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Mackenzie Country: Top 10 Things to Do

The milky turquoise blue glacial waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, fringed by the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps and wild lupins in various shades of lavender, pink and white, had made a lasting impression on me the first time I laid eyes on them in December 2019. I found the need to share the stunning, rugged beauty of Mackenzie Country with my sis' family.



Plenty of newly built vacation homes now dot Tekapo. The town has amenities which cater to travellers, and there is no lack of interesting places to visit and activities to partake in, making it an excellent base for exploring the area.


We spent 4 full days exploring MacKenzie Country, and our Top 10 List for it would be as follows:-


No. 1: Hooker Valley Track, Mount Cook National Park



With all stores and restaurants shut on Christmas Day, we packed ourselves a picnic lunch and set off to Hooker Valley Track for our 10km hike at Mount Cook National Park. Everyone else must have shared the same idea because the carpark was full, there was a long queue for the toilet facilities near the carpark, and the track was thronging with people.


The track was 5km one way, and the sign said the return journey would take 3 hrs. We took our time to enjoy the scenery around us, cross the 3 swing bridges, have a picnic by Hooker Lake, take plenty of pictures, and spent a total of 5 hrs at Hooker Valley.



The most memorable part of the hike for me was being rewarded with the sight of floating icebergs in Hooker Lake, fishing out chunks of ice, and having our lunch of homemade sandwiches, crisps, and fruit on the rocky shores of the icy cold glacier lake.



Hooker Valley Track was mostly flat and easy, with only a few steps near the first swing bridge and a gentle slope leading down to Hooker Lake. The youngest in our group was 7 yrs old, and she had no difficulty completing the hike. We saw many families with children who were much younger than ours bouncing along and enjoying their walk too.


There was a self-composting toilet at the 3.5km mark, but my advice is to use the one near the carpark, and avoid this one unless you absolutely have to go. Even my mom, who insists on using every single public toilet we come across, couldn't bring herself to use this one.


No. 2: Lake Pukaki


State Highway 80 leading to and from Aoraki (Mount Cook) must be one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand. It runs alongside the glacier-fed Lake Pukaki and the Tasman River, as you drive towards the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps.


After completing Hooker Valley Track, we stopped at several lookout points for Lake Pukaki, one of the most popular of which is Peter's Lookout. The lookout point is well-signposted and a short distance away from NZ Alpine Lavender, touted as the largest organic lavender farm in the Southern Hemisphere. We didn't visit the farm as it was closed for Christmas.



By far, our favourite lookout point for Lake Pukaki is the one at Hayman Road, off State Highway 8. From the carpark, we found a well-trodden path leading to the rocky shores of the lake. The water was too cold for a swim, but some of us couldn't resist dipping our feet in it.



On a clear summer day, Lake Pukaki is a dazzling aqua blue. On a cloudy day, it takes on a darker hue. It is the largest of the 3 alpine lakes in the Mackenzie Basin, the other 2 being Lake Tekapo and Lake Ohau. I'd have to say Lake Pukaki is my favourite lake in New Zealand, and one of the most beautiful lakes I've ever visited in this world.



No. 3: Lake Tekapo


Following closely behind Lake Pukaki in terms of beauty is Lake Tekapo. Some may dispute this as Lake Tekapo is often listed as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, with no mention of Lake Pukaki.



The most iconic landmark of Lake Tekapo is the lakeside church of Church of Good Shepherd. Opened in 1935, it is the only church in Tekapo and continues to serve the local residents. We visited on Christmas Day and heard the choir sing.



The church is a short distance away from Lake Tekapo Footbridge and the Mackenzie Sheepdog Statue. The statue was commissioned by local farmers as a tribute to working collie dogs, without whose help the grazing of sheep would not be possible in the mountainous region of the Mackenzie Basin.



No. 4: Stargazing at Largest Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere


Tekapo is within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the largest reserve in the southern hemisphere. Such reserves possess exceptionally starry nights.


