A man & his dream

Today I'm going to tell you about what is possibly my all-time favourite archaeological site (there is another contender, but it doesn't have any connection to Christchurch or Canterbury so is unlikely to feature here). I reckon this site has pretty well everything going for it: a spectacular location, cool archaeology just lying around waiting to be explored and an excellent story. You see, it’s the story of a person (a man, as it happens, but that’s not that relevant) with a passion, who was determined to pursue their dream. And all of those things come together to form a place and story I love. The site’s on the true right of the Rangitata River, in the lee of Mt Harper. It's rugged country, made famous recently by a certain movie trilogy, and made famous in the 19th century by Samuel Butler, although he was on the other side of the river. It's mountainous, there is a river (obviously) and there are lakes. And lots and lots of tussock. Not so much bush. It’s my kind of place. And there’s snow on the tops. And in winter there’ll be ice. Which is the crucial detail for this story.

Yes, ice.

The Mt Harper ice rink, from the slopes of Mt Harper. Image: K. Watson

You see, this was also Wyndham Barker’s kind of place (that's a Barker of the Barkers of jam-making and photography fame). Barker was a man who loved ice skating. Not too much is known about his early life, but his first wife was a Dutch woman and the couple and their children lived in the Netherlands for a time in the 1910s, and the story goes that this is where Barker learned to ice skate. Certainly, there wouldn't have been a whole lot of places he could have learnt to ice skate in New Zealand.

By the early 1930s, Barker and his second wife were back in New Zealand, and Barker and his two brothers had taken up the Ben McLeod run, on the true left of the Rangitata, just opposite Mt Harper. And Wyndham set about building an ice rink. Not just any ice rink, mind: an outdoor rink, with natural ice (to be fair, this would be the easiest sort of ice rink to build at the time).

Barker strikes me as the sort of person who’d have put a fair amount of thought into just where he was going to build his rink. This was no casual, carefree enterprise. This was a man on a mission, determined to bring the sport he loved to New Zealand. The site he chose was by no means easy to access - today, from Geraldine (the nearest settlement), it still takes over an hour (and a boat ride) to get there. And once you got over the river, there was quite a bit of swampy ground to cover before reaching Barker’s site (just perfect for getting a 4WD stuck in. It's not an adventure if you don’t get stuck, right?). So the first thing Barker did in the summer of 1931-32 was build a causeway across the swampy ground to his proposed ice rink. And then work got underway on a house for himself and Brenda, his second wife.

The Barkers' house, which lies between the rink and the river, and looks out over the rink (albeit at a distance). The Barkers lived here year round, growing all their own vegetables, in what would have been a particularly harsh environment. Image: K. Watson.

In spite of Barker’s careful approach, he got one thing wrong: the site of the first rink he built, in that summer of 1931-32. This site was some 300 m from the base of Mt Harper, and too exposed to the nor’west, which howls down the Rangitata - and rippled the ice. The first rink was prepared by ploughing and working the ground to level it, and building sod walls to contain the water. The causeway from the river bank connected directly to these walls, ensuring that skaters would not get their feet wet (assuming, of course, that they hadn’t got wet feet crossing the river). The great thing is you can still walk across this causeway, should your boat happen to land you in the right place. But it wouldn't be fieldwork if you didn't get your feet wet.

The plough used to form the first rink? Who knows, but it was undoubtedly used to form an ice rink. And the roller in the background was no doubt used to level the ground. Image: K. Watson.

From the archaeology (the sod walls survive), we know that the first rink was triangular, and it was fed by a water race that took water from a nearby stream. The flow of water into the rink was controlled by a timber and concrete gate. Getting the flow just right was critical: too much water and it might not freeze. Too little and, well, there wouldn't be enough ice. Barker was later to perfect a system of getting the ice in just the right condition by slowly building up layers of ice over a number of nights, and keeping it smooth with a Model-T Ford (known as Matilda. Or maybe it was Betsy. Sources disagree.) fitted with a grader blade. Cracks and holes were repaired with hot water. And sometimes the ice was sluiced with water from the hydropower scheme. Yep, you read that right, a hydropower scheme. So they could skate under lights at night, of course. See, isn’t this the best story?

