| Lady June Hillary (left) and Sir Edmund Hillary being greeted in Wellington on Monday. (AP)
Wellington, March 31 (Reuters): New Zealand today began celebrations to mark half a century since the conquest of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, by the man seen as the South Pacific country’s greatest living hero.
Sir Edmund Hillary, together with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first to scale the 8,850-metre summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953 .
With full military band, mountain climbers, and colourfully-dressed Nepalese and Indians, Hillary rode an open-topped car through the capital Wellington cheered by hundreds wanting to see the tall, self-effacing “ordinary bloke”.
Nepal-born Uddab Neupane, 33, cried as he shook Hillary’s hand at a ceremony watched by about a thousand people in the grounds of New Zealand’s parliament.
“I am too happy today,” he said. “Everyone loves him in Nepal,” he said.
Most of Hillary’s energy over the past 50 years has been devoted to helping Nepal’s Sherpa people who live in the shadow of Everest.
His Himalaya Trust raises money and he has personally helped build 27 schools, two hospitals, 12 medical centres, bridges, pipelines and an airfield.
Prime Minister Helen Clark, who holidays climbing mountains, said Hillary’s achievement had left a big impact on New Zealand’s 3.9 million people.
“This public occasion... starts off a few weeks and months of many celebrations right around the world in honour of you,” Clark said.
She said New Zealanders would be encouraged to assemble at high parts in the mountainous country on May 29 for organised events on what would be known as Summit Day.
They would be asked to donate NZ $ 5 ($ 2.8) — the banknote which is printed with Hillary’s picture — to a charity bearing Hillary’s name.
Many Kiwis believed the former beekeeper’s earthy directness and dry humour epitomised the best in their countrymen.
“I like to think that I am a very ordinary New Zealander, not too overly bright perhaps, but determined and practical in what I do,” he said.
Stooped and wearing a hearing aid, Hillary, born in 1919, said he was getting too old and decrepit to continue his charity work but wanted others to continue.
Hillary's climb won huge media coverage, with news of the ”British” triumph coinciding with the coronation day of Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
After Everest, Hillary led a number of expeditions. In 1958, he and four companions travelled overland in three modified tractors to become the first to reach the South Pole by vehicle.
In the 1960s, he returned to the Himalayas in search of the elusive Yeti and in 1975, he led a jetboat expedition to the source of the Ganges.