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How not to skinny dip.

The water I’ve dipped in this winter has averaged around 9℃/48℉. Which is chilly, but bearable. So here I’m gonna tell you the story of my most extreme skinny dip. I’m not an adrenaline junkie or any kind of extreme athlete, so this isn’t a groundbreaking story of incredible human accomplishment, or something that no one else has ever done before. More this is a story of a lesson learnt and advice on how not to skinny dip! I hope you enjoy this tale of my silly stubbornness and I hope you can learn from my mistakes…

There is a lake below Aoraki/Mount Cook that is fed from a glacier, Hooker lake it’s called. Parts of the glacier crack off every now and then creating icebergs that float gently around the lake’s surface. The average temperature of the water is below 2℃/35.6℉ and during winter the entire lake surface often freezes over. The walk to Hooker lake is one of the most jaw-drop stunners of a valley walk in all of N.Z. As you follow the easy track over swing bridges and wooden walkways Aoraki/Mount Cook (the tallest mountain in the land) looks down on you from the north. It’s an absolute bang for your buck kinda walk. So quite rightly people flock to see the mountain/glacier view. In the summertime it can be one of the busiest walks in the country.

Panorama of hooker lake with Mt Cook over to the right

I’ve swum in Hooker lake once before. Two years ago on a hot hot summer day. On that hot day two years ago the usual tourism hoards were gathered on the lake shore, so I was a good polite citizen and wore a swimsuit. Ever since that swim, Hooker lake has been at the top of my skinny dip bucket list. It’s the one that got away, the one I never thought would be attainable because there’s always so many people on the lake shore. 

But right now covid=no tourism=no crowds in N.Z. With this in mind, Jordan and I went for a mini road trip from Wanaka up to the Mackenzie region (one of my favourite parts of the South Island). The main point of our trip was to camp for a few days and just chill, but in the back of my mind was the sneaky thought that this might be my chance for a skinny dip in Hooker lake.

Empty pathways

After a couple of days camping at Lake Ohau we headed for Mount Cook national park. We took our time on the drive, stopping off at various viewpoints along lake Pukaki. Taking things easy like proper tourists, enjoying the quiet roads, taking photos of Jordan jumping naked over Mount Cook, you know, as you do. Everything took longer than we anticipated and the day slipped away from us. That’s probably the hardest part about this time of year, the days are so bloody short and the darkness sneaks up on you while your back is turned. By the time we arrived at the Hooker valley track the sun was very low, just starting to disappear behind the mountains. We sat in the van a while debating whether it was wise to start the walk now with diminishing daylight, or save it for the next day. A quick check of the weather forecast made the decision for us. Rain forecast for the next morning meant we were walking right then; walking fast, taking head torches and scraping any dreams I had of a dip. With heavy hearts we had to admit it would just be plain stupid to dip at that time of day, in winter. It was around 5℃ outside the van, with a bitter wind and the temperature quickly plummeting along with the setting sun. The walk to the lake is about an hour each way. An hour walk back with wet hair, frozen toes and only a cold van to return to? Definitely not a good idea! Jordan and I might be childlike and silly sometimes, but we’re not dumb.

Aoraki leap

We wrap up warm for our scenic walk but leave our towels and water shoes in the van, skinny dip mission aborted. 

New Zealand sometimes seems like such a small country, it can be hard to go anywhere without bumping into someone you know. On our walk along Hooker valley we bump into 3 different people I know, all returning from the lake already. When we bump into my friend Danielle, her first question is 

“Are you going for a skinny dip?” 

I assure her it is far too late and cold in the day for that, we don’t want to make ourselves ill. Then her friend, who I’ve never met before, pipes up with:

“Ah that would make such good photos, oh I hope you do!” 

Damn it Danielle’s friend! It doesn’t take much to egg me on and this stranger’s enthusiasm relights the fire within me for an iceberg skinny dip. Without too much more chat we say our goodbyes and hurry on our walk before the daylight desserts us. After a few minutes of silent walking and contemplating I have to find out if Jordan is thinking what I’m thinking. 