The shed that housed the pelton wheel (which remains inside) for the hydropower scheme. This was installed by the 1938 skating season. Image: K Watson.

After the failure of the first rink, Barker rethought his approach, and consequently built a new rink closer to Mt Harper. Oh, and by this time Wyndham and Brenda were living there year-round, in their corrugated iron-clad timber-lined house, with central heating. Well, you wouldn't want to live in the mountains without central heating, would you? And let’s not forget that Wyndham had lived in Europe, and Europeans are so sensible about home heating. Not only was their house warm, it contained a workshop for repairing skates.

Tools for repairing ice skates, in the Barkers' house, with boxes for storing skates on each side. Image: K. Watson.

It’s not entirely clear how the rink complex developed. It seems like the winter of 1933 might have been a bit of a trial run for the Barkers, after the failure of the previous winter, and that 1934 was the first major public season. By 1936, there were at least two rinks. Over the next few years, these rinks would be subdivided into smaller areas, and there may have been as many as seven rinks at one time, one of which was dedicated to ice hockey. One of the reasons for subdividing the large rinks into smaller areas seems to have been that the ice was no longer freezing as well. An early sign of climate change, perhaps? (This was in the 1940s.)

Along with all those rinks, there were also several buildings, including the White hut, a skate shed, men’s toilets, another toilet block (possibly for the women?!) and a ticket office. By the 1940s (after Barker had sold the rink), there was a shelter for the ice hockey rink and a refrigeration unit (to deal with the diminishing ice situation). This last ultimately ended up at the Centaurus rink in Christchurch. And of course there was the shed for the pelton wheel for the hydropower, installed by 1938.

The door to the White hut. Image: K. Watson.

Let’s go back to the White hut (imaginatively named for its white coat of paint...). This was actually built as a cow byre, for Sissy the cow (true story) - perhaps further evidence of the European influence on the Barkers? Not only did the Barkers drink Sissy’s milk, it was also used in drinks for skaters. In the 1940s, after the Barkers left, the hut was used for accommodation. Now it’s the only weather-proof building at the rink (although not possum-proof...).

In 1946, the Barkers left the rink, gifting it to the people of Canterbury. It was not to last much longer, however, with public use of the rink ceasing in the mid-1950s.

And what remains today? Pretty well everything - you can walk along the sod walls that surrounded the rinks, clamber through the remains of the Barkers’ house and, if you’re feeling energetic, scramble up to the water race that supplied the hydropower scheme. It’s easy to conjure up images of groups of people skating under the stars and lights, with the snow- capped peaks glistening in the distance, the laughter, the friendships formed. For me, it’s a magic place. I hope Wyndham Barker felt that he’d succeeded in his ambitions. Certainly, he left something pretty awesome behind.

Katharine Watson

"A healthy mind and human happiness"

Here in New Zealand, we like to think ourselves as a nation of outdoor enthusiasts, always off tramping, kayaking, mountain biking, etc. But it wasn’t always thus. Our love affair with the outdoors began in the mid-late 19th century and was part of a movement seen throughout much of the western world, as people began to use their increased leisure time – and the wonders of the railways – to explore the world around them. This isn’t the time to dwell on the other factors that led to this movement, but there were a number of spurs, including increasing industrialisation and urbanisation (both of which were linked to an increasing awareness that the natural environment was threatened by these processes), and the rise of the middle class. Locke Stream Hut. Image: K. Watson.

This post continues the theme of exploring Christchurch’s hinterland and, somewhat more explicitly than the other posts in the series, documents some of the factors that led to New Zealand’s increasing engagement with the outdoors in the early-mid 20th century. The exploration, development and use of Aoraki and Kura Tāwhiti were both related to this theme but in many ways, Locke Stream Hut epitomises it. It’s also an intriguing example of attempted social engineering, and the development of our network of back country huts and tracks. The hut lies (as its name suggests) on Locke Stream, on the true left of the Taramakau River, just below Harper Pass.

