Australasia’s tallest mountains, the Southern Alps tower over 500km of New Zealand’s South Island/ Te Waka a Maui.
Names: Southern Alps/ Kā Tiritiri o te Moana
Highest point: 3,724m (12,218 ft)
Length of range: 500km
Location: New Zealand’s South Island, between Nelson Lakes National Park in the North and the top of Milford Sound in the South.
First traverse: First European was Leonard Harper in 1857, though Māori had been doing it long before this.
Introduction to The Southern Alps
On seeing the island in 1642, the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman, whom the Tasman Sea was named after, apparently said it was “a land lifted up high”. And it certainly is, with 24 of its peaks standing above 3,000m.
These mountains were formed over the last 45million years by the collision of the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates and are continuing to rise. They are among the fastest in the world at near 7mm/ year, (comparable to Nanga Parbat in the Western Himalayas).
Jump to Walking and Climbing Guide
With over 60% of the South Island covered with ranges over 1500m, this is an enormous and diverse range of mountains, glaciers and lakes bordered by plains, fjords and sounds.
Here, I’ll take you through why the mountains of the Southern Alps are an ideal challenge for your next adventure. But first consider the fact that the first man to climb Everest, Edmund Hillary was a native of this land and cut his mountaineering teeth in the Southern Alps. you will be following in some very well respected footsteps!
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A Note about Language.
Throughout this article, I’ll follow the English names with the relevant Maori names for the mountains and other terms in italics at their first mention. The importance of respecting this bi-culturalism in any writing about New Zealand is visible throughout any visit there and in conversation with any New Zealander.
Understanding the meaning of the Māori names also gives an insight into an understanding of New Zealand that pre-dates the European colonialism that spread from the 17th Century across the globe. I’ll share some of these as we go too, as they add something of special narrative to the place.
Take for example the Māori name of the South Island, Te Waka a Maui, which means ‘the waka (canoe or boat) of Maui’. Maui was a demi-god who is said to have caught the North Island on a magical fish-hook and pulled it out of the sea while sitting in his ‘waka’ and so created New Zealand/ Aotearoa.
Geography of the Southern Alps.
At its highest point, the Southern Alps boast the mountain with the 39th highest prominence on Earth, (the minimum height to climb to the summit). Mount Cook/ Aoraki stands at 3,724m (12,218ft) and was named along with the rest of the range by Captain Cook on the 23rd March 1770.
Clustered around it within the Mount Cook National Park are 23 of the 24 highest mountains in the whole Southern Alps range – all of which stand at over 3,000m (9,843ft).
The Southern Alps run along the Alpine Fault, where two of Earth’s fifteen tectonic plates meet: the Australian to the West and the Pacific to the East. These plates slide passed and collide with each other. These movements cause the earthquakes the residents are well used to!
These earthquakes also create the mountains that make up the Southern Alps, as well as the areas north and south: the Marlborough Sounds and Fjordland. These areas of still bays and steep hills are actually sunken mountains: the result of subduction: one tectonic plate sliding under another.
There are over 3,000 glaciers larger than a hectare dotted throughout the Southern Alps. The biggest is the Tasman glacier/ Haupapa near Mount Cook which is 29km in length and 600m thick. Today it finishes in Lake Pukaki, but towards the end of the Ice Age it stretched for over 115km.
Among other notable glaciers are Franz Josef Glacier/Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere and the Fox Glacier/ Te Moeka o Tuawe. In Māori legend, the ancestor Tuawe fell to his death exploring the Fox glacier area and so it became his final resting place/ moeka. His lover Hine Hukatere understandably wept at this news, and her tears formed the Franz Josef Glacier.
Both glaciers are fast moving, the Franz Josef Glacier moving at up to 5m/ day. The Fox Glacier sits north-west of Mount Cook, running for 12km and descending 2,600m from the edge of the Mount Cook National Park towards the Tasman Sea. It is fed by four alpine glaciers and is 300m thick.
The Franz Josef Glacier, named after the 19th century Austrian Emperor, is a little further north and runs for 13km again out towards the Tasman Sea.
Wildlife of the Southern Alps.
New Zealand is almost untouched by non-native wildlife. 80% of its flora is native, including the famous symbol that decorates the All Blacks’ shirts – the fern. In fact, 40% of fern species found in New Zealand occur nowhere else in the world.
