New Zealand – Maori stories and Aoraki/Mt. Cook

In a discussion group at my church, we talked about creation stories. We discussed different ways they have developed and how literally (or not) they were meant to be interpreted. One statement from a Native American sticks in my mind: “It may not have happened just this way, but I know it is true.” In a deep way, beneath the words and symbols, these stories express how the members of each culture see their identity in relation to the world to which we belong.

The Maori lived close to the land and drew their sustenance and identity from it. Their stories of the origins of the earth, life, people and the features of the land reflect their deep identification  with the land and their respect for it.

The mountains–and especially Aoraki (Mount Cook)–are central in the Maori story of the origin of the South Island. After the Sky Father wedded the Earth Mother, some of the Sky Father’s celestial children came down in a canoe to greet their father’s new wife. After cruising around the Earth Mother, who lay as one body in a huge continent known as Hawaiiki, four brothers set out to explore. Finding no other land, they tried to return to their celestial home, but their incantation didn’t work. Their canoe fell back to the sea and turned on its side. Aoraki and his three brothers climbed onto the higher western side. The canoe and the brothers turned to stone and became the South Island. Aoraki, who had climbed the highest, became Mt. Cook, and his three brothers became the three highest peaks near Aoraki.

This page from the Department of Conservation’s website explains the place of Aoraki in the Maoris’ spirituality and sense of identity and tells the story in more detail. In the discussion, the Ngai Tahu are the Maori of most of the South Island. Tapu means sacred, and mauri is life essence, life force, energy, life principle. Atua are dieties, and an iwi is a tribal kin group or nation.

We were about to See Aoraki/Mt. Cook ourselves, and to walk near it. We would experience the sheer size and wonder of these mountains, their glaciers and lakes. We would come to appreciate the reverence the Maori have for these mountains and to feel a spiritual connection deep in our own beings.


Arriving from the south, we drove through the small town of Twizel. Ahead of us on the left the Ben Ohau Range rose steeply, with the knot of snow-covered peaks near the Main Divide in the distance. Six kilometers farther on, we crossed the canal leading from Lake Pukaki to a hydroelectric project. Even this far from glaciers, the water was a striking milky light blue color from finely ground rock powder produced by their action. Then we were traveling above the western shore of the 29-kilometer lake. It had the same milky blue color.

After checking in at Glentanner Park (reasonably-priced rooms and camping in  full view of Aoraki), we continued on to Mt. Cook Village.

Only a few kilometers east of the Main Divide, the Village is close below the Hooker and Mueller Glaciers. Mountain walls rose steeply above us. The moist wind from the Tasman Sea blows across and down from these heights. This afternoon a strong cold wind was blowing down the valley across snow and ice and hiding the upper slopes in cloud: a fitting introduction to the weather mountaineers here must deal with routinely. It underscored the tremendous energy in and around this living mountain environment.

We stopped in at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, the museum below the Hermitage Hotel devoted to the great climber and to alpinism. Outside in a courtyard was a more-than-lifesize bronze statue of the man himself with pack and ice axe, gazing out at the heights still, and ready to go.

We were now ready to see Sir Edmund’s mountains, walk on their lower slopes, and breath their spiritual essence.


About David McCoard

After earning my MS in geology I've done various things including managing the ski touring program at a small lodge in the Sierra. In 2010 I retired from Contra Costa College in California. I've always been fascinated by the mountains and nature and have spent countless days hiking, backpacking, climbing and skiing in the Sierra. The spiritual insights I've learned there have set the course for my life. Now I have time to share them and strike up a conversation.
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