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June 2011 Issue
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A civilised sense of exposure

Red Tarns, Mt Sebastopol. Photo:
The marked track begins across the footbridge at Black Birch Stream in the southern part of the village.
Mt Cook National Parkmap
Red Tarns, Mt Sebastopol

When visiting Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park it can be difficult, for those of moderate fitness, to gain altitude and experience a different appreciation of the majesty of the park environs. Most would choose a scenic flight, or if time and ability allows, some will embark on a multi-day mission into the interior where there are incredible views, albeit with daunting challenges.

Yet one of the best and relatively easily accessed viewpoints in the Mt Cook Village area is the short, sharp climb to Red Tarns set on a bench beneath Mt Sebastopol just over one kilometre south of the Hermitage.

The track zigzags up the face of the hill climbing for 500m to the spectacularly set plateau where several small tarns reside amid tussock and scree, but most likely snow during winter. On the ascent there is plenty to hold your attention, not the least of which is the often rough terrain underfoot and the widening chasm of Black Birch Stream which descends abruptly through gullies off the Sealy Range high above and to the west. This ragged gully is recognised as a major hazard for the village in times of heavy rain and snow when flash floods can occur.

The onward track passes through the subalpine scrub region and then begins a winding ascent on a small rib where small bluffs jut from the face of the hillside. These are never a problem for the well-constructed trail and soon the ascent lessens and the first of the tussock knolls surrounding the tarns are encountered.

I love this location, though so close to civilisation its proximity to the high peaks and exposure to the elements lend it a pervading and quite real sense of endeavour and achievement. The two tarns nearest the track entrance are my favourites, here a boardwalk marks a loop around the fragile soils surrounding the pools and from the southern side there is a wonderful panorama over the Hooker Valley and out towards the lower Tasman Valley with Mt Cook, as always, resplendent. If it is a still day and the pools are not frozen or snow-covered there is a good chance you will catch a reflection of the Alps, especially Mts Sefton and Cook, from differing angles.

If not? Then tarry a while and enjoy the rush of wind through the tussock, hunkered down in a sheltered hollow with perhaps a kea for company.