Kayaking, Icebergs & Scotch At Mt Cook

3 February 2015

At the end of the rubbly track, which climbs hillocks and crosses minor ridgelines in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest mountains, is something remarkably new. “25 years ago, this wasn’t here,” says guide Charlie Hobbs.

We’re staring out at the eerie, milky blue waters of Tasman Lake. A quarter of a century ago, the area the lake covers was all snow and ice. But the Tasman Glacier has retreated five to six kilometres in that time, leaving a huge gap for the snowmelt to run into.

In the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary trained here as preparation for his expedition across Antarctica to the South Pole. Hillary brushed up on his dog-sledding and skiing skills, but now the best way to explore is in a kayak.

 Afloat on Tasman Lake (Credit: David Whitley)

The minerals washed down the mountainsides give the lake its fairy dust-esque, powdery look. And while the water is far too cold for anyone sane to swim in, it is too warm for the lake’s most spectacular inhabitants. At around three degrees Celsius, it means the icebergs floating towards the shore are slowly melting.

The icebergs are breaking off the glacier’s ice wall, which is 100 metres high above the waterline, with another 300 metres below. “And that’s why we don’t go there,” says Charlie as he prepares the sea kayaks for our expedition.

“It’s very dangerous. Some of those icebergs can be 50 metres above the surface and more than that below. If it topples on you, you’re in a lot of trouble.”

Luckily, the prevailing winds make sure the bergs drift down to the less perilous end of the lake. And by the time they get down there, they’re perfect for paddling around.

The kayaks are properly kitted out, with outriggers on either side and fully waterproofed ‘skirts’ to stop the inhabitants’ legs from getting unwelcome dousings in icy water.

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Remember What Happened To The Titanic

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Layering up, however, is surprisingly unnecessary – when the sun comes out around Mt Cook, it does so properly. Sunburn is a greater danger than frostbite.

The bright blue skies make for a spectacular setting, with the mountains rising steeply out of the water. Most prominent of all are two of the three peaks belonging to Mt Cook which, at 3,754 metres, is the tallest in New Zealand.

Charlie advises us to keep a respectful distance from the icebergs. “Remember the Titanic?” he says. “Well that was made of tonnes and tonnes of steel. It crashed into one and broke into pieces. Your kayak is a bit of plastic and a lot more fragile, so don’t crash into them, hey?”

 A memorial to the great Sir Edmund Hillary (Credit: David Whitley)

Glaciers don't stand still. Franz Josef – Glacier On Speed

Try kayaking in the dark. Waimarino Glow – A Worm Kayaking Experience


He doesn’t exactly follow his own instructions, mind. After paddling to the far side of the lake, he eyes up a relative tiddler of a berg and charges at it. One section is low enough for him to effectively mount the kayak on, as if he would while parking it on a beach.

He doesn’t want to stay there, though. He merely wants to change the berg’s centre of gravity, and cause it to slowly topple.

The mission is a success, as Charlie paddles backwards to get out of the way, the big frozen block lumbers into action. The frosted white ice tips and dunks into the water.

Emerging from the other side, however, is glossy, crystal clear ice that has an odd blue tinge to it. The bits below the water, it seems, are even more mesmerising than the sections above.

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Scotch On The Berg

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Once Charlie has identified a berg that looks relatively stable, he allows us to sidle up alongside it. It’s small compared to the massive blocks that break free from the ice wall, but still has the required dwarfing effect.

Up close, it’s possible to see that stones and rocks have been caught up in the ice while on the glacier.

 Floating hazards (Credit: David Whitley)

Some may have been there for longer than others. “Some of the ice that breaks off the glacier is a thousand years old,” says Charlie. “And then it disappears into the lake in just a couple of weeks.”

Charlie reaches in his pocket for a pick axe and starts hacking part of the berg off. “That’ll come in handy later,” he says as he throws the big chunk of ice into the bucket at the back of his kayak.

The wind picks up a bit for the return journey. What was a blissful glide across one way turns into a proper workout, body and arm working in sync to keep going in the right direction.

Our reward once we reach the safety of the bank is the bottle of whisky Charlie has had stashed away in his pocket. He hands out plastic cups, then delves into the bucket for ice he hacked off earlier. “Why have scotch on the rocks, when you can have scotch on the berg, hey?”

David Whitley

David Whitley has bizarre levels of love for novelty transport, wildlife spotting, weirdly niche museums and hanging out in deserts. He writes for numerous publications in Australia, the UK, the US, New Zealand, the UAE and Canada in between rounds of mini golf.