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South Canterbury places

by  John Wilson

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, coastal and inland areas, and other places of interest in South Canterbury.

Aoraki/Mt Cook

Godley Glacier and River

The Godley River flows from the Godley Glacier into the head of Lake Tekapo. The mountains at the head of the Godley were set aside as a reserve in 1927, and were included in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park when it was established in 1953. The highest peak at the head of the Godley, Mt D’Archiac (2,865 metres) is sometimes mistaken for Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Aoraki/Mt Cook

Aoraki/Mt Cook (3,724 metres) is the highest of New Zealand’s mountains. Named after it are a national park and a tourist settlement in the lower Hooker Valley. The settlement is also known as the Hermitage, after the main tourist hotel.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park has five major glaciers. Most of the highest peaks are on the park’s boundary with the Westland National Park, but Aoraki/Mt Cook itself lies just east of this. The no-exit road to the Aoraki/Mt Cook settlement follows the west side of Lake Pūkaki and the Tasman River. Mt Cook Station, one of the Mackenzie Country’s historic sheep runs (it has been in the hands of the Burnett family since 1864), is on the opposite side of the Tasman Valley.

Race to the top

Hearing that the English climber Edward FitzGerald aimed to be the first to reach the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook, three New Zealanders vowed to beat him to it. Early on Christmas morning 1894 they launched their final assault. Tom Fyfe recalled: ‘I am afraid that the reckless way we romped over those last rocks was very foolhardy; but one would indeed need to be phlegmatic not to get a little excited on such an occasion.’ 1 The outfoxed FitzGerald consoled himself by making the first climbs to the summits of Mt Sefton and Mt Tasman.

Tasman Glacier

At 27 kilometres, the Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest and largest glacier. It starts below the Tasman Saddle and flows south-west along the eastern flank of the Mt Cook Range.

Below Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the Hochstetter Icefall flows into the Tasman Glacier from a huge snowfield known as the Grand Plateau. Since the late 19th century, ice melt has created a lake at the end of the glacier. The Tasman River, which flows from the glacier into Lake Pūkaki, is also fed by melt-water from the Murchison, Hooker and Mueller glaciers.

    • Quoted in Diana and Jeremy Pope, Mobil New Zealand travel guide: South Island. Auckland: Reed, 1978, p. 217. › Back

Mackenzie Country

Mackenzie Basin

Large inland plain between the foothill ranges of South Canterbury and the Southern Alps and Ben Ōhau Range. It bears the name of James Mackenzie, who in 1855 was captured with sheep stolen from the Rhodes brothers’ Levels run, on the western side of Mackenzie Pass. There is a monument close to the point where Mackenzie was apprehended. One of three roads leading into the Mackenzie Country from the east crosses Mackenzie Pass.

The Mackenzie Country consists mostly of extensive sheep runs, but is also the site of the Upper Waitaki power scheme, built between 1969 and 1984. The district plays an important part in the South Island’s tourist industry, offering fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking and other recreation.

In June 2012 the Mackenzie Basin and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park became an international dark sky reserve, with the aim of promoting star-gazing and protecting astronomical research at the Mt John Observatory. At 4,367 square kilometres, Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the largest such reserve in the world and the first in the southern hemisphere.


Lake Ōhau, south-west of Lake Pūkaki and Twizel, is the smallest of South Canterbury’s three inland lakes. Along the short Ōhau River are three power stations of the Upper Waitaki scheme and the dam which impounds Lake Ruataniwha. The Dobson and Hopkins rivers flow into the head of Lake Ōhau.


Lake Pūkaki is the country’s most important hydro storage lake. The lake level was raised after a low dam and control structure were built at its outlet in the 1950s. When a new dam was built in the 1970s, the lake was raised further, to 37 metres above its original level. The initial raising of the lake submerged the renowned ‘£5 note island’ (once featured on the old £5 note, in a view towards Aoraki/Mt Cook), but the vista across the lake remains one of the best-known in New Zealand.


