Te Wahipounamu's Rivers of Ice

By Whitelaw, Sonny | The World and I, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Te Wahipounamu's Rivers of Ice


Whitelaw, Sonny, The World and I


Showcased by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, it's no surprise that Te Wahipounamu [1], the South West region of Aotearoa New Zealand, is listed as a World Heritage area. Encompassing more than 40 separate protected National Parks, Wilderness and Wildlife Management Reserves covering 2.6 million hectares, it stretches 280 miles along the western coastline of Te WaiPounamu South Island, from the sea to an elevation of 12,349 feet (Aoraki Mt. Cook) extending inland as far as 56 miles in places. Dominated by majestic, snow-capped peaks and dotted with countless sapphire lakes, waterfalls, fjords and valleys reminiscent of Middle Earth's Rivendell, the region is home to hundreds of the world's most active glaciers. And the star attractions, two massive tongues of jumbled blue, black and white ice snaking down through wide valleys, are Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere, Franz Josef Glacier and nearby Te Moeka o Tuawe, Fox Glacier.

Maori legend, history and culture

The entire region is of deep significance to the Ngai Tahu tribe, whose ancestral territories cover all except the extreme northern parts of South Island. According to legend, Te Wahipounamu was formed when the four sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father, descended from the heavens and set out on a voyage around Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother. Disaster struck when their canoe hit a reef, stranding them. An icy wind from the Tasman Sea froze them into stone, and their canoe became the South Island, Te Waka o Aoraki (literally, 'the canoe of Aoraki') The tallest of the brothers, Aoraki, is now the majestic Aoraki Mount Cook while his brothers and other crewmembers form the Southern Alps.

The Maori names for the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers, Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, and Te Moeka o Tuawe, come from the legend of Hinehukatere, who loved climbing in the mountains and persuaded her lover, Tawe, to accompany her. An avalanche swept Tawe to his death, where he came to rest in Te Moeka o Tuawe (literally, 'the bed of Tuawe') Fox Glacier. Broken hearted, Hinehukatere cried many tears that froze to form Franz Joseph Glacier, Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere ('the tears of Hinehukatere').

The area was--and still is--an important source of pounamu greenstone (jade) a precious stone used for Maori tools, weapons and jewelry. Recent archeological evidence has revealed that that there were once large Maori settlements at Okarito, Mahitahi Bruce Bay, and Makawhio Jacobs River. However, fifteenth century earthquakes and tidal waves in this tectonically dynamic area most likely were responsible for the abandonment of permanent settlements until European times.

While retaining their rich cultural heritage, most Maoris now live a similar lifestyle to the Pakeha (non-indigenous) settlers. But few people--Maori or Pakeha--live in this region, known locally as the 'Wild West Coast'. Okarito, for example, has a permanent population of only 26 people, while the largest town, Hokitika, is supported by (mostly) Maori artisans who fashion greenstone into fabulous jewelry and decorative pieces. Even townships such as Fox and Franz Josef (total population 600) exist solely to service visitors to the glaciers, and everyone, Maori and Pakeha alike, proudly recognize the intrinsic worth of Te Wahipounamu's astonishing, untamed beauty.

The region is listed as a World Heritage area not because of its cultural or historic significance, but because it is recognized as one of the world's foremost natural landscapes with an extraordinarily rich biodiversity where the impact of humans is confined to a few small settlements and a narrow strip along the main highway, and where some of the best modern representatives of the original flora and fauna of Gondwanaland still exists today.

Geological History

To understand why this extraordinary landscape has come about, it's necessary to step back in time 85 million years to when New Zealand separated from Gondwana, the super-continent comprising Antarctica, Australia, Africa, South America, and India. …

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