Aoraki, or Mt Cook, is the sacred mountain (maunga) of Ngāi Tahu and part of the Waitangi Treaty settlement saw ownership of the maunga restored to them. Gifted to the people of New Zealand, Aoraki/Mt Cook is now a National Park.
The Ngāi Tahu legend is that Aoraki, along with his brothers, brought his great Waka down from the heavens in order to visit their stepmother, Papatūānuku. Later, when attempting to return to the heavens, Aoraki misquoted his karakia and the canoe fell back into the water and overturned onto its side.
As the brothers moved on to the back of the overturned canoe they turned to stone, and they remain there today as the principal mountains in the Southern Alps, with Aoraki being the highest. It is for this reason that Ngāi Tahu knows the South Island as ‘Te Waka o Aoraki’.
European pioneers moved to the area in the 1850’s and extensively grazed sheep and cattle. James Mackenzie, New Zealand's most famous outlaw, lends his name to the Mackenzie Country. In 1855, an accusation of sheep stealing saw the capture of Mackenzie along with his sheep dog Friday. Released in 1856 after a series of escapes and increasing illness, he promptly disappeared forever.
Purpose built in the 1970's to house workers building the Benmore hydroelectric scheme, Twizel has a rich but brief history linked to this development in the Waitaki Valley. You will find a display with information on this at the Twizel Events Centre and at the Lake Pukaki Visitor Centre.
Twizel is now a centre for tourism in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Mackenzie region. It has a useful selection of shops, together with a choice of cafés and restaurants. Visiting golfers are welcome at the 9-hole golf course located within the town's boundary. Find more information on the village at Heart of the High Country website.
Fishing is a major activity around Twizel and a short cut to finding the spots with the biggest trout is to hire a fishing guide. Hunting guides take hunters to their choice of thar, chamois, or deer.
In close proximity to Twizel are the Lakes Ruataniwha, Pukaki, and Benmore. Lake Ruataniwha, site of national rowing championships, is within walking distance; Lake Pukaki is a 5-minute drive, while a 10-minute drive takes you to Lake Benmore.
Lake Tekapo, fed by the glacial waters of the Godley, Cass, and Macauley Rivers, is on SH8, one hour from Twizel. The Lake Tekapo township faces north across the startlingly blue lake to the Southern Alps Mountain ranges. On its shores and built from stone and oak, stands the 1935 historic Church Of The Good Shepherd. Another reminder of the past is the symbol of pioneering sheep farming in the Mackenzie – a collie dog statue.
Day or shorter length walks that allow views of mountain peaks, glacier lakes, and moraine are just 45 minutes travelling time from Twizel. Details are available from the Department of Conservation (DOC). Weather forecasts, up-to-date track information and conservation merchandise, including publications and maps, are available at the DOC Visitor Centre.
The alpine tramping routes in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park are for the experienced. The weather conditions can be severe and groups attempting the trips must be properly equipped and well prepared. A professional mountain guide can take you to the peak of Mount Cook (3754 metres) or one of twenty-seven other peaks above 2100 metres.
For those wanting to experience the scenery in relative comfort, there are scenic aeroplane or helicopter flights. These range from the flights over Mount Cook and Westland National Parks, to the famous ski plane landings on the Tasman Glacier and helicopter landings on mountaintop snowfields.