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South Canterbury region

by  John Wilson

South Canterbury stretches from the country’s highest peaks to plains near sea level. In this place of extremes, winter can be bitingly cold, while summer is often hot and dry. Sheep farmers tackled the land and the climate, and these days the region attracts tourists, businesses and lifestylers.


Set against the backdrop of the Southern Alps, South Canterbury lies in the middle of the South Island, on the east coast. Its principal city, Timaru, is halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin.

A varied climate

Stretching from the snow-clad pinnacle of Aoraki/Mt Cook to the breakers of the Pacific Ocean, the region has one of the country's most variable climates. Summer temperatures quickly rise into the 20s and often reach the 30s. At midday the landscape shimmers in the heat and the sun burns exposed skin. Willows and poplars offer welcome shelter.

Sometimes, hot north-westerly winds roar over parched pasture, leaving specks of air-blown soil on the skin. People find relief from the heat in the lakes and rivers, or at Caroline Bay. By evening the sun casts long shadows and the land slowly cools.

In winter, it can be below freezing at daybreak and temperatures rise slowly. Snow often carpets the region’s interior and biting winds blow on the coast. On calm days, smoke-like breath stalls in the air. Some people keep warm outdoors by exercising: ice-skating beside Lake Tekapo or skiing at Fox Peak. Most stay inside, with a fire burning. By late afternoon the sun has disappeared behind the frozen Southern Alps.

High and mighty

New Zealand’s premier alpine park is Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Set in the hostile grandeur of the Southern Alps, it has the country’s largest glaciers and highest mountains (19 exceed 3,000 metres in height, and Aoraki/Mt Cook is 3,724 metres). Forty per cent of the total area is covered in glacial ice, 600 metres deep in places. Walks, ski tours, mountaineering and scenic flights attract about 250,000 people each year.


If you stood on top of Aoraki/Mt Cook, looking east towards the Pacific Ocean, South Canterbury would form a square. The area swoops down from the western boundary – the highest ridge of the Southern Alps – to the glacial lakes of Pūkaki and Tekapo and the tussocklands of the Mackenzie Basin. Continuing eastward, rolling hills rise and fall, flattening into the plains that stretch to the Pacific. The northern and southern boundaries are, respectively, the braided Rangitātā and Waitaki rivers.


South Canterbury has three districts:

  • Timaru (including Temuka and Geraldine)
  • Waimate (including the Hakataramea Valley)
  • Mackenzie (the Mackenzie Country and the Fairlie Basin).

The whole of South Canterbury lies within the territory served by Environment Canterbury, the Canterbury regional council. In the 1880s the region returned four members to Parliament. Today the whole region forms a single electorate – Aoraki. This reflects South Canterbury’s relative decline in national importance, as well as the reduction in the number of electorates when the mixed-member proportional voting system was introduced in 1996.


The region’s economy is based on agriculture – mainly sheep and cattle farming, dairying and cropping. South Canterbury’s industries have long been based on processing farm products. It has two large meatworks and a substantial dairy plant.

The region is dominated by the port city of Timaru, which is the regional capital and holds half its population. In recent decades tourism has gained strength, especially in the Mackenzie Country and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.


In 2013 South Canterbury had a population of 55,623. The district populations were:

  • Timaru 43,929
  • Waimate 7,536
  • Mackenzie 4,158.

The people of South Canterbury

The region is in the territory of the Ngāi Tahu tribe. As well as coastal settlements, Māori established at Te Waiateruati and Waimate. In the 1840s the Te Waiateruati people moved to nearby Arowhenua.

Europeans settled from the 1850s and soon dominated the region. In 2013 Europeans accounted for 92.4% of the population (74.0% nationally). Other groups were correspondingly less significant: 7.2% were Māori (14.9% nationally), 2.5% Asian (11.8%), 1.1% Pacific people (7.4%) and 0.5% Middle Eastern, Latin American or African (1.2%).

Landscape and geology

Mountains and hills

The Southern Alps are made of greywacke that is between 230 and 170 million years old. They are being uplifted by the movement, along the Alpine Fault, of the Pacific tectonic plate under the Australian Plate. While this is a relatively rapid process – among the fastest in the world – erosion keeps the height of the peaks at around 3,000 metres.

High praise

In 1862, explorer Julius Haast wrote that ‘the majestic forms of Mt Cook, Mt Haidinger, and many other wild, craggy peaks, covered with snow and ice, rose in undescribable grandeur before us and whilst their summits were gilded by the last rays of the sun, the broad valley of the Tasman River, with its numerous meandering channels, was already enveloped in deep purple shade.’ 1

Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain (now 3,724 metres), lies in South Canterbury. In 1991 the top of the mountain collapsed and roared down its eastern face to the valley floor, taking 10 metres off its height. It later lost another 30 metres.

Mackenzie Country

Glaciers shaped the landscape of inland South Canterbury, gouging out wide valleys, depressions and basins. There have been at least four major glacier advances in the last 250,000 years. At their greatest extent, glaciers covered the Mackenzie Basin, which is now filled with moraines and outwash gravels. Lakes Tekapo, Pūkaki and Ōhau occupy valleys excavated by glaciers. The last major advance ended about 15,000 years ago. Since a minor advance in the late 1800s, the remaining glaciers have been retreating.

Well buried

In 1889, in a quarry near Timaru, bones of the giant, flightless moa bird were discovered in clay more than 23 metres below the surface. Above the bones were 14 metres of lava that had baked the clay, and above the lava 9 metres of more recent windblown soil (loess).

Interior ranges

The interior ranges and hills – between the Mackenzie Basin and downlands – are composed of sedimentary rocks (greywacke) that are between 300 and 150 million years old.