Location map. Image: Google.

Like Aoraki and Kura Tāwhiti, Māori were here long before Pākehā. The area was used particularly by Māori from Tai Poutini as a trail when travelling via Harper Pass with pounamu (Brailsford 1996: 99). Well-known 19th century Māori journeys across the pass include parties fleeing up the Hurunui River and over Harper Pass to Tai Poutini following the Ngāti Toa raid on Kaiapoi pā in 1832 (Pascoe 1955). And Māori were instrumental in the Pākehā ‘discovery’ of the route to the West Coast via Harper Pass. Many gold miners would subsequently use this route, until it was superseded by the Arthurs Pass route, after which it seems to have been little used by Pākehā. The route would return to prominence (of a sort) in the early-mid 20th century.

The kitchen/dining area, Locke Stream Hut. Image: K. Watson.

Pākehā exploration of the outdoors was initially led by the elite (as seen at Aoraki), as they had both the time and money to make the long journeys required. By the early-mid 20th century, New Zealand had developed to the point where tourism had spread beyond the preserve of the wealthy few. The development of the railway network had a significant part to play in this, as did legislation enshrining the 40 hour week, passed in 1936. Now not only were people able to reach the outdoors easily, they also had a weekend in which to be able to explore further afield. Histories of outdoor pursuits in New Zealand give a sense of the sheer unbridled joy that the young men and women who took advantage of these opportunities found in them – try the wonderful Shelter from the Storm or any of the histories of club ski-fields (I’m sure Tramping covers this too, but unfortunately I’ve not read it yet).

One of the wonderful spikes used in the construction of the hut. Image: K. Watson.

At the same time that weekends became real and official, one William Parry – known as Bill – was becoming increasingly concerned about the health and fitness of New Zealanders (he was also quite big on vegetarianism, too). Parry was a member of the Labour government during the Depression (as well as being one of the founding members of the Labour Party) and, from 1935, Minister of Internal Affairs (Gustafson 2012). He used this position to tackle his concerns about the nation’s health and well-being, arranging a conference in August 1937 to discuss ways “to judiciously guide the people in the wiser use of the increased leisure time at their disposal.” (AJHR 1938 H22). Amongst other things, the conference concluded that physical fitness and recreation were vital for “a healthy mind and human happiness” (AJHR 1938 H22). As a result, the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act was passed in November 1937, which led to the establishment of the Department of Internal Affairs’ Physical Welfare and Recreation Branch and the National Council of Physical Welfare and Recreation (AJHR 1938 H22).

The hand-adzed timber framework. Image: K. Watson.

The newly established Physical Welfare and Recreation Branch set about encouraging ‘group travel’ (which sounds a bit like my idea of hell) – which it defined as low-cost and low-stress recreational activity by groups in the natural environment, a policy that had apparently been very successful elsewhere in the world (AJHR 1939 H22). The Branch decided that mountain tracks – “quiet pathways into the country where people could rest from the noise and bustle of the modern city” (EP 28/12/1944) – were the ideal destination for group travel. But many existing tracks were deemed to be unsuitable for this low-cost low-stress travel, being overcrowded, too expensive and/or too arduous (none of which would be good for your stress levels). The Branch felt its duty was to “provide recreation for New Zealand people on the lower levels of income, people who would be pleased with a less luxurious and much less expensive track system that young workers can afford…to reduce the cost while easing the degree of exertion and increasing the comfort.” (EP 28/12/1944). And from this grew the Mountain Huts and Tracks programme, which led to the reopening of the Harper track, and the construction of Locke Stream Hut (along with several other huts). The other track opened up as a result of this programme was the Tararua track.