Lake Tekapo, the highest of the Mackenzie Country lakes (its maximum height is 712 metres above sea level), was first tapped for hydroelectric power in a project completed in 1951. The outflow is now diverted into a canal which flows to the Tekapo B power station on Lake Pūkaki.

Tekapo blue

Lake Tekapo has an intense, milky, turquoise hue. This is due to a fine rock flour, ground by glacial movement and suspended in the waters. Fed by several glaciers, the inviting waters are generally too cold for swimming, except in the shallows or on the hottest days.

At Lake Tekapo’s outlet is a hotel and settlement, mainly of holiday homes. The population grew from just below 200 in 1991 to just over 350 in 2013. It is now an important centre for recreational tourism. The Church of the Good Shepherd, in a picturesque setting overlooking the lake, is one of New Zealand’s best-known buildings.

Mt John

An observatory sits on the summit of Mt John, near Lake Tekapo. It was opened in 1963 as a cooperative venture between the universities of Pennsylvania and Canterbury. Advanced astronomical research is carried out there by four New Zealand universities and Nagoya University in Japan.


South Canterbury’s youngest town, Twizel is now the region’s sixth largest. It is 161 km north-west of Timaru and had a 2013 population of 1,137.

Saving Twizel

Once the Upper Waitaki power scheme was finished, Twizel was to be dismantled. But in 1984, town advocates persuaded the government to keep the facilities and sell the houses as holiday homes. The area is enjoying a revival, with a co-educational school for primary and secondary students, and attractions such as water sports on the artificial Lake Ruataniwha, glacier tours and skiing.

It began as a hydro construction town when the government laid out 1,200 sections and 23 km of road, on 260 hectares of former Ruataniwha Station land. Schools and shopping and community centres were built. From a population of nil in 1969, Twizel had between 5,000 and 6,000 inhabitants by 1975. The town was modelled on Mangakino in the North Island and Ōtemātātā in North Otago.

Two Thumb Range

Major range to the east of Lake Tekapo and the Godley River. It is named for the peaks that look like a pair of upturned thumbs, the higher being 2,546 metres above sea level.



Small settlement on the Tengawai River, 16 km south of Fairlie. Albury grew after the railway reached it from Washdyke in 1882. But its population, never above 200, declined from the mid-20th century.

Burkes Pass

Main point of entry on State Highway 8, into the Mackenzie Country, 22 km west of Fairlie. It was crossed over by Michael Burke of Raincliff Station in the late 1850s.

Between 1876 and 1891 the Mt Cook Road Board and then the Mackenzie Country Council was based at the Burkes Pass township, after which the council moved to Fairlie. The settlement today has a scattering of holiday homes.


Originally an outstation of the Levels sheep run, 29 km south-east of Fairlie, Cave became a small village with the arrival of the railway and the gradual subdivision of the Levels and other nearby sheep runs. Over the hill from the settlement is St David’s Memorial Church, built by the Burnett family.

Trees for soldiers

The mature deciduous trees that line Fairlie’s main street are part of Peace Avenue, planted as a memorial to fallen soldiers after the First World War. The avenue was intended to stretch from Cricklewood to Tekapo, but only the Fairlie trees were planted.


Chief town of inland South Canterbury, 62 km north-west of Timaru. It had a 2013 population of 696. It lies on the upper Ōpihi River at the junction of State Highway 79, from Rangitātā via Geraldine, and State Highway 8, from Washdyke and Timaru.

Beyond Fairlie, State Highway 8 crosses Burkes Pass into the Mackenzie Country, en route to Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Southern Lakes. An accommodation house opened at Fairlie Creek (as it was known until 1892) in 1865. The railway reached the town in 1884 and a regular coach service to Aoraki/Mt Cook began in 1886.

Fairlie good wool

Fairlie wool is among New Zealand’s best. Fred Saville, who gained a world record price in 1951, claimed the local water gave ‘a good dip’ (used to souse sheep). Fairlie wool was also used for the tennis balls at the 2006 United States Open.

