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.