Mountains in the Māori world
Rising towards the realms of Ranginui the Sky Father, remote from human settlement, mountains loomed over the Māori world. They were places of great awe and spiritual presence.
Nearly every range and prominent peak in the country is linked to local tribal identity and mana. Special reverence is given to the higher peaks such as Tongariro, Ruapehu, Taranaki and Hikurangi in the North Island, or Aoraki in the South Island. A Māori proverb states: ‘Mehemea ka tuohu ahau me maunga teitei’ (If I should bow my head let it be to a high mountain).
Some Māori were highly skilled at travelling in mountain regions, and often were valuable guides for early European explorers.
Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of the central North Island Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe, gifted the sacred Tongariro mountain to the Crown in 1887. This formed the basis of New Zealand’s first national park. He observed, ‘Tongariro is my ancestor, my tupuna; it is my head; my mana centers around Tongariro; my father’s bones lie there today.’ 1
Māori traditions told of how mountains were formed – sometimes along similar lines as European scientific explanations. For example, they believed that this mountainous land had not always been here, but had been fished up from the bottom of the sea.
They also compared the shaping of landforms with the transformation of a tree into a carving or canoe. One name for Franz Josef Glacier was Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere – the tears of the avalanche girl.
In the 19th century few Pākehā New Zealanders climbed mountains for the sake of it. Most journeys to mountain regions were in search of gold or other minerals, or to find routes for roads and railways.
Bypassing the heights
A coach road via Arthur’s Pass was opened across the Southern Alps in 1866, but it was 46 years before anyone climbed Mt Rolleston (2,275 metres) – the highest peak close to this trans-alpine highway.
Although by 1880 most major mountain valleys in both islands had been explored and the passes between them crossed, many prominent New Zealand mountains were not climbed for another 30 or 40 years.
Europeans climbed the North Island volcanoes early on – the first ascents of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) and Mt Ngāuruhoe were in 1839. But Ruapehu, the highest North Island mountain, was probably not climbed until 1886.
Because of early interest from overseas climbers, first ascents were made sooner in the Aoraki/Mt Cook region than elsewhere in the South Island. The first ascent of Hochstetter Dome (2,827 metres) was in 1883. Aoraki/Mt Cook was first scaled on Christmas Day 1894, after several close attempts over the previous 12 years.
Settlement in the mountains
In general, New Zealanders have not tried to build permanent settlements above an altitude of 600 to 700 metres. The few genuine mountain villages are mostly by-products of construction projects – roads and railways (National Park, Arthur’s Pass), hydro-electricity schemes (Tekapo, Twizel) or alpine tourist and recreational attractions (Aoraki/Mt Cook, Whakapapa).
Along the eastern side of the Southern Alps, the boundaries of high-country sheep stations reach well into the headwaters of most major valleys. These farms often extend to altitudes of 1,500 metres or more.