A hidden valley – journeys ancient and modern

Of hidden valleys and journeys ancient and modern

waimakariri basin


In one of my short stories I create a modern Maori myth where, through the magical powers of an ancient tohunga,** a present-day young Maori gay man comes to terms with his sexuality and confronts his homophobic father.

The ancient part of the story is set in a limestone valley where a band of Waitaha* is on a hunting excursion. The tohunga chooses to draw on the wall of the limestone overhang where the hunting party is camped, thus mystically connecting with the young man, who has journeyed to the same spot centuries later.

The story evokes the time-worn atmosphere of the karst landscape, where limestone outcrops have been carved by the action of water across centuries into fantastical shapes, shafts, pits and caves that stir the imagination and hint of portals into an other-world of mystery, magic and wonder.

The story is a product of my imagination but its setting is real. This blog describes a journey taken in the last few days along paths trod by those first peoples of New Zealand some 500 to 700 years ago.

Hidden Valleys

One of the great road journeys in New Zealand is the route from Christchurch in Canterbury to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass. After a swift journey across the plains the traveler drives over the first barrier range at Porter’s Pass into the high mountain basins and river valleys of the eastern South Island high country, and then a steep zigzag over the trans-alpine pass to the luxuriant rainforests of the west.

In my view one of the most glorious landscapes of this journey is the Waimakariri Basin, which opens like a slowly revealed surprise as you cross Porter’s Pass and enter a rolling open space enclosed by the Craigieburn and Torlesse ranges and the eastern ramparts of the Main Divide.

In winter this is the playground of snow skiers. The alpine basins of Porters, Craigieburn and Broken River ski fields are buried in deep powder snow and the bare tops support icy crusts that shine like beacons under a winter moon.

Beacons under a winter moon

Beacons under a winter moon

In spring the snow retreats to reveal a transient hint of green: tussock grasslands sprout afresh and red-tipped dracophyllum lends a Kodachrome contrast; alpine daisies follow the light like sunflowers and ranunculus burst through the tussock and shake their blousy blooms at the sky.

Summer follows quickly; the dehydrating nor-wester transforms the landscape of alpine grasslands and low shrubs into a kaleidoscope of golds, browns and rusty reds, rising to the greys and jasper purples of the bare tops, where even lichen finally relinquishes its grip to leave the shattered greywacke clean and shining under the relentless sun.

At the heart of this great basin of rolling grasslands and rushing rivers is a landscape surprise. Rising up from the lower slopes – where introduced grasses are pasture for sheep and cattle and remnants of the original native cover cling precariously to a few gullies too steep to graze – are the limestone ramparts of Kura Tawhiti (Castle Hill) and, a little further down the road, the limestone tors and bluffs of Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.

These are magnificent attractions on a popular tourist road.

Castle Hill - a spiritual centre of the universe

Castle Hill – a spiritual centre of the universe

The Dalai Lama described Castle Hill as a “Spiritual Centre of the Universe” and it is certainly a place of deep spiritual and cultural significance for Waitaha and Ngai Tahu, as well as being a mecca for rock climbers. The popular Cave Stream is equally justified as an attraction. Here people, if they follow the rules and use some common sense, can have a safe but thrilling venture into the underworld and appreciate the shaping power of water in the karst landscape; along with a not unfounded sense of some risk, given that this cave has claimed lives when it’s mood has changed or its dangers overlooked.

The formations are the water worn remnants of vast layers of sediment laid down and compressed into limestone during the Oligocene period some 30 million years ago when most of New Zealand was under the sea. When tectonic action lifted this rock above the ocean the soluble limestone began to wear away, giving us the spectacular sculpted tors, overhangs, caves, guts and sinkholes we see today.

Between these landscape icons is an easy tar-sealed road that can be safely negotiated in minutes at 100kph, the passengers’ eyes drawn across seemingly uninterrupted pastures to the high tops of the surrounding ranges.

an uninterrupted view

an uninterrupted view to the tops

But this view is a deception. Linking Castle Hill to Cave Stream is a network of streams and valleys invisible from the road, where hidden caves, deep gullies, and extraordinary limestone outcrops more than rival the tourist map attractions. Few of the Castle Hill road travelers know it, fewer still visit, but the earliest humans to arrive in these islands once walked the pathways through these valleys.

