Mt Cook – Aoraki

At 3,764 metres Mt Cook is New Zealand’s highest point, and Mt Cook National Park is the high point for many visitors – some 200,000 per year. It was given its European name in 1851 in honour of the explorer Captain James Cook. The 70,000 hectare National Park contains nearly all of New Zealand’s major peaks and was accorded World Heritage status in 1986.

The first attempt to climb Mt Cook was made in 1882 but it was another 12 years before New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham reached the top on Christmas day, 1894. Many of New Zealand’s top mountaineers, including Sir Edmund Hillary, began their climb to fame on Mt Cook.

Mountaineers and sightseers have always been drawn to the Alps. The first Hermitage, built of cob in 1886, was soon visited by a regular horse-drawn coach service from Fairlie which was replaced in 1906 by a nine-seater Darracq car. A more palatial Hermitage was built in 1914. It burned down in 1957, but was quickly replaced by the nucleus of today’s Hermitage.

The many alpine walks in Mt Cook National Park provide a wealth of flora and fauna sightseeing. There are a variety of flowering plants, (including the Mt Cook Lily – the world’s largest buttercup), unique alpine insects and numerous birds. The world’s only mountain parrot, the Kea, lives here but watch out, it is a bold pirate of high intelligence. Hunting is permitted in the Park – mainly for Himalayan Tahr and European Chamois.

The Southern Alps

With 22 peaks over 3,000 metres and more than 140 over 2,000 metres, the Southern Alps are comparable to the European Alps. Their main stone, greywacke, was laid down in an ocean trough 250 to 300 million years ago. About two million years ago the Alpine Fault began uplifting, a process that continues today but at about the same rate as erosion.

The Alps dominate the South Island’s weather patterns. The prevailing westerly wind drops over five metres of precipitation in the Alps, then transforms into the dry Nor-wester and leaves a mere 500 mm on the Mackenzie basin.

Tasman Glacier

The Tasman, our longest and largest glacier, falls 2,250 metres over a distance of 29 kilometres to form one of the longest ski runs in the world. It is up to 600 metres thick in some parts and its terminal, within 20 minutes easy walk from the road, is a fascinating place.

In 1955, confident in his ski/wheel undercarriage design, Sir Harry Wigley landed an Auster aircraft on the Tasman Glacier to lay the groundwork for one of New Zealand’s most thrilling attractions – ski-plane flight seeing. Over 40,000 visitors per year are now flown onto New Zealand’s glaciers to take photographs or ski.