The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 9 (December 1, 1936)
Nature's Statuary in the Castle Hill Basin
Both historic and prehistoric glamour hang over the Castle Hill region, a mountain-girt area, five miles by three, situated beyond Porter's Pass on the old West Coast Road, in the South Island of New Zealand.
This route to Westland, not greatly used nowadays because of the necessity of fording the Waimakariri River at the Bealey, was, in the time of the great gold rush of the ‘sixties the chief highway to Hokitika, Kumara, Greenstone and the other gold-producing areas which were sprinkling the map of Westland with townships as mushrooms upthrust themselves in a paddock.
In the old coaching days the halfway house between Springfield and Arthur's Pass was the Castle Hill Hotel. A desolate heap of white ruins, crouching at the feet of a squad of pine trees is all that remains of the one-time busy hostel. Many a fortune-hunter must have stopped here for refreshment, and many a motley train of pilgrims the inn must have witnessed, all scurrying towards their El Dorado, by waggon, horseback or on foot.
Doubtless those gold-seekers of last century never even noticed the unusual appearance of the region through which they were passing, yet Nature has here a lapful of treasures and curios to show any who will leave the roadway for the hills. The wealth of scenic and scientific interest here has, in fact, from the earliest days of the Canterbury settlement, been a magnet to the geologist and the botanist.
Between Lake Lyndon and the Thomas River there can be seen from the road, on either side, queer collections of rocks perched on the surrounding heights. “How on earth did they get there?” was our ejaculation when, on our first camping trip to the basin, we caught sight of the nearest group. Closer investigation of these collections made us only marvel the more. They are limestone formations, many poised in the most precarious of positions. The generally accepted theory accounting for their presence is that the area is all that remains of a strata of limestone which covered a part of the South Island when it was under the sea. With the raising of the island, this part was not raised so high. The surrounding mountains, pressing on all sides of the basin would have contorted the limestone into irregularities, and these, the elements of the ages seem to have taken delight in weirdly fashioning.
The most interesting group, perhaps, is that behind the Castle Hill homestead. There, the ruins of a great amphitheatre are suggested to even the least imaginative. On the hill above is a high rock shaped like a monkey with its paws over its ears. This we named “Hear No Evil.” A limestone turtle is clambering over a boulder, a group of giant mushrooms stands unchanged throughout the seasons, and the back view is seen of a girl with bobbed hair, sitting in a chair. With something of the delight of a child playing at pretending we have wandered on these hills, finding rock after rock which, without effort, imagination clothes with meaning.
Among the most striking forms are a seal, a rabbit, a spaniel's head and an ant-eater, all perched upon summits like bolts from the blue.
The limestone is full of fossil shells and so is the grass on the hill-slopes. Sir