Tramping (Trekking) the Length of New Zealand (MAIN PAGE)

Section K: Arthurs Pass (Aickens) to Aoraki/Mt. Cook

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Section Summary: Section K heads west from Arthurs Pass via roads to the small West Coast town of Hokitika. From there, it goes 180 km south along the sole and isolated West Coast road, Highway 6, skirting the western side of the Southern Alps mountain range to meet the Copeland Track, which goes east to the crest of the Southern Alps in the vicinity of Aoraki/Mt. Cook. Experienced mountaineers can cross ice-covered Copeland Pass and thus cross the Alps to Mt. Cook, although the route has become more difficult in recent years (due to slips/landslides forcing a re-routing of the eastern approach). More modest trampers simply can't cross the Alps anywhere north of Haast Pass on Highway 6. Thus the route goes up to near Copeland Pass, to 1000 meters elevation and within 5-km straight-line distance from Hooker Lake on the east side of the Alps near Mt. cook, and then "jumps" over Copeland Pass to Hooker Lake. From Hooker Lake, it is about 7-km by the Hooker Track to Mt. Cook Village.

Route Note: South of Arthur's Pass, one has a choice of tramping either east or west of the Southern Alps, as following along the Alps themselves southward becomes the domain of the mountaineer. An east-side tramp requires going considerably east, as several large rivers draining the Southern Alps to the east can only be crossed on road bridges, the western-most of which are already getting close to the east coast of the island. A west-side tramp requires walking on the west-coast road, as once again river crossings cannot be made except on road bridges. The emerging Te Araroa pathway takes to the east-side but includes some sections that are still "unmarked routes" (no track and no markings; equivalent to the U.S. term "cross-country"), such as down the Harper River, crossing of the 5-km-wide ("braided" or multiple-channel) Rangitata River (at a location that is considered a safe crossing in normal weather, although even so some channels are hip-deep), and crossing the Two-Thumbs mountain range. This east-side way would be longer and require more effort than the west-side. Also, I have not walked an unmarked route on the trek to this point--everything has been either marked tracks or marked routes (*). (A "route" is not a formed track, but the path worn by many trampers creates a defacto track on many popular marked routes.) Even though I am confident that my navigation skills and equipment would allow me to navigate such unmarked routes without much difficulty, I decided categorically to exclude unmarked routes from the trek, for reasons of safety, logistical complication, physical effort required, and time required, partly considering the time and effort remaining to complete the South Island. Therefore, I decided on the west-side alternative.

(*) Note that parts of the Tararua mountains in Section H were unmarked routes, but the routes see so much traffic that they have essentially become easy-to-follow tracks.

Section Journal: Mt. Cook Village, New Zealand, March 1, 2004

Before heading into the heart of the Southern Alps on the spectacular Copeland Track, and coming out in Hooker Valley on the east side at Mt. Cook Village, Section K was almost entirely on paved road--Highway 6. But the road was relatively quiet, sometimes only one car every 5-10 minutes on my side (more traffic seemed to go north-to-south on the other side). And I was able to walk on a grassy or fine-gravel shoulder much of the time, which was easier on the feet (and well-cushioned running shoes also helped). So I played music continuously (which drowned out any traffic noise), enjoyed the easy striding, and didn't mind the road walking. The scenery was great--a high mountain range on the left, with a few snow-capped peaks here and there, a few glimpses of the ocean to the right, a few large lakes skirted for some distance, spectacular roaring rivers crossed on long one-lane bridges, and otherwise lush rainforest all around--a wild and isolated country despite the road and tourists.

Yes, the West Coast is full of tourists at this time of year, and otherwise empty at other times. Much of the accomodation and bus services were fully subscribed. The poor manager of the Whataroa Hotel where I stayed (a typical small and cozy hotel with a pub and shared bathrooms for all guests, running NZ$40/night=US$25, in the one-block-long road-side town of Whataroa) was running around all evening serving guests in the restaurant/pub and handling the accomodation. A few of the towns are busy and overrun with tourists coming via buses, cars, and camper-vans--in particular the towns of Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier--but these "towns" are only one block long. Outside of these few towns, the land is empty and wild, and the highway stretches for 150-200 km in either direction without meeting anything else besides a few other small towns. There are no cross roads that go anywhere other than a few kilometers to either side. A few farms and rural houses here and there. Its a 400-kilometer-long one-road corridor along the west side of the Southern Alps and then over Haast Pass into the interior. The population of the 300-km long "Westland" district, from Greymouth to Haas, is less than 8,000 people. Walking on the road, I felt the vastness and isolation of the land, and even the vehicle traffic didn't detract from that feeling most of the way. The vehicles were equally small in that landscape.

