The Canterbury Plains and the central South Island’s snow-capped peaks frame the Mackenzie Country, a dramatic region of open sheep-grazed grasslands that shimmer green in spring but dry off through summer to a golden brown. It is all beautifully set off (in Nov and Dec) by stands of purple, pink and white lupins – regarded as weeds but much loved nonetheless.
Light reflected from microscopic rock particles suspended in glacial meltwater lends an ethereal opaque hue to the region’s mesmerizingly blue, glacier-fed lakes, notably Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau, which all form part of the Waitaki hydro scheme. At 700m above sea level, the region has some of the cleanest air in the southern hemisphere, and on a good day the sharp edges and vibrant colours make this one of the best places to photograph the Southern Alps, particularly around Tekapo.
The region encompasses New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook, accessed from Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, a perfect spot for alpine hiking and glacier skiing.
Sadly, this iconic and beautiful landscape is under threat as high international milk prices are driving the conversion of sheep stations into dairy farms, the necessary lush grass being grown on fields moistened using massive irrigation arms that create kilometre-wide green circles of grass amid the otherwise brown landscape. They’re particularly intrusive around Twizel and Omarama.Read More
The Godley and Cass rivers feed into the 83-square-kilometre Lake Tekapo which spills into the Tekapo River then wends its way across the Mackenzie Basin.
On Lake Tekapo’s southern shore, the burgeoning village of TEKAPO revolves around a roadside ribbon of cafés and gift shops surrounded by new housing developments. Its name derives from the Maori taka (“sleeping mat”) and po (“night”), suggesting that this place has long been used as a stopover. It still is, with visitors keen to spend a sunny afternoon picnicking on the lakeshore, enjoying the sunset from a hot pool then stargazing after dark.
Minimal light pollution presents perfect conditions for observing the night skies, and the 1000m summit of Mount John, 9km northwest of Tekapo, has sprouted telescope domes operated by the University of Canterbury and astronomical institutions around the world. There’s an excellent hike up here and great reward in the form of Astro Café, though the star attraction is the range of observatory and night sky tours.
From Tekapo, SH8 heads to the southern shores of the 30km-long Lake Pukaki, another intensely opaque blue glacial lake backed by the glistening peaks of the Southern Alps. A roadside parking area is the spot to pull over and admire fabulous views across the lake to Aoraki/Mount Cook and its icy attendants.
New Zealand’s highest mountain, the spectacular 3754m Mount Cook is increasingly known by its Maori name, Aoraki, meaning “cloud piercer” – and the two names are often run together as Aoraki/Mount Cook. It commands the 700-square-kilometre Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. With 22 peaks over 3000m, the park contains the lion’s share of New Zealand’s highest mountains, mostly made of greywacke (a type of rock common in New Zealand) laid in an ocean trench 250–300 million years ago.
Aoraki/Mount Cook is at the heart of a unique mountain area whose rock is easily shattered in the cold, leaving huge amounts of gravel in the valley floors. The tussock-cloaked foothills, where Mount Cook lilies, summer daisies and snow gentians thrive, contrast with the inhospitable ice fields of the upper slopes.
All this is easily accessible on walks to great viewpoints and even to the base of the 27km-long Tasman Glacier, fed by icefalls tumbling from the heavily glaciated surrounding peaks. The weather here is highly changeable, often with a pall of low-lying cloud liable to turn to rain, and the mountain air is lung-searingly fresh. On windy days, an atmospheric white dust rises from the plain at the base of the mountain.
The only habitation in the national park is at the tiny AORAKI/MOUNT COOK VILLAGE, set at 760m and encircled by a horseshoe of mountains topped by Aoraki/Mount Cook itself. Almost everything is run either by The Hermitage hotel (which operates the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre) or DOC (who have a fascinating visitor centre). Mostly, though, you’ll be wanting to get outdoors.
Maori tell how Aoraki came to be. Both the sky father (Raki) and the earth mother (Papa-tua-nuku) already had children by previous unions. After their marriage, some of the sky father’s children came to inspect their father’s new wife. Four brothers, Ao-raki, Raki-roa, Raki-rua and Raraki-roa, circled around her in a canoe called Te Waka-a-Aoraki, but once they left her shores disaster befell them. Running aground on a reef, the canoe was turned to stone. The four occupants climbed to the higher western side of the petrified canoe, where they too were transformed: Ao-raki became Aoraki/Mount Cook, and his three younger brothers formed flanking peaks – Mount Dampier, Mount Teichelmann and Mount Tasman.