Mountain beech dominates the high altitude forests, though at points the mountain slopes open out into less inviting woody shrubs. At alpine and sub-alpine levels, tussock herb fields contain slow-growing snow tussocks and, at the mountains’ higher altitudes, distinctive curled snow tussocks can be found.
Six hundred species, a quarter of New Zealand’s total flora, are actually found above the tree line, so the Southern Alps are a great place to see rich biodiversity.
Also found in the herb fields of the Southern Alps are the small white and yellow flowers of the Mount Cook lily. Hard to miss, these flowers are not actually lilies but buttercups, hence their nickname ‘giant buttercups’, and can grow to a metre tall with flowers the size of your hand!
The Rātā tree is found in abundance along the South Island’s west coast. This red flowering tree grows to 15m high and supports native birds including the tiu, bellbird and kākā. It’s also part of the same family of trees as the Manuka tree – made famous by the honey produced from its nectar!
In fewer numbers in the South are New Zealand’s Christmas tree, otherwise known as the Pohutukawa. The red flowers on both of these trees are said to represent the blood of a young Māori warrior who fell from heaven while attempting to find help to avenge his father’s death.
Also worth seeing on your adventure are the giant Podocarp forests, remnants of a time when New Zealand was part of the Gondwana supercontinent. Certain species are still found on the West Coast.
To see fauna in the Southern Alps, a good place to look first is up.
The Bellbird/ korimako is recognised best by its song, which Captain Cook described as sounding ‘like small bells exquisitely tuned’. Though more rare now, the forest along the west coast of the South Island is their natural habitat.
The parrot-like Kākā is stunning and happily still found along the West Coast of New Zealand. There are North and South Island specific species, and they have a varied diet from grubs to the nectar of the red flowers of the rātā trees.
Similarly, the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea is also found in the Southern Alps. It nests in the forests and feeds above the tree line on the mountains. A clever bird, numerous YouTube videos testifies to its capacity to break into cars and houses to find some human bought snacks!
However, the introduction of other fauna has had negative effects on the New Zealand wildlife.
These include: the Australian natives the Possum, (introduced to establish a fur trade in 1837) and the Rainbow lorikeet; Rats, the most common of which arrived by early European boats; and the Himalayan native Tahr, which is found on the central slopes of the Southern Alps and looks like a large mountain goat with imposing horns that curve back up its head.
Walking and Climbing in the Southern Alps.
With 24 peaks over 3,000m, and many more below this point, picking out the key mountains is not as simple as it might sound!
23 of these high mountains are within the Mount Cook National Park, located in the centre of the Southern Alps and all are within a 40km of each other. Mount Aspiring/ Tititea (3030m/ 9,941ft) is the only 3,000m mountain outside of this towering cluster, found 140km south.
Elie De Beaumont (3109m/ 10,200ft), named after the 19th Century French geologist, is the most northerly of these high peaks and offers fantastic views back down the chain of mountains towards the highest point: Mount Cook/ Aoraki (3724m/ 12,218ft).
Following Mount Cook, the next five highest mountains are:
• Mount Tasman/ Horo-kōau (3497m/ 11473ft),
• Mount Dampier/ Rangiroa (3440m/ 11286ft),
• Mount Vancouver (3309m/ 10856ft),
• Silberhorn / Rangirua (3300m/ 10827ft),
• Malte Brun (3198m/ 10492ft)
Key Trekking Routes:
Whether you’re trekking, hiking, or tramping (the New Zealand word for hiking), be aware that New Zealand is a popular place for an adventure. You’re advised to book your accommodation, transport and, in some very popular places, your permission to walk well in advance.
In 2011, a new trek running from the northern tip of the North Island (Cape Reinga, 421km north-west of Auckland) to southernmost tip of the South Island (Bluff, just south of Invercargill) was opened. Known as Te Araroa, or ‘The Long Pathway’, this challenging trek of 2996km is made of sections running approximately 300km and runs down the spine of the North and South Islands.
Volcanoes, mountains, valleys and lakes, this adventure will take in all that New Zealand has to offer. However, estimates for length range from 100-160days, so this is something of a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ kind of adventure!
Focussing on the Southern Alps, treks primarily traverse the mountains east to west or west to east. They range from single to multi-day challenges.
The first European traverse was completed in 1857 by Leonard Harper, who went on to become the first president of the New Zealand Alpine Club. He was guided by three Māori guides, who often traversed the route – Harpers Pass – to get the green stone/ pounamu that was crafted into jewellery and passed down Māori family lines.
