Mount Aspiring National Park has a rich and diverse history, intricately linked to the heritage of the Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu people. Prior to European exploration and settlement the rivers and valleys of the park were explored by Māori during hunting, fishing and resource collection expeditions.
Pounamu was the primary attraction and several well-known trails within the park crossed the Main Divide or utilised the valley systems to connect with settlements on the Otago-Southland coast.
Māori names for the park’s features are rich in imagery and reflect the reverence for which the land is held. Ngāi Tahu’s spiritual connection to the park has been formally recognised in the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998. In addition, three tōpuni areas (Tititea/Mount Aspiring, Pikirakatahi/ Mount Earnslaw and Te Korokā (Dart/Slip Stream) Specially Protected Area) confirm Ngai Tahu values on the land (see Appendix 1 and sections 5.1.1 and 6.4.2).
What is now park land was part of early European exploration and settlement. The Otago gold rushes of the early 1860s brought an influx of surveyors and explorers into the area. In 1863, searching for an easy route to the West Coast, the Main Divide was crossed from east to west by at least four parties. Patrick Caples reached Martins Bay via Harris Saddle/Tarahaka Whakatipu. James Hector and his companions negotiated the difficult Hector’s Col beside the Bonar Icefall below Mount Aspiring/Tititea. Charles Cameron and Julius von Haast separately crossed the much lower Haast Pass/Tioripatea and A.J. Barrington and his companions explored what is now the Olivine Wilderness Area. Their names and those of other explorers are immortalised in places in and around the park.
No payable quantities of gold were found among the mountains making up today’s park. However, the so-called ‘mineral belt’ of the Red Hills has always interested geologists and prospectors such as James Park, Robert Paulin and William O’Leary (Arawata Bill). The western mountains were also the haunt of Charlie Douglas, another important figure in early surveying and exploration. In the late 19th century, Douglas mapped most of the valleys and peaks between the Landsborough and the Pyke and wrote detailed and evocative accounts that are still widely read.
The park has a long mountaineering and tramping history, and the western catchments, in particular, have attracted recreational hunters from throughout the country for many years.
The first confirmed ascent of Mount Aspiring/Tititea (3,033 metres) was in 1909 by Englishman Bernard Head and alpine guides Alec Graham and Jack Clarke. The east peak of Mount Earnslaw/Pikirakatahi (2,830 metres) was climbed much earlier, in 1890, by a Glenorchy local, Harry Birley. It took another 24 years before the more difficult west peak was climbed by Frank Wright and John Robertson. The Otago section of the NZ Alpine Club was formed in 1930, giving impetus to climbing around the Matukituki, Dart and Makarora Valleys. The mountains west of the Barrier Range were not explored until the late 1930s, with exploratory trips undertaken by A.D. Jackson, Jack Holloway and companions, many of them Otago University students. The park’s mountains, particularly Mount Aspiring/Tititea, are a continuing attraction for climbers from around the world.
Despite the traditional use of the park as a route across the Main Divide, first by Māori for mahika kai/food gathering and pounamu trading, and then by early explorers and mountaineers, there are relatively few physical historic remains. There are, however, places of spiritual or cultural significance to tangata whenua and others with traditional links to the park.
The physical sites that do exist include the gold dredge at the top of Dredge Flat in the Dart Valley. Constructed in 1900, after a great deal of effort, it was swamped by flood after six months, having worked just 100 metres of river flat. The dredge remains in situ, though most of its movable parts have disappeared.
The Haast Pass Bridle Track of the 1860s still exists. Other relics include pits and boilers from timber milling at Makarora Bush; scheelite mine tailings, timber rail tracks and cuttings at Lake Sylvan; stone retaining walls and old fences in the Route Burn and Kea Basin.
A number of rock bivouacs throughout the park are still used by trampers and hunters. They form a special link to past explorers and early mountaineers and include the Forgotten River, Olivine Ledge, Scotts and Cattle Flat Bivouacs.
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