows among the bees, or indulge in lavender ice cream or shortbread. With free entry (there’s a donation box in front of the field) it’s well worth giving it a look.
5. Wander through breathtaking alpine scenery
Hooker Valley Track
The Hooker Valley Track winds alongside the glacial Hooker River towards its source at Hooker Lake, much of the time in the shadow of the ever-majestic Mount Cook.
It’s a 3 hour round trip even with all the obligatory photo stops. Plus, though it’s a very flat route, 3 hours feels longer in the heat! Be sure to bring plenty of water and extra sunscreen. We also wished we’d brought a packed lunch – we saw several people having small picnics at Hooker Lake and, with hindsight, that would’ve been a great way to celebrate the half way point!
Tasman Glacier View
In return for a relatively-short uphill walk to a lookout on the moraine wall, you’ll be rewarded with impressive views of the Tasman Glacier Lake and the terminal face of the glacier itself. I’m also partial to the view in the other direction, looking back down the Tasman Valley.
Tasman Glacier Lake
Branching off the above is a path down to the Tasman Glacier Lake itself. The surrounding views of the valley continue to stun here, but getting to see icebergs bobbing in the eau de Nil-coloured glacial lake is something truly special.
Over to you
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Is there anywhere around Mount Cook and Tekapo that you’ve especially enjoyed, or would like to visit?
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