Fairlie plays a role in the tourist industry and is the service town for the Fairlie basin – including the farming districts of Clayton, Ashwick Flat and Sherwood Downs. It is the seat of the Mackenzie District and the site of Mackenzie College, a co-educational secondary school.



Town 36 km north of Timaru, with a 2013 population of 2,301. Once on the main road between Christchurch and Timaru, Geraldine is now bypassed by State Highway 1, but is on the route for people travelling from Christchurch to Aoraki/Mt Cook and the Southern Lakes. This has encouraged town and tourist businesses.

The town’s European history began with the founding of the Raukapuka sheep run in 1853. The following year the surveyor Sam Hewlings built the first dwelling. The Talbot forest was milled in the 1860s and 1870s, but a small remnant has been reserved on the edge of the town. Geraldine became a town district in 1884 – the same year a cheese factory was built – and a borough in 1904.

A big stretch

According to the Guinness book of records, Geraldine boasts the world’s largest jersey. Lining the wall of the ‘Giant Jersey’ knitwear shop, it is 4.9 metres from wrist to wrist, 2.1 metres high and 1.5 metres wide. It weighs 5.5 kilograms and is made of patchwork squares, with sheep as a motif.

Unlike many country towns, Geraldine has grown since the 1950s, partly because it is popular as a retirement centre. The Vintage Car and Machinery Museum has an impressive collection of old tractors and cars. The town is also the site of Geraldine High School.


Settlement 18 km north of Geraldine. Arundel has historic importance because it was once at one end of the only bridge over the Rangitātā River. This linked South Canterbury with the rest of Canterbury from 1872 until the 1930s, when the present road bridges on State Highway 1 were built. A site for a village at Arundel was reserved in 1874, but the population never rose above 100.


Area of downlands and river valleys, 18 km south-west of Geraldine. It is of geological and historical interest, with very old (for Canterbury) sedimentary rocks and early kilns where limestone was burned for mortar and agricultural use. There are major private projects to protect remnant native forests and features of geological interest.


Sheep station at the end of the road up the south side of the upper Rangitātā River from Arundel through Peel Forest, 69 km north-west of Geraldine. Mesopotamia Station is one of the South Island’s best-known high-country sheep runs. This is because of its association with the English writer Samuel Butler, who used it as the setting for his novel Erewhon. The sites of Butler’s two huts, up Forest Creek and near the present Mesopotamia homestead, are marked by plaques.


Small township 9 km south-east of Geraldine by the Ōrari River. The river rises in the Ben McLeod, Mt Peel and Four Peaks ranges, south of the upper Rangitātā River. The substantial homestead of the early Ōrari sheep run is just south of the township.

Peel Forest

Forest 23 km north of Geraldine. Milling of native timber on the south bank of the Rangitātā River, below Mt Peel (1,717 metres), began in the 1850s. Between 1865 and the early 1900s, Peel Forest was a substantial sawmilling village. The store remains open (unlike those of many South Canterbury towns) and the village is now a centre for outdoor recreation.

Peel Forest Park was set up in 1926. Further up the Rangitātā River is historic Mt Peel Station, owned by the Acland family, who were among the region’s first runholders. It features a brick homestead completed in 1867 and a stone church consecrated in 1869.


The Rangitātā is one of the major rivers that formed the Canterbury Plains. Its two main headwaters, the Clyde and Havelock rivers, rise from glaciers in the main Southern Alps. At Rangitātā the river splits into two branches. No water has flowed down its south branch for many years and Rangitātā Island is now an island in name only.

A township was surveyed at the southern end of the railway bridge across the Rangitātā in 1881, and village sections were offered in 1886. In the 1930s the main road south from Christchurch was diverted from the bridge at Arundel to new bridges parallel to the railway bridge. This failed to stimulate growth and the Rangitātā remains little more than a refreshment stop for motorists.



Town 19 km north of Timaru. It is South Canterbury’s second largest centre after Timaru, with 4,047 inhabitants in 2013.