One day in particular, from Whataroa to Franz Josef Glacier, was a very pleasant day. As it turned out there were a thousand Australian cyclists headed my way on the road that day! A two-week cycle tour organized by an Australian group from Victoria included about 1100 cyclists, 90% of them Australian, riding 900 km around the South Island. They camped en-mass in football fields and other available locations. And by coincidence, they were heading north on Highway 6 the day I walked from Whataroa to Franz Josef. So starting in the morning until early afternoon, all 1100 cyclists passed me on the road. I decided to encourage them all, so gave a thumbs-up or clapped encouragement to just above every cyclist or group that went by, for about 4 hours. It was nice to share the road with them, and the continuous stream of cyclists kept the car traffic tame, slow, and far to the left. Bright orange signs placed every 4-km along the road urged caution with big exclaimation points. The logistics of the cycle event were also amazing to learn about and see: trucks carrying full-size shipping containers, other trucks carrying blocks of portable toilets and showers, a variety of support vehicles, medical vans, and radio-repeater/communications vans.

The road walking did have a few irritations. Three times, one car overtook another car going in my direction--at the exact place where I was in the road. So all of a sudden, right next to me in the right hand lane, a car would zoom past me, side-by-side with a car in the left lane, both doing 100+ km/h. Now that was upsetting! Good thing I was over the white line, on the shoulder a bit. The road was straight in these cases, and the passer could easily wait another 5 seconds until past me before starting to pass! No, passing must be done immediately!

The road walking was done with a light pack and running shoes, just like Section I. Highway 6 from Hokitika to Fox Glacier has towns with full services (including backpackers/hostels) spaced about every 25-30 km, so this type of walking worked out well. Each morning I would call ahead and reserve accomodation at the town I expected to reach that afternoon. Typical days were 30 km. The longest day, from Ross to Hari Hari, was 45 km. Only one day, leading to the town Franz Josef Glacier, was I not able to find accomodation by phone. But arriving in town late in the afternoon, and going to the reception desk of the Chateau Franz backpackers/hostel, and explaining I had just walked from Whataroa that day, from Hokitika the last four days, and Cape Reinga the last four months, I was told, "for that you deserve [our last reserve] bed!"

Once the west coast road walking was over, at the strat of the Copeland Track, I swapped gear from a lightweight "road rig" to a full tramping pack and boots and headed up the Copeland Track. After 8 hours hiking up the often rocky valley, Welcome Flat Hut was quite welcoming, with a resident warden, Tim Mulliner. Tim spent his time advising trampers, overseeing the hut, and maintaining the Copeland Track all up and down the Copeland Valley, both above and below Welcome Flat (and doing a great job of it--the tracks were in great shape). Welcome Flat Hut is popular because it has natural hot springs and pools nearby, so many tourists take the two days to hike up the valley and visit. The hut, with beds for about 30, was almost full the two nights I was there.

The next day I went from Welcome Flat Hut further up the Copeland Valley, past Douglas Rock Hut, to near Copeland Pass itself. I got up to 1000 meters elevation (the pass itself is at 2150 meters), and just about to where the track begins to climb very steeply to the pass, and becomes a poled route, with nice views north-east to Mt. Cook. This was the end-point of the west coast route, from where a 5-km "jump" across the pass would put me near Mt. Cook Village on the east side of the Southern Alps.

(All three days on the Copeland Track the weather was sunny or partly cloudy, but no rain. This was quite fortunate, as all over the country around this time, rain and flooding and storms were the topic of the hour as other parts of the country saw records broken and storm damages soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Ironically, here on the famously-rainy West Coast, it was pleasant!)

