Trip Planner

History of the Aoraki / Mount Cook Mackenzie Region

The Aoraki / Mount Cook Mackenzie region is rich in history and legend.

Māori history

The Ngāi Tahu (local Māori people) legend of Aoraki / Mount Cook is the story of Aoraki and his 3 brothers. They were the sons of Rakinui (the Sky Father) and they were on a voyage around Papa-tū-ā-nuku (the Earth Mother) when disaster struck and they became stranded upon a reef.

The voyagers climbed on to the top side of the canoe and after a time the south wind froze them and turned them into stone. Their canoe became the South Island (Te Waka o Aoraki is the oldest name for the South Isand) and Aoraki who stood tallest of the brothers is now seen as the majestic Aoraki / Mount Cook with the Southern Alps as his brothers and other members of his crew.

European arrival

European pioneers moved to the area in the 1850s and began extensive grazing of sheep and cattle. The Mackenzie Country is named after New Zealand's most famous outlaw, James Mackenzie, a sheep rustler who, along with his sheep dog Friday, was accused of sheep stealing. He was finally captured in 1855, and after a series of escapes and increasing illness, he was released in 1856 and promptly disappeared forever.

Although helicopters and 4WD vehicles have replaced the bullock trains and horses of the last century, the romance of the high country has not disappeared. The harsh climate and weather conditions still test the people and their dogs to the limit.

 Hydro power scheme, New Zealand.

Hydro power

The potential for hydro electric power from the region's magnificent lakes was first recognised in 1904 with the Hay Report. From this the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme was born. The first stage commenced in 1938 and by the 1980s the scheme had expanded to 5 power stations, and a system of connecting canals now cross the Mackenzie Country like turquoise highways - ribbons of blue on the scorched brown earth.


In the lush pastures of the Fairlie area and the tussockland of the Mackenzie Basin pastoral farming is the main industry and many of the sheep and cattle farms (or stations as they are called here) cover hundreds of acres. These wide open spaces and a very small population contribute to a tranquillity that is a feature of life in the Mackenzie Country and is a welcome inspiration to anyone that wishes to relax here - thousands of feet above worry level!