Majestical mountains

In the beginning there was no Te Wai Pounamu or Aotearoa. The waters of Kiwa rolled over the place now occupied by the South Island, the North Island and Stewart Island. No sign of land existed. Before Raki (the Sky Father) wedded Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother), each of them already had children by other unions. After the marriage, some of the Sky Children came down to greet their father’s new wife and some even married Earth Daughters.

Among the celestial visitors were four sons of Raki who were named Aoraki (Cloud in the Sky), Rakiroa (Long Raki), Rakirua (Raki the Second), and Rārakiroa (Long Unbroken Line). They came down in a canoe which was known as Te Waka o Aoraki. They cruised around Papatūānuku who lay as one body in a huge continent known as Hawaiiki.

Then, keen to explore, the voyagers set out to sea, but no matter how far they travelled, they could not find land. They decided to return to their celestial home but the karakia (incantation) which should have lifted the waka (canoe) back to the heavens failed and their craft ran aground on a hidden reef, turning to stone and earth in the process.

The waka listed and settled with the west side much higher out of the water than the east. Thus the whole waka formed the South Island, hence the name: Te Waka o Aoraki. Aoraki and his brothers clambered on to the high side and were turned to stone. They are still there today. Aoraki is the mountain known to Pākehā as Mount Cook, and his brothers are the next highest peaks near him. The form of the island as it now is owes much to the subsequent deeds of Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, who took on the job of shaping the land to make it fit for human habitation.

Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1988: Schedule 80: Tōpuni for Aoraki/Mt Cook


Welcome to Aoraki Mt/Cook, a place of breath-taking beauty and – as with any landscape – many layers of human history, the imprint of which is present in both tangible and intangible ways.

Surprisingly, I've no (digital) photographs of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Instead, I offer you the De La Beche Ridge, with the Tasman glacier in the foreground. Image: K. Watson.

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about places Christchurch residents would have holidayed in the past – and still do today. They also happen to be places I’ve been lucky enough to visit while doing work for the Department of Conservation (sometimes people forget that DOC is as much about protecting and preserving our cultural heritage as our natural heritage). These places tell us about the outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities available to Christchurch residents, and about the development of these spheres, because outdoor recreation and tourism weren’t really a particularly big deal when New Zealand was settled by Pākehā.

Let’s start at the beginning (from a human point of view, at least – I’m not getting into the geology). Aoraki/Mount Cook is so significant to Ngāi Tahu it is recognised with Tōpuni status under the Ngai Tahu Settlement Claims Act. For Ngāi Tahu, Aoraki/Mount Cook is the most sacred of their ancestors and is critical to their identity. There are no recorded Māori archaeological sites in the immediate vicinity of the mountain, there are further afield in the Mackenzie country, and these are a tribute to the resources of the area, particularly the stone and the food. Ngāi Tahu’s associations with the area also survive in the names used for landmarks in the area, from the lakes to the mountain itself.

The early European history of the area is a seemingly romantic one, with tales of rugged, intrepid men and women exploring and marvelling at the wilderness, with seemingly endless time to explore, retiring at night to the warmth and conviviality of either the Hermitage or Ball hut (or, later, Malte Brun hut), with the Hermitage in particular renowned for its egalitarian atmosphere (McClure 2004: 79-80). Glorious black and white photographs capture this era.

This was the first Hermitage, built in 1884 and destroyed by floods in 1913. You can still see the building site today and there was an excavation there in the early 1980s. In the early 2000s, I excavated the remains of the Hermitage stables. Unsurprisingly, we found a lot of horseshoes - as well as building remains. The Hermitage, Mount Cook. Ross, Malcolm 1862-1930 :Photographs by Malcolm Ross of New Zealanders in the Great War, Maori, mountaineering, New Zealand scenery, etc. Ref: 1/2-022364-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Ball hut, 1907. Earlier photographs indicate that it was built without a fireplace, or the capacity to capture rainwater. The archaeological remains indicate that the hut expanded a lot before being destroyed by an avalanche in 1925. Image: Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948. Gifford tramping party at Ball Hut, Mt Cook. Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948 : Albums and photographs. Ref: 1/2-060503-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