The Harper Pass track was re-cut in 1939-40, with the plan being that there were would be five huts on it. Huts No. 1 (Lake Taylor Hut) and 2 (Lake Sumner Hut) were extant by early 1940 (AJHR 1940 H22). Hut No. 4 – Locke Stream Hut – was built shortly afterwards, with some of the materials packed in by horse and the timbers cut on site. Which means that the hut has fabulous hand-adzed tōtara floor slabs, which are a thing of beauty. It’s also got a timber framework (kawaka and tōtara) and, respecting the sensibilities of the era, a central common area with two bunkrooms either side, one for men and one for women (no longer enforced!). As is typical of back country huts all over New Zealand, it’s clad in corrugated iron (original) – less typically, it’s lined with ply (not original). All in all, the hut is a wonderful example of the use of traditional construction methods and consequently, full of character. I highly recommend a visit!

The rather fabulous floorboards! Image: K. Watson.

If you do decide to visit the hut, stop and think for a moment about the social and political processes that led to its construction. And put aside thoughts about a paternalistic government to reflect on the freedom experienced by those who took advantage of these opportunities during the early-mid 20th century. Because, for many of those who did, it wasn’t just an opportunity to escape the city, it was also – in many cases – an opportunity to escape their elders, and some of the social norms of the day. I’m not suggesting that people went completely crazy (although I’m sure some must have), but there’s a wonderful sense of freedom that permeates social histories of outdoor activities during this period.

Katharine Watson & Rosie Geary Nichol

(& with thanks to the Department of Conservation, who funded this work)


Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives. [online] Available at: www.atojs.natlib.govt.nz.

Brailsford, B., 1996. Greenstone Trails: The Maori and pounamu. Stoneprint Press, Hamilton.

Evening Post. [online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Gustafson, B., 2012. Parry, William Edward - Parry, William Edward. [online] Available at: www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/3p12/parry-william-edward.

Pascoe, J., 1955. The Maori and the mountains. Te Ao Hou: The New World No.12. Held in DOC file on Locke Stream Hut.

Majestical mountains

In the beginning there was no Te Wai Pounamu or Aotearoa. The waters of Kiwa rolled over the place now occupied by the South Island, the North Island and Stewart Island. No sign of land existed. Before Raki (the Sky Father) wedded Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother), each of them already had children by other unions. After the marriage, some of the Sky Children came down to greet their father’s new wife and some even married Earth Daughters.

Among the celestial visitors were four sons of Raki who were named Aoraki (Cloud in the Sky), Rakiroa (Long Raki), Rakirua (Raki the Second), and Rārakiroa (Long Unbroken Line). They came down in a canoe which was known as Te Waka o Aoraki. They cruised around Papatūānuku who lay as one body in a huge continent known as Hawaiiki.

Then, keen to explore, the voyagers set out to sea, but no matter how far they travelled, they could not find land. They decided to return to their celestial home but the karakia (incantation) which should have lifted the waka (canoe) back to the heavens failed and their craft ran aground on a hidden reef, turning to stone and earth in the process.

The waka listed and settled with the west side much higher out of the water than the east. Thus the whole waka formed the South Island, hence the name: Te Waka o Aoraki. Aoraki and his brothers clambered on to the high side and were turned to stone. They are still there today. Aoraki is the mountain known to Pākehā as Mount Cook, and his brothers are the next highest peaks near him. The form of the island as it now is owes much to the subsequent deeds of Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, who took on the job of shaping the land to make it fit for human habitation.

Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1988: Schedule 80: Tōpuni for Aoraki/Mt Cook


Welcome to Aoraki Mt/Cook, a place of breath-taking beauty and – as with any landscape – many layers of human history, the imprint of which is present in both tangible and intangible ways.

Surprisingly, I've no (digital) photographs of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Instead, I offer you the De La Beche Ridge, with the Tasman glacier in the foreground. Image: K. Watson.

This is the first in an occasional series of posts about places Christchurch residents would have holidayed in the past – and still do today. They also happen to be places I’ve been lucky enough to visit while doing work for the Department of Conservation (sometimes people forget that DOC is as much about protecting and preserving our cultural heritage as our natural heritage). These places tell us about the outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities available to Christchurch residents, and about the development of these spheres, because outdoor recreation and tourism weren’t really a particularly big deal when New Zealand was settled by Pākehā.