After heading back down the Copeland Track to the west coast road (30 km that does not count in my trek distance totals!), it was 400 km on the bus from the Copeland Track trailhead (carpark) around via Haast Pass and Wanaka to Mt. Cook Village. From there, I went up to Hooker Lake, at the bottom of Hooker Glacier (which flows from Mt. Cook), to start the trek southward from the other side of the Copeland Pass. Hooker Lake was the other side of the Copeland Pass "jump" for me because beyond the lake, the terrain becomes the domain of the moutaineer rather than the tramper, with steep rocky slopes to traverse and then climb, a helmet advised to protect against rockfalls, and some amount of rock climbing skill needed up the Hooker Glacier morraine wall and beyond.

Hooker Lake is only about 5-km straight-line distance from the high point I reached in the Copeland Valley, on the west side of Copeland Pass. But to cover that 5-km straight-line distance requires at least 10-km of walking/climbing, 1150 meters of climbing up and then climbing down the rocky terrain on the east, and skill with cramp-ons and ice-axe to negotiate a steep and dangerous ice/snow slope on the east side of Copeland Pass. I would really have loved to be able to come over the pass on foot, rather than "jump" over, but unfortunately I just don't have the skills or inclination to be a mountaineer.

From Hooker Lake it was 7-km south to Mt. Cook Village, with stunning views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps range on this fairly clear day. The track was full of people--I probably saw more than 50 people in the two hours coming down--and for good reason.

Walking down the track to Mt. Cook Village, I talked with Susanne from Germany and Kristel from Belgium. They wondered if Mt. Cook was the mountain pictured in the Paramount movie studios logo. They do look similar. I suggested the logo might be the Matterhorn and they laughed, thinking "why would an American movie studio use a Swiss mountain?" Well, Disneyland uses the Matterhorn! Apparently there is controversy and uncertainty over which mountain Paramount actually used, but one source says it is Ben Lomond Mountain in Utah, if you are reading this, Susanne and Kristel!

Section K ended at Mt. Cook Village. It will be another 60-km south to Twizel before I resume walking the general region and route of Te Araroa again.


1. Part of this journal was typed in the Old Mountaineers Cafe in Mt. Cook Village, dedicated by Sir Edmund Hillary. The internet terminal in the lounge has a stunning view of Mt. Cook through two glass double doors--probably the nicest view of any internet cafe I've used in New Zealand!

2. A further note about the postponement of the last third of Section J due to concerns about river crossings towards the end of the section. On Saturday, February 14, a severe storm hit New Zealand, the "deep low" I had read in the weather forecast four days earlier. Had I continued with the remaining 4-5 days of Section J, the storm would have caught me on the night of the third day, making my route impassable due to the river crossings towards the end. No telling how many days I would have had to wait for the rivers to come down. That storm gave Christchurch half a month's worth of rain in 24 hours and caused widespread flooding on the lower North Island and upper South Island, including washed-away highway bridges, broken rail lines, evacuated towns, threatened dam breaches, and cancellation of all cross-Cook-Strait ferry traffic. There was a story that 17 Trampers had to rescued by helicopter (not sure where) after caught by flooding rivers. The storm was called a "once-in-hundred-year" event around Wellington. So I'm glad I postponed that bit! Instead, I braved the road walking of Section K through the storm, although I was caught on the beach south of Hokitika in a brief lighting storm, which was scary (I took refuge in the dunes and the lighting came within 6 seconds of me). Bad weather persisted around much of New Zealand the following several days, through most of February, although strangely the weather was quite good, sunny even, on the usually-rainy West Coast for most of my road walk! February is normally the most settled month of the summer in terms of weather, but "this is June (winter) weather in February" the kiwis have been saying. "The wettest February in 50 years" said the newspapers. Somehow I made it through February without getting too wet.

3. All of my metric-meters to English-feet elevation conversions in previous sections are about 15% too low (the number of feet in each case should be 15% higher). I'll fix these soon. You would think that I would have time, in my head while walking, to come up with a correct conversion formula, but I came up with a formula when I first started the trek that was wrong, and just recently realized it.

Page updated March 9, 2004