The world is quiet. Too quiet. The hum of bees and insects, so common in parks and gardens, is absent. Instead, a pressing silence fills my eardrums and snakes its way around my body, challenging me to take a crunching step and break it. I scarcely remember to breathe.
An alpine meadow stretches to the base of sharply rising mountains, blanketed by scrub and silt. Wild purple flowers dance in the gentle breeze, which seems deafening when it picks up across the void of sound.
To my left, a river of volcanic soil streams down the mountainside, the result of many a landslide. Just ahead, the daunting ice-capped peaks of Mueller Glacier and Mount Cook rise formidably into the striking blue sky.
This is Mount Cook (Aoraki) National Park, and despite its appeal to climbers, hikers, and curious visitors who have tramped here from one of the nearest towns miles away, I am utterly and completely alone. The park seems to have swallowed up its guests, but despite the steely eye of Mount Cook’s icy peak, I don’t feel afraid. The environment in which I have found myself, about 30 minutes into my afternoon hike, is so pristine, so peaceful, and so reminiscent of the opening scene of The Sound of Music, I find myself grinning.
Stepping as lightly as I can along the dirt walkways, gravel paths, and even low wooden walking bridges erected across the spongy valley floor, the noise of my walking is the only sound to be heard. Now and then a small bird twitters in the bushes, startling me. And if I do cross another hiker on the track, I can hear him or her coming from far off.
I had decided to take one of the shorter routes for the afternoon, since I arrived via bus from Christchurch too late in the day to take the 6-8 hour treks. This one is called Kea Point, a route that takes you to a lookout point on the cliffs at the base of the glacier, and takes about 3-4 hours full circuit.
Bearing in mind my camera battery and my tendency to take too many of the same picture, I restrain myself from photographing everything in sight. The walk is fairly easy at first: flat terrain and well-worn paths lead me through trees, meadows, and bushes, thrusting me out into the panoramic alpine vistas now and then. Eventually, however, the terrain roughens. Giant rocks and loose gravel obstruct the manicured paths, and I pick my way across dried-up riverbeds.
I pass a group of elderly British visitors, some brandishing walking canes hopelessly at the rocks, though they all cheerfully wish me a happy hike and assure me the destination is well worth it. A little ways down the route, I can’t understand how they ever reached the destination in their shape. Even I, a human mountain goat, who can clamor up boulders and shimmy down loose mountainside, had trouble. I start to think that maybe they were mistaken about the lookout point; perhaps they stopped too soon and, pleased with the view (because there is hardly a bad one so far), turned right around.
I walk on, guided by the slowly thinning path and the majestic glacier looming slowly closer straight ahead. Somehow, the glacier doesn’t seem frightening. Mount Cook, which has claimed the lives of over 200 people trying to ascend its slopes, juts into the sky like it owns the place, and dares you to come closer. But Mueller Glacier is mild, and almost friendly. I ponder its ancient history and the geographic journey it has taken, wondering where it started out millions of years ago.
Eventually the trees, meadow, and flowers disappear, giving way to blackened soil, craggy rocks, and rising, uneven ground. I wonder about the prevalence of volcanic activity here, and as I cross a narrow cliffside trail with boulders littering the gulley below, realize that I really hope an earthquake doesn’t hit.
I’ve been walking for nearly two hours when I see people gathered in the distance, just up the hill from where I’m climbing and breathing hard. They look minuscule, like vertical two-legged ants, against the backdrop of an impressive family of peaks dominating the view. I have reached Kea Point, the furthest one can go forward on this land.
When I reach the lookout point, my breath catches in my throat as I look down and see an ancient riverbed, now populated by sinkholes, quicksand, and mud pools. There is no life down there – no animals, no birds, no vegetation or color. Just slick, gray matter that is somehow terrifying without doing anything. Mueller Glacier is so close I feel like I can reach out and touch it; mountains are funny that way.
I admire the view, then turn left and pick my way up along the cliffside to get some privacy. There is no path here, only scrub and rocks and a spongy dry moss that squelches beneath my shoes. I find a decent boulder on which to perch my camera, set up auto-timer, and pose for a few self portraits with the glacier.
As I stand to leave, one step to my right brings me to a standstill: inches away, the land ends drastically in an almost sheer vertical drop. Peering over the jagged cliffside, I mutter aloud at how far down the sludgy gray matter lies. And with the fear of an earthquake back in my mind, I quickly march back to safety and down to the lookout point again.
The sun dips behind the mountainside as I return the way I came, but I remember that summer in this part of the world yields long days with plenty of daylight. Back through the rocks and volcanic soil, out into meadows and flowers again, I admire the sweeping valley and mull over how to write this post.
Back in my lodge room an hour later, I step outside onto the balcony and look at where I just hiked. Mount Cook is hiding behind Mount Wakefield, almost as if it is trying to escape the sun’s last rays and go to sleep.
But I swear Mueller Glacier winked at me.