At the source of history: Dart River, Aspiring National Park

Justine Tyerman is an award-winning travel writer from Gisborne, New Zealand.

My fingers traced the cool contours of the mauri pounamu touchstone. The massive chunk of pounamu (jade), centrepiece at the Dart River Jet visitor centre in Glenorchy, was alternately smooth and rough in texture. 

His name was Te Matua o Manatu meaning “precious reminder from the throat of the reclining giant, Te Koroka”. He stood on a pathway where ancient Maori once trekked, searching for pounamu.

Eight hundred years ago, Maori were the only people here – first the Waiaha tribe, then Ngati Mamoe and now Ngai Tahu. It was here that Maori first discovered the home of the pounamu giant, Te Koroka. High in the mountains, they found him resting with a seam of pounamu tumbling from his gaping mouth. The giant became famed throughout the whole country for his pounamu, treasured equally for its utility and its pearly allure.

Trade, economy and culture were built around this precious resource. Then with the arrival of Europeans some 200 years ago, Maori lost their connection to Te Koroka. When the first European explorers encountered these shores, they too heard tales of the celebrated source of pounamu at the head of Lake Whakatipu-wai-maori (Lake Wakatipu.)

Preserved in memory, song and oral tradition, the exact location was unclear until the pounamu taonga (treasure) was rediscovered on Pekerakitahi (Mt Earnslaw) in 1970. This sacred pristine source of pounamu is now fiercely protected by the Ngai Tahu tribe as the tangata whenua (people of the land), and the state. He is a lasting remnant of ages past, one that evokes the spirits of the ancestors, the first people to travel these ancient pounamu trails.

The throb of the Hamilton jet engines in the distance disturbed my contemplation and brought me tumbling back to the present. We were about to set off on an expedition up the Te Awa Whakatipu (the Dart River), in Te Wahipounamu, a Unesco World Heritage Area. The day ahead would be richer armed with my knowledge of Te Koroka and Te Matua o Manatu.

Take a jet boat ride to the heart of the Mount Aspiring National Park.

After a quiet start to the day, the high-octane exhilaration of the jetboat ride set my heart pounding and pulse racing. I sat on the edge of my seat, enthralled as our jetboat driver Daniel took us ever deeper into the Aspiring National Park and the southern reaches of the Main Divide, weaving our way up strands of the braided river at the foot of tall mountains named after Greek gods – Pluto, Nox, Amphion, Chaos, Poseidon.

The beautiful silvery face of Pekerakitahi was wet with tears of melting snow. My eyes searched the mountain and clear waters of the Dart, hoping for a glimpse of pounamu. I convinced myself I could see the elusive green stone.

I was high on negative ions, intoxicated with the sweet taste of the air, the shock of the ice-cold spray whenever Daniel performed one of his heart-stopping 360s, the dazzling turquoise waters of the Rockburn Chasm where a giant’s sword had sliced a deep gash in the side of a mountain, and the throaty roar of the twin Hamilton jet engines.

Take a Dart River Funyak through the Rockburn Chasm

We followed Pam up a shingle bank and entered another world, a forest wilderness with no tracks or signposts. The bright sunlight, towering mountains and silver river were replaced by the tall, gaunt trees and diffuse, mottled light of the beech forest where the only sounds were bird calls, gurgling streams, and the muted footfall of boots on the spongy leaf-litter carpet. 

Pam knew the forest like the back of her hand, retracing the steps of early saw millers and prospectors. She led us along the route of a tramway built in the 1920s to transport logs out of the forest for the construction of bridges, buildings and car and bus bodies. A wheel and some rusty kerosene tins were all that remained of what was once a busy thoroughfare.

We also came across the debris of a gelignite explosion where a hopeful prospector had blasted away a cliff face in the 1950s in hope of finding tungsten, the metallic element of scheelite, an ore in demand during both World Wars and the Korean War for its metal-hardening properties. His identity is a well-kept secret because there are family members still living at Glenorchy, Pam said.

Our lunch venue was sublime. Sitting on a log in the warm winter sunshine, munching hearty sandwiches by the remote Sylvan Lake in the company of cheeky South Island robins as far superior to any fancy gourmet cafe.

A South Island robin stops by our lunch spot at Lake Sylvan

It was a day of extreme contrasts – the mauri pounamu touchstone grounded me in history. Daniel and his twin Hamiltons administered a hefty shot of adrenalin while the majestic glacier-gouged mountains enthralled me. The peace and solitude of the beech forest soothed me and the simple picnic lunch beside a pristine alpine lake delighted me.

Late afternoon, Pam drove us back along the magnificent 46km lakeside road to Queenstown, rated one of the top ten scenic drives in the world by Conde Naste and Lonely Planet.

The mountains were under a cloud shroud when we drove to Glenorchy early in the morning but they were dazzlingly clear on our return trip. Tourists on the road that day got a bonus – there were two of everything, mountains upright in their usual position and upside down in the looking-glass lake. It made my Kiwi heart soar with pride.

Sunshine peaks through as we make our way along an avenue of native red beech trees.

Fact box:

Getting there: Air New Zealand

Staying there: crowneplazaqueenstown

* Dart River Jet, the only operator on the Dart River, and Guided Walks New Zealand, the only company permitted access to the Ultimate Nature Experience wilderness area, are both owned by Ngai Tahu Tourism. 

* The Ultimate Nature Experience is a flexible 4 to 7km easy to moderate hike on unformed trails. Transport departs from Queenstown at 8am with pick-ups from all Queenstown accommodation.

Justine Tyerman was a guest of Ngai Tahu Tourism. 

Written by Justine Tyerman. Republished with permission of