The downlands – rolling hill country – of South Canterbury are made up of younger sedimentary rocks, mainly limestone, which contain minor coal deposits. A small pocket of altered limestone at Kakahu forms the oldest exposed rocks in Canterbury.

During the periods of glaciation in the past 250,000 years, loess (a fine, windblown silt) was deposited over the sedimentary and volcanic rocks of much of lowland South Canterbury. In 1891 amateur scientist John Hardcastle was the first person to recognise that the loess deposits indicated periods of cold climate.


A mere 2–2.5 million years ago, lava erupted from a source near Mt Horrible and reached the coast at Timaru, forming the reefs that later provided shelter for vessels. A smaller area of basalt near Geraldine comes from an unknown source.


South of the Rangitātā River, the downlands edge closer to the coast, with the Canterbury Plains ending at Washdyke. A narrow coastal plain extends south of Timaru and widens just north of the Waitaki River. The plains are formed by sediments carried by rivers from the Southern Alps and interior ranges, and deposited as fans.

The coast

The downlands reach the coast only at Timaru, where there are low cliffs. The Canterbury and lower Waitaki plains, and the narrow plain south of Timaru, end on shingle beaches. Caroline Bay is an artificially created sandy beach. Many of the coastal lagoons and swamps have been drained, but the largest, the Wainono Lagoon, is still extensive.

Slime on the move

South Canterbury’s rivers are endangered by the spread of didymo, a brown algae also known as ‘rock snot’. First discovered in 2004, it spreads rapidly, choking rivers and reducing food supplies for fish and birds. Forming in the lower reaches of the Waitaki, by 2006 it had reached one of its tributaries, the Ahuriri River.


South Canterbury has two types of river. The boundary rivers, Waitaki (209 kilometres long) and Rangitātā (121 kilometres), flow from glaciers in the Southern Alps. The other rivers drain from the ranges east of the Mackenzie Country and are less than 100 kilometres long. They are exposed to heavy rain from the south and east and cause South Canterbury’s worst floods.

In the southern part of the region, the Hakataramea River flows south to join the Waitaki near Kurow. It is separated from both lowland South Canterbury and the Mackenzie Country by ranges of the same older sedimentary rocks as the Southern Alps.

    • Quoted in Colin J. Burrows, Julius Haast in the Southern Alps. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2005, p. 54. › Back

Climate, vegetation and wildlife


South Canterbury straddles three climatic zones: the Southern Alps, the Mackenzie Basin, and the downlands and coast.

The Southern Alps receive heavy rainfall from the west. At Mt Cook village an average of 4,500 millimetres falls each year. Summers are mild, with maximum temperatures averaging 20°C. In winter there is frost and snow, with average maximum temperatures of 7°C. Annual sunshine hours average 1,580. (In winter especially, possible sunshine hours are reduced by the nearby mountains.) North-westerly winds prevail.

The Mackenzie Basin is a drier region in the ‘rain shadow’ of the Southern Alps, with an annual average rainfall of just 600 millimetres. Summers are warm and dry, with maximum temperatures averaging 21°C and sometimes rising into the 30s. Winters are cold and frosty, with some snow and an average maximum temperature of 8°C. On winter nights the thermometer usually falls below zero. Annual sunshine hours at Lake Tekapo average more than 2,400, making it one of the sunniest places in the country. North-westerly winds prevail, and are often hot and dry in summer.

The downlands and coast have warm summers and cool winters. The average maximum temperature is 21°C in summer and 11°C in winter. Timaru’s average annual rainfall of 550 millimetres is one of New Zealand’s lowest. Annual sunshine hours average 1,930. North-east (coastal) winds prevail. The zone is also exposed to cold, damp south-west and hot, dry north-west winds.

Alpine blooms

The highest flowering plants growing in New Zealand are Graham’s buttercup (Ranunculus grahamii), Haast’s hebe (Hebe haastii) and a parahebe (Parahebe birleyi) found at up to 3,000 metres on exposed rocks in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. On the highest rocks of all, on Aoraki/Mt Cook, only lichens and mosses can survive.


By the 19th century, glaciation and fires started by Māori had severely reduced South Canterbury’s forest cover. The only significant areas of podocarp forest – tōtara, kahikatea and mataī – were at Arowhenua and along the foothills of the interior ranges. Other remnants comprised kōwhai, matipo and similar species. There were small areas of beech and mountain tōtara forest at Aoraki/Mt Cook and along the Ben Ōhau Range.

In the mid-19th century most of South Canterbury was a mosaic of flax, fern, scrub and tussock. Cabbage trees (Cordyline species) were abundant. Early pastoralists burned tussock to promote edible shoots, or resowed their land in exotic grasses. Most native vegetation has now been superseded by introduced species. After the milling and fires of early European settlement, no more than pockets of native forest remained. The largest remnant is Peel Forest, near Geraldine.

Exotic vegetation

Exotic forestry has never been important in South Canterbury. Planting of the largest exotic forest at Kakahu (2,900 hectares) did not begin until the late 1950s. A widely spread exotic pest is hieracium (hawkweed).



South Canterbury was a habitat for the giant flightless moa, now extinct. In 1895 Kapua (near Waimate) was the scene of a major dig for moa bones. In the 1960s bones were discovered in the Albury Park swamp.

Today, the main birds that are distinctive to the region live by the rivers. They include the black-fronted tern, wrybill plover and black-billed gull. There are few forest birds, because of the lack of forest cover. However, restoration projects in Waihī and Conways Bush reserves have increased kererū and bellbird numbers. The kea, the world’s most alpine parrot, is often seen around Aoraki/Mt Cook. The grasshopper-like black alpine wētā, known as the Aoraki/Mt Cook flea, is found above the snowline.