Let’s start at the beginning (from a human point of view, at least – I’m not getting into the geology). Aoraki/Mount Cook is so significant to Ngāi Tahu it is recognised with Tōpuni status under the Ngai Tahu Settlement Claims Act. For Ngāi Tahu, Aoraki/Mount Cook is the most sacred of their ancestors and is critical to their identity. There are no recorded Māori archaeological sites in the immediate vicinity of the mountain, there are further afield in the Mackenzie country, and these are a tribute to the resources of the area, particularly the stone and the food. Ngāi Tahu’s associations with the area also survive in the names used for landmarks in the area, from the lakes to the mountain itself.

The early European history of the area is a seemingly romantic one, with tales of rugged, intrepid men and women exploring and marvelling at the wilderness, with seemingly endless time to explore, retiring at night to the warmth and conviviality of either the Hermitage or Ball hut (or, later, Malte Brun hut), with the Hermitage in particular renowned for its egalitarian atmosphere (McClure 2004: 79-80). Glorious black and white photographs capture this era.

This was the first Hermitage, built in 1884 and destroyed by floods in 1913. You can still see the building site today and there was an excavation there in the early 1980s. In the early 2000s, I excavated the remains of the Hermitage stables. Unsurprisingly, we found a lot of horseshoes - as well as building remains. The Hermitage, Mount Cook. Ross, Malcolm 1862-1930 :Photographs by Malcolm Ross of New Zealanders in the Great War, Maori, mountaineering, New Zealand scenery, etc. Ref: 1/2-022364-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23121689

Ball hut, 1907. Earlier photographs indicate that it was built without a fireplace, or the capacity to capture rainwater. The archaeological remains indicate that the hut expanded a lot before being destroyed by an avalanche in 1925. Image: Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948. Gifford tramping party at Ball Hut, Mt Cook. Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948 : Albums and photographs. Ref: 1/2-060503-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22583972

What this romantic vision ignores is the exclusion of Ngāi Tahu from the area and the literal walking on their most sacred ancestor, the disadvantaged position of women in this world (climb and explore they did, but in voluminous skirts or culotte-type garments and they had to battle against the social norms of the day, which frowned on the relationship between women and their male guides) and the fact that tourism in this period was the preserve of the wealthy. The rest of society simply did not have the time or money to travel in this way: initially, the journey from Fairlie to the Hermitage took three days by coach, with the horses having to be changed five times. The wheel ruts from this original dray track survive in parts of the Mackenzie country (and are difficult to photograph!) and are testament to what must have been a bone-shaking journey (and they used pigeons – yes, pigeons! – to send information to the Hermitage about the number of guests on the way). More to the point, however, if the journey took at least three days in each direction, you were going to want to spend a decent amount of time at the destination. And then there was the matter of hiring guides and/or horses, and the cost of the accommodation itself. Nonetheless, what was noteworthy about the Hermitage was that the guides were required to divide their attention equally between regular tourists and serious mountaineers (McClure 2004: 79-80).

This is just possibly the remains of Mannering and Dixon's camp on Ball Flat, to the north of the remains of the first Ball hut, described by Mannering (2000: 72) as their "well-known Ball Glacier camp" and built c.1886. Image: K. Watson.

The government spent a lot on this elite tourist venture, helping to fund the construction of the road from Glentanner station to Aoraki/Mt Cook, financially supporting the operation of the Hermitage and constructing roads, huts and tracks in the area, including Ball hut and Ball track, which ran above the Tasman glacier from the Hooker River to Ball glacier. It was not until the involvement of one Rodolph Wigley, however, that the area became a serious tourist destination.

On the old road to Aoraki/Mt Cook. This road, built in partnership by the government of the day and the Mt Cook Road Board in late 1883, remained in use until the mid-late 20th century. Image: K. Watson.