Guided walks are available at many spots throughout the Southern Alps. With mountains, glaciers and other challenging terrain, if you are tempted to go for one of the adventures below, or any others there, do seriously consider choosing to go with a professional adventure guide.
In Mount Cook National Park in the Central Southern Alps, the Ball Pass Crossing is a 2-3 day adventure that takes you up close to Mount Cook. You also get to walk above the Tasman Glacier, (the Southern Alps longest at 29km), to the crest of the Ball Pass.
Largely an unmarked track with challenging terrain in the traverse between the Hooker and Tasman valleys, this adventure is widely rated as expert. That said, there are various guided hikes on offer that can take you on this trek, or similar routes in the area.
To the south in Mount Aspiring National Park, the Gillespie Pass Circuit is a 3-4 day trek beginning and ending in Makarora. Circling Mount Turner (2150m/ 7054ft) and bordering Mount Alba (2360m/ 7743ft) and Mount Kuri (2141m/ 7024ft) to the west, this adventure follows river valleys lined with silver beech and alpine vegetation. While well supplied with accommodation along the route, this is still a challenge not to underestimate. Beginners should seriously consider booking a guided trip.
There are two famous treks that sit just north and south of the Southern Alps respectively.
To the North is New Zealand’s most popular multi-day trek: the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. This is an ideal option for beginners and takes in the stunning North-East coastline of the South Island. It runs from Marahau north to Wainui on the eastern side of Takatpou Bay, approximately 60km, and doesn’t include too many steep challenges to have to scale!
On the southern end of the Southern Alps is the Milford Track, a summer-only hike in the Fiordland National Park. In winter, some bridges and passages are closed or even removed to reduce the damage possible from avalanches.
It runs from the northern edge of Lake Te Anau to the southern edge of the Milford Sound/ Piopiotahi and is approximately 54km long. Allow four days for this one, being aware that there are only 40 hikers allowed to begin the challenge each day – early registration is vital.
For the more adventurous amongst you, take on the challenge of summiting.
An adventure guide will lead you to the summit of several of the Southern Alps’ highest mountains. Three of the main mountains, Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and Mount Aspiring, are served by certified adventure companies. Each challenge typically runs over the course of a week.
While the peaks are lower than those famous giants of the Himalayas, no mountain should be ever be under-estimated. Never consider taking on this challenge without professional guides and thorough preparation.
Other Adventure Sports:
Alpine & Rock Climbing.
With a range of weather conditions over the course of a year, climbing can be a diverse challenge.
Learning to scale vertical faces made of rock, snow and ice are all well within the realms of possibility. There are many popular destinations, including climbing schools, in the Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring National Parks.
There are rock climbing opportunities elsewhere too. Hundreds of listed routes are available to access online, including those up the craggy cliffs of Charleston on the West coast at the northern end of the mountains. Equally numerous are the routes in the Castle Hill Basin, east of Mount Enys (2194m/ 7198ft) and those near the towns of Wanaka and Queenstown at the southern end of the Southern Alps.
Skiiing & Snowboarding.
Unsurprisingly, skiing and snowboarding adventures are well catered for in the Southern Alps.
At the northern end of the range there’s Hammer Springs and Mount Lyford. Mount Hutt is a purpose built ski resort between Christchurch and Mount Cook. In the South there are still more options, with a number of ski resorts clustered near Queenstown and Wanaka – including ‘The Remarkables Ski-Field’, named after the local mountain range of the same name.
Alpine skiing is a winter season challenge. A chance to adventure across as well as down, you get to explore the glaciers and landscape as you would in the summer hiking – but now covered in crisp snow!
Getting to your Southern Alps mountain adventure should be straight-forward.
To arrive from the North Island, you can take the interislander from Wellington to Picton. Alternatively, fly into Christchurch, Dunedin (much smaller) or Queenstown, where you land in one of the most scenic landing strips in the world. A number of major airlines serve Christchurch, while Queenstown also receives flights from Qantas and Air New Zealand.
Once there, the simplest way to navigate around is by car or camper van. Thankfully there are rental companies dotted across the island, predictably concentrated around urban areas and the airports. Alternatively, there are good bus services that can take you between adventures, or you may prefer to pre-book your transport as part of a guided trip.
However, for a more scenic adventure, the TranzAlpine takes you from coast-to-coast through the Southern Alps over four and a half hours. Just another of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunities the Southern Alps has on offer.
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