Awesome peaks and volcanoes loomed large in Māori life and tradition, and have challenged climbers and inspired artists. The snowy, deeply incised Southern Alps and the Kaikōura ranges form the South Island’s backbone – a mountain axis that continues in the North Island. Many of these grand landscapes are now protected in national parks.
Full story by Andy Dennis
Main image: Mt Owen, north-west South Island
The Short Story
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South Island mountains
Most of New Zealand’s mountains are in the South Island. The 23 peaks over 3,000 metres high are all in the Southern Alps, which stretch for 500 kilometres down the South Island. This is a breathtaking landscape of towering peaks, ice, snow and huge glaciers such as Franz Josef and Fox.
The country’s highest mountain is Aoraki/Mt Cook, which is 3,754 metres high.
In the far south, the Fiordland ranges have steep-sided valleys plunging down to deep, narrow fiords.
North Island mountains
The best-known mountains in the North Island are all volcanoes. The three highest are:
- Mt Ruapehu – 2,797 metres
- Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) – 2,518 metres
- Mt Ngāuruhoe – 2,287 metres.
Quite often, ash is erupted from Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngāuruhoe. Ruapehu’s most recent eruption was in 1995–96. The biggest eruption in the last 200 years was of Mt Tarawera, near Rotorua, in 1886. Over 100 people died.
A long chain of mountains runs through the North Island, from Wellington to East Cape. It includes the Tararua and Kaimanawa ranges.
How mountains form
Several processes slowly produce mountains, including:
- tectonic plates – when they collide they push up the land
- erosion – rainfall wears away rocks, forming scree slopes
- glaciers – as they move they carve steep slopes in the rocks.
The lower mountain slopes are covered in native forest. Above this are shrubs, and then tussock grasses. Still higher, in the alpine zone, are cushion plants or herbfields. Many of these plants have white and yellow flowers.
Native species living in the mountains include:
- the lively South Island kea, the world’s only mountain parrot
- two giant wētā (grasshopper-like insects)
- the world’s only alpine cicadas.
Mountains in New Zealand culture
In Māori tradition, mountains are places of great awe. Many tribes have a sacred mountain that is important to their identity.
Snowy landscapes have often featured in New Zealand paintings and photographs. Poets have written about the atmosphere of the mountains.
In the 1880s, climbers began to tackle the highest mountains. Ruapehu was first climbed in 1886.
The first ascent of Aoraki/Mt Cook was on Christmas Day 1894. Today, about 500,000 people visit the mountain each year.
There are many walking tracks and huts in the mountains, and you can go hunting, fishing, kayaking and mountain biking.