The Church of Good Shepherd is a very popular spot for stargazers, but we didn't make it there on any of the 4 nights we were in Tekapo. The summer sun didn't set till close to 2200 hrs during our stay and the sky only truly darkened quite a bit after that. By then, all of us were already in our pyjamas and reluctant to leave the house.



Thankfully, our house had a wooden deck right outside which was perfect for stargazing. Each night, we'd stand there and enjoy the quiet spectacle of billions of twinkling lights in the sky before turning in for the night.


No. 5: Field of Wild Lupins


Lupins bloom from as early as September to as late as February each year, but the best time to see them is from mid November to early January.



Driving south from Christchurch, we started noticing lupins by the side of the road as we neared Tekapo. After passing Burkes Pass on State Highway 8, and shortly before entering the town of Tekapo, an exceptionally large field of wild lupins caught our eye on the right side of the road, which made us all shriek in delight.


We backtracked and found a turnoff where others had also parked to wander around the field.



We did not come across a larger or more brilliantly coloured field of lupins during our stay, but do watch out for bees collecting nectar as my nephew was stung. Fortunately, the reaction wasn't too bad.


No. 6. Omarama Clay Cliffs


About 100km from Tekapo lie these natural rock formations known as the Omarama Clay Cliffs, which were created from layers of silt and gravel deposited by ancient rivers from as long as 20 million years ago.


The Clay Cliffs are located on private farm land, and there is a NZD5.00 admission fee per car. Payment is by an honour system, where cash is dropped into a small collection box standing beside the self-operated gate.


There is no mobile service in the area, and it is a good idea to pay close attention to the Emergency Assembly Area signs near the entrance so you know what to do in the event of an erosion, rockfall etc. We could see obvious signs of a previous landslide. After the horrifying landslide which happened at Genting recently, we were definitely more wary.


From the carpark, it took us around 15 mins to walk to the Clay Cliffs. Loose gravel at steeper portions made the walk somewhat slippery, but it was well worth the effort to get to the cliffs and see such a unique site.



Though it was quite a drive from our base at Tekapo, we found other activities along the way to break the journey. Aside from going skydiving with Skydive Mount Cook and visiting the town of Twizel, we stopped at High Country Salmon for some grub and to feed their salmon. We bought about a kg of salmon sashimi from their fish shop for our Christmas feast and boy was it fresh! Hubby learnt to slice sashimi from YouTube and did a great job with our slab of salmon too!



No. 7: Burkes Pass


The historic little village of Burkes Pass is a short 20min drive from Tekapo. It's a gem of a stop for heritage enthusiasts and lovers of vintage arts and crafts like me. If you're passing through Burkes Pass on the way to Lake Tekapo or Christchurch, be sure to stop by to stretch your legs.


We checked out the Musterer's Hut, which gave us an idea of the living conditions of shepherds in the Mackenzie Basin in the 19th century. Next to it lay the original limestone water trough which used to supply drinking water to bullocks and horses before they tackled the steep ascent over Burkes Pass in the 1800s.



We stopped at quaint lil' St Patrick's Church which was established in 1872. It is the oldest surviving union church in New Zealand.



I would have loved to venture further to pay a visit to the cemetery down the road, where half of those interred there had died from drinking, testament to the solitude, bitter cold and hardship suffered by musterers and others in the historic village in the olden days. However, the young ones in our group were getting bored and impatient, so we turned to go to Three Creeks Arts & Crafts Store to hunt for souvenirs instead.



No. 8: Lake Alexandrina


Lake Alexandrina is touted as a hidden gem and locals' secret. It was very quiet when we visited that morning, with no others around.



The lake may not be as impressive as Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, but it was certainly quite a sight to see the large colony of southern crested grebe at the edge of the lake sitting on their nests to hatch their eggs! I'd never seen anything quite like it before.



The drive to and from Lake Alexandrina also yielded sweeping views of Lake Tekapo from a high vantage point; views which could be enjoyed by both men and sheep.



To be honest, the views from up there were superior to that from the viewing platform at Mount John Observatory.



