The “public pleasuring ground” that is Mount Aspiring National Park was established in 1964.
(Featured Photo: Ross Mackay Stash Media Workx)
THESE 3562 SQUARE KILOMETRES HOLD RAMBLING RIVERS, POINTED PEAKS AND MORE STORIES THAN A KEA COULD PICK AT. ESTABLISHED IN 1964, MOUNT ASPIRING NATIONAL PARK WAS NEW ZEALAND’S TENTH NATIONAL PARK (THERE ARE NOW THIRTEEN) AND IT’S ARGUABLY THE MOST DIVERSE. IT’S ALSO ONE OF THE LEAST DEVELOPED, A POCKET OF AOTEAROA THAT HAS NOT CHANGED AS DRAMATICALLY AS SOME OF ITS NATIONAL PARK SIBLINGS.
There are two things on a national park’s order of business: conservation and pleasure. Yellowstone National Park (USA) is hailed as the world’s first national park, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. The Act designated Yellowstone as a “public pleasuring-ground”, which would be preserved from “injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.” It was the tail end of the Romantic era in the West, and the country was still reeling from the devastation of the American Civil War (Grant had been the supreme commander of the Union Army in the war – ironically, it was under his command that Union forces pursued a “scorched earth” policy as they marched south in pursuit of the retreating Confederates); some individuals were cottoning on to the idea that landscapes could be enjoyed aesthetically, without plundering their resources, or shooting the place up.
Yellowstone’s enshrinement as a national park was aided by government geologist Ferdinand Hayden, who brought pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson and landscape artist Thomas Moran with him to explore the park in 1871. The art of Jackson and Moran helped lawmakers and the public recognise the beauty of the region, as well as realise that pleasure could be a resource.
Meanwhile in Aotearoa, European settlers were busying themselves clearing native forests for farmland. Conservationists inspired by Yellowstone saw potential for similar parks to be created here. But it was Horonuku Te Heuheu Tūkino IV, Paramount Chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, who got the concept rolling. The volcanoes of the central North Island, Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu, were sacrosanct to Te Heuheu and his people, but there was a risk they would be split by the Māori Land Court. Te Heuheu wanted to protect and preserve the area for his iwi and all New Zealanders: “If our mountains of Tongariro are included in the blocks passed through the Court in the ordinary way, what will become of them? They will be cut up and perhaps sold, a piece going to one pakeha and a piece to another. They will become of no account, for the tapu will be gone. Tongariro is my ancestor, my tūpuna; it is my head; my mana centres around Tongariro.”
Knowing the British are partial to a bit of paperwork and law-writing, he entered into a partnership with the Crown to ensure Tongariro would be protected. In 1894, Tongariro National Park was established – the first in Aotearoa and the fourth national park on earth. In 1993, the park became the first in the world to be added to the World Heritage List under new criteria of Dual World Heritage sites, which recognises the site’s cultural and spiritual importance as well as its outstanding geographical features.
In the Southern Alps, reserves around Aoraki Mount Cook were set aside in the late 1800s “to conserve for all time a place whose beauties would not be easy to exaggerate and will undoubtedly be one of the attractions of the globe.” Unfortunately, the emphasis was on enjoying the parks rather than preserving them, and deer, goats and other game animals were released into the parks as sport for hunters. Heather was sown to provide a habitat for introduced game birds, and lupins were planted “for extra beautification”.
By this point, Mount Aspiring and its surrounds was already getting a lot of attention. The area was rich in resources; Māori passed through and lived in the region, sourcing food, hunting moa and looking for stone such as pounamu, porcellanite and schist. (These rocky resources have not been forgotten; in 2009, under the National-led government, leaked documents suggested parts of the park could be opened up to mining for tungsten and rare earth elements.)
In te reo Māori, Mount Aspiring is Tititea, meaning ‘peak of glistening white’, and this is the name the mountain is increasingly known by today. The chief surveyor of the Province of Otago, James Turnbull Thomson, was the first European to record the peak. On Friday, December 23, 1857, he noted in his field book, “Distant about 40 miles is a very lofty peak which I called Mt Aspiring.” It is this glistening white peak, often called the Matterhorn of New Zealand, which has continued to drive the area’s popularity. Climbers became obsessed with scaling the peak and writing about, painting or photographing its beauty. In 1923, Eric Miller, a mountaineer who mapped out several of the routes on and around Mount Aspiring, wrote; “If a shelter were established at Shovel Flat and a track cleared through the previously-reviled pocket-picking scrub in the valley, thus making the mountain easy access, there is no reason why Aspiring should not become the most popular climb amongst mountaineers in Otago, and the foothills and wonderful valley of the Matukituki as much frequented by tourists as any part of the hinterland.”