The Ball track, 1907. Image: On the track to Ball Hut, Mt Cook. Gifford, Algernon Charles, 1862-1948 : Albums and photographs. Ref: PA1-o-186-07. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22916634

Scrabbling along the remains of the Ball track today (well, actually, in 2010). Image: I. Hill.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with Wigley and Aoraki Mt Cook: was he the catalyst that drove the development, or was he just the right man at the right time? Or a bit of both? Whatever the case, it is impossible to separate him from the story of Aoraki Mt Cook. Wigley was the man behind the Mt Cook Motor Company, which took over the lease of the (second) Hermitage in 1922, and set about opening up the area to a much broader sector of (Pākehā) society, by reducing costs, improving access and improving facilities. Wigley offered wooden floored tents as a cheaper form of accommodation and set out to offer a range of attractions beyond just the scenery, including golf. One of the key factors underlying Wigley’s success was the increasing popularity of exploring the outdoors, and the increasing availability of leisure time for the middle and working classes, a theme that will be returned to in another of these posts. The other was the motor car, and this underlay one of the key components of Wigley’s vision: the Ball Road.

The fantastic stone work that remains in situ along sections of the Ball Road. Image: K. Watson.

The Ball Road was an ambitious plan to connect the Hermitage to (the second) Ball hut by motor car, enabling less mobile/athletic visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the alpine region, and also to promote the skifield he established on the Ball glacier. Nature, however, had other ideas and today the remains of the road are a testament to the power of Wigley’s vision, and to his ambition to make Aoraki/Mt Cook the site of domestic tourism for the masses. Not for any altruistic reason, one assumes, but very much driven by the profit motive – the two, of course, do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Ball Road, disappearing under collapsing moraine. Image: K. Watson.

By the 1970s, keeping the road open was becoming increasingly difficult and by 1989 it had been closed for good. You can still walk the road today but one day the glacier will claim it for good, if the avalanches don’t get it first. I can’t urge you strongly enough to do so – it’s an easy walk, and a beautiful one. As you walk it, think of all those who have gone before you: Ngāi Tahu; Green, Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufmass (who, in the first attempt on the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, came within 60 m - an amazing feat); Mannering and Dixon; Peter Graham; Freda du Faur; Hillary; and the thousands of others who’ve travelled this route to appreciate the beauty that is Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Ball Road, with the lateral moraine from the Tasman glacier looming above it, perilously close to collapsing into the glacier itself. Image: K. Watson.

Katharine Watson


Mannering, G., 2000. The Hermitage Years of Mannering and Dixon. GM Publication, Geraldine.

McClure, M., 2004. The Wonder Country: Making New Zealand tourism. Auckland University Press, Auckland.

How to read a landscape

Some of you might have been to the St James Conservation Area, a remote and beautiful area managed by the Department of Conservation. You might have been cycling or walking there, or you might have been drawn by the romance of the famous St James horses. While there, you're sure to have marvelled at the landscape, and I'm hoping that you might have paused to consider the human history of the area. Today, I'm going to tell you about the story I – as an archaeologist – see when I look at this landscape. Looking up the Stanley River from Stanley Vale (William Fowler's run) to Lake Guyon (W.T.L. Travers' run). Image: K. Watson.

But first, why the St James on a blog about Christchurch? The St James station (which the St James Conservation Area grew out of, as it were) is representative of the sheep stations that played such an important role in Christchurch’s development, from early struggles over land tenure in the fledgling settlement, to providing important economic stimulus, and not to mention the political and social power of the runholders. Please, however, forget all notions of the landed gentry: it’s a myth.

St James horses. Image: K. Watson.

Let’s start before Europeans arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand, when Māori roamed the land, passing through the St James on trails that connected the interior with the coast (Brailsford 1984). They left little tangible evidence of their passage, although an archaeological site at Lake Tennyson tells the story of moa hunting in the interior, working stone tools (although not where they were found), and of networks of trade and exchange linking people across the country.

On the shores of Lake Tennyson. Image: T. Wadsworth.

