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Growing Voices

On August 20th I had the great privilege of presenting a talk at Koukourarata Marae, Port Levy, Banks Peninsula. It was my first time on a marae. Cosy lodgings, friendly people and heaps of food soon made me feel more than welcome. I was there to present a speech about having grown up very near to Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park. The idea was to show local young people the awesome reasons why we should all take an active role in making our voices heard as the Aoraki /Mt Cook National Park Management Plan comes up for review.

Here is my talk and some of the images to my presentation.


I would like to start by acknowledging the people of Koukourarata, of Ngāi Tahu, all the people who have come before us, all meeting here today. I have looked forward to this meeting for a few weeks now, and I have enjoyed this afternoon's powhiri and talks. It is an honour for me to be asked to speak here and I am going to share with you some images and stories from my time near Aoraki, which is the connection bringing all of us here today.

My own family and people come from the opposite sides of the planet.

My father's family is German, and my mother's family is from Hokitika, New Zealand.

In Germany, Dad grew up in Marburg, a small university town about the size of Dunedin. My grandfather had a bookshop which has been in our family for 275 years. I always love going back there because everything feels so old, and there are paintings of my ancestors all over the walls in my grandparents' house, it's like seeing into the past. In New Zealand, my family descends from a mix of Scottish, Irish, and French settlers. I always find it quite special to think about how my two families have joined up in this way, across so much distance - especially considering both countries were at war with one another not so long ago.

I was born in Timaru, and grew up in Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie Basin, within view of Aoraki / Mt Cook. My parents set up a mountain guiding company, which meant my sister and I had a rather adventurous childhood.

I feel privileged to share the views I have been lucky to see. A lot of the photos are taken by my Dad Gottlieb, who was a mountain guide. My Dad really appreciated the New Zealand backcountry and saw it as a real wilderness – to him it seemed wonderfully free of people, compared to what he was used to in Europe, where the population density in the Alps is a lot higher. So he loved to go exploring, and took every opportunity to take us with him.

A childhood near Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park

I see the mountains in the Mackenzie and in Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park sort of as “friends”.

I call them friends because I feel like they have been a part of my life since before I can remember. It always feels very comforting to see these old friends again after I've been in a town or overseas a long time.

At age six, Dad took me up Mt Sebastopol, as my first “mountain” - from there I looked at the snowy peaks and I wanted to go up to those places too.

Climbing is also something our Dad always did, so naturally we wanted to follow him upwards.

When I was fourteen I felt very privileged when Dad guided me up to the summit of Aoraki / Mt Cook. I realise Aoraki is the most sacred ancestor for the Ngai Tahu people, so I thought early in my talk, I would acknowledge this. I also wish to say a few words about the reasons for mountain climbing.

People climbing

Why do people climb mountains?

On the surface, it's a sense of physical achievement, a goal, and there is arguably a sense of “conquest” - especially if somebody is the first to reach a summit, or the first to climb a new route or do something more difficult than everybody else.

Freda Du Faur, The Conquest of Mt Cook, 1910

Gottlieb Braun-Elwert climbing through the Summit Rocks on Aoraki / Mt Cook
Rakiroa / Mt Tasman from Aoraki / Mt Cook, at sunrise on 16 October 1999

But for me it's not about conquest. A big mountain cannot be conquered. It wasn't even going into battle in the first place – the idea of battling nature is one that we've made up.

There are so many more reasons for climbing, reasons I have a deeper affinity for. Why climb up there? The answer can be as simple as, “to see what the view is like”... it's about leaving concerns and worries behind in the valley below. You get a nice sense of focus and simplicity, you just want to get from here to there.

What does it feel like to be that high up, at the highest point in New Zealand?

It is emotional for all sorts of reasons. It has not been easy - you got up at midnight, and the climb has taken 13 hours. You've been too cold, too hot, and nervous. You feel a bit light headed from the lack of sleep and altitude. And suddenly there is just space ahead of you, not much more mountain left. You realise your own feet and hands took you up there.

What can you see from up there - what can Aoraki see? He watches over the whole of Te Wai Pounamu. You can see to see both coasts of the South Island at once. That gave me a feeling of smallness and perspective, that will last with me forever. Humans, cars, towns, school, work, all that seems kind of irrelevant.

Finally there is one other feeling that you can't describe. It's quite simply an amazing place to be. This one moment has given me a lifetime of motivation and a deep sense of awe for the mountains and especially for Aoraki not just as a rocky, icy mountain, but a spiritual entity.

Climbing mountains may be seen to be unnecessary and disrespectful. In contrast I feel it has generated a great wonder and respect within me, for the mountain peaks, their glaciers, the weather they create, and all the plants and animals they host. It is also not always the ambition to reach a summit - simply being in the presence of great mountains and looking at them is inspiring.

