Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku


Marlborough's Sacred Mountain

The peak of Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku, which can be seen from all over Marlborough - and from parts of Christchurch, Taranaki and Wellington on a clear day, is New Zealand's tallest peak (2885 m) outside the Southern Alps.1 From the earliest days of European settlement, the summit has attracted mountaineers, including Sir Edmund Hillary.

Mt Tapuae o uenukuMt Tapuae-o-uenuku from the highway near the mouth of the Clarence River. Hugh van Noorden. Copyright 2013
Click image to enlarge

Located in alpine reserve in the Inland Kaikoura ranges, Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku, is the sacred mountain of the Kurahaupo tribes of Marlborough.  The story of its origins dates back to AD825, when two chiefs, Makautere and Tapuae-o-Uenuku, were searching for food-gathering places along the Kaikoura coast and inland.  The Waiau-Toa and Waiau-Uwha Rivers reminded Tapuae-o-Uenuku of the tears of his wife, left behind in Hawaiki. The mountain near where the two rivers meet during the spring thaw, bears the chief's name.2

Marlborough's Rangitane also have a tradition that an earthly chief sought his spiritual wife and child by climbing up to heaven via the rainbow of their ancestor, Uenuku, a tribal war god. Ngā Tapu Wae O Uenuku are ‘the sacred steps of Uenuku'.The mountain's name has often been incorrectly written as Tapuaenuku.

In 1859, eminent geologist, Dr. Ferdinand Hochstetter  gave a public lecture:  "It is well known that the high peaks of the Kaikoras, covered with perpetual snow, are of volcanic origin. My friend Haast describes the aspect of the three gigantic cones visible from the Awatere valley as most magnificent; three Mount Egmonts, one behind the other ; the first one, Tapuaenuku (or Mount Odin) 9,700 feet high, a closed and rounded dome similar in shape to a cupola......." 4

:Tapuaenuku (Tapuaenuku ("Mt Odin"). 1874. [Weld, Frederick Aloysius] 1823-1891  Alexander Turnbull Library, A-269-004. Ther permission of ATL must be obtained for further use of this image.
Click image to enlarge
Mt Tapuae o uenuku1A view of Mt Tapuae-o-uenuku from a commercial flight. Hugh van Noorden. Copyright 2013
Click image to enlarge

In fact, the range consists of cretaceous greywackes and associated volcanic rocks, which have been rapidly uplifted to form extremely steep and highly dissected mountains with many gorges and peaks.5

The first written reference to the mountain was made on February 7, 1770, by Captain James Cook as he sailed through Cook Strait:  "Over this land appeared a Prodigious High Mountain, the summit of which was covered with snow."6

On November 12, 1849, Edward John Eyre (the Governor of New Munster) and W.J.W. Hamilton, seeking a stock route through to Canterbury, made the first known European attempt on the summit of the mountain. Accompanied by seven Māori, they turned back 15 minutes from the top. On the descent, slid to his death on the ice. The Māori climbers refused to go any further and the attempt was abandoned.7

It was not until April 1864 that a party of three, led by Nehemiah McRae, made the first known complete ascent. They left a bottle with a £5 note at the summit, which was ‘claimed' 10 years later in April 1874.8

Annie and Florence Parsons of Kaikoura were the first European women to reach the summit.  They ascended from the Clarence River side, with a party of climbers which included George McRae (eldest son of Nehemiah) in February 1890.9

In the winter of 1944, when training for the RNZAF at the Delta Camp, a young Edmund Hillary was  fascinated by the snowy summit he could see from the camp.10 One weekend, he set off at 5 am from Shin Hut for the summit, reaching it by midday: "A strong, cold wind had sprung up and I worked my way very slowly up to the Pinnacle at 8,800 feet....I was in a spectacular position. To the west above heavy clouds towered a range of snow capped peaks....To the east was the blueness of the sea stretching all the way to Wellington." On his return to the Delta Camp, he was tired, dirty and unshaven but happy: "I'd climbed a decent mountain at last."11

The inland and seaward Kaikoura ranges support a large number of threatened plant species, endemic flora and indigenous animals.12

Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku and surrounding peaks have continuous snow cover in the winter which may persist into summer. The area is steep and dissected and gales are frequent. But the distinctive peak still attracts climbers, with an average of 1.5 attempts made on the summit each week.13

New Zealand's Most famous Mountaineer Remembered his first Mountain

Throughout his life Hillary remembered the first mountain he climbed, the 9,645-foot Mount Tapuaenuku -- "Tappy" as he called it -- in Marlborough on New Zealand's South Island. He scaled it solo over three days in 1944, while in training camp with the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War II.

"I'd climbed a decent mountain at last" he said later. Like all good mountaineers before him, Hillary had no special insight into that quintessential question: Why climb? "I can't give you any fresh answers to why a man climbs mountains. The majority still go just to climb them."14

2010. Updated Jan 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. New Zealand. Dept. of Lands and Survey (1986)  Tapuaenuku Scenic Reserve management plan Blenheim [N.Z.] : The Department, 1986,   p 4.
  2. Mitchell, Hilary & John: (2004) Te tau ihu o te waka a Maui: a history of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough, Vol 1: Te Tangata me Te Whenua: the people and the land .  Wellington, N.Z.: Huia Publishers and Wakatu Incorporation, Nelson, p 30.
  3. Mitchell, Hilary & John, p 31.
  4. Lecture on the geology of the Province of Nelson by Dr. F. Hochstetter (1859, October 26) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 1(supplement) 
  5. Williams, P.A,. (1989) Vegetation of the Inland Kaikoura Range, Marlborough. New Zealand Journal of Botany abstracts 
  6. Kennington, A.L.  (1978, 2007) The Awatere: A  District and its People. Cadsonbury Publications, Christchurch, p 200 
  7. Kennington, p 200. 
  8. Kennington, p 202. 
  9. Kennington, p 203. 
  10. Kennington, p 204. 
  11. Hillary, Edmund (1975). Nothing Venture, Nothing Win.  New York : Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, p 33-36 
  12. Nga Taonga O Ka Whata Tu O Rakihouia, Nelson/Marlborough Conservancy Fact Sheet 166. Retrieved from Department of Conservation. 
  13. New Zealand. Dept. of Lands and Survey (1986). pp1-6.
  14. Sir Edmund Hillary, first to climb Mount Everest, dies at 88 (2008, January 11)  Associated Press.  

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  • The mountain also features in this 1841 watercolour image of the entrance to Port Underwood by Edwin Harris, held by Puke Ariki, Accession number A65.904

    Posted by Kathryn, 15/07/2022 2:28pm (2 years ago)

  • the photo by Phillip Capper (top right) is not of tapuae-o-uenuku. Ed. we will check. Thankyou

    Posted by Hugh van Noorden, 31/10/2013 10:33pm (11 years ago)

  • can you tell us the story as well...coz i would like to read it...coz its very plz? :) Ed. Let us know what you want to find out and we will do our best to assist!

    Posted by EteliniManoa, ()

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