Aoraki's Motley Gang Of Landscapes

24 February 2015
Read Time: 3.1 mins

Roughly half way down Te Waipounamu, the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, running up to the Southern Alps in the west and out to the edge of the plains in the east, lies Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie.

It’s a region with a handful of tiny towns, few people and vast isolated farms. It’s a place that is rich with legends and ripe for adventures, where the earth is spectacular and the sky sublime.

These remote lands at the foot of the mountains were little known, except to Maori who had hunted there for centuries, until, in 1855,  James Mackenzie fled there with a thousand stolen sheep. Mackenzie's story became legend and the ancient Maori hunting ground became the Mackenzie Country, home to hardy graziers, their tireless collie dogs and tough Merino sheep.

We’ve traced Mackenzie’s trail up through peaceful Fairlie, then higher, through hills and bush, to Burke’s Pass.

 Burke's Pass (Credit: Patricia Moore)

Beyond the pass, the land flattens, the sky lowers and the light brightens. Golden tussock stretches away to the horizon on one side. Thick clouds race across the sky and roll down the hills on the other. There's no one here - no other cars - just us, following a straight, undulating line across the empty landscape. There's nothing here but earth and sky. .........................................................................................................................................................

Rock Powder Turns The Lake An Unbelievable Blue

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The road ends at Lake Tekapo.  Framed by Mount John and the Southern Alps and coloured an unbelievable blue by the glacial rock-powder suspended in its waters, the lake gleams in its mountain setting like an opal. On the foreshore stands the little stone Church of the Good Shepherd, a memorial to the Mackenzie country’s pioneers. Nearby, the faithful collie is immortalised in bronze. It’s a scene that has inspired countless paintings and untold photos.

 Snow in the Mackenzie Country (Credit: Patricia Moore)

Tekapo isn’t just a pretty face, however. In winter the skiing is superb on Roundhill and Mount Dobson. In summer the lakes are brilliant for water sports. The scenic walking, cycling and horse trails are stunning in any season. Most weather is fine for a round on the rugged golf course. Any time is a good time to luxuriate at Tekapo Springs. On top of Mount John, the Astro Cafe, is, according to Lonely Planet “the best place on earth for a coffee”. The Good Shepherd Church, with its altar window overlooking the lake, is always perfect for a fairy tale wedding

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The Night Sky Is A Star Attraction

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On any clear night, though, the star attraction here is the sky. Above Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie are 4,367 square kilometres of pristine, Gold Status World Heritage Dark Sky Reserve, the largest, and one of only two, in the world. It’s a rare and magical sight.

On the lakeshore we gaze spellbound at the clusters of stars, clouds of silvery dust and trails of vivid light and wonder  How did it begin? Is there anybody out there? Where does it end?

Mount John Observatory’s Earth and Sky Tours offer a closer look at the stars, through telescopes, with astrologists to address those big questions.

Next morning, we’re deep in the Mackenzie basin. Sometimes a lonely mailbox marks a farm. Sheep, dark with summer dust watch as we pass.  The land slopes upwards and clouds, backlit by a blazing sun, hang low above it.


The movie-maker's dreamland. Discovering the Real Middle-Earth at Hobbiton

See South Island from the sky. Scenic Flights over New Zealand’s South Island


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A Land-Made Movie Maker's Dream

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The road leads to Pukaki, the Long Lake of Middle Earth and a “star” setting in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.  The lake is surreal, rock-powder blue, the land is muted gold and the distant hills are hazy mauve.

Away at the top of the lake, towers Aoraki Mount Cook, his summit crowned with a circle of cloud.  It's a movie dream scene. But behind it lies the cautionary legend of Aoraki, who was exploring here long ago with his brothers, when a vicious wind froze them forever into the peaks of the Southern Alps.

 Lake Pukaki, Middle Earth with Aoraki Mount Cook in the distance (Credit: Patricia Moore)

The land at the top of Lake Pukaki is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It's compelling country to anyone but to adventurers, it’s irresistible.

Aoraki reigns supreme in this magnificent but merciless terrain of soaring mountains, swift rivers, shadowed valleys, glaciers and capricious skies. On Aoraki, Edmund Hillary honed his skills for the conquest of Everest. Against this dramatic backdrop the five armies of The Hobbit met in battle.

There are innumerable ways to adventure here.  Extreme adventurers scale Aoraki and ski down. We take a soft family tramp up the Tasman valley. It leaves us breathless on a high rock ledge, not because of the steep climb, but because the milky glacier lake below, with its floating icebergs, is breathtaking.

 Icebergs in Tasman Glacier Lake (Credit: Patricia Moore)

Leaving Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie, we  pass through Twizel, once a booming Hydro town, now a quiet sanctuary, then through country where canals spill into dams and pylons march across the land.

Our journey ends at Omarama, gateway to the Waitaki Valley. Here, the sky is high and clear and paved with thermal pathways where adventurers from far and wide, including living All Black legend Ritchie McCaw, come to glide. Now, the earth begins to change from gold to green and to fill with dairy cows and sinister ranks of giant irrigators.

Patricia Moore

Patricia Moore is a freelance writer, mainly of travel stories and educational resources. She has published work in the Australian’s Travel and Indulgence section and for VEA (Video Education Australia). She writes regularly on her blog, travelstripe.com. When she’s not out travelling the world, she’s at home in Melbourne, or in her native Aotearoa New Zealand. And, when she’s not writing, you’ll find her in a classroom, somewhere, teaching French, English or Te Reo Maori.