“THERE ARE TWO THINGS ON A NATIONAL PARK’S ORDER OF BUSINESS: CONSERVATION AND PLEASURE.”
The uncertainty of the Depression era, coupled with increasingly industrialised and centralised lifestyles, drove people to dream of wild and unspoilt places, and neo-romanticism continued to grow amongst the post-war generations. Mountains are unchanging, graceful and predictable things (at least, in the average person’s lifespan they are) – the perfect antithesis to an uncertain world. Finding oneself in the mountains became a must-do form of therapy and tourism in the region ramped up. Railways made the south more accessible and in 1901, the newly-minted government tourism department launched with the mission statement: “Pioneering the country for the pleasure-hunter”. More than a century before Instagram influencers and bloggers got to it, English poet and suffragette Blanche Baughan wrote ‘The Finest Walk in the World’ (1908) about Fiordland’s Milford Track in such sumptuous prose it unleashed a flurry of visitors to the area. The Routeburn Track was already seeing its fair share of visitors too, thanks to infrastructure and accommodation like the 1868 Kinloch Lodge.
Photo Credit: Hockney Collections – Uare Taoka O Hakena, University of Otago
The jagged edges of the park’s mountains were the ultimate playground for man-versus-mountain types from across Otago (and the world). The Otago section of the New Zealand Alpine Club was launched in 1930 and the idea of Mount Aspiring becoming a national park was first floated in 1936. One of the early members of the Otago Alpine Club, W. Scott Gilkison, echoed Miller’s predictions that the region would only become more popular as it became more accessible. Recalling the erection of the original Cascade Hut and the original Aspiring Hut, he wrote; “The official opening of the hut, at Easter, 1949, was a great occasion attended by more than one hundred climbers from all over New Zealand and was later made the theme of a News film distributed by the National Film Unit. Since then the Aspiring Hut has been a very popular rendezvous, particularly during the climbing season, for climbers on the way to or from the peaks.” In his book, Aspiring New Zealand, The Romantic Story of the “Matterhorn of the Southern Alps” Gilkison goes on to describe the ill-fated attempt of young poet James K. Baxter, film director Brian Blake, composer Douglas Lillburn and painter John Drawbridge to create a ‘cinematic poem’ about their ascent to Mount Aspiring’s glistening peak:
“At Christmas 1949, came another attempted invasion of the mountain – this time by a fully organised official expedition of the National Film Unit, complete with a supporting team of poets, artists, pack-men and mountaineers, and all other necessities for such a venture […] everything was planned – except the weather! For once, Aspiring showed her displeasure at such a large-scale invasion.”
In 1967, Paul Powell wrote Men Aspiring, in which he describes meeting Gilkison and other Otago climbing pioneers in a 1943 New Zealand Alpine Club meeting; “All of them had tall tales to tell of adventure in the Otago Alps. Since then, Aspiring has lured me back to wander there for over 20 years, but I cannot altogether explain its white magic for me.”
Powell was more self-aware of his role in the increase of people pleasure-seeking in the mountains. Three years after the region officially became Mount Aspiring National Park, he wrote; “I will always climb there for fascination of untrodden places, for the beauty of form and the line where rock and snow curve to the sky, or for the friendships that are made on mountainsides.”
Mount Aspiring was already being treated as a national park by the time its status was enshrined in 1964. It’s there to be enjoyed, but also protected. Today, Aotearoa’s national parks play the same juxtaposing roles: increasingly centralised lifestyles and sedentary jobs mean the mountains are still an important place to be enjoyed culturally and spiritually. But climate change and a heavily populated world mean we have an important duty to protect the park too, beyond simply marking it on the map.
BETHANY G ROGERS
ORIGINALLY FROM NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE BETHANY G. ROGERS TRAVELLED THE WORLD A LITTLE BEFORE BECOMING ‘STUCK’ IN NEW ZEALAND. WHEN SHE’S NOT WRITING SHE CAN BE FOUND HIKING, TRAIL RUNNING, PADDLE BOARDING OR BOXING. BGROGERS.COM