Long-tailed bat

South Canterbury has the only known long-tailed bat population on the South Island’s east coast. They are found from Peel Forest to Ōpihi River. The main population is at Hanging Rock, near Pleasant Point.

Wallaby, tahr and chamois

These species were introduced for sport. Wallabies were released near Waimate in 1874, and are mainly confined to the Hunters Hills. Tahr (also spelled thar) and chamois were released in 1904 and 1907 respectively at Aoraki/Mt Cook, and soon spread to other mountain areas. All three are periodically culled to reduce damage to native vegetation.


Heavy rabbit infestations remain a periodic problem, particularly in the Mackenzie Country. In the 1950s rabbits were brought under control with poison, but by the 1980s their numbers had increased again. In the 1990s, Mackenzie Country farmers were implicated in the illegal introduction of the rabbit-killing calicivirus, to which some rabbits are now immune.

Māori in South Canterbury


South Canterbury is in the territory of the Ngāi Tahu people. The lines of earlier South Island iwi (tribes) – Ngāti Mamoe and Waitaha – merged into those of Ngāi Tahu, but are especially strong in the region.

The founding ancestor of the Waitaha tribe was Rākaihautū, who arrived at the top of the South Island in his canoe, Uruao. Leaving his son Rokohouia with the canoe, he made the first known exploration of the South Island’s interior. At Waihao (near Morven) he met up with Rokohouia, who had brought the canoe down the east coast. The Waihao marae is one of the main centres for Waitaha.

The major Ngāi Tahu settlement in South Canterbury was Te Waiateruati, a between the coast and the Arowhenua bush. By the mid-1840s the pā was partly abandoned, and today nearby Arowhenua is the site of the marae.

Reed raft

South Canterbury Māori used a special craft, the mōkihi, to navigate the region’s swift, shallow rivers. The vessel was made by binding light reeds together – a skill kept alive in recent years by Tim Te Maiharoa of Glenavy.


For South Canterbury’s earliest inhabitants, moa were a major source of food, along with forest birds, and the eels and flounder that were abundant in coastal lagoons.

Especially important in South Canterbury was kāuru. Shaped like a carrot, it is the root of young cabbage trees (tī kōuka). Shortly before the tree flowers, the root is rich in sugars. At this time the tree would be dug up and the root baked in umu-tī (ovens), which partially crystallised the sugars. The kauru would then be dipped in water and chewed.

The main settlements were on or near the coast, but Māori also hunted inland. They sought moa and weka in the Mackenzie Country, travelling to summer camps through the Waitaki Gorge. Quartzite rock was quarried at Grays Hills.

Rock art

South Canterbury has New Zealand’s largest amount of Māori rock art. Images and patterns were drawn on the walls of limestone overhangs and caves, in charcoal and red ochre. The motifs include moa, dogs, fish and some recognisably human figures, while others are mythical, such as taniwha (water monsters). Many of the drawings are now faint, and some are probably more than 500 years old, confirming the early occupation of the region. Several hundred sites are known, mainly in the middle reaches of the Ōpihi and Pareora rivers.

Maori Park

One of the reserves set aside for South Canterbury’s Māori in 1848–49 was a 20-acre site near Caroline Bay. This was in exchange for huts and cultivations where Europeans wanted a landing place. A small area was taken back in 1871 for the railway, and in the 1920s the Timaru Borough Council bought the remainder. The name Maori Park recalls the area’s history.

European contact

There were very few Māori in South Canterbury at the time of European arrival – probably between 100 and 200. They were living mainly at Arowhenua and Waimate. By the 1840s they had adopted European food and clothing and were cultivating grain and potatoes.

South Canterbury was purchased from Ngāi Tahu in 1848. The only two reserves of any size in the region set aside after the purchase were at Arowhenua and Waihao, where there are still marae.

Te Maihāroa

The land reserved for South Canterbury’s Māori did not allow for the customary seasonal round of hunting and gathering over huge areas. Māori came to be considered trespassers when they visited the ‘mahika kai’ (food-gathering areas) on which European farmers were now running sheep.

The issue came to a head in 1877–79, when the prophet Te Maihāroa led a heke (protest march) to Te Ao Marama (today's Ōmarama) to assert traditional food-gathering rights in an area they believed had not been sold. The episode ended in 1879 without bloodshed when Te Maihāroa agreed to lead his followers back to reserves on the coast.

Early European history


Tacking off the South Canterbury coast in February 1770, James Cook saw and described the Hunters Hills, but did not land. When whaling began in New Zealand waters, the reefs at Caroline Bay were used (as Māori used them) for shelter on an otherwise inhospitable coast.

In March 1839 the Sydney-based Weller brothers, already established at Ōtākou, set up a shore whaling station on the boulder beach below Timaru’s clay cliffs. The Wellers’ bankruptcy ended shore whaling there in 1841.

Early explorers

The first Europeans to enter South Canterbury overland found whalers’ huts and gear at Caroline Bay and Mutumutu Point.

Te Huruhuru’s hills

In 1849, the Māori chief Te Huruhuru told surveyor Charles Torlesse that he often hunted in the hills behind Waimate. Returning to Akaroa, Torlesse found that Captain John Lord Stokes of the Acheron had mapped this range of hills while surveying the coast. Stokes accordingly labelled the range ‘the Hunters Hills’ on his 1851 map.

In early 1844, Bishop G. A. Selwyn and Edward Shortland walked the South Canterbury coast from opposite directions. To the surprise of both, they met on the beach near Hook (by Wainono Lagoon) on 16 January.

