Wild NZ: Aoraki … and the brothers of Ka Tiritiri o te Moana

Wild NZ: Aoraki … and the brothers of Ka Tiritiri o te Moana

Aoraki, as every Kiwi should know, is our tallest mountain at 3,724 metres, although it used to be taller. Prior to December 1991, it was 40m higher until a massive rock-and-ice slide lopped 10m off the summit. In subsequent years another 30m disappeared due to erosion … its new, knife-edge peak taking a little time to settle.

by Mike Cooney

According to Maori legend, Aoraki was one of the sons of Ranginui, the Sky Father (or ‘Rakinui’ in the Ngai Tahu dialect). On a voyage down from the heavens to visit their stepmother, Papatuanuku (the Earth Mother), Aoraki and his three brothers became stranded on a reef. Their canoe was on a dangerous lean, and when they climbed onto the high side of their waka, the south wind froze them, turning them to stone. Their canoe became the South Island, known by Ngai Tahu as Te Waka o Aoraki, and Aoraki (who was the tallest of the brothers) became its highest peak. The rest of the brothers and crew became the other mountains of the Southern Alps or Ka Tiritiri o te Moana.

Understandably, Aoraki is considered by Ngai Tahu as their most sacred mountain …

Of all the places we visited during our six-month caravan adventure around the South Island (see Grapevine mags 1-4, 2018), the Mackenzie Basin – or more specifically Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park – was my favourite. Why, you wonder? Well, let me explain!

If you asked most people who know me where my favourite place might be, they’d more-than-likely suggest somewhere on the coast with good surf, some decent mountain-bike trails, and fishing … things Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park doesn’t have. Sure, there’s great fishing nearby. And the hunting is fantastic – particularly the magnificent Himalayan Tahr, which are one of NZ’s more challenging and spectacular game animals (unless DOC get their way and poison them all). But, to be honest, what I found most alluring about Aoraki was the mountains themselves.

Aoraki, as every Kiwi should know, is our tallest mountain at 3,724 metres, although it used to be taller. Prior to December 1991, it was 40m higher until a massive rock-and-ice slide lopped 10m off the summit. In subsequent years another 30m disappeared due to erosion … its new, knife-edge peak taking a little time to settle. But for those of you worried it’s about to lose its lofty place amongst ngā maunga, don’t panic! It’s still more than 200m taller than its nearest rival, Mt Tasman.

Aoraki and his brothers must’ve been pretty tall because there are 25 summits within 12 kilometres of him that are over 3,000m – some of which are mere shoulders on the ridges of Aoraki and Tasman. And, to put that in perspective, Mt Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest, comes in at a ‘measly’ 2,797m – almost one vertical kilometre shorter than Aoraki.

While all these numbers might sound impressive (or boring!), it’s not until you get up-close and personal with the mountains themselves that you truly appreciate their size – especially for a North Islander! And it’s when you stand at their base (or their summit, if you’re keen!) that you understand the real meaning of words like ‘awesome’ and ‘majestic’. 

Saying you watched an ‘awesome’ movie on Netflix doesn’t quite cut it by comparison …

Traditionally, it was mountain climbers, extreme sport junkies, hunters and adventurers who frequented Mt Cook Village and its surrounding park. The allure of all those peaks in one location – especially Aoraki himself – is difficult to resist, and most climbers (once they’ve had a taste of him and his brothers) are quickly hooked. 

It is, however, an addiction that can sometimes include fatal consequences. Just this week, five ‘lucky’ climbers survived an avalanche … but more than 230 others during the last century haven’t survived the brothers – and nearly 80 of them were never found.

Despite the risks, more and more adventurers flock to the park each year … although the majority of these never set forth on any of the aforementioned mountains. Thanks to some excellent marketing from the tourist industry in recent years, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has seen phenomenal growth as a tourist destination. But unfortunately, this growth hasn’t been backed up by the required increase in infrastructure. 

So, what does that mean? Well, let me share my observations:
Last year some clients I was guiding for a tahr hunting trip stayed at the only DOC campsite in the park. This was the first time I’d been to the park during the busy tourist season, and I could not believe the crowds. With the carpark at White Horse Hill Campground full, there were cars and campervans lining both sides of the road for hundreds of metres – and people were everywhere! The Hooker Glacier Track (which starts at the campground) was like Auckland’s Queen Street, taking some of the shine off from what is otherwise an outstanding walk.

In contrast, when we were actually in the mountains – off the beaten track – we never saw a soul …

According to DOC, visitor numbers to Aoraki NP grew 11% in 2018, with (for the first time) more than one million people visiting in the year to February 28. The big downside to all this (aside from all the people!) was the amount of human waste we found (and smelt) just off the main roads. There are no public facilities between Twizel and Mt Cook Village – a 45-minute stretch of road that would be one of the most spectacular in the country. Pull over into one of the many rest areas along the turquoise Lake Pukaki and you’ll soon regret venturing too far from the car. As I said, the infrastructure has yet to catch up …

Despite the crazy numbers and unwelcome deposits/leftovers, don’t be put off! It’s not like that all year round. (And even if you can only pull off a summer trip, it’s still worth it.) Last June, we stayed at the White Horse Hill Campground in our caravan … all by ourselves! And the contrast to my previous outing was staggering! Admittedly, thick snow covered the ground, and a local DOC ranger thought we were a little crazy. However, winter can be a beautiful time to visit – just make sure you have plenty of warm clothes! 

If you want a more up-market holiday, book yourself into the Hermitage – the renowned hotel that’s now onto its third facelift. Since first being built in 1884, it’s long been synonymous with the Kiwi spirit of adventure – and, like many of its explorer visitors over the years, the hotel has experienced its fair share of triumph and tragedy. Version #1 was destroyed by a flood, and version #2 was razed to the ground by a spectacular fire. Its latest form has been standing since 1958 – and although several extentions have been added, it’s still the most iconic building in the park.

There are numerous tracks within the park, catering for people of all abilities. As I mentioned earlier, the three-hour Hooker Glacier Track is an outstanding walk. We did it in winter while it was clothed in snow … and it was simply stunning. Then there’s the must-see Tasman Glacier, multi-day Ball Pass Crossing, Blue Lakes, and much, much more – including the educational Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park visitor centre! 

By then you’ll have worked up a hearty appetite, and both the Chamois Bar and the Old Mountaineers Café are legendary eateries and well worth a visit if you’re after a good feed.

Given that this incredible region is home to New Zealand’s highest peak, largest glacier, and (would you believe?) the world’s biggest buttercup – the Mount Cook Lily – it’s a wonder more Kiwis haven’t come visiting. International tourists have already figured it out – but can I suggest that we Kiwis need to see for ourselves what the fuss is all about.

Aoraki and the brothers of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana … you won’t be disappointed!