Aoraki Mount Cook

At 3,754m, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain. Situated in the Southern Alps on the South Island, Aoraki Mount Cook is in good company.

At 3,754m, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain. Situated in the Southern Alps on the South Island, Aoraki Mount Cook is in good company; there are a couple of dozen other peaks in the Southern Alps that are higher than 3000 metres, which makes this region such a spectacular place to visit.

On a road trip through the South Island, I almost skipped Mount Cook entirely. I had lunch at a lovely little cafe inTwizel, and after hours on the road I wondered whether I really wanted to spend another hour driving the long straight stretch of road to Mount Cook Village; but I am so glad I did!

The weather was splendid and so we stopped a lot along the way. There are a few rest stops and viewing points along Mount Cook Road, which leads straight from Twizel to Mount Cook Village. 

Mount Cook Village

Mount Cook Village isn’t a big place – it is mainly a tourist centre with hotels, hostels, motels, campgrounds and a few shops and restaurants. Only about 230 people live there, most of which are staff of said hospitality providers and tourism operators. The most well-known hotel is most certainly the Hermitage Hotel, which in its current form dates back to 1958. The hotel has seen major renovations and additional wings in 2001. However, tourists have flocked to earlier versions of the hotel since the late 19th century. This is not surprising, considering the views you get from your room!

The Mount Cook settlement also has a great tourist information centre, the Department of Conservation (DOC) Visitor Centre, where bookings for accommodation and activities can be made and displays, DVDs and exhibits inform about the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and its natural environment. There’s also the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, where you can watch a 3D movie about Mount Cook, visit its full-dome digital planetarium, and the museum with lots of information about Sir Edmund Hillary and the history of this alpine region. There are plenty of other things to do, too, from boating on the glacier lakes to fishing, horse treks, 4WD drive tours and, of course, scenic flights, and even guided ski tours in the winter months.

The glaciers

Mount Cook National Park is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Area, the so-called Te Waipounamu, or South Westland world heritage area. Again, perhaps no surprises there, once you’ve seen this region you’ll treasure its beautiful natural landscapes, which were shaped by five glaciers by the names of Tasman, Hooker, Mueller, Murchison and Godley. At 27km length, the Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest glacier.

I was so taken with the spectacular views, the nature and all the information that we decided to make base for a night at the Department of Conservation’s White Horse Hill campsite off Hooker Valley Road. It turned out a great place to stay due to the various hikes and walks starting there. If you don’t have much time or stamina, do the Kea Point Walk, which takes about an hour (return), leads to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall, and gives you excellent views of Mount Cook which you can enjoy from a viewing deck. Other walks starting from the campsite include the Hooker Valley walk, the Sealy Tarns walk (both half-day walks) and the Mueller Hut walk (full-day walk). For more info on walking tracks and routes, just check with the fantastic Department of Conservation, who seem to have all the brochures and leaflets you could possibly want. Here’s a link to their Mount Cook walks brochure.

Another walk I can highly recommend if you’re pressed for time is the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier walk, which starts from a shelter just off Tasman Valley Road. It takes only about 40 minutes (return) and leads past the lakes (which, in the summer, are perhaps more like ponds…) to the moraine wall viewpoint of the Tasman Glacier.

And what about the name?

Aoraki Mount Cook carries two names; one given by European settlers and one by the native Maori. The mountain was named Mount Cook in 1851, after the famous English Captain James Cook. However, for theMaori, Mount Cook has always been known as Aoraki. An old Maori legend says that the Southern Alps came into being when a canoe stranded, and its passengers, including a boy named Aoraki, climbed on top of it and were first frozen by the wind and then turned into stone. To the Maori tribe Ngai Tahu, Aoraki remains the most sacred ancestor.