In 1849, Charles Torlesse, a Canterbury Association surveyor, went as far south as Waihao and far enough inland to see the Mackenzie Pass from a distance.

The sheep runs

The first Europeans to settle permanently in South Canterbury were runholders who ran sheep on natural grasslands leased from the government.

The first run was the Levels, founded in 1851 by the (already established) pastoralists William, Robert and George Rhodes. George and his wife Elizabeth built a slab cottage which still stands at the Levels. In 1853 William Hornbrook occupied the region’s second run, naming it Arowhenua.

A woman of substance

Scotswoman Jeanie Collier came to New Zealand with three orphaned nephews in her care. In 1855 she leased a run between the Otaio and Hook rivers, becoming Canterbury’s first woman runholder. When she died six years later, she left her nephews well provided for.

Other runs

Lowland South Canterbury was fully occupied by sheep runs by the end of the 1850s. Some farm properties or districts still retain the names of runs – Te Waimate, Peel Forest, Pareora, Holme Station, Cannington, Mt Peel, Orari Gorge, Raincliff, Bluecliffs – and the families of some of the original runholders still farm in South Canterbury.

In 1857–58 the runs known as Te Akatarawa, Hakataramea and Hakataramea Downs were taken up just north of the Waitaki River. The explorer and writer Samuel Butler took up Mesopotamia in the upper Rangitātā Valley in 1860.

Good shepherds

Sheep could not have been managed on the vast plains and ranges of the Mackenzie Country without the help of sheepdogs (often border collies). In 1968 a memorial – a bronze sheep dog on a stone plinth – was built close to the Church of the Good Shepherd at Tekapo. Another memorial, at Dog Kennel Corner, honours the boundary dogs, which were chained for long weeks between properties to keep flocks apart.

James Mackenzie

Recorded European exploration of South Canterbury's interior began with the capture of James Mackenzie on Mackenzie Pass in March 1855. He had sheep stolen from the Levels run in his possession. His escape, recapture, trial, further escapes and pardon made him a legendary figure. This region was later named the Mackenzie Country.

Within a few years, other Europeans had entered the Mackenzie Country with sheep, using the Mackenzie, Burke and Hakataramea passes.

Julius Haast

The mountain valleys leading up to Southern Alps were explored by the Canterbury provincial geologist, Julius Haast, in 1862. In the Tasman Valley, Haast found the going tough:

After crossing a small stream we arrived at such an impenetrable thicket of ‘wild Irishman’ and ‘Spaniards’ [both have sharp spines] that after more than an hour’s battling with the terrific vegetation to gain access to the glacier, we had at last to give up the attempt with our clothes torn and hands and face covered with blood. 1
    • Quoted in Oliver A. Gillespie, South Canterbury: a record of settlement. Timaru: South Canterbury Centennial History Committee, 1958, p. 403. › Back

Timaru and its port

As South Canterbury’s only city and port, Timaru dominates the region.

Early European history

Brothers William and George Rhodes founded the Levels run in 1851. They used the sheltered shore at Timaru, the site of an abandoned whaling station, to land stores and ship wool. Timaru’s first building was a cottage on the beach, and the first permanent inhabitant was Sam Williams, the whaler who introduced George Rhodes to South Canterbury.

In 1853 the Rhodeses bought land behind Caroline Bay and laid out a town. In 1856 the government surveyed a second town to the south, but because of its superior landing places it was the brothers’ town that prospered. Eventually, the two settlements merged. When the Christchurch-based politician Henry Sewell visited Timaru in 1856, his reaction was unflattering: ‘Timaru is a miserable apology for a shipping place without wood or water. Nothing will ever spring up there but a public-house, a store and a woolshed.’ 1

But other runholders began to use the beach to ship stores in and wool out, and in 1857 Belfield Woollcombe was appointed as government agent, an all-purpose official.


The first significant boost to Timaru came in January 1859 when 100 British settlers arrived on the Strathallan. They were joined by a further 360 immigrants in 1862–63. By 1866 the town had a population of 1,000, and it became a borough in 1868.

The population doubled in the 1870s, then stagnated. From 1896 until 1911 there was relatively high growth, linked to more intensive farming in the region. Timaru became a city in 1948.

Timaru’s port

Timaru owes its size and prosperity to its port. Initially, ships anchored in the shelter of basalt reefs. Their goods were carried ashore in small boats and offloaded in a landing service (a large shed). The first landing service was opened in 1858 at the bottom of Strathallan Street. It was bought by the government in the mid-1860s and used for the first shipment of wool direct to England. Entrepreneurs later set up a private service in competition. The George Street landing service building is one of Timaru’s oldest structures.

Shipwreck in the sun

Before the harbour was built, many ships were wrecked along Timaru’s coast. The most dramatic event was the beaching of the City of Perth and the Benvenue in 1882. Nine people drowned. One witness noted: ‘It was a strangely tragic afternoon; brilliant sunshine over all that surging waste of waters; on land the calm peace of an autumn day; nearly the whole population of the town on the beach, watching the struggle with death, unable to help.’ 2

Building a harbour

By the late 1860s Timaru’s leaders realised that the landing services, which required double-handling of cargo, were restricting the port’s growth. They initiated plans for an artificial harbour to provide wharves and a safe haven for ships. Opponents thought that because Christchurch’s port at Lyttelton was soon to be linked to Timaru by rail, a local harbour was unnecessary. But the scheme went ahead, as advocates believed that without its own harbour, the town would decline.