For Waitaha and Ngai Tahu, the limestone ledges along these banks were places of shelter on journeys to and from the West Coast to collect pounamu (greenstone or New Zealand jade). The hardest substance known to Maori, pounamu was carved into weapons, tools, jewelry and pieces of art. On these journeys early Maori drew in charcoal on the walls of the limestone overhangs where they sheltered; some of these drawings are still visible. In such an overhang, centuries later, an intact woven harakeke backpack was discovered, the only such ever found, to bear witness to the sheer human effort to bear this dense, heavy stone across the alps and out to the East Coast where, what was not required locally, was traded with other hapu and iwi from throughout the country.

dropping into the Thpomas

the drop to Thomas Stream 

Our journey was not so strenuous, but the sense of stepping back in time was strong as we dropped off the tussock plateau sloping away from Castle Hill Village and into the narrow confines of Thomas Stream. Limestone bluffs loomed over us and, while willow has replaced kowhai in the stream beds, the still, cool depths seemed centuries back in time from the headlong rush of traffic only ten minutes’ walk behind us on the tourist highway.

The Thomas led us under ledges where karearea nest, past a secret cave, down to the Porter River. Here the water seemed milky until we realised it was the creamy limestone the clear stream was flowing over that gave the illusion of colour.

a clear stream as if coloured

the illusion of colour


The junction of the Thomas and Porter was marked with a huge and spectacular bluff of contorted limestone that looked as if the rock had exploded out of the ground to solidify in mid air, before being softened and rounded by the ensuing ages.

We crawled along the high, dry and wide ledges carved into this massive face when the river bed was much higher than it is now, and wondered if Waitaha had camped here, high above risk of flood and out of the rain or fierce sun.

crawling along ancient ledges

did Waitaha camp here?

The Porter tumbled out of this rocky enclave into an open valley where it ran clear and shallow past remnants of the totara, hebe and broadleaf forests that were once the dominant plants in this region. Here the limestone, long abandoned by the smoothing actions of the river, was pale grey and shattered, piled into fragile slats like heaps of broken roof tiles, slowly surrendering to the impact of winter frost and summer heat, piece by flaking piece.

like piles of shattered tiles

like heaps of broken tiles

To our true left, across wide flats dotted with matagouri and coprosma, the Broken River hove into view. Our travel now upstream choosing our way along the narrowing Broken River Valley due west into the confines of the Broken’s limestone gorge.

Into this landscape of rocky greys and golden, summer-burned grasses, we came upon a startling glaring white intrusion! On the true right of the Broken River a large outcrop of coarse, frail limestone that seemed less dense and compacted than most of the surrounding rock, was actively eroding into a badlands formation. Our guide said that ten years ago it wasn’t even there, so this was nature in action at, by geological standards, a lightning pace! The limestone had had no time to weather into grey and few plants had gained a foothold. The soaring razor-edged ridges seemed as a freshly calved iceberg, and gave the same impression that any second another section would fall away to tumble into the valley.

seemed as a freshly calved iceberg

as if a freshly calved iceberg

Beyond the badlands the river rapidly narrowed and soon the Broken River was living up to its name, coursing through a labyrinth of limestone formations; a foaming waterfall, a deep pool, suddenly wide, then so narrow the entire river could be leaped across by the brave or foolhardy. In the water as often as out of it, we wove through this ancient maze to emerge above the gorge where a long deep pool begged to be swum in and the mouth of the Cave Stream cave drew us like a fairground ride  – slightly scary but compelling.

a long deep pool for swimming

a long deep pool for swimming


The cave itself is not part of this story, for as I have noted, it is part of the known and popular attractions of the Waimakariri Basin. And, indeed, on such a hot and blue-skied Sunday there were crowds of adventure seekers heading for the mouth of the cave and the hour-long 594m scramble upstream in the wet and the dark.

But we privileged few had just spent nearly four hours linking two tourism icons – only a few minutes apart by road – journeying through ways still largely unknown, where the connection with those earliest of journeyers seemed closer and far more real.

The cave drew us in

The cave drew us in













**In Maori tohunga means expert practitioner. It can be applied to an expert carver or artist, a highly skilled orator, a keeper of ancestral knowledge, someone skilled at interpreting the spiritual world or using magic (the tohunga in my story), or a person expert in healing and medicine.

*Waitaha, very early Maori who occupied the South Island before the now dominant iwi, Ngai Tahu.

3 thoughts on “A hidden valley – journeys ancient and modern

  1. Steve this is another great example of your ability/skills as an author and photographer. This is just brilliant and I have shared this onto my websites. Looking forward to more of the same.

  2. I am looking forward to returning to New Zealand again. You have captured the beauty of the country so well, and blends seamlessly into the Maori legends you write of. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Steve – I love the way you have put this together. I have written a children’s environmental story ‘Wiremu Weka Treks the Alps’ where Wiremu treks from Greymouth across Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch through this amazing country, meeting the locals. I have many photos but need some of the birds he encounters. I would like to use some of yours – the wrybill showing the curved bill, and turning his head sideways to get under rocks; and the Australasian Crested Grebe at Moana Rua. And do you have any black stilt? The book is at the graphic designer’s now. It might be easier for me to use one photographer rather than dodging around a whole lot getting permissions. Love to hear from you ASAP.

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