And when you have to turn around and don't get to where you wanted to, as I've grown older I've realised that the disappointment is only in my own head; to the mountain it doesn't matter at all.

The mountains are not there to be conquered, our ambitions are superficial, and it's definitely not our right to climb them – a lot of things have to be just right on the day and it's like the mountain gives you permission. The mountains will always be there for another day, for us to look at, pass by, and if we are lucky, as a point to admire the world from.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei

If I bow my head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

I was looking up the translation and found that this might mean “be persistent and don't let obstacles stop you from reaching your goal” - but to me it also means, mountains are a big deal, and you are small, so they command respect.

Caroline Hut, Ball Spur

Huts and Ball Pass

Ball Pass is a pass between the Tasman Valley and the Hooker Valley. From here you walk in front of the Caroline Face of Aoraki. Kaitiaki Peak – this peak was named after a group of students on an Aoraki Bound trip crossed Ball Pass with my father. They performed a haka on the pass. Afterwards Dad was presented with a pounamu. He was very moved by the whole journey, he felt it was a great privilege to be acknowledged and respected by the tangata whenua.

Haka on Ball Pass, Aoraki Bound

So, setting out like a bunch of hobbits on a new adventure is pretty much the most exciting thing I can think of. If the weather is good, and you're with a bunch of good people, it can be a wonderful experience.

Of course, you have to be safe. I'm very lucky I grew up climbing with my Dad who was a mountain guide. My sister is now also a guide. There is a lot to learn and mountain guiding means you have to read the mountain, listen to it, and above all, know when it is time to turn back.

Going downhill also needs a lot of concentration. But while you take your time to get past an obstacle, it's a chance to stop and look around at all the parts of a mountain, all the things we have to navigate around as little humans. It seems endlessly fascinating to see all these shapes made by wind, water, and rocks, and time.

And sometimes we leave our own shapes without realising it.

Frozen yeti tracks

Nature details

It's important to think about what sort of footprints we are leaving behind. Because we're not the only ones enjoying the wilderness.


This little guy is a young Rifleman chick. He's hiding in a prickly matagouri bush at the Blue Lakes carpark. A cameraman for a film project I worked on last year, took this photo.

I didn't even know that Riflemen nested in matagouri – I like the contrast in this picture, that the thorny matagouri holds a family of fluffy tiny birds seeking shelter.

The bird is smaller than the diameter of this flower.

Mt Cook Lily, Hooker valley

There are so many little interactions like this happening everywhere, every day, which we might not know about. The nice thing about being in the mountains is you usually change your body clock to get up with the sunrise. In the early morning light at the right time of year there are lots of other faces waiting to greet the sun. Celmisia, Mt Cook lilies are found in the valleys, where they get plenty of water from streams and tussocky ground, which hold lots of moisture. Up much higher, alpine buttercups survive - they look like little rays of sunshine, beaming cheerfully out of the hard rocks where nothing else is growing.

On sunny days these creatures live in quiet places, with the sounds of avalanches and the far off whisper of water running under the Tasman Glacier. Some make their own noise.

I marvel at what they have to survive up there.

Growing up here I realise how special it is to have such a high mountain as Aoraki nearby. It is so obviously the highest, from every angle you look at it. It seems to have a different character from each side, and I'm fascinated by how the same mountain commands a great reverence from each of its six faces.

Symphony on Skis

Another awesome thing to do in the National Park is to go on a long journey through the mountains, not just ascend and descend one mountain. This means crossing the Southern Alps, via a system of passes – that's a low point between peaks, on a ridge.

In winter one of the best ways of enjoying the mountains is to go ski touring. I want to tell you about a special journey called Symphony on Skis.

What is the Symphony on Skis?

A ski traverse is like a well-composed piece of music

It flows with harmony, surprises with the unexpected.

It engages all your emotions

And the melody lingers in your mind afterwards.

Crossing passes is also a means of leaving behind the past, looking at where you have come from and thinking about where you're going next - forward to new horizons. It's a connection.

There is nothing quite like standing on Graham Saddle, and you realise at once how far you have come, and what is ahead of you. You realise how narrow the South Island is – starting from Tekapo, the idea of being near the ocean on the West Coast seems so far away and impossible, but then you see it and realise the Southern Alps are not that wide, you just have to find a way through them.

Seeing the ocean made me think of the end of our journey already – and I didn't want it to finish. But it also made me think of the other times I had stood in that place, as a teenager with my Dad, fifteen years earlier. And made me think ahead about what it might be like in another fifteen years, or much later, when I might take my own teenager up there. I can't bear imagining this place becoming inaccessible, or the Symphony becoming impassable, so when I hear about glaciers receding, and see the changes with my own eyes within my lifetime, it's a real wake up call.

So on that note, with these pictures I hope I have set up another kind of connection between us and the mountains, reminding us how special Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park is.

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