Taming the waves

Work began in 1878 with the construction of the 700-metre southern breakwater. In the late 1880s, the northern breakwater was built to keep sand shoals out of the harbour. Between 1899 and 1906 the eastern extension of the main breakwater was completed, preventing shingle drifting north into the harbour. During the 20th century the breakwaters were extended, realigned and raised.

The port today

The port survived both the decline of coastal trade and attempts to concentrate overseas shipping at major ports. An all-weather meat loader was built in 1963–67. A second northern breakwater allowed land to be reclaimed for cargo storage and a fish processing factory.

The port of Timaru saves exporters the cost of transporting products north to Lyttelton or south to Port Chalmers in Dunedin. But it handles only a small proportion of New Zealand’s seaborne international trade – 1.8% of exports and 0.7% of imports in 2001.

The changed coastline

The building of the harbour changed the coastline at Timaru dramatically. Shingle accumulated south of the harbour, and this new land was used for grain and wool stores and oil tanks. North of the harbour, sand piled up under the clay cliffs to form the beach of Caroline Bay.

    • Quoted in Charles Hassall, A short history of the port of Timaru, 1852–1955. Timaru: Timaru Harbour Board, 1955, pp. 11–12. › Back
    • Quoted in Oliver A. Gillespie, South Canterbury: a record of settlement. Timaru: South Canterbury Centennial History Committee, 1958, pp. 42, 163–67. › Back

Transport and towns

River crossings

South Canterbury’s northern and southern boundaries were large, snow-fed rivers that were difficult for early travellers to cross.

Ferries were eventually replaced by bridges. The Rangitātā River was bridged at Arundel in 1872. This remained the main road bridge over the Rangitātā until the present bridges at downriver Rangitātā Island were built in the 1930s. The Waitaki was bridged at Glenavy in 1877 and between Kurow and Hakataramea in 1881.

Ferries also crossed the major rivers in the Mackenzie Country. Bridges replaced the ferries across the Tekapo River at the lake’s outlet in 1880, and across the Pūkaki River in 1895.

Mail and coach services linked Timaru to Christchurch and Dunedin from the 1860s, before the rivers were bridged.

Road vs rail

Until the mid-1950s, road traffic between Christchurch and Dunedin shared the bridge across the Waitaki River at Glenavy with trains. When the bridge was closed to allow a train to cross, up to 200 cars might have to queue for half an hour or more. When a new road bridge was opened in 1956, the procession of sightseers stretched for 1.5 kilometres.


South Canterbury’s isolation was ended by construction of a main trunk railway between Christchurch and Dunedin. Completed in 1878, it linked Timaru to both cities, and to Temuka and Waitaki North (Glenavy) along the way.

South Canterbury had only two significant branch lines. The line from Washdyke reached Pleasant Point in 1875 and was opened to Eversley, beyond Fairlie, in 1884. The ‘Fairlie Flyer’ passenger train became part of South Canterbury folklore.

The line from Studholme Junction to Waimate opened in 1877. It was extended to Waihao Downs in 1883. In 1881, the branch line in North Otago to Kurow was extended across the Waitaki River to Hakataramea. A proposed line up the Hakataramea Valley was never built. The last of South Canterbury’s branch railway lines closed in the 1960s.

Reaching for the skies

Timaru’s Richard Pearse Airport at Levels is named after a South Canterbury aviation pioneer. Pearse (1877–1953) was experimenting with powered flight on his Waitohi farm in 1903, the year America’s Wright brothers succeeded in flying. It has been claimed that Pearse achieved controlled powered flight before they did, but most accept that his achievements, while impressive, were more modest. A monument to Pearse – a replica of his flying machine – was built at Waitohi in 1979.

Inland towns

Better transport links in the 1860s and 1870s fostered the growth of the inland towns. Geraldine, Temuka and Waimate began life as sawmilling settlements, and Fairlie as a railway terminus.

Pleasant Point and Cave, along the railway to Fairlie, began as outstations on the Levels sheep run. Settlements like Albury, Glenavy and Arundel had accommodation houses, some of them at river crossings.

Land subdivision in the late 19th and early 20th centuries boosted some rural towns. However, improved roads and transport triggered the decline and even disappearance of many settlements, as people could travel easily to larger centres with more opportunities. A few settlements survived as rural service or administrative centres.

Air travel

South Canterbury’s first public airport was formed at Washdyke in 1920. A small airfield built at Saltwater Creek in 1931 was used for commercial flights, and by the South Canterbury Aero Club. In 1953 a new airport was opened at Levels. Regular air services between Christchurch, Timaru and Ōamaru began in 1956. Improvements to State Highway 1 reduced the need for flights to Christchurch, but there are still twice-daily flights to and from Wellington.

Sheep runs and crop farms

Pastoral runs to freehold estates

South Canterbury’s European farming history began with the runholders who turned sheep onto natural grasslands. The runs were originally leased, but many pastoralists sought to own them. Michael Studholme at Te Waimate, John Acland at Mt Peel, Edward Elworthy at Holme Station and Allan McLean at Waikākahi were among those who acquired very large freehold estates.

After George Rhodes died in 1864, the Levels station was acquired by what became the New Zealand and Australian Land Company. This company remained a major South Canterbury landowner for more than a century. Besides the Levels, it held most of the Hakataramea Valley and the Pareora station.

Saintly Andrew

The South Canterbury township of St Andrews was named not after its Scottish counterpart, but after Andrew Turnbull, a local manager for the New Zealand and Australian Land Company. He had a reputation for using colourful language, so was ironically nicknamed ‘Saint’. The remains of a large granary built by the company in 1878 are the town’s most notable historic feature.

Wheat boom and decline

The region’s favourable climate, easily worked soils, and good transport links encouraged cropping. Large-scale wheat growing began in the 1870s and peaked in the early 1900s. Much of the wheat was grown by contractors who leased land from the estate owners.

