Story: Mountains

Page 6. Mountains and New Zealand culture

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Recreation and tourism

From the 1880s Aoraki/Mt Cook, Milford Sound and the North Island volcanic mountains were promoted as scenic attractions. As roads and accommodation improved, more people visited these and other mountain regions.

In the 2000s, about 500,000 people a year visit Aoraki/Mt Cook, and up to 2,000 a day travel along the dramatic highway through Fiordland’s Darran Mountains to Milford Sound. Limits on the number of visitors have been considered at some tourist spots, including the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.

For those who enjoy more remote mountain adventures, New Zealand offers world-class facilities including thousands of kilometres of tracks and marked routes, and over 800 back-country huts. There are excellent maps and guidebooks on most areas, and many opportunities for tramping (hiking), mountaineering, hunting, fishing, kayaking and mountain biking.

Nature conservation: national parks

The network of national parks is mostly in mountain regions. By 1900, national parks had been created on Mt Tongariro and Taranaki (Mt Egmont). Large areas of South Island mountain lands had also been set aside for national parks at Aoraki/Mt Cook and Arthur’s Pass. Almost a million hectares was reserved in Fiordland in 1905.

By 2007, there were five national parks spread along the Southern Alps – Nelson Lakes, Arthur’s Pass, Aoraki/Mount Cook, Westland Tai Poutini and Mount Aspiring. Along with Kahurangi, Paparoa and Fiordland national parks, they form a continuous tract of protected mountain lands extending the entire length of the South Island.

Mountains to sea

In the west of the South Island and in Stewart Island, national parks extend from the mountains to the sea. West Coast poet Peter Hooper writes of this region being ‘as beautiful, as mysterious, as rich in elemental spirit as any left upon earth’. 1

Because of these national parks, mountain landscapes enjoy a high level of protection. But in the drier eastern South Island ranges, there are large areas that are not protected.

Painting and photography

Especially in the South Island, mountains have been a dominant theme for New Zealand painters. Early Pākehā artists often depicted mountain landscapes, and 30 of the 49 South Island paintings in Christopher Johnstone’s 2006 book Landscape paintings of New Zealand feature high, snowy mountains, despite the fact that few South Islanders live in such areas.

Mountains have also been important in contemporary photographic books of the New Zealand landscape, like Craig Potton’s New Zealand under the southern sky (1993) or Andris Apse’s New Zealand landscapes (2006). As Potton wrote in 2005, ‘[m]ountains overspread the horizon, calling into question our sense of scale, our sense of place, our sense of ourselves’. 2


In New Zealand writing, mountains are more likely to be a backdrop, with the focus on human lives and interactions. However, there are some cherished works in which mountain regions play a bigger role. Poems include James K. Baxter’s ‘High country weather’ and Denis Glover’s ‘Arawata Bill’. Among significant novels set in the mountains are John Mulgan’s Man alone and Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew.

From the earliest attempts at serious mountaineering in the 1880s, and the first issue of the New Zealand Alpine Journal in 1892, there has been a steady stream of mountaineering and wilderness non-fiction. Many guidebooks have been published in the last two decades, and much New Zealand non-fiction has been written about mountains.

  1. Peter Hooper, Our forests ourselves. Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1981, p. 15. › Back
  2. Craig Potton, The Southern Alps. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2005, p. 9. › Back
How to cite this page:

Andy Dennis, 'Mountains - Mountains and New Zealand culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Andy Dennis, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Feb 2017