New Zealand is composed of two principal islands, imaginatively called the North and South Islands. They both have impressive mountains, but the difference between the peaks on the two islands is striking.
The North Island
The North Island is dominated topographically by large volcanic cones looming over the landscape. The highest is recently-erupted (1996) Mt. Ruapehu (9177'/2797m), in the center of the North Island, and two lower peaks to the north, Mt. Ngauruhoe (7516'/2291m) and Mt. Tongariro (6457'/1968') are part of the same range. All three volcanos are part of Tongariro National Park, and Ruapehu offers skiing at two areas on its slopes, as long as there is no threat of lava flowing down onto skiers.
On an bulge on the North Island's west coast lies another volcano, Mt. Taranaki (8261'/2518m). Also called Mt. Egmont, it is the second highest peak on the island and an alomst perfect cone in the tradition of Mt. Fuji.
The South Island
In contrat to the volcanoes of the north, the South Island's backbone is the high and rugged Southern Alps, among the most impressive and difficult mountains in the world. Although not high by world standards, the range rises almost from sea level and gets hammered by terrible weather all year, resulting in massive snowfalls and extensive glaciers. The western slopes of the Southern Alps are the only place in the world where glaciers descend into the heart of temperate rainforest.
The highest point in the Southern Alps and all New Zealand is Mt. Cook (12,316'/3754m), but several other peaks nearby rise over 3000m, and Mt. Aspring, well to the south, is a
"Matterhorn"-type peak that is just as impressive. Mountaineering in this range is in many ways as challenging as any in the world--extreme paitience is needed to wait out the terrible weather, and the steep, glacier-gouged slopes and their continuous avalanches bar easy access to any major summit. After all, Sir Edmund Hillary learned his craft here.
The Southen Alps overshadow the other ranges in the eastern parts of the South Island, but they can still be impressive. For example, Tapuaenuku (9465'/2885m), in the Inland Kaikoura Range, is still higher than any peak on the North Island. The Kaikoura Ranges, the "Remarkables" series of crags near Queenstown, and other ranges of the sheep-farming country of the eastern South Island are all as dry as the Southern Alps are wet--Mt. Cook and company wring all the moisture out of the wet air attacking the Westland, producing an example of a dramatic rain shadow.