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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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