Driving to Mount John Observatory attracted a NZD8.00 per vehicle fee, as we had to travel on a private road and park at the Observatory.



It was possible to walk up to the Observatory and avoid the NZD8.00 fee, but the return trek required a minimum of 3 hours to complete! Hubby drove us to the Observatory and a few of us walked down the Tekapo Mount John Walkway instead. It was a cool day and we had a pleasant walk down, but the views on the way down were not exactly awe-inspiring. It took us around 45 mins (with photo stops) to reach the base, which was next to the Tekapo Springs Complex. I was glad we didn't have to do the 3-hr return trek and just did the downhill walk, which was the easier half of the walk.



No. 9: Tekapo Springs


On the day that we booked to go skydiving, my sis and her family spent the day at Tekapo Springs. There were hot and cool pools, an aqua play area, a giant inflatable obstacle course, and a 150m drop water slide to thrill the young'uns. The kids absolutely loved it, and didn't want to leave.



No. 10: Skydiving Mount Cook


As a birthday treat to my 2 girls, I booked us skydiving packages with Skydive Mount Cook. I shopped around for the best deal, and eventually booked through Backpackerdeals.com. Using their Xmas promo code, the price I paid for the double deluxe package for skydiving from 13,000 ft was NZD569.00 (i.e. NZD284.50 per person). Had I booked from Skydive Mount Cook directly, the same package would have cost NZD699.00. Hence, the savings amounted to NZD130.00.


Backpackerdeals.com sent me another promo code after I had booked for the girls, and I used that promo code for making a booking for myself. I paid NZD289.00 for myself this way, when Skydive Mount Cook was selling the same package for NZD379.00. It is sometimes possible to get really good deals by booking through Bookme.co.nz, but not in this case and they also didn't offer the 1000 hrs time slot which we wanted.



We arrived at Skydive Mount Cook's hangar at Pukaki-Twizel Airport half an hour before our scheduled time slot of 1000 hrs, but was told to return at 1300 hrs instead as it was too cloudy for the jump to proceed. It was during this wait that we visited Omarama Clay Cliffs and High Country Salmon above.


When we returned at 1300 hrs, our weights were measured and we were introduced to our tandem instructors who issued us our skydiving suits and put the necessary straps on us. We were also given instructions on how to jump out of the aircraft, the proper position to hold our body during the skydive, and how to hold our legs up when landing on our butts by parachute. It was all very exciting as the 3 of us were on our virgin skydive. We had also met and spoken to a couple who had just returned from their skydives, and they were so pumped that they wanted to pay for a second dive.



When the time came for us to climb into the aircraft, we were suddenly told to wait a while longer as it had become too cloudy once again. And wait we did.


Finally, the sky cleared a little for the pilot to signal to us to board straight away. The plane was very small, with just enough space for 7 passengers. The 3 of us basically had to sit on the laps on our tandem instructors, and the videographer we hired took the last spot on the aircraft.


The aircraft taxied along the runway and took off with the plane door still wide open. Beneath us, we could see the spectacular scenery of the Mackenzie Country as we flew higher and higher. After a while, the videographer slid the door shut and our instructors started tightening all our straps, to attach us to them. Our instructors put goggles and oxygen masks over our faces, and yelled out that we were about 3 mins away from our jump. By then, my heart was beating so hard, it was ready to jump out of my mouth.


Then the pilot shouted: "80 knots!" and our videographer moved to slide open the door. She looked below but all she could see were clouds. She shook her head and shut the door.


Minutes later, we landed safely in our little plane at the airport. I was gravely disappointed, yet secretly relieved at the same time. Had we been able to go through with the skydive, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind that the experience would have catapulted right to the top as the best thing we've ever done in New Zealand, and maybe even the world!


Skydive Mount Cook's tagline is "NZ's Most Spectacular Skydive", and from what we were able to see from the plane ride, the only thing would could have been better than skydiving from 13,000 ft was skydiving from 15,000 ft! Alas, for now, this will have to remain in my bucket list.

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