One part of South Canterbury is an area of national distinction. The Mackenzie District has New Zealand’s highest mountains, and its waters have become one of the country’s most important sources of energy.
The area is named after James Mackenzie, a shepherd and would-be farmer. He was captured for allegedly stealing sheep from a large sheep run, but claimed innocence and escaped. He was recaptured and sentenced to five years’ hard labour, but escaped twice more. Later, his trial was found to be flawed, and he was pardoned. Said to be immensely strong, he was admired as a rebel who challenged the powerful and wealthy.
The Hermitage and Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
The first scenic reserves in Aoraki/Mt Cook's Tasman and Hooker valleys were set aside in 1887. The Murchison Valley was added in 1917 and the Godley Valley in 1927. These reserves were consolidated into the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park in 1953. The park is now 72,164 hectares.
This area was explored by Julius Haast in 1862. The first visitors camped near White Horse Hill (where the first Hermitage hotel opened in 1885) or at Governors Bush (where the second Hermitage opened in 1914, and the third in 1958). The first mountain huts were built near the Ball Glacier in 1891 and below Mt Malte Brun in 1898.
In 1882 the first attempt was made on Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain (3,754 metres). It was first climbed by the New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, George Graham and Jack Clarke in 1894. In 1948 a young climber, Edmund Hillary, was on the first ascent of the mountain’s south ridge. Five years later he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to conquer Mt Everest. The face-climbing era that began in the 1950s culminated in the 1970 first ascent of the Caroline Face.
In 1906, Rodolph Wigley founded the Mt Cook Motor Service, which leased the Hermitage hotel from the government between 1922 and 1945, and became a major tourist company. In 1955 his son, Harry Wigley, landed a ski-equipped plane on the Tasman Glacier, starting a new era in tourism at Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Where the former Ball Hut Road now ends, there is a small area known as Husky Flat. In 1956 husky dogs that were to go south with the New Zealand Antarctic Expedition were tethered there for three months before being moved up to the Malte Brun hut for winter training on the Tasman Glacier. In 1929, 15 huskies brought to New Zealand for an American expedition to Antarctica had helped haul building materials for a new Malte Brun hut.
Besides the Aoraki/Mt Cook Company, the Mackenzie Country was home to another major New Zealand firm, Hamilton Jet. In 1921, farmer and engineer Bill Hamilton bought the Irishman Creek station and pioneered a jet-boat for use on the shallow rivers of the area. He also built earth-moving machinery at Irishman Creek. In 1942 the firm moved to Christchurch.
Aoraki/Mt Cook remains a principal tourist destination, and the Hermitage is one of the country’s premier hotels. Helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft sightseeing flights use the Tekapo and Aoraki/Mt Cook airfields. A tourist centre has developed at Glentanner, between Pūkaki and the Hermitage, and there are holiday homes at Lake Tekapo and Twizel.
The possibility of using the rivers and lakes of the Mackenzie Country to generate electricity was recognised in 1904. In 1938, work began on a dam, tunnel and powerhouse at Lake Tekapo, but the station was not commissioned until 1951. A control dam was also built at the outlet to Lake Pūkaki, to make summer meltwater available for power generation in winter.
Upper Waitaki scheme
Construction of the Upper Waitaki power scheme began after the Benmore and Aviemore stations on the lower Waitaki had been built. A construction town was built at Twizel, and a canal took Lake Tekapo water to a new powerhouse on the shore of Lake Pūkaki. Beyond Pūkaki, the flows from Lakes Tekapo, Pūkaki and Ōhau were combined to flow through three more power stations. Lake Pūkaki has been raised by a total of 37 metres (trebling its volume) and a new lake, Ruataniwha, was formed by a dam on the Ōhau River.
The four new stations had a combined capacity of 848,000 kilowatts, and came online through the 1970s and early 1980s. The scheme is important to New Zealand as a whole: more than 50% of the country’s hydroelectric storage is in Lakes Tekapo and Pūkaki.