Halfway between Christchurch and Mount Cook, I'm transfixed as my Air New Zealand turbo-prop soars above the South Island's astonishing assembly of peaks with summer-defying snowy summits, when a flight attendant unexpectedly deposits herself on the vacant seat next to me. "So," she says with a look of delight, "I hear you're doing a piss a bit Id?"
After an untold number of visits to New Zealand, having mastered the language, I realise that the "Id" to which the flight attendant is referring is the late Sir Edmund Hillary. He's a figure for whom New Zealanders possess a special abiding affection, if not love, and a ready familiarity. Everyone seems to refer to him by a diminution of his first name.
True, I am on a kind of homage to Hillary. It's vaguely an attempt to somehow erase, or at least correct, a painful and embarrassing memory. Years ago I conducted an ill-fated interview with Sir Edmund at his home in the Auckland suburb of Remuera.
Like so many journalists before and after me, while visiting New Zealand's biggest city I'd simply looked him up in the local White Pages, his address and phone number displayed for all to see, and requested an interview. He agreed, as he was generously inclined, but when I arrived my wallet somehow fell out of my pocket as I was leaving the taxi. The interview was conducted in the living room with Hillary's second wife, June, on the telephone in the kitchen to the taxi company, trying to locate the hapless Australian's wallet full of cash and cards. Both Sir Ed and Lady June were gracious, generous and good-humoured, and I was soon reacquainted with my wallet though my pride took much longer to be restored.
The major reason I'm en route to Aoraki/Mount Cook, as it's properly known, is that 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest by Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. It's also a little more than five years since the death of perhaps the greatest, and still the most famous, New Zealander, who died in 2008 aged 88.
Fortuitously, Hillary and Tenzing's achievement coincided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a dual fillip for a crumbling empire. In its day the feat was more or less the equivalent of the first man to walk on the moon. Yet to properly trace the story of the life of Sir Edmund Hillary, it's necessary not just to visit Nepal but New Zealand itself, specifically the Aoraki-Mount Cook region in the Southern Alps.
It's there that Hillary, as a young would-be adventurer, honed his skills as an alpinist before tackling the tallest peaks of the Himalayas. He first climbed the 3754-metre Mount Cook – Australasia's tallest peak – in 1947 with Harry Ayres. A year later he conquered the difficult and, until then, uncharted south ridge of the mountain, which like Everest itself has claimed a fearful share of lives since it was first climbed in 1894. Hillary – who began his working life less than glamorously as an apiarist – characterised his climbing of Mount Cook as the "fulfilment" of his "first great ambition".
I'm staying at The Hermitage, a modern sprawling lodge-style complex that's been subject to many incarnations and rebuilds since the late 19th century. Its present location is superb for a lodge, since of the 27 mountains in New Zealand above 3000 metres, 22 of them are right here in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
The Hermitage includes the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, a grand name for a small yet interesting museum display detailing the climber's life including his exploits in the Aoraki/Mount Cook region, where he climbed many mountains aside from Mount Cook itself. Visitors can also view a slightly dated but fascinating British-made documentary, Hillary on Everest, narrated by the actor Sir Ian McKellen, on the successful 1953 British expedition to the world's highest mountain.
Near the cinema is a shop where you can buy the full range of Hillary memorabilia, such as the numerous autobiographies and biographies based on his adventures and philanthropic endeavours in Nepal, and even special presentation videos of his well-attended state funeral. Outside, a slightly caricatured, though flatteringly slim bronze statue of Hillary, complete with rucksack, stares heroically in the direction of Mount Cook.
From my spacious "premium plus" tower room at The Hermitage I have a magnificent view of the mountain on the occasions it chooses to reveal itself behind the sheaths of cloud that entwine themselves around it like some kind of teasing veil dancer. No wonder the Maoris named the mountain "Aoraki", meaning "cloud piercer".
One morning, after a cold snap followed by a freakish midsummer snowfall the day before, I set out for a walk along the Hooker Valley Track in fine and sunny conditions, the glare from the year-round snow and ice on the mountains making sunglasses essential. This easy half-day "tramp", as the Kiwis refer to a hike, passes the ruins of the first Hermitage Hotel, which was destroyed by flood in 1913.