Like their Maori predecessors, the first Pākehā in the St James left little sign of their passage. There are the remains of a sod hut in the Edwards valley, though, that could be from some of the earliest runholders in the area, possibly dating to the early 1860s. It’s the location that suggests this, along with the fact that this hut doesn’t appear on any maps or plans, even maps that show old, ruined huts. This hut lies on the south side of the valley, tucked into the hillside, looking up at the northern part of the St James Range. It was small, probably with just one or two rooms, and its builders (probably also its occupants) would have worked hard to build this. The sod used tells the story of a treeless landscape, which would have made keeping fires going hard work in an era when fires were used for all cooking, as well as heating.

In the Edwards valley, with the remains of a sod hut and ditch and bank fence in the foreground. Image: K. Watson.

There was a hut pretty similar to this a bit further up the valley, at a place known as Scotty’s camp (next to a 20th century hut), where the Edwards flows into the Waiau. The only difference is that the hut in the Edwards valley had a ditch and bank fence around it, meaning it had a garden, probably consisting of fruits and vegetables, because it was a long way to the nearest supply town – probably pretty much back to Christchurch in those days. At 700 m above sea level, it would have been hard to keep that garden going over winter. The hut at Scotty’s, though, had no fence, suggesting no garden – in those early runholding days, it was much cheaper and easier to fence stock out than in.

The 20th century hut at Scotty's camp. Image: K. Watson.

The next phase in the story is two men whose stories I love, perhaps because I've spent a long time researching and thinking about them, and they’ve developed personalities for me (I make no claims to the accuracy of these).

They arrived in the area in the early to mid-1860s, a bit after the first Europeans, with W.T.L. Travers taking up Lake Guyon station and William Fowler taking up Stanley Vale, making the two men remarkably close neighbours, given their distance from anywhere else. As it happens, Fowler built his house on Travers’ land. From this distance, there's no way of knowing whether this was deliberate, or simply an accident. There were no fences, after all, and boundaries were defined by vague descriptions about heading east from point X until point Y was reached, or for however many chains/miles. While there was a dispute about the location of Fowler's house, however, there was never one about him grazing stock on land that wasn’t his. Which suggests to me that he knew full well where his boundaries were, and where he was building his house.

Lake Guyon. Travers, William Thomas Locke, 1819-1903 :Photographs. Ref: PAColl-1574-30. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Travers was just your average Renaissance man – photographer, scientist, explorer, lawyer, politician, and one of the founders of the New Zealand Institute (now the Royal Society; Shepherd 2014). His biography doesn’t even mention that he was a runholder, and it seems unlikely that he spent much time at Lake Guyon, preferring to leave the station in the control of his manager, William Newcombe, who I like to think of as phlegmatic. From my point of view, Travers did make the most of the time he spent at Lake Guyon, taking photographs, such a rare but valuable resource for us to draw on (he also did quite a lot of exploring). These photographs are wonderful, not just for enabling interpretation of the archaeological remains, but for the life they show us.

Mr William Newcombe, his wife Mary (nee Embury) and children on the shores of Lake Guyon, circa 1870s. Photograph taken by William Thomas Locke Travers. Image: PA7-22-04, Alexander Turnbull Library.

In particular, they show us William Newcombe and his family. Yes, he lived up that remote valley with his wife and children, in a house that grew a bit like topsy. Today you can still see the chimney remains, mounds of stones peeking up through the grass, right on the water’s edge. Strangely close to the water's edge to my way of thinking – the lake would have been lapping at the building – and so exposed to the nor’west winds that howl down the valley. What the photographs don’t show is another hut, tucked away amongst the (exotic) trees at the base of the hillside, nicely sheltered from the wind. Perhaps a shepherd's hut? They also don’t show the garden Newcombe and his family grew and tended: cherry, mint, elderberry, strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries.

A hut tucked into the trees at Lake Guyon, next to Newcombe's garden. Image: K. Watson.

Fowler’s garden was actually a bit better: he had raspberries, hazelnuts, gooseberries, currants, rowans, hawthorns, ash trees, sycamores, primroses, willows, poplars and snapdragons. And all this at a considerable height above sea level. A lush garden he might have had, but Fowler faced many problems and cantankerous is the word that springs to mind when I think of him, as he was involved in innumerable court cases, including one against his own son. Some of the reports on these in the papers suggested a pretty grumpy man. I think he was probably stoic, too – he lasted here for some 30 years, long after Travers had sold out.

