‘Going to the mountains is going home.’ John Muir
Aoraki was a young boy, who, one day, decided to set out on a long journey. He wanted to visit Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother. His brothers followed him. When they finally decided to return home to their Sky Father, Ranginui, they were struck with bad luck: their canoe fell back from the sky into the water and tilted. The brothers climbed on to the overturned canoe, but then the wind blew and changed them all into stone. And so they remain to this day. In memory of their ill-fated adventure, the local Maori, Ngai Tahu, call the New Zealand’s South Island ‘Te Waka a Aoraki’.
Aoraki, the mountain called after the mythical hero, is a sacred place. It is also the highest peak (3724m above sea level) in the Southern Alps, a mountain range that stretches for several hundred kilometres along the western coast of the South Island. Southern Alps are a magnificent sight, with 23 named peaks over 3000 metres (9800 feet) high, thousands of glaciers, glacial lakes and the ancient rainforest. They are part of the Te Waipounamu World Heritage site. Edmund Hillary, the famous mountaineer and explorer, the man who will later climb Mount Everest, here, in the Southern Alps, discovered his lifelong fascination. He has left a rich legacy as a philanthropist and conservationist, but his statue outside the Hermitage Hotel in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Village - a young man looking out towards the sacred summit - inspires new generations to follow their dreams and live a life of adventure.
If you are scared of heights, however, you can walk to the foot of Aoraki/Mt Cook along the Hooker Valley. It is a pleasant track along the Hooker River, past three swing bridges, the Mueller Glacier, culminating near the glacial lake, with the view across towards the Hooker Glacier and New Zealand’s highest peak.
Glaciers are one of the wonders of the Southern Alps. There are over three thousand glaciers in New Zealand, due to its climate and its southernmost position amongst the Pacific islands. The most visited are the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the West Coast, the largest is the Tasman Glacier, covering the area of 101 square kilometres. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s glaciers are rapidly retreating. This action is being followed by the creation of multiple glacial lakes at the foot of new terminal moraines.
Glacial lakes are a characteristic attribute of the landscape, with hundreds of them, varying in size, scattered across the South Island. If you are travelling towards Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, you will be passing by one of the biggest glacial lakes in the area (178 square km), wonderfully blue lake Pukaki. Its turquoise colour is due to the tiny particles of rock suspended in the water; the result of the glacial erosion.
Lake Tekapo, although smaller in size, is no less picturesque. Maoris were the first to visit this area and its name, Tekapo, may be loosely translated as ’a resting place’. The first European to come here was apparently James Mackenzie, New Zealand’s outlaw and folk hero of Scottish origin, who was caught stealing sheep, put in prison, from which he escaped twice, before being granted a pardon. Now the region through which he was smuggling stolen sheep is named after him. It pays off, sometimes, to defy the law!
Church of Good Shepherd is a famous landmark of the Tekapo township. Built in 1935 on the hill by the lake, it is a tiny, but elegant construction, which instead of the traditional altar, has a huge window that frames the magnificent landscape beyond. What better way to praise God, than by admiring the view! Mackenzie farmers are fine aesthetes, but they are also very fond of their dogs. Its proof is a bronze statue of a sheep dog next to the church, commissioned by them in a gesture of gratitude towards their four legged companions in the daily running of the sheep business.
The surroundings of the lake Tekapo offer magnificent views, but don’t forget to look at the sky! Free of light pollution and clear for most of the year, the night sky here will take you on an exhilarating journey across the galaxy. If you want to get ‘closer’ to the stars, a visit to the observatory on the top of Mount John is in order. University of Canterbury’s Mt John observatory is world famous and the area surrounding it has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, which means it is now protected from any potential light pollution. How great is that?!
The landscape is a living thing and is always changing. The glaciers melt, new lakes are created, the mountains are constantly growing due to the movement of two tectonic plates, that run, like a spine, the length of New Zealand, but then, they are also subject to erosion. This landscape of high mountains and vast lakes, the Earth’s crust in constant movement, feels almost too big, too monumental for the island of this size. It is a landscape where you can get lost (literally), which for many is the ultimate challenge and for others, a place to admire nature’s grandeur and to feel a quiet happiness, that we are also part of this world, that this is our home.