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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 7 (October 1, 1938)

Monarch of the Kaikoura Mountains — Tapuaenuku, 9,467 feet

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Monarch of the Kaikoura Mountains
Tapuaenuku, 9,467 feet

Looking across the wide scree basins toward the spires of the Mitre, 8,600 feet.

Looking across the wide scree basins toward the spires of the Mitre, 8,600 feet.

Beyond Wellington Heads, across the blue open Straits, a grey shadowed outline of the South Island forms a barrier on the far horizon. Towering above the north-east coast of the distant mainland are the Kaikoura Mountains, climbing to over 9,400 feet. From a jumble of foothills rough spurs join broken ridges which form a majestic massif crowned by Tapuaenuku, 9,467 feet, our highest mountain beyond the Southern Alps.

From Wellington many have admired the stately symmetry of this beautiful mountain rising from a base veiled in a soft blue summer haze, or later, when clear winter air sharpens distant views, the frozen icy walls guarding the snowy dome glisten and shine, and high above, the tower of the magnificent peak pierces an azure sky. From Tapauaenuku the main inland Kaikoura Range runs south to Mt. Alarm 9,400 feet, Mitre 8,600 feet, and a chain of peaks and pinnacles fade into the far south. The seaward range forms an eastern boundary and to the west a maze of hills and valleys, ridges and gorges, form a veritable “terra incognita.” For generations Maoris of the Kaikoura coast have known and respected their great peak—Tapuaenuku, which may be translated to the pakeha tongue as, “Footsteps of the Rainbow.”

Early Exploration.

In the old colonial days of 1849 Lieutenant - Governor Eyre, when Governor of the Middle Island, led an expedition to discover a route overland from Wairau to the Canterbury Plains via a pass in the Snowy Mountains (Kaikouras). From the eastern approach the snow-capped cone soaring above its surrounding satellites offered a challenge to the exploration party, and His Excellency planned the first ascent. From their base camp the party climbed for thirteen hours and when within reach of their goal they were reluctantly compelled to retreat in the gathering darkness. Their descent was marred by tragedy, for a member of the party fell to his death from the precipitous heights of the virgin peak.

On their return the “Wellington Spectator,” dated 24th November, 1849, reported their interesting discoveries: “It is believed that no serious obstacles exist to a communication overland from Wairau to Port Cooper. The country is free from timber and though in the neighbourhood of the Snowy Mountains (Kaikouras) the country is hilly and broken by ravines, it would not be difficult to find a pass between the lower ranges; the natives say there is a good ‘road.’ Two very singular facts were observed. Towards the summit of the range, at an elevation of 6,000 feet above the sea, were found remains of large totara trees (many of them charred), some of which belonged to trees originally five feet in diameter, affording proof of the former existence of extensive forests before the upheaval of these mountains, which must have taken place at a comparatively recent period. No vegetation now exists on this spot save a few mosses and lichens. On the lower ranges, also, are sharp pinnacles of conglomerate gravel, which have the appearance of being forced through the surrounding gravel by the mighty agencies which have upheaved them from their original position.”

A climber rests below the rock ridge leading to the summit of Tapuaenuku, 9,467 feet.

A climber rests below the rock ridge leading to the summit of Tapuaenuku, 9,467 feet.

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The Pinnacle, 8,860 feet (in the background) from the floor of the Shin Valley.

The Pinnacle, 8,860 feet (in the background) from the floor of the Shin Valley.

Highest Survey Trig in New Zealand, 9,467 feet.

In 1895 a topographical and trignometrical survey of the district necessitated the erection of a trig-station on the summit of the Kaikoura Range. From the Gladstone Station, in the Awatere Valley, a survey party followed up the Hodder River through precipitous gorges to the south saddle on the main divide. This party carried the heavy tripod and transit theodolite equipment to the top of Tapuaenuku, and to-day it remains the highest trig in New Zealand. When the accurate survey was completed the old name Mt. Odin, which had appeared on early colonial maps, was erased, and the grand Maori title for this isolated prominence was revived.

Unique River Gorges.

The precipitous gorges encircling the base of Tapuaenuku are the subject of an interesting geological report by Mr. Alexander McKay, early Government geologist:—

“These gorges are a wholly unique feature in New Zealand scenery; gorges that are cut in horizontal limestone strata, having a less variety of aspect and a gloomy grandeur, while impressing the explorer with the massive solidity and giant proportions of the great cliffs rising from the deepest part. Yet high above in the sky these terminate in clear-cut pyramidal peaks, gables and roofs, massive below, light and airy above. Architectural in aspect, these vertical walls and steep slopes, bearing just a due proportion of flowering plants and gorgeous shrubs, may be seen and admired, but are not easily described; and when a peep of sky dropping west from the zenith is seen filled by the glistening snows and jagged summits of ‘Tapuaenuku,’ art may strive in vain to copy the beauty, the grandeur, and the majesty of the picture.”

Recent Ascent.

A combined Wellington and Blenheim climbing party planned to attempt Tapuaenuku during the late summer season when the high rock ribs are clear and the mountain is free from snow.
Morning mists in the Hodder Valley.

Morning mists in the Hodder Valley.

Floods on the direct route up the Hodder River forced us into the Shin Valley. From a base-camp at 1,800 feet we climbed towards Tapuaenuku via The Pinnacle 8,860 feet, but our attempt was foiled by adverse weather, and the main party were compelled to return. During a second attempt by J. Magurk and the writer a severe electrical storm drove us back to the sheltered Shin Valley. We decided to adopt “siege tactics” in spite of the words of the wise old psalmist, “The high hills are the refuge of the wild goats.”

A third endeavour to enter the “promised land” proved successful and a high-level route brought us to the head of the Hodder Valley. In this alpine fastness, hidden away in a fold of the Red Hills, mountain sheep and chamois have found a natural sanctuary, and we envied them as they scrambled along the narrow ledges and splintered crags above their highland glen. Later, from the summit rocks of Tapuaenuku, we were rewarded with a view of the vastness of the wild domain.

Alongside pointed the needles on Mt. Alarm, across the wide cree basins rose the spires of the Mitre, below were the shattered knobs of the Red Hills and a maze of minarets and jagged rock outcrops—relics of volcanic action centred in this district aeons ago. The steep fall of the valleys from Tapuaenuku do not hold the glaciers and snow-fields of lesser peaks in our Alps, yet the heart of Marlborough has a rugged beauty of colourful scenic splendour which will always hold a charm for the lover of our high hills.