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Wanaka Story, by Irvine Roxburgh

25 October 2010

A History of the Wanaka, Hawea, Tarras, and surrounding districts


To commemorate the centenary of the settlement of Otago in 1848, an “Otago Provincial Centennial Council” was instituted some ten years earlier, in line with the National Centennial Organisation, which was set up to celebrate 100 years of organised settlement in New Zealand in 1940. A report placed before the Otago Centennial Council in 1946 suggested that one of the main Centennial projects should be the writing of a History of Otago, and that an attempt be made to get about twenty districts throughout the province to sponsor supplementary District Histories. This suggestion was enthusiastically adopted by the Council, a Centennial Historical Committee was appointed, and during the next few months all country districts in Otago were visited by members of that Committee with a  view of setting up local committees whose task it would be to gather in any diaries or original historical material still available and if possible to appoint a competent person to write the history of that area.

The Upper Clutha district made an early start, but after a certain amount of initial enthusiasm when one or two local committees were formed, interest flagged for various reasons, one being the difficulty of getting a competent person to undertake the task of writing the history. The fact was then brought to the Committe’s notice that the Reverend I.O. Roxburgh, of Wanaka, was considering writing the history of the district as a thesis. The Centennial Historical Committee was able to make arrangements with Mr. Roxburgh to undertake the writing of this District History. The book was finally published in 1957, second last in the series. Other titles published by the Otago Centennial Historical Committee, and uniform with this volume, are “The Otago of our Mothers”, “Teviot Tapestry”, “The Face of Otago”, “Pioneering in South Otago”, “Down the Years in the Maniototo”, “Port Chalmers – Getaway to Otago”, “Run, Estate and Farm”, “East of the Rock and Pillar”, “Golden Days of Lake County”, “Tuapeka – The Land and its People”, “Faith and Toil – The Story of Tokomairiro”, “Taieri Plain – Tales of the Years that are gone”, “Heart of the Desert”, “The Dunstan”, “Beyond the Blue Mountains”, and “Northern Approaches”.

In this volume, Roxburgh reports on 100 years of European settlement in the Upper Clutha district, including Wanaka, Hawea, the Lindis River, Cardrona, the Matukituki, Wilkin and Makarora Rivers, and Haast Pass. After a brief synopsis of the Maori trails and settlements in the region, the history starts with Nathaniel Chalmers’ journey to Lake Hawea in 1853, followed by the arrival of run holders and gold miners in the 1860s. The history of the settlements of Pembroke (renamed Wanaka in 1940), Albert Town, Hawea Flats and Cardrona is well documented, and is always connected to the ‘outposts’ in the forested valleys at the head of the lakes (mainly the Makarora and Matukituki), which provided the timber needed for the construction of the first dwellings in the barren land downstream of the big lakes. Much of the book focuses on travels and on the developement of means of transportation, movement in the region being a serious challenge in early days, due to the complete absence of roads, or bridges over the mighty Clutha and other smaller rivers. The tale ends with the construction of large irrigation schemes, of the Haast Pass highway, and of the control works at the mouth of Lake Hawea, in the 1950s.

The book is a celebration of the entrepreneurship of the early settlers in Central Otago, who braved the challenges associated with remoteness and isolation. More than one death was recorded in the district, affecting working men or women giving birth, simply because medical help was too far away – doctors would often travel two days, and reach their destination too late to help their patients. Materials for construction had to be sourced a long way away; likewise, markets for wool and meat were on the east coast, distant several days of arduous journey. The ‘borders of civilization’ attracted not only capable and determined pioneers, but also criminals and rejects from society. Numerous anecdotes about peculiar characters, and insights into the life in the outposts of civilization, make for some varied and interesting reading.

The book does however present a number of serious shortcomings. The material is disorganized, with sudden jumps between different unrelated topics even inside a same paragraph, and closely related contents spread over different chapters. The narrative could have done with some polishing – there are several fragments of sentences that make no sense, and errors which go well beyond spelling mistakes – how about a convoy “crossing the sheep” instead of “crossing the Clutha”?

We honestly don’t need to know the names of all members of every school committee, or every cricket team, in every village in the district – and if we do, they should have been listed in the appendices at the end of the book. When every second sentence in a chapter contains a list of 10 or 15 names, the reading becomes just a bit too daunting. And while the book contains a number of historical photographs, it is notable for a complete lack of maps. It’s very hard for the reader to follow the history of early run-holding, when run #237, #245 etc. are mere numbers, as opposed to plots on a map. Likewise, it would be useful to see maps showing tracks, fords, punts, and the many early settlements mentioned in the story.

The lack of footnotes and bibliographical references is probably a symptom of the times when the book was written. While most material seems to be accurately researched, and the historical facts are likely to be correct, there are nonetheless a number of dubious interpretations, and factual mistakes. To name a few, I disagree with the author’s interpretation about the Arawhata Saddle being an early Maori route between the West Coast and Lake Wanaka (p18-19); I doubt that surveyors Julius von Haast and Young actually climbed Mt Brewster (p73), and I’d like to see the original source about James Hector climbing Niger Peak (p66), when all literature (including Hector’s own report) states that he looked into the head of the West Matukituki from the summit of Black Peak.

All in all, this book contains a wealth of interesting material, but it is poorly organized, and is often difficult to read.


Roxburgh, I. (1957) Wanaka Story: A History of the Wanaka, Hawea, Tarras, and surrounding districts. Otago Centennial Historical Publications, Dunedin, 274 pages

One Comment leave one →
  1. 14 February 2013 1:49 am

    “Wanaka Story, by Irvine Roxburgh Tramping and Climbing in New Zealand” was in fact a
    superb article, can’t help but wait to look over even more of your postings.
    Time to squander several time on the net lolz.
    Thanks for the post ,Leanne

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