Sacred Mountains

Aoraki Mount Cook National Park

Image © Kerensa Pickett

Sacred Mountains

Aoraki Mount Cook is the outcome of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates colliding for many millions of years. The tallest mountain in New Zealand – rising 3764m almost directly out of the sea, remains at the mercy of these impressive geological forces. In 1991 a rockslide caused the summit of Aoraki Mount Cook to break off, reducing its height by 30m. Aoraki Mount Cook National Park was officially formed in 1953 when a 707km2 area was set aside. The park also forms part of the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. The eco-friendly Mount Cook Village provides accommodation and amenities to visitors, and a school for families working in the park. Named Aoraki by Maori, the mountain is the physical manifestation of their most sacred ancestor, providing a link between the supernatural and natural worlds. In 1998 the Ngai Tahu tribe won legal recognition of Aoraki as the original name of the mountain, leading to it being officially renamed Aoraki/ Mount Cook. To Maori, Aoraki requires respect and for this reason climbers generally do not stand on the summit of Aoraki Mount Cook.



To Ngai Tahu, Aoraki represents the most sacred of ancestors, from whom the tribe is descended from and who provide the iwi with its identity and meaning. The ancestor embodied in the mountain is the physical manifestation of Aoraki, the link between the supernatural and the natural world.

Carving of Aoraki and his brother mountains, Aoraki Mount Cook Visitor Centre - © Cliff Whiting


When the early European settler and writer Samuel Butler first saw the country’s highest mountain he questioned whether anyone would ever make the summit. Yet the challenge remained and in 1894 Aoraki’s summit was reached. It was here that Sir Ed Hillary, who later with Tenzing Norgay was the first to summit the highest mountain in the world – Everest – learnt to climb.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, First Ascent of Everest, 1953 -
Image © Royal Geographic Society

Kaki/Black Stilt

The glacial fed waters and braided rivers that flow from Aoraki are also part of this alpine landscape. Within these braided rivers rare birds including kaki have evolved to nest in the rivers disguising their eggs to look like river stones. However introduced pest plants like lupins have reduced the amount of available habitat and allowed predators to flourish. This has resulted in the nesting sites of indigenous birds being especially vulnerable.

Images © Jon Sullivan (left), Paul Schrijvershof (right)

Tourism Today

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park continues to be a popular mountain destination. As well as day hikes and mountain climbing people can enjoy scenic mountain flights, ski down glaciers, and boat on iceberg filled glacial lakes.

Image © Gareth Eyres, Tourism New Zealand

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