Christmas Eve came on a high-pressure front, bringing with it the best weather I've yet seen in New Zealand. By lunchtime there wasn't a cloud in the sky, making Mt Cook shine like a huge beacon, and the three of us popped into town, stocked up on genuine Christmas fayre (as the retail trade likes to call it) and packed our packs. No way were we going to spend the Festive Season in the campground, where the over-zealous wardens had earned the nicknames of Mr and Mrs Himmler; nope, we were planning to go bush for Santa's visit. The place: Ball Shelter, some 16km from Mount Cook village, up the huge Tasman Glacier. Ball Shelter sleeps about six, has very few amenities, and has stunning views of the Minarets, a pretty little multiple-peak mountain that's heavily covered in snow; it certainly sounded like a pretty good spot for Christmas.
However DOC, the beloved Department of Conservation, weren't quite so festive-spirited. The staff at the Mt Cook office were completely off-hand and told us that the walk up the Tasman Glacier to Ball Shelter was boring and that the views weren't any good, which was an interesting approach. In the event they were quite, quite wrong; it would turn out to be a fantastic spot for the festivities.
The trek to Ball Shelter is along 9km of rocky paths from the terminal ice-face of the Tasman Glacier, and it was a very pleasant jaunt as we followed a small valley, surrounded by steep, rocky slopes on both sides (where avalanches happen frequently in winter). We hadn't realised that this valley was running up the west side of the Tasman Glacier, so when the track finally went over the top of the little valley wall, suddenly there was the glacier laid out in front of us. Breathtaking isn't the word; the glacier is about 3km wide, carving out this huge valley through the mountains under a covering of evil-looking moraine. It's a lunar landscape, but one with watery potholes everywhere, gurgling and cracking as the whole mass slowly grinds down towards the terminal lake. The hut is precariously balanced on the side of the glacier, so that about 20 feet from the front door is a long, vertical, 150m drop into the depths of the glacier; it's some view.
So there we were, the three of us, in the middle of nowhere, with not a cloud in the sky as the sun slowly slipped behind the craggy peaks. After lighting a fire and doing as little as possible after the long haul, we started to cook; but this was not just any meal, this was our Christmas meal. The menu was as follows, all created on a camping stove in the middle of absolutely nowhere:
Asparagus spears in butter and black pepper
Pan-fried loins of lamb
Christmas pudding and fresh cream
With mince pies
Delegat's Cabernet Merlot 1995
Guinness Extra Stout
Speight's Distinction Ale
It was one of the best meals I've had on the road for some time – made all the tastier by the clean mountain air, no doubt – and the views made the front room at Mt Cook village's famous Hermitage Hotel look pretty tame. Clear skies and twinkling stars framed the pastel-coloured afterglow on the peaks as a full moon rose over the Minarets; it takes a lot to beat that sort of vista. It was the perfect place for Santa to fly across the sky in his sleigh...
Waking up on Christmas morning to total peace is quite a novelty. Looking down at the Tasman Glacier, still gurgling away, made a pleasant change from staring through the mists of my more usual festive hangover, and before long we had the kettle on the boil and Christmas breakfast ready to go, consisting of:
Pan-fried chipolatas with sweet chilli sauce
Haricot beans in tomato sauce
Real Ceylon tea
Laden down by packs and full stomachs, we sauntered back to the car park, had some lunch and drove back into the village to recover. We showered and went up to the Hermitage for a lazy afternoon staring at Mt Cook, Mt Sefton and the cloudless sky, and so ended an excellent and most unusual Christmas.