Situated near the Arowhenua forest and close to early crossings of the Ōpihi and Temuka rivers, it was gazetted as a town in 1858 and surveyed in 1863, originally under the name ‘Wallingford’. It developed as a secondary industrial centre to Timaru, with early boiling-down and tannery works, a flour mill, a cheese factory and potteries. Temuka has one of New Zealand’s best preserved early 20th-century main streets, and a number of notable older public buildings and churches. It is also the location of the co-educational Ōpihi College.

Trendy tableware

In the 1930s Temuka’s pottery factory began producing teapots, vases, electric jugs, and the famous, heavyweight New Zealand Railways cup and saucer. In the 1970s it introduced stoneware dinner sets. These and other early pieces are now keenly sought by collectors.


Settlement 5 km south of Temuka. Arowhenua has been the main centre of Māori life in South Canterbury since the mid-19th century when the Māori people of the area moved from nearby Te Waiateruati.

An 1866 wooden church was replaced in 1931–32 by the present structure which stands beside State Highway 1. The meeting house is named Te Hapa o Niu Tireni ('New Zealand's broken promise') – a reference to the long-pursued claim of the Ngāi Tahu tribe, based on unfulfilled promises made when Europeans purchased the land. It was opened in 1905.


Locality 6 km west of Arowhenua. It was so named because many of the original settlers came from County Kerry, south-western Ireland.

The Levels

Farming district 9 km south-east of Pleasant Point. The name Levels, from Yorkshire, was given by the Rhodes brothers to the first sheep run taken up in South Canterbury. The family’s original farmhouse was restored in the late 1940s.

The district extends onto the southern extremity of the Canterbury Plains, where Timaru’s airport was built in the early 1950s.

Ōpihi River

One of the major ‘foothill’ rivers of South Canterbury, the Ōpihi rises north and west of Fairlie and flows into the Canterbury Bight east of Temuka. Below Fairlie it runs through a short gorge. The main tributaries, the Opuha (from the north) and Tengawai (from the south), join it below this gorge. Its reputation as a trout-fishing river has suffered from water being taken for irrigation, and from polluting farm run-off.

Pleasant Point

Town 19 km north-west of Timaru, with a 2013 population of 1,278. Pleasant Point began life as an outstation, known as Hodstock, of the Levels sheep run. The ‘Point’ could refer either to the junction of the Tengawai and Ōpihi rivers, or to the toe of the spur around which the township developed.

An accommodation house was built in 1864. From 1908 to 1954, it was an independent town district. The population is slowly declining, and in 2004 the high school closed. The railway from Washdyke reached Pleasant Point in 1875. After the 1968 closing of the Fairlie branch line, the Pleasant Point station and a section of track became the nucleus of a museum, the prize exhibit of which is an engine, Ab699, which once hauled the ‘Fairlie Flyer’.


Township 6 km north of Temuka. Its population in 2013, 264, was down substantially from the 1956 figure of 410. It survives by serving travellers and local farmers. The annual show of the Temuka and Geraldine Agricultural and Pastoral Association, founded in 1874, has been held on the Winchester Domain since 1910.



South Canterbury’s largest centre of population, and only city. Timaru had a population in 2013 of 27,048, slightly up on the 2006 figure of 26,895. It peaked at close to 30,000 in the early 1970s. The town developed at the only sheltered point on the coast between Banks Peninsula and North Otago, and owes much of its prosperity to its artificial harbour, first developed in the late 1800s.


Timaru became an industrial centre processing products from South Canterbury farms. Relatively slow growth since the 1950s means the town has, like nearby Temuka, a well-preserved early 20th-century main street and other notable historic buildings. It is the administrative centre for the Timaru District, which now includes Temuka and Geraldine and extends north to the Rangitātā River.

Schools and hospital

Timaru has five secondary schools. Timaru Boys’ and Girls’ high schools (single-sex), Mountainview high school (co-educational), Roncalli College (Catholic co-educational) and Craighead Diocesan (Anglican girls’ school). Timaru is also the site of the region’s only general hospital.