“You know, when we get there, we might just have to get in.” I state with my usual pushyness.

It turns out she’s not thinking what I’m thinking. We’re unprepared, no towels, no hot tea. We’re British for christ’s sake, we can’t get that cold without tea! Realising I’m being dumb, I squash the idea of dipping to the back of my mind, but I don’t let it completely disappear. 

Wrapped up warm

When we get our first view of the frigid iceberg covered lake I know I’m going in! The clouds are just starting to turn golden above the mountains and Mount Cook’s tip is glowing in the evening sunlight. Wind is rushing straight off the mountain creating waves on the lake’s surface. And those cheeky icebergs are calling my name, daring me to join them. It’s as if the universe has planned it, the only two people in sight are just heading up the path leaving the lake shore. In a moment this epic scene is going to be all ours with not another soul in sight. How can I resist? 

All my rationality goes out the window. All my earlier thoughts of how dumb it would be to get naked and get in are washed away by the sound of the lapping waves. 

Fuck it, I think. Now I’m here it seems like the only logical thing to do. I haven’t walked for an hour in the cold just to look at this freezing lake. I want to be in it, I want to embrace the cold, I want to touch an iceberg and know that I had the fullest experience here at Hooker lake that I could possibly have. With a slight shake of my head at my own stubbornness, I tell Jordan I’m going in, I just have to. The little legend that she is, she says she’s coming in too! This makes my day!

All that we’ve learnt over the last month with our cold dipping is useless to us, because we didn’t think we were going to go in. So we don’t have our water shoes to save our feet from the sharp rocks, we don’t have extra layers to put on after, we didn’t even bring our towels to dry off properly. And my thermometer was left behind in the van so I’m sorry to say I can’t tell you the exact temperature of the water that day. It’s a chaotic skinny dip. The wind and the depleting sunlight panics us, making the whole thing feel like it has to be rushed. We forget about our calm breathing that usually focuses us when entering the cold water. Instead we stumble in, clinging onto each other desperately, trying not to slip and fall on the slippery rocks. We hobble our way to the nearest icebergs, where the water is only about knee deep. This is enough for us in our panicked state. Here we dunk down to submerge our bodies amongst the bergs, making sure we really freeze our butts off. Each of us gives an iceberg a bit of a prod to see what they’re like. It’s not often one gets to touch an iceberg, it feels pretty special, pretty strange. What a novel situation to be in. Sitting naked in a lake, surrounded by icebergs, with a view of the tallest mountain in the country. 

Hobbling to the icebergs

I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to get in this lake without the usual crowds about. It’s the coldest water I’ve ever dunked in, and quite possibly ever will. It was exhilarating, exciting and something I’ll remember forever. But if we had been prepared we could have relaxed and enjoyed the experience a little more. Instead we let the cold panic us (we still felt the rejuvenating rush from the cold and the exhilaration of being naked in nature) but it could have been more relaxing if we’d planned better.

As I said, this is not a tale of some great achievement, or any great feat of human intelligence. If anything it’s a story of two disorganised, excitable women looking for cheap thrills, but I have re-learnt a lesson that I forgot. When I was a kid I was taught this by the girl guides and as an adult I have been reminded of it many times, yet sometimes I still forget it: Always be prepared! 

You never know what’s gonna happen next, situations can change at any minute. And God damn it Kate, always bring a towel!!

Always bring your towel, just in case!

6 thoughts on “How not to skinny dip.

  1. Your timing is impeccable. I’m doing that walk next month and had planned on some nakedness at some point, despite the cold. Great read! Keep up the great work, Kate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In the northern hemisphere these types of swims are usually called a “Polar Bear Plunge.” I was able to do one while stationed in Greenland. Even in the summertime the water temperature was just above freezing. Since it was a public event I had to wear a swimsuit, and I was prepared with a towel for drying afterwards. However, nothing can prepare one for the shock of water that cold.


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