The impressive Southern Alps mountain range forms New Zealand’s great divide, a geological, geographical and politic boundary between the east and west coasts. The Alps are the largest mountain range in New Zealand, and run the length of the South Island – 500km of rugged mountains from Nelson to Milford Sound. Many of the peaks soar over 3,000 metres high, and the tallest, Aoraki Mount Cook, is an internationally famous landmark.
Maori legend tells that Aoraki and his three brothers were out in their waka Maori canoe) when it upended on a reef. Climbing to the top of the waka, the young men waited in the hope of being rescued. Their hair turned white, and over time they were frozen and turned to stone. The waka became the South Island, while the young men are the Southern Alps, their white hair the glowing snow-capped peaks which caused explorer Julius Haast to remark in the 1800s that ‘as far as the eye could reach everywhere snow and ice and rock appeared around us, and in such gigantic proportions that I sometimes thought I was dreaming.’ Aoraki-Mt Cook has strong spiritual significance to Maori. It was restored to the Ngai Tahu tribe as part of the Waitangi settlements. Ngai Tahu then gifted the mountain back to the people of New Zealand, sealing it forever as a national heritage park.
The Southern Alps have lively stories to tell, both in Maori and European history. The first recorded crossing was made by a Maori woman, Ruareka, around 1700. In crossing from the West Coast, she opened the way for the Maori greenstone trails, which were used by the tribes to transport West Coast greenstone (pounamu) for trading. Europeans began to access the range in the 1800s, most notably blazing trails during the gold rush years, when mining towns sprung up overnight and vanished just as fast when the gold ran out.
The mountains rest on a tectonic plate line, the Alpine fault, which forms part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. The pressure of the opposing tectonic forces over many millions of years has formed the Southern Alps. When the Christchurch earthquakes struck in 2010 and 2011, there was fear that the resulting aftershocks could set off the Alpine fault, which could cause massive destruction in the South Island. At Springs Junction, the aftermath of a large 1929 earthquake can be seen in Maruia Falls, which were created when the land split during the quake.
Throughout the South Island, the Alps form the horizon line. They are a timeless treasure, green with native bush, alive with birdsong, washed by waterfalls and frozen in blue-white glaciers. Much of New Zealand’s clean green image is related to this range, and nature lovers, environmentalists, climbers and sportspeople alike enjoy and respect the natural wonderland that is the Southern Alps. Experience responsibly – take only pictures, leave only footprints, so that this taonga (treasure) will be as pristine for the generations of tomorrow as it is today.