A sheltered spot

The name Timaru could be a variant of Te Maru (meaning ‘the place of shelter’) – referring to the safe water behind the reefs. The name may also have a connection with Maru, a chief of the South Island Ngāi Tahu tribe.

Caroline Bay

Caroline Bay was once described as a ‘dreary and uninviting line of rock under a cliff over which was dumped night soil and rubbish’. 1 After the construction of Timaru’s artificial harbour, currents created a sandy beach under the cliffs, inviting bathers and visitors. The borough council leased the new foreshore from the harbour board in 1902 and decided to turn the bay into a European-style beach resort. Tea rooms, a hot-water swimming pool and a band rotunda were built. A ‘sound shell’ (for concerts) replaced the rotunda in 1937. Later, a piazza was built to improve access to the bay from the top of Bay Hill. Christmas carnivals have been held at Caroline Bay since 1911, attracting thousands.

Hunters Hills

Prominent South Canterbury foothill range, west of Timaru. West of the range itself are the upper Waihao and Hakataramea valleys. One of the highest peaks, at 1,525 metres, is Mt Nimrod, ‘a mighty hunter before the Lord’ (Genesis 10:19). There is a television mast on another Hunters Hills summit, Mt Studholme.

Otaio River

The Otaio River rises in the southern Hunters Hills and flows across downlands to the coast south of the Pareora River. The reserve at Otaio Gorge, where the river issues from the hills, protects a small area of surviving native bush and is typical of the camping and picnic spots along the foot of the Hunters Hills.


The township of Pareora is 14 km south of Timaru. It grew up around a freezing works which opened in 1904 and still operates. The Pareora River drains the northern Hunters Hills. The lower gorge of the Pareora River has been the source of Timaru’s water since 1874.

St Andrews

Settlement 17 km south-west of Timaru with a 2013 population of 180. It was linked to Timaru by rail in 1876, and grew after the subdivision of the Pareora Run. It remains a rural service town.


Industrial suburb 5 km north of Timaru’s city centre. Its first industry was a boiling-down works, opened in 1869. Its industries today include a substantial brewery. The Washdyke Lagoon is to the east of the suburb. Because the coastline changed after Timaru’s port was built, the lagoon is much smaller than it once was.

    • Oliver A. Gillespie, South Canterbury: a record of settlement. Timaru: South Canterbury Centennial History Committee, 1958, p. 182. › Back



Town 45 km south-west of Timaru, with a 2013 population of 2,778.

In July 1854 Michael Studholme reached an agreement with Te Huruhuru, leader of the local Māori, to found the Te Waimate sheep run. A small part of the property remains in the hands of the Studholme family.

There were more than 1,200 hectares of native forest in the area, and the town of Waimate began as a sawmilling settlement. Five mills were operating by 1877 (when the branch railway reached the town), but a bush fire the following year ended the industry. Land for a town had been reserved in 1859, and by 1864 Waimate had a population of around 300.

A plucky physician

In 1897 Margaret Cruickshank became the second woman doctor to graduate in New Zealand. She established a practice in Waimate. During the 1918 influenza epidemic, when her driver fell sick, she used a bicycle to make her rounds. She eventually contracted influenza herself, and died. A memorial statue of her stands in Seddon Square.

Waimate became a borough in 1879 and was also the seat of government for Waimate County. As a rural service centre, Waimate received a boost when the Waikākahi Estate was subdivided in 1899. The population reached a little over 3,000 in the 1950s and remained at this level until the early 1990s, when it decreased slightly. The town is the site of co-educational Waimate High School.


Small township on the main road, 18 km north-east of Waimate. It has several brick buildings – a reminder of the long-closed brick works on Analong, a farm in the area. The town has survived because it is the base of a transport company and the site of a potato-chip factory, which uses potatoes grown in the nearby Willowbridge district.


Settlement 14 km south-east of Waimate. Until the subdivision of the Waikākahi Estate, it was little more than a railway station (Waihao) and a school. After the subdivision, Morven became a service and social centre for the new settlers, with stores, houses, and a convent and convent school. It never had a hotel or saleyards (which were at nearby Studholme Junction).

