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 Caroline Bay’s surf. By evening the sun casts long shadows and the land slowly cools.
In winter, it can be freezing at daybreak and temperatures rise slowly, if at all. Snow often carpets the region’s interior and delivers biting winds to the coast. Smoke-like breath stalls in the air. Some people keep warm outdoors through exercise: ice-skating beside Lake Tekapo or skiing at Fox Peak. But most stay inside, with the fires burning. By late afternoon the sun has already disappeared behind the frozen Southern Alps.
High and mighty
New Zealand’s premier alpine park is Aoraki Mt 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 3,754 metres). Forty percent 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.
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 Mt 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 pā 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 and African (1.2%).