How to get there
As you drive west out of Christchurch, on State Highway 73 (SH73) towards the wild West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, the Canterbury plains give way to the foothills of the Southern Alps. Dry summer farmland transforms into the green paddocks of sheep and cattle farms as you rise out of the plains and into the rolling hills towards the steeper Porters Pass. In winter, keen groups and families take to the hills for a variety of recreation, to seriously ski and snowboard the higher mountains or toboggan the lower slopes and enjoy the snow of the area. Small lakes line the road beyond the Pass and in summer you can see small numbers of campervans, tents, and boating enthusiasts enjoying what nature has to offer. Climbing higher you come upon the Korowai-Torlesse tussock land park where wider open spaces offer a completely different vista from the lower plains and the terrain becomes much more interesting than farms and flat land.
Once in the Castle Hill Basin, about 90 km from Christchurch in what is considered the Canterbury High Country and between the Torlesse and Craigieburn Ranges, is to be found the extraordinary natural limestone rock formations called ‘Castle Hill Rocks’. With at least 30 million years of history, having once been under a shallow inland sea which was thrust up by uplifting and faulting, New Zealand, as we know it today, took shape. Wind and rain erosion cast its mighty force which, over these millennium, have moulded the rocks into interesting shapes and sizes known as a ‘karst landscape’ that offer a range of opportunity for recreation and sport.
Ancient and cultural history
The Ngai Tahu Māori people named the area ‘Kura Tawhiti’, due to its special cultural, spiritual, and historical significance. Kura Tawhiti means ‘the treasure from a distant land’ and is so named for the sacred vegetable ‘kumara’ – a variety of potatoe that grew in the area. Now, faded and not well known, traces of charcoal drawings have been left on the rocks from the time of the Waitaha people; the first known people to have travelled in this area. The Ngai Tahu people recorded their beliefs and values on these rocks. I have been privileged to see these drawings and learn some of the histories of how and why they were placed there over 500 years ago.
Barry Brailsford wrote a book called ‘Song of the Waitaha – History of a Nation’ in 1994, seen as controversial by the Ngai Tahu. It sets out the history of the Waitaha as given to him by Maori elders. His story dates the occupation of this land up to 2000 year ago. He intimates that around 3000 Waitaha lived on the land during the kumara season.
At the time the Waitaha people lived among these rocks, the area was known as ‘te Kohanga’ or ‘birthplace of the Gods’. When Ngai Tahu took over the land the name was changed to ‘Kura Tawhiti’. Between the Waitaha and the Ngai Tahu, the Ngati Mamoe came and formed one nation through intermarriage, warfare and peace.
In these times, Castle Hill’s astronomical significance was that of an observatory for predicting the weather patterns and seasons. In summer, considerable Waitaha population migrated to the hills to tend the kumara and the sacredness of the geology was recognition of the creatures that formed the rocks over aeons. In approximately 850AD, Rakaihautu, a prominent Māori leader occupied the South Island. He and other leaders are buried on this land and its sacredness as a burial ground is upheld.
In 2002 when the Dali Lama visited Christchurch and did not like the energy there, he was taken to the Castle Hill area. Because he liked the energy there he gave the rocks the name ‘Centre of the Universe’.
The mighty native New Zealand totara forests and shrubs which proliferated the basin were razed by fire 600 years ago leaving tussock grass and rare small plants, some of which are found in this area alone such as the Castle Hill buttercup (from the ranuncula family) and the Castle Hill forget-me-not. Since the arrival of the European farming people in the 1850s, the area has been grazed by sheep and cattle, along with the introduction of roads, transport, and tourism.
Recreation and the local area
The small Castle Hill village nearby is home in the winter to the avid skiing fraternity of the higher mountain trails, hikers, mountain bikers, and fishermen; however, it is the rocks that provide the opportunity for bouldering, caving and rock climbing, particularly in the better summer weather. The town’s inception, in 1982, resulted from a plan to be the centre of reactional activity for the area. The nearby Cave Stream offers a 362m long caving experience and the rocks at Castle Hill are spread across quite an area in this unique tussock park.
Facilities and the rocks
Arriving at the large car park, complete with good toilet facilities, you walk about 10 minutes to the rocks themselves. You can feel the excitement of exploration arising as you walk towards these formations rising out of the hills at often odd angles, shapes, and sizes. Their mightiness claims your attention as the Craigieburn mountain range forms a formidable backdrop to the scene in front of your eyes. The easy walking track takes you up to and around the rock formations where most visitors veer off the track, climb the rocks, and take themselves to an area with a view that is both breathtaking and spacious, to enjoy their picnic and the wide open spaces. Care is required while climbing the rocks and good footwear is a must for most casual climbers. Children love the adventure but must be watched because the precipice areas where rock climbing takes place are both high and somewhat dangerous to the uninitiated. Small, shallow wide mouth caves are to be found under the edge of the rocks and provide a playground for those who may not wish to climb the dizzying heights but explore the lower reaches.
Recently, attending a gathering at Castle Hill, the sport of ‘slack rope walking’ caught my eye and wowed my imagination. It was fun trying to catch on camera images of the walkers with their solid focus and carefully placed feet on the rope. A number of spectators offered encouragement as walkers gave their best to beat the distance between the high rocks on this rope. Fortunately, they were equipped with safety harnesses in case they fell, which they did, sometimes hanging below the rope until they could get a grip on it and pull themselves back up again. As spectators, we collectively gasped until we knew they were safe.
Some general information
Castle Hill is unique and rich in its history and many people go there to picnic, play, climb, and enjoy the ambience of the area. On a warm summers day it can get quite busy but many times you can enjoy the quietness and tranquillity of the area, feeling into the history and letting your imagination wander to times gone by.
Do’s and Dont’s
A few must do’s and dont’s to preserve the nature and beauty of this area as proposed by the New Zealand Department of conservation (taken from their website):
Dogs are not permitted in this reserve.
Stay on the access track – the paddocks are private property.
Use the provided toilet facilities.
Refrain from digging holes or disturbing the ground surface – wahi tapu (sacred places) are here.
Avoid trampling on endangered plants – use open spaces between rock outcrops rather than the bases of rock faces.
Respect fenced areas.
Take all rubbish away with you.
Do not mark the surface of the rocks.
Consider others in the area.
Rock climbers must follow the claiming code of conduct.Climbing code
Beyond the rocks to the West Coast
The road (SH73) continues on to yet more snow fields, Arthurs Pass, the Otira Gorge and then to Greymouth on the West Coast. The entire drive from Christchurch takes about 3 hours. Many mountain tracks can be accessed from these areas and the wide Waimakariri River runs through the valley further on from Castle Hill Basin on its journey to the sea just north of Christchurch. A visit to the Castle Hill Rocks leaves one feeling peaceful, energized, and exercised.