Geologists claim that about two million years ago the Alpine Fault began to lift, progressively pushing the rock upwards and creating the Southern Alps. These days the process continues at about the same rate as erosion, ensuring that the mountains are at least holding their own – if not getting bigger.
Mount Cook was named in honour of the English sea captain in 1851. Its summit was first reached in 1894 but, because of the peak’s sacredness to Maori, climbers are asked not to step on the summit itself.
TWIZEL (rhymes with bridle), 70km south of Aoraki/Mount Cook and 9km south of the junction of SH8 and SH80, began life in 1966 as a construction village for people working on the Waitaki hydro scheme. The town was due to be bulldozed flat after the project finished in 1985. Some think this would have been a kinder fate, but enough residents wanted to stay that their wishes were granted, and it’s now a low-key summertime base for forays to Aoraki/Mount Cook (a 45min drive away), scenic Lake Ohau and gliding at Omarama.
SH8 traverses tussock and sheep country 30km south from Twizel to the junction settlement of OMARAMA (Maori for “place of light”), best known for the Clay Cliffs just outside town and its wonderful conditions for gliding.
Prevailing westerly winds rising over the Southern Alps create a unique air-wave across the Mackenzie Country’s flatlands, making Omarama New Zealand’s gliding capital. Its airfield was the one-time playground of dick Georgeson, pioneer of New Zealand aviation and the South island’s first glider pilot, back in 1950. You can follow his lead with Southern Soaring (soaring.co.nz) who let you take the front seat on spectacular two-seater glider flights, with a chance to take the controls and get great views of Aoraki/Mount Cook on a good day. Most trips run October and March.
Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary has long been the most famous and admired New Zealander, and his death in 2008, aged 88, has probably raised his profile further. His ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 with Tenzing Norgay was undoubtedly an impressive achievement, and his humanitarian work in the villages of Nepal was widely lauded, but above all, Hillary embodied the qualities Kiwis hold most dear: hard-working, straight-talking, honest and, most of all, modest. As he famously said on his return from the successful summit attempt, “Well George, we knocked the bastard off”. That’s what gets your face on every $5 note in the country.
Though he grew up near Auckland, Sir Ed did much of his early climbing around Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, where a bronze statue of a youthful Hillary stands outside Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre.
A Kiwi folk hero, James McKenzie lends his name (well, close enough anyway) to the Mackenzie Country, a 180km crescent of rolling dry grassland between Fairlie and Kurow (to the south on SH83). A Gaelic-speaking Scottish immigrant of uncertain background, McKenzie is believed to have spent only a couple of years in New Zealand but his legend lives on. He was arrested in 1855 for stealing over 1,000 sheep, most of them from the Rhodes brothers’ Levels Run station near Timaru, and grazing them in the basin of rich high-country pastureland, with the assistance of a single dog, Friday. McKenzie escaped from prison three times during the first year of his five-year sentence, and when holding him became too much trouble, he was given a free pardon, after which he quietly disappeared, some say to America, others to Australia.
A poem commemorates the man and his dog in the visitor shelter at Lake Pukaki near the turn-off to Aoraki/Mount Cook.
Aoraki/Mount Cook tours and activities
Aoraki/Mount Cook tours and activities
As long as the weather plays ball, it would be hard to be bored around Aoraki/Mount Cook Village. As well as cruising or paddling a glacier lake you can hike to places you never thought you’d go, ride horses and off-road vehicles in spectacular scenery or spend an hour gazing at the night sky.
Scenic flights offer glimpses of areas you could never dream of reaching on foot. book a few days ahead, but be prepared to be flexible as flights are cancelled in high winds or poor visibility. The peak season is November–March, but in winter (June & July) the weather’s often clearer and the views more dramatic.
There are no developed ski-fields in the Aoraki/Mount Cook area, but choppers open up the tasman Glacier and surrounding mountains for guided heli-skiing and heli-snowboarding. during the season (July–Sept or Oct), steep, untouched runs cater for those with strong intermediate skills or better.