Kura Tāwhiti

Today we’re going back to Christchurch’s hinterland, this time to Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill, a place that’s still an important and valued part of the city’s surrounds. But in the interests of full disclosure, I feel like I should let you know that, well, I don’t love it in the way that a lot of people do. I can see that it’s beautiful and those rocks are amazing and the archaeology and history’s pretty cool, too (read on for more of that), but it doesn’t move me in the way that it moves other people. I think it’s the lack of water – I need a lake or, better still, a river, to go with my mountains and tussocks. Now that I’ve got that off my chest…

Kura Tāwhiti. Image: K. Watson.

Kura Tāwhiti. Image: K. Watson.

The occupants of Otautahi/Christchurch have been visiting Kura Tāwhiti/Castle Hill for centuries. In fact, like Aoraki/Mt Cook, Kura Tāwhiti has Tōpuni status under the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998. Kura Tāwhiti translates as “the treasure from a distant land”, which is a reference to the kumara. For tangata whenua, Kura Tāwhiti was an important mahinga kai, particularly for those living at Kaiapoi. It was a source of kākāpō, kiore (Polynesian rat), kiwi, tuna (eel) and weka. And it was closely associated with the Ngāi Tahu trails through the Southern Alps, because of the kai and the shelter it could provide. Ngāi Tahu left evidence of their presence here in the form of rock art.

Pākehā followed Māori in 1858, when the Porter brothers took up what would become Castle Hill station. The Porter brothers may have lived in a stone hut near the quarry on the road into what is now Porters ski field, and I believe that the remains of this hut can still be seen today. Six years later, some more brothers took over the station – the Enys brothers, who were in this farming business for the long haul (Acland 1975). Shortly after the Enys brothers came the gold miners, seeking a route to the West Coast (some hardy souls travelled over the Coleridge pass trail, at the head of the Porters ski area, following an old Māori trail), but then along came Arthur Dobson and now we have Arthurs Pass. (Side note: one other archaeological site near Porters that you should be aware of is the old coaching stop. There’s very little to see today, just some old fence posts and fencing wire, but it’s nice to know it’s there.)

The remains of the hut near the Porters ski area. Image: K. Watson.

The remains of the hut near the Porters ski area. Image: K. Watson.

So, yes, the Enys brothers. There were two of them, John and Charles, and it was John who had most to do with the station and was a regular Renaissance man, being heavily involved in scientific pursuits. And the science he was particularly interested in was that of butterflies (the name of which I will leave as a challenge for you, dear reader), but was also intrigued by plants and geology. Which was fortuitous for him. He is known to have collected fossils from Kura Tāwhiti (now held at Canterbury Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa). And it is perhaps John Enys who is responsible for having brought Kura Tāwhiti to the attention of the wider scientific world – Julius von Haast (director of the Canterbury Museum) visited in 1865 and 1873 and James Hector (director of the Colonial Museum) visited in 1869 and 1872. Enys’s interest in science led him to be the first to identify Ranunculus paucifolius at Kura Tāwhiti (although someone else may have described it earlier) – this is a rare native buttercup (Richards 1951).

The rocks were not just of interest for scientists – capitalists were interested too, because these rocks are limestone, a stone that’s easy to carve and has a beautiful colour that looks fantastic on Gothic buildings. Builders and the like were interested in the stone from at least 1863 (Press 3/5/1863: 2). Fortunately, transporting this heavy material was just too difficult in the absence of rail. Enys quarried some stone for his station buildings, and the Castle Hill hotel (built in 1871, near the modern Castle Hill village) was built from Castle Hill stone (Richards 1951: 6, Taylor 2005: 39). But perhaps the most prominent use of this stone is in our cathedral, Cathedral Church of Christ, Christchurch, where it was used for the font, in the western entranceway and the finial on the spire (Press 20/4/1877: 3, Star 3/6/1881: 3, 23/12/1881: 3). The stone is believed to have been carved by a mason named Davies (Richards 1951: 29). Frustratingly, this has been impossible to prove.

It is reputed that the stone for the cathedral font was cut from this stone. It's now fenced off to preserve the names carved in it. Image: K. Watson.

It is reputed that the stone for the cathedral font was cut from this stone. It’s now fenced off to preserve the names carved in it. Image: K. Watson.

Davie's signature carved into a shelter at Kura Tāwhiti. Image: K. Watson.

The signature of William Davis, carved into a shelter at Kura Tāwhiti. Image: K. Watson.

Enys used the rocks for another practical purpose, establishing yards on the north side of the rocks. Now, the important thing about these from my point of view is that there’s no direct historical record of them: they only survive in the archaeological record. And you too can go and discover them for yourselves today. Just be careful not to turn your ankle in the giant holes left by the posts that have rotted away. Yes, wooden posts. Who knows where the wood came from, but a good distance away.

The remains of a hopper associated with processing lime at Kura Tāwhiti. Image: K. Watson.

The remains of a hopper associated with processing lime at Kura Tāwhiti. Image: K. Watson.

Good heavens, so many words and we’ve not even reached the tourists. And it’s the tourism I find particularly fascinating – in the 1890s, Kura Tāwhiti was a popular health resort, believed to be very good for you because of that bracing mountain air and the spectacular scenery (Press 19/3/1890: 4, Star 25/6/1894: 4). No mention of the hellish coach ride, which would surely have taken several days to recover from. For a while, Kura Tāwhiti was even touted as the ideal location for a sanatorium. But it was the distance – and no doubt the coach ride – from Christchurch that saw Cashmere selected as a more accessible alternative (Press 22/7/1905: 11, 31/8/1905: 2; Star 5/2/1909: 1). The the idea didn’t go away: in the 1930s, the Sunlight League wanted to establish a solarium for tuberculosis sufferers at Kura Tāwhiti (Press 29/6/1934: 12, 6/4/1935: 2). And then there were just the general visitors, seeking to take in the beauty of the area and – as the outdoor recreation movement grew – the walks and other activities. Which leads us straight to rock climbing, and the somewhat more friendly-to-limestone pursuit of bouldering.

When you think about it, Kura Tāwhiti has a number of elements of the New Zealand story wrapped up in one beautiful package: Māori and Pākehā connections (and very likely, the restriction of Māori access to their mahinga kai following the Pākehā take up of land), pastoralism, science, nature, beauty, intriguing geology, tourism and sport. There’s art, too, which I’ve not had to time to mention. And preserving that story is archaeology. All of what I’ve related here can be seen in the physical fabric of the place – and more besides. We’ve only told you half the story.

Katharine Watson


Research by Christine Whybrew, & the Department of Conservation, who commissioned the work that led to this blog.


Acland, L. G. D., 1975. The Early Canterbury Runs. 4th ed. Christchurch: Whitcoulls.

Press [online]. Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Richards, E. C. (ed.), 1951. Castle Hill. Christchurch: Simpson and Williams Ltd.

Star [online]. Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Taylor, I. D., 2005. The Road to the West Coast: A history of the road over Arthur’s Pass. Heritage Press Ltd.



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