Flour milling became an important industry in Timaru and Waimate, and wheat and flour were exported through Timaru’s port. The peak export years were 1911 for wheat and 1913 for flour. Wheat growing declined during the First World War, and by 1924 wheat was being imported to keep the mills operating.

Subdividing the large estates

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, South Canterbury’s large estates were broken up. Some owners sold them off, and others divided them among their families, as it became clear that smaller farms were viable.

The government played a significant role in making South Canterbury a region of family farms. Village settlements had been established before the 1890s. After the Liberals came to power, South Canterbury (along with North Otago) became the main focus of their ‘lands for settlement’ policies.

Government subdivisions in South Canterbury in the Liberal era included Pareora, Albury, Ashwick, Chamberlain (the Opawa Estate), Rosewill (the remainder of the Levels) and Sherwood Downs. The largest South Canterbury subdivision was Waikākahi: nearly 20,000 hectares was divided into some 140 small farms.

Farming, 20th century onwards


South Canterbury’s rainfall is adequate for farming, but not generous. Successful water races for livestock, drawing on the Ōpihi and Waitaki rivers, were built in the 1880s and 1890s.

Irrigation in South Canterbury began with the Redcliffs scheme on the north bank of the Waitaki. Built in 1934–36 and serving more than 2,000 hectares, it was Canterbury’s first irrigation project. The Levels scheme came slightly later. Construction on the larger Morven–Glenavy scheme began in 1971. By 1978 more than 10,500 hectares was under irrigation. More recently, the Ōpuha project has irrigated more than 13,000 hectares in the Ōpuha and Ōpihi valleys. In 2002 South Canterbury had 11.6% of all the land in New Zealand served by an irrigation system.

The Rangitātā South Irrigation Scheme at Arundel reached full capacity (16,000 hectares) in 2014. An agreement between Meridian Energy and Mackenzie Country farmers saw 8,000 hectares there irrigated by 2016. Both schemes were delayed by environmental concerns that are likely to complicate any future proposals for irrigation projects in the region.

Tenure review

Much high-country farmland is leased from the state. Since 1998 farmers have had the option of buying a portion of their farms, in exchange for land with high conservation value. But environmentalists believe too much land has been sold and not enough conserved through this process, known as tenure review. In 2006 they criticised a deal made for Richmond Station (Lake Tekapo): 64% was sold (including 9 km of lake frontage). On the other hand, some farmers claim that by restricting high-altitude grazing, tenure review makes farms uneconomic.


South Canterbury has had dairy farms since the late 19th century. Sheep and cropping farms were converted to dairying after the Morven–Glenavy irrigation scheme was completed. This recent demand for dairy farms has affected the land market, changed the patterns of rural life and undermined South Canterbury’s tradition of continuous family ownership.

Farming today

Most South Canterbury farmland is pasture. In the Mackenzie District, 91% of all farmland was grazed in 2012. Even in the Timaru and Waimate districts, only 14% and 8% respectively of farmland was used for crops.

In 2012 the region had 1.5 million sheep (4.8% of the national flock), almost 300,000 dairy cattle (4.7%) and more than 140,000 beef cattle (3.8%). Merino wool is processed in Timaru.

Cropping remains important in South Canterbury. In 2012 the region contained:

  • 26% of New Zealand land planted in wheat
  • 20% of land planted in oats
  • 15% of land planted in barley.

Potatoes are an important crop in the Willowbridge district, and berry fruit are grown near Waimate and Temuka.

Only in the Mackenzie Country do farmers still graze sheep on extensive leasehold runs – the region’s original style of farming. Irrigation and tenure review are leading to changes even here.


Timber and limestone

Two of South Canterbury’s earliest industries were sawmilling and lime-burning. The timber industry had more or less ended by 1880, after fires destroyed the remaining forests at Waimate and Geraldine.

Lime-burning, for agriculture and building, began in the 1860s. Limestone was also quarried as a building stone, and bricks were fired locally, most importantly near Makikihi. Lime is still quarried extensively for agricultural use.


South Canterbury’s industries have been based on processing farm products. There were early wind- and water-powered flour mills at Milford, Temuka, Winchester, Waimate and Timaru. The first of the large brick flour mills along the railway line at Timaru was built in 1878. New Zealand’s first roller mill began production in this area in 1882. Later, these mills also produced oatmeal, pasta and stockfood. Flour and stockfood are still made in Timaru.

Built to last

Among Timaru’s most prominent landmarks is the six-storey Timaru Milling Company Building. Built in brick in 1882, it was the first mill in the country to use rollers instead of grindstones. Many early interior features remain. The mill still operates and is thought to be New Zealand’s last dry pasta plant.

Dairy factories

A butter factory was established in Temuka in 1883, and a cheese factory at Geraldine in 1884. Dairy exports through the port of Timaru increased fivefold between 1911 and 1927. More butter factories were built in Waimate and Timaru, and cheese factories in Clandeboye, Ōrari and Milford.

The factory at Clandeboye now draws milk from about 600 farms between North Canterbury and Otago. The factory produces specialist cheeses and other products from 11 million litres of milk a day, and employed 750 people in the early 2000s.

Freezing works

Before refrigeration, surplus stock was disposed of in boiling-down and meat-preserving works at Pleasant Point, Washdyke and Milford. The South Canterbury Refrigerating Company, formed in 1883, built a freezing works near Timaru in 1885. In January 1886 its first cargo of frozen meat was sent directly from Timaru to the United Kingdom.