What this romantic vision ignores is the exclusion of Ngāi Tahu from the area and the literal walking on their most sacred ancestor, the disadvantaged position of women in this world (climb and explore they did, but in voluminous skirts or culotte-type garments and they had to battle against the social norms of the day, which frowned on the relationship between women and their male guides) and the fact that tourism in this period was the preserve of the wealthy. The rest of society simply did not have the time or money to travel in this way: initially, the journey from Fairlie to the Hermitage took three days by coach, with the horses having to be changed five times. The wheel ruts from this original dray track survive in parts of the Mackenzie country (and are difficult to photograph!) and are testament to what must have been a bone-shaking journey (and they used pigeons – yes, pigeons! – to send information to the Hermitage about the number of guests on the way). More to the point, however, if the journey took at least three days in each direction, you were going to want to spend a decent amount of time at the destination. And then there was the matter of hiring guides and/or horses, and the cost of the accommodation itself. Nonetheless, what was noteworthy about the Hermitage was that the guides were required to divide their attention equally between regular tourists and serious mountaineers (McClure 2004: 79-80).

This is just possibly the remains of Mannering and Dixon's camp on Ball Flat, to the north of the remains of the first Ball hut, described by Mannering (2000: 72) as their "well-known Ball Glacier camp" and built c.1886. Image: K. Watson.

The government spent a lot on this elite tourist venture, helping to fund the construction of the road from Glentanner station to Aoraki/Mt Cook, financially supporting the operation of the Hermitage and constructing roads, huts and tracks in the area, including Ball hut and Ball track, which ran above the Tasman glacier from the Hooker River to Ball glacier. It was not until the involvement of one Rodolph Wigley, however, that the area became a serious tourist destination.

On the old road to Aoraki/Mt Cook. This road, built in partnership by the government of the day and the Mt Cook Road Board in late 1883, remained in use until the mid-late 20th century. Image: K. Watson.

The Ball track, 1907. Image: On the track to Ball Hut, Mt Cook. Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948 : Albums and photographs. Ref: PA1-o-186-07. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Scrabbling along the remains of the Ball track today (well, actually, in 2010). Image: I. Hill.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with Wigley and Aoraki Mt Cook: was he the catalyst that drove the development, or was he just the right man at the right time? Or a bit of both? Whatever the case, it is impossible to separate him from the story of Aoraki Mt Cook. Wigley was the man behind the Mt Cook Motor Company, which took over the lease of the (second) Hermitage in 1922, and set about opening up the area to a much broader sector of (Pākehā) society, by reducing costs, improving access and improving facilities. Wigley offered wooden floored tents as a cheaper form of accommodation and set out to offer a range of attractions beyond just the scenery, including golf. One of the key factors underlying Wigley’s success was the increasing popularity of exploring the outdoors, and the increasing availability of leisure time for the middle and working classes, a theme that will be returned to in another of these posts. The other was the motor car, and this underlay one of the key components of Wigley’s vision: the Ball Road.

The fantastic stone work that remains in situ along sections of the Ball Road. Image: K. Watson.

The Ball Road was an ambitious plan to connect the Hermitage to (the second) Ball hut by motor car, enabling less mobile/athletic visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the alpine region, and also to promote the skifield he established on the Ball glacier. Nature, however, had other ideas and today the remains of the road are a testament to the power of Wigley’s vision, and to his ambition to make Aoraki/Mt Cook the site of domestic tourism for the masses. Not for any altruistic reason, one assumes, but very much driven by the profit motive – the two, of course, do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Ball Road, disappearing under collapsing moraine. Image: K. Watson.

By the 1970s, keeping the road open was becoming increasingly difficult and by 1989 it had been closed for good. You can still walk the road today but one day the glacier will claim it for good, if the avalanches don’t get it first. I can’t urge you strongly enough to do so – it’s an easy walk, and a beautiful one. As you walk it, think of all those who have gone before you: Ngāi Tahu; Green, Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufmass (who, in the first attempt on the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, came within 60 m - an amazing feat); Mannering and Dixon; Peter Graham; Freda du Faur; Hillary; and the thousands of others who’ve travelled this route to appreciate the beauty that is Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Ball Road, with the lateral moraine from the Tasman glacier looming above it, perilously close to collapsing into the glacier itself. Image: K. Watson.

Katharine Watson


Mannering, G., 2000. The Hermitage Years of Mannering and Dixon. GM Publication, Geraldine.

McClure, M., 2004. The Wonder Country: Making New Zealand tourism. Auckland University Press, Auckland.