Above the grassy Mackenzie Basin towers the South Island's highest peak Mt. Cook, at approximately 12,283 feet. There are 22 peaks over 10,000 feet in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. The mountain's Māori name is Aoraki (Aorangi to North Island Māori), and the Māori and Anglo-names are often used interchangeably or together. According to Māori legend, Aoraki was one of three sons of Rakinui, the sky father. Their canoe was caught on a reef and frozen, forming the South Island. In these parts, South Island's oldest Māori name is Te Waka O Aoraki (Aoraki's canoe) and the highest peak is Aoraki, frozen by the south wind, and turned to stone. Māori see these mountains as their ancestors. The officially recognized names of this mountain, the national park, and many other South Island places were changed to their original Māori names as part of a 1998 settlement between the government and the major South Island Māori tribe, Ngai Tahu.
Aoraki was dramatically first scaled in 1894
by three New Zealanders—Tom Fyfe, George Graham, and Jack Clarke—just after it was announced that an English climber and an Italian mountain guide were about to attempt the summit. In a frantic surge of national pride, the New Zealand trio resolved to beat them to it, which they did on Christmas Day. In the summer of 1991 a chunk of it broke away, but fortunately there were no climbers in the path of the massive avalanches. High Peak, the summit, is now about 66 feet lower, but its altered form makes for a much more difficult ascent.
At 70,699 hectares (273 square mi), the park is a formidable area of ice and rock, with glaciers covering 40% of the land and little forest cover. The high altitude attracts its share of bad weather. Visitors can often stand at the end of Lake Tekapo or Lake Pukaki, looking westward, and not know that the country's highest mountain is just a few miles away. But that shouldn't prevent you from taking the 40-km (25-mi) paved road up to Mt. Cook village. Stay the night while you're there—nowhere else in the region compares for a true alpine experience. If the clouds lift, you'll be glad you stayed: the vistas are beyond spectacular.
The national park surrounds the tiny Aoraki/Mt. Cook Village, which consists of a visitor center, an airfield, a pub, a little school, a hotel-motel complex, and several hostels. Walking is always an option, and in winter there's heli-skiing. If the weather is clear, a scenic flight around the Mt. Cook area and across to the West Coast can be the highlight of your stay in New Zealand. Contact the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park Visitor Centre or the weather phone to check conditions before setting out on an unguided excursion. A network of hiking trails radiates from the Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park Visitor Centre, providing everything from easy walking paths to full-day challenges. A cairn just a few minutes along the track up the Hooker Valley remembers 40 of the more than 180 people who have died in the park since climbing began there. Be sure to fill your car's gas tank before leaving Twizel or Tekapo.
For a unique hands-on educational experience take a half-hour hike to the fast-growing 1-mi Terminus Lake of the Tasman Glacier. Fed by the glacier and the Murchison River, the lake was formed only in the past couple of decades, because of the glacier's retreat. From Terminus Lake you can examine up close the terminal face of the glacier, which is 3 km (2 mi) wide. A trip with Glacier Explorers can take you by boat to explore some of the large floating icebergs that have calved (fallen away) from the Tasman Glacier. It's an eerie experience skimming across the milky-white water and closing in on icebergs—even riding through where they have melted—to touch rocks caught in the ice.
Another main activity is "flightseeing." From the airfield at Mt. Cook Village, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft make spectacular scenic flights across the Southern Alps. One of the most exciting is the one-hour trip aboard the ski planes that touch down on the Tasman Glacier after a gorgeous scenic flight. The 10-minute stop on the glacier doesn't allow time for much more than a snapshot, but the sensation is tremendous. The moving tongue of ice beneath your feet—one of the largest glaciers outside the Himalayas—is 27 km (17 mi) long and up to 2,000 feet thick in places. The intensity of light on the glacier can be dazzling, and sunglasses are a must. In winter the planes drop skiers on the glacier at 10,000 feet, and they ski down through 13 km (8 mi) of powder snow and fantastic ice formations. With guides, this run is suitable even for intermediate skiers.
Aoraki Mount Cook, Canterbury, New Zealand