The settlement declined in the 1960s and 1970s and is now smaller than Glenavy, which it had eclipsed through the first half of the 20th century. The hall, domain and school remain.

Studholme Junction

Location 8 km east of Waimate. It was established in 1877 at the junction of the main south and Waimate branch railway lines. First known as Waimate Junction, it was renamed after a notable local runholder in 1881.

The hotel and saleyards flourished when the Te Waimate and Waikākahi estates were broken up into family farms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Waihao River

Waihao is one of South Canterbury’s oldest names. It dates from the rendezvous between Rākaihautū and Rokohouia of the Uruao canoe, and refers to a type of freshwater eel caught in that area. The Waihao River rises south-west of the Hunters Hills and flows round their southern extremity to the coast east of Waimate.

On the river’s upper reaches is a district called Waihaorunga and the locality of Waihao Downs, where there is a notable homestead and a monument to early settlers. At Waihao Forks there is a hotel, and in 1941 the Centennial Runanga Hall was built on the Waihao marae, near Morven, just south of the lower Waihao River.

Wainono Lagoon

Large, shallow coastal lagoon impounded by a shingle beach barrier, 10 km north-east of Waimate. It is an important habitat for waterfowl, migratory birds, coastal birds and native fish. It is also a popular game-bird hunting area.



Settlement at the northern end of the main road and rail bridges over the Waitaki River. It was known until 1890 as ‘Waitaki North’. Glenavy is 24 km south-east of Waimate. It gained an accommodation house in 1860 and a village settlement in 1881. It grew further after the subdivision of the Waikākahi Estate in 1899. Between about 1900 and 1960, Glenavy was smaller than nearby Morven. But its position on the main road and its popularity with salmon fishermen have saved it from the decline which Morven has suffered.

In 1929 an electricity substation was built at Glenavy to feed power from Lake Coleridge to the Waitaki hydro construction site. In the 1950s and early 1960s a Ministry of Works construction camp swelled the population, while new road and rail bridges were built to replace the old combined bridge of 1877.

Project No-go

In 2001 the state-owned Meridian Energy Company proposed Project Aqua, which would divert up to 77% of the Waitaki River to a canal, to generate much-needed hydroelectricity. There was widespread opposition: it would threaten fishing and wildlife habitats, raise nitrate levels in ground water, and increase coastal erosion. As a result, in 2004 Meridian abandoned the scheme.


Settlement 60 km west of Waimate. It lies on the north bank of the Waitaki River where it joins the Hakataramea River. Hakataramea became a rail terminus in 1881. But it was outgrown by neighbouring Kurow (in North Otago) and it never developed beyond a small settlement.

At the head of the Hakataramea River, the Hakataramea Pass leads into the Mackenzie Country. The Hakataramea Valley is part of the South Canterbury high country, with broad mountain landscapes. Sheep farming is the main activity.

Kirkliston Range

Mountain range separating the Hakataramea Valley from the Mackenzie Country. North of the range, the Grampian Mountains and Dalgety and Rollesby ranges mark the eastern boundary of the Mackenzie Country as far north as Burkes Pass.

Waitaki River

River that drains the glaciers on a long stretch of the Southern Alps, from Mt D’Archiac down into North Otago. It has been harnessed for hydroelectric power from the three major lakes in its Mackenzie Country headwaters down to the original 1935 Waitaki hydro above Kurow.

The Upper Waitaki power scheme, built in the 1970s and early 1980s, gave South Canterbury a pivotal position in New Zealand’s electricity supply industry. The lower Waitaki is one of the country’s premier salmon fishing rivers. The river is also the source of water for southern South Canterbury’s early Redcliffs and later Morven–Glenavy irrigation schemes. The lower Waitaki, separating South Canterbury and North Otago, forms one of the country’s most enduring regional boundaries.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'South Canterbury places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 28 o Pēpuere 2007, updated 17 o Ākuhata 2015