Looking down on the Stanley Vale homestead site, showing some of the exotic plantings. Image: K. Watson.

Part of the problem was that, in choosing the best location for his homestead (tucked neatly into the lee of the hill, with bush nearby for a good supply of firewood), Fowler had built on someone else’s land. Not only was this detrimental to good neighbourly relations, it also meant that he was isolated from the rest of his run. Also, there was no good road access to his station – of course, there wasn’t really any road access at all, just some flatter stretches of land than others. All of this meant that Fowler’s woolshed was some six miles from his house. Across someone else’s land. Which is never going to work out well in an industry plagued by scab. Travers had a woolshed on his land too, which was much closer, but neighbourly relations appear to have been such that it was not possible for Fowler to use Travers’ woolshed.

The sheep dip at Lake Guyon, which was adjacent to the woolshed. Image: K. Watson.

Instead, Fowler had to drive his sheep out over Fowler's pass – a route some of you might have walked or mountain biked. If you haven’t, and you're keen on that sort of thing, I’d highly recommend it. No doubt because of the distances involved, Fowler built a hut at the woolshed – not, I hasten to add, the hut known as Fowler’s hut, which was really built for a rabbiter named Henry Barker, and his wife. Nothing at all to do with Fowler, he just happened to own the land on which the hut was built. It’s a great hut, but not the sort of hut that runholders typically build: it’s a bit luxurious for that.

Fowler's Pass track, in somewhat inclement weather. Image. K. Watson.

Not only was Fowler running sheep, he was planting exotic grasses and draining paddocks, which has left drains and plough marks visible today. While there was lots of ploughing in 19th century New Zealand, little evidence of it survives, because the land continued to be worked, destroying the evidence of that earlier ploughing. But not on Fowler’s land. The plough lines are easy to see when you’re there today and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see them on Google Earth. So cool! Something usually so ephemeral, preserved. And think, too, of those men and their horses, the effort to get the equipment to where it was needed, the seed, training the horses, draining the land. This was hard work.

Fowler's hut (before recent DOC work to preserve the structure). Image: K. Watson.

In the end, though, both Fowler and Travers sold up and left, moving on to other things. I don’t have a clear picture in my head of the McArthurs, the brothers who added Lake Guyon and Stanley Vale to their holdings, creating a station of some 200,000 acres, most of it more than 800 m above sea level. Hard, economising Scotsmen, perhaps. And they made it work, in spite of the rabbits and the climate and the terrain. Ambitious and driven, then. Tough.

The St James woolshed. Image: K. Watson.

They moved the station homestead from the Styx River to the Peters valley, where many of the station buildings remain today. Not the homestead, though. It burnt down in the 1940s (by which time the McArthurs were long gone) and was never replaced. Today, though, you can wander amongst the trees that sheltered it from the southerly and the nor’west, inspect the long drop they would have used, and count the dog kennels that remain.

The St James homestead, as it is today. Image: T. Wadsworth.

And think, too, of the men, women and children who lived here, in such splendid isolation. In a world where it was cheaper to build a concrete chimney than cart in bricks from Rangiora or Christchurch, where electricity must have come late in the piece, and where rabbits were such a problem that a fence was built to keep them out. We laugh now at this folly, but perhaps think instead of the men whose livelihoods were threatened by such a small, furry creature.

The rabbit-proof fence, alongside Tophouse Road. This was built by the Hurunui Rabbit Board in the 1880s. Image: T. Wadsworth.

All of the sites I’ve mentioned – and more – exist in the St James Conservation Area. I say go, explore, and see what stories you can find in the landscape, on the trails that have existed for hundreds of years, in the ruined buildings, the remains of sheep dips, those glorious mountains.

Katharine Watson


Brailsford, B., 1984, Greenstone Trails: The Maori Search for Pounamu. A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington.

Shepherd, R. Winsome, 2012. Travers, William Thomas Locke. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. [online] Available at: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t105/travers-william-thomas-locke