Beyond, the trail negotiates a network of swing bridges below which flow powerful rivers the colour of chocolate milkshake. My guide is Phurenje Sherpa, who came to New Zealand on a scholarship at the behest of friends of Hillary to study at Nelson in the South Island's north-west. Phurenje decided to settle in New Zealand, making his home among the mountains of the Southern Alps, and naming his son, now 7, "Edmund" in honour of his benefactor.
"Sir Edmund is like a second father to the Sherpas," says Phurenje, a reference to Hillary ranking second only to the Dalai Lama due not only to his conquering of Everest but also to the humanitarian work he performed for the Sherpas in Nepal in the decades after he reached Everest's summit. Hillary, in fact, helped build Phurenje's primary school back in Nepal.
On this day the Hooker Valley Track is dominated by immaculately outfitted Japanese tourists. The day is warm, with the Japanese stripping to their designer adventure shirtsleeves and the blue-tinged ice on the side of the mountains, with exposed blocks the size of double-decker buses, shining ominously in the generous sunshine.
Phurenje predicts avalanches. Sure enough, a little later a massive sheet of ice, like a giant white-faced waterfall, tumbles spectacularly over and down a cliff-face, the spectacle lasting for a few minutes as we stand and watch in awe.
Further along the track the Hooker Valley opens up, dominated by the near-perfect triangular formation of Mount Cook. In the foreground lies a rock-strewn fast-moving stream and meadows carpeted with wildflowers. It's the Swiss Alps crossed with the Himalayas crossed with the Andes.
But as stupendous and serene as it looks from my vantage point, Mount Cook has claimed as many lives as some of the Himalayan peaks. At one of the earlier stops along the Hooker Valley Track there is a memorial to the many climbers from around the world who have perished on the mountain.
Phurenje himself is fortunate not to have had a bronze plaque mounted to his own memory. In 2003, in a gesture to mark the 50th anniversary of his hero's ascent of Everest, Phurenje climbed Mount Cook and was trapped for two days or so by blizzard conditions, with temperatures cold enough to render the batteries in his torch inoperative. He and his climbing partners were lucky to survive, with two other climbers dying on the mountain that day.
After we reach a hut about halfway along the Hooker Track, where we take lunch along with a host of Japanese walkers, I regret that I haven't allowed enough time to push on all the way to the end of the track at the 11-kilometre-long Hooker Glacier. As we prepare to make the return tramp I gaze again at Mount Cook, neatly framed by the glass windows of the hut. I sit and try to imagine how, six decades ago, Hilary – "Id", if you like – used this peak as a giant stepping stone from which to challenge and conquer the highest mountain on the other side of Earth.
Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media's national travel editor. He was a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism, Air New Zealand, Ibis Hotel Christchurch, and The Hermitage Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Air New Zealand operates regular flights between Sydney and Melbourne to Christchurch on the South Island. The airline operated flights last summer between Christchurch and Mount Cook. Prospective passengers should check whether the service will be continued next summer. Mount Cook-Aoraki National Park is 331 kilometres, or a four-hour scenic drive, south-west from Christchurch.
The Hermitage Hotel has 164 rooms in the main complex along with 32 separate self-contained motel-style rooms and 20 self-contained chalets. High-season rates October-April from $NZ269 ($219); low-season rates May-September from $NZ169. Phone +64 3 435 1809, see hermitage.co.nz. Christchurch's Ibis Hotel has rooms from $NZ195. Phone +64 3 367 8666. See accorhotels.com.
Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism. christchurch.nz.com
EVEREST READER EVENT
Join George Negus on a special Mount Everest 60th anniversary adventure to Nepal.
In conjunction with World Expeditions and Traveller, Fairfax Media readers are invited on a journey to Nepal to mark the first successful ascent of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953 by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The trip, hosted by Negus from May 22 to June 2,includes a black-tie banquet at nearly 4000 metres above sea level at the mountain village of Thyangboche.
For more information, and to book your Everest anniversary adventure, see smhshop.com.au/travel/adventureholidays.
Correction: The original version of this story said Mount Cook was first climbed by a European in 1882. In fact the first ascent was by New Zealanders George Graham, Thomas Fyfe and Jack Clarke in 1894.