The works were rebuilt in the 1890s, reopening as the Smithfield Works in 1898. In 1904, the Christchurch-based Canterbury Frozen Meat Company built a second South Canterbury works at Pareora.

Flax and wool

In the 19th century New Zealand flax was cut and milled at Waimate, Winchester and Fairlie, but the last significant shipment of flax fibre left in 1906.

During the Second World War a linen flax industry was established as a wartime measure. Four factories were supplied from more than 3,000 hectares. By the late 1950s, less than 300 hectares was being planted in linen flax. The lifting of protective tariffs and competition from synthetic fibres reduced demand. The last factory, in Geraldine, closed in the late 1970s.

Wool was scoured at Washdyke from the days of the early runs, and a woollen mill was built in Timaru.


Temuka became an important centre of clay-based industries when the Canterbury Pipe and Tile Company began production in 1874. Production of insulators began during the First World War. In the 1930s the industry moved into homewares, for which the town is still known.

Industry today

Wool and flour mills still operate in Timaru. Fish processing remains important, although the value of the catch has declined since the 1950s. South of Timaru, a potato-chip factory at Makikihi is typical of industries based on production from the region’s farms.

While South Canterbury’s workforce is more agricultural and industrial than the New Zealand average, most of the labour force works in the services sector.

Mackenzie Country

One part of South Canterbury is an area of national distinction. The Mackenzie District has New Zealand’s highest mountains, and its waters have become one of the country’s most important sources of energy.

Folk hero

The area is named after James Mackenzie, a shepherd and would-be farmer. He was captured for allegedly stealing sheep from a large sheep run, but claimed innocence and escaped. He was recaptured and sentenced to five years’ hard labour, but escaped twice more. Later, his trial was found to have been flawed, and he was pardoned. Said to be immensely strong physically, he was admired as a rebel who challenged the powerful and wealthy in a class-conscious community.

The Hermitage and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

The first scenic reserves in Aoraki/Mt Cook's Tasman and Hooker valleys were set aside in 1887. The Murchison valley was added in 1917 and the Godley valley in 1927. These reserves were consolidated as Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park in 1953. The park’s extent is now 72,164 hectares.

This area was explored by Julius Haast in 1862. Early visitors camped near White Horse Hill (where the first Hermitage hotel opened in 1885) or at Governors Bush (where the second Hermitage opened in 1914, and the third in 1958). The first mountain huts were built near the Ball Glacier in 1891 and below Mt Malte Brun in 1898.

Conquering Cook

In 1882 the first attempt was made on Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain (then 3,764 metres). It was first climbed by the New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, George Graham and Jack Clarke in 1894. In 1948 a young climber, Edmund Hillary, was in a party which made the first ascent of the mountain’s south ridge. Five years later he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb Mt Everest. The face-climbing era that began in the 1950s culminated in the first ascent of the Caroline Face in 1970.

Developing tourism

In 1906, Rodolph Wigley founded the Mt Cook Motor Service, which leased the Hermitage hotel from the government between 1922 and 1945, and became a major tourist company. In 1955 his son, Harry Wigley, landed a ski-equipped plane on the Tasman Glacier, starting a new era in tourism at Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Snow dogs

Where the former Ball Hut Road now ends, there is a small area known as Husky Flat. In 1956 husky dogs that were to go south with the New Zealand Antarctic Expedition were tethered there for three months before being moved up to the Malte Brun hut for winter training on the Tasman Glacier. In 1929, 15 huskies brought to New Zealand for an American expedition to Antarctica had helped haul building materials for a new Malte Brun hut.


As well as the Wigleys, the Mackenzie Country was home to another significant New Zealand innovator. In 1921, farmer and engineer Bill Hamilton bought the Irishman Creek station, where he was soon designing and building earth-moving and other heavy machinery. In 1945 C. W. F. Hamilton and Co. opened a factory in Christchurch. In the early 1950s Hamilton pioneered a jet-boat suitable for use on the shallow rivers of the area. Now HamiltonJet, the company has sold these craft all over the world.


Aoraki/Mt Cook remains a principal tourist destination, and the Hermitage is one of the country’s premier hotels. Helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft fly sightseers from airfields at Tekapo and Aoraki/Mt Cook. A tourist centre has developed at Glentanner, between Pūkaki and the Hermitage, and there are holiday homes at Lake Tekapo and Twizel.


The possibility of using the rivers and lakes of the Mackenzie Country to generate electricity was recognised in 1904. In 1938, work began on a dam, tunnel and powerhouse at Lake Tekapo, but the station was not commissioned until 1951. A control dam was also built at the outlet to Lake Pūkaki, to make summer meltwater available for power generation in winter.

Upper Waitaki scheme

Construction of the Upper Waitaki power scheme began after the Benmore and Aviemore stations on the lower Waitaki had been built. A construction town was built at Twizel, and a canal took Lake Tekapo water to a new powerhouse on the shore of Lake Pūkaki. Beyond Pūkaki, the flows from Lakes Tekapo, Pūkaki and Ōhau were combined to flow through three more power stations. Lake Pūkaki was raised by a total of 37 metres (trebling its volume) and a new lake, Ruataniwha, was formed by a dam on the Ōhau River.

The four new stations had a combined capacity of 848,000 kilowatts, and came online in the 1970s and early 1980s. The scheme is important to New Zealand as a whole: more than 50% of the country’s hydroelectric storage is in Lakes Tekapo and Pūkaki.

Sport, culture, society and leisure


South Canterbury’s identity as a separate region has been bound up with its sports teams. As early as 1873 a rugby match between Canterbury and South Canterbury was played at Ashburton. In 1950, for a euphoric moment, the South Canterbury team held the Ranfurly Shield, only to lose it at the first challenge. In 1974 it won it again, repulsing one challenge before losing it to city slickers from Wellington.

Sporting heroes

Three South Canterbury names belong to New Zealand’s sporting history.

  • One of the world’s most successful racehorses, Phar Lap, raced in Australia but was bred at Seadown, near Timaru.
  • Jack Lovelock, winner of the 1,500-metre race (in world-record time) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was schooled at Temuka, Fairlie and Timaru. He received an oak sapling with his medal, and the mature tree still stands at Timaru Boys’ High School.
  • Bob Fitzsimmons, who world boxing titles in three different weight categories, was educated and worked as a young man in South Canterbury.


Timaru is the centre of South Canterbury’s cultural life. The South Canterbury Museum has collections covering the region’s natural and human history, including fossils and Māori rock art. New Zealand and European artworks from the 17th century to the present are displayed in the Aigantighe (pronounced ‘Egg an Tie’) Art Gallery. Founded in a historic homestead in 1956, it is the South Island’s third largest art museum. The Theatre Royal is the focus for drama and performing arts, and hosts many touring shows.

Amateur cultural groups also flourish in smaller towns. There are historical museums in Temuka, Geraldine and Waimate, a rail museum in Pleasant Point and a vintage car and machinery museum in Geraldine.


The most important New Zealand literary figure with South Canterbury associations is Jessie Mackay, a journalist and poet who taught at Kakahu and Ashwick Flat in the 1880s and 1890s.

The English author Samuel Butler held the sheep run known as Mesopotamia between 1860 and 1864. It lies in today’s South Canterbury, but Butler is associated with Christchurch rather than Timaru. The initial scenes of his satirical novel Erewhon are set in a version of Mesopotamia.

One of the country's finest short story writers, Owen Marshall, has lived for many years in Timaru.

Street fighting men

In Timaru on Boxing Day 1879, some 40 Irish Protestants (known as Orangemen) clashed with Catholics. Despite official pleas, they joined a march of friendly societies. A 150-strong crowd of Catholics blocked their way, crying ‘remove your colours’ (regalia celebrating William of Orange’s victory over the deposed James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690). The Orangemen refused, and scuffles broke out. After a tense standoff the Orangemen retreated and removed their colours. The Catholics then marched in triumph along the main street.


Between 1878 and 1916, South Canterbury had its own Board of Education. The Christchurch-based Canterbury Education Board then took control until 1989, when much of the responsibility for running schools was devolved to their communities.

Timaru High School opened in 1880 as a co-educational institution, but split into boys’ and girls’ schools in 1897. A technical college founded in 1901 became a technical high school in 1918. This was the predecessor of Aoraki Polytechnic, which in 2016 merged with the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology to form Ara Institute of Canterbury.


The region’s only surviving daily newspaper is the Timaru Herald, founded in 1864 and a daily since 1878.


Anglicanism and Presbyterianism were the main Protestant denominations in South Canterbury, reflecting the region’s English and Scottish heritage. There was also a sizable Irish Catholic community, especially in Waimate and Geraldine.

As elsewhere in New Zealand, the importance of religion has declined in recent decades, but churches remain a notable part of the streetscape in many towns. The spires of St Mary's Anglican and Chalmers Presbyterian churches, and the domes of Sacred Heart Basilica, still dominate Timaru's skyline.


Climbing and skiing

Aoraki/Mt Cook has been the country’s major centre for guided climbing, and was also important in the development of skiing during the 1920s and 1930s. Skifields were later established elsewhere in the Mackenzie Country. Rock-climbing is another attraction – at sites with descriptive names such as Hanging Rock and Mt Horrible.


Trout were introduced into the region in the 1870s, and by the 1890s it had gained a reputation for having some of the best fly-fishing in New Zealand. In recent decades, pollution and the extraction of river water for irrigation have undermined this status. Salmon fishing in the Waitaki is centred on Glenavy.

City of the rose

Roses do well in the central South Island, with its dry summers and cold winters. The Trevor Griffiths Rose Garden, at Timaru’s Caroline Bay, displays thousands of old and modern species in a landscaped setting with fountains and arbours. It evolved from the collection of local grower Trevor Griffiths, who once had the third largest collection of roses in the world.

Caroline Bay

Timaru’s Caroline Bay, with its piazza and views to the mountains, attracts many visitors. The wide beach was formed by the build-up of current-driven sands against the harbour’s northern breakwater. In earlier times, day trippers came by train from Christchurch and Dunedin, and a summer carnival has been held since 1911. Holidaymakers still enjoy the promenades, picnic areas and fairground, as well as the cafés and bars above the bay.

Facts and figures

Land area

  • South Canterbury: 13,745 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Timaru)

(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)

  • Mean temperature, January: 15.9°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 5.0°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 548 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 1,932 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • South Canterbury: 53,877 (2006); 55,623 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • South Canterbury: 92.4%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • South Canterbury: 7.2%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • South Canterbury: 1.1%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • South Canterbury: 2.5%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • South Canterbury: 0.5%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes/sub-tribes

Ngāi (Kai) Tahu, Ngāti Mamoe, Waitaha

Population of major urban area, 2013

  • Timaru: 27,048

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • South Canterbury: 18.2%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • South Canterbury: 61.4%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • South Canterbury: 20.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • South Canterbury: 14.1%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%


  • South Canterbury: 16.6%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Unemployment, 2013

  • South Canterbury: 2.6%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012

(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)


  • South Canterbury: 1,512,230
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • South Canterbury: 299,604
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • South Canterbury: 142,217
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'South Canterbury region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 28 February 2007, updated 1 February 2017