Hooked on Hooker Valley Track

Indisputably the best walk on the South Island,” says Scott Cook about Hooker Valley Track in his guidebook NZ Frenzy.

There’s even higher praise—many references cite New Zealand’s Hooker Valley as the best day track in the entire country.

After hiking it in late April, NZ’s autumn, Magellan and I gave it five stars.

But a question kept popping into my wayward mind while hiking: where did the name Hooker come from? I forgot about it until researching for this post. Now I’m even more stoked about this track.

First, let’s talk about the hike.

Hooker Valley Track (a Track is what New Zealanders call a hike) is easy and stunning. It’s only a 90 metre elevation gain over five kilometres to Hooker Lake with its bobbing icebergs, the snout of Hooker Glacier and close-up views of Aoraki/Mount Cook, NZ’s tallest mountain—where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his Mt. Everest climb. You wander beneath jaw-dropping views of the Southern Alps, alongside Mueller Lake, over three swinging bridges and on boardwalks planking bogs of tussock.

Magellan and I hiked it in the afternoon after climbing Sealy Tarns Steps. “Are you going to be warm enough?” I asked, looking at the thin T-shirt and bathing trunks he was wearing as I packed a long-sleeved woollen top into my backpack. “Should I take a scarf?” he asked, his standard joke-poke at my wearing of neck warmers in all seasons. You’ll notice from our photos that he’s wearing his biff. And for the record, we walked faster than the setting sun on our return because he was cold without a proper top. To be fair, we were late leaving Hooker Valley because we’d spent so much time photographing close-ups of the Rorschach icebergs.

Now, to shed some light on my question: who was Hooker, the name attached to the Track, Valley, Glacier, River and Lake?

Sir Joseph Hooker became the most highly honoured botanist in history. He was also a physician, naturalist, artist, geographer and explorer who, it has been written, was the first European to climb to over 19,000 feet (5,800 metres), which he accomplished when in the Himalayas. He explored all the world’s continents and wrote and often illustrated a vast number of papers and books. He was the pioneer and leading exponent in his day of the science of plant geography.

He was also the director of The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, for twenty years, succeeding his father.

And he was Charles Darwin’s closest friend and confidant, having found evidence in Himalayan botany and geology to support Darwin’s theory On the Origin of Species! Darwin’s surviving letters to Hooker, when typed out, number more than 800 pages.

As a boy, Hooker was infatuated with two things (1) plant distribution and (2) the voyages of Captain James Cook. At the age of thirteen at Glasgow High School, he was described as a “zealous botanist.” Here’s how Hooker described himself as a child

I remember on one occasion, chat, after returning home, I built up by a heap of stones a representation of one of the mountains I had ascended, and stuck upon it specimens of the mosses I had collected on it, at heights relative to those at which I had gathered them. This was the dawn of my love for geographical botany.

After earning a medical degree from Glasgow University, he signed on as assistant-surgeon on the HMS Erebus, an Antarctic expedition led by Captain Ross in 1839-41. Hooker only spent a few days in NZ but he identified numerous native plants, mosses, lichen and algae. After his return, he identified more specimens from New Zealand that were in the British Museum that had been collected on the voyages of Captain James Cook and on the Beagle. He published the first comprehensive and illustrated account of New Zealand flora, The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage—Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1852-55), which he updated a decade later with his two-volume Handbook of New Zealand Flora.

(I’m reminded of these lines from a book of poetry by Charles Wright.)

Whatever untwisted your heart
is what you’ll leave behind

What a serendipitous/systematic world we travel. I started this post with no intention of Mr. Hooker taking it over. Now I’m giving him the last say—for although we have no photos of flora from this hike, these ferns he identified must be somewhere in Hooker Valley. And isn’t that cravat he’s wearing the nineteenth-century equivalent of Magellan’s biff?

Navigation

Cook, Scott. NZ Frenzy New Zealand South Island. 2013. Hooker Valley Track leading to Aoraki/Mount Cook  is on the cover of this highly recommended (by us) book, available online in pdf form or hard copy.

Here is the NZ’s government info on Hooker Valley Track.

And here’s where I found excellent info on Sir Joseph Hooker.

White Horse Hill Campground is the perfect location to stay for hiking Hooker Valley Track and Sealy Tarns Steps.

 

9 replies
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Professional photographers were at work when we left. Camping overnight isn’t allowed but the DoC site says to arrive at dawn for the best photos.

      Reply
  1. Barry MacLeod
    Barry MacLeod says:

    Superb beauty and photography of same.
    Your story is like a breath of fresh air and the beauty seems to soak into my ageing bones, makes you want to breathe in deeply, multiple times, a sure cure for the start of the white season here in Saskatchewan, I Thank You.

    Very amazing how the temperatures can change in the mountains, anyone travelling in any season is well warned to pack extra clothing, as they say, you can always take it off, but not if it is not with you. Layering in spades.
    Cheers to all,

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      TY. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about some hike in NZ; you cherish the effect of its beauty long after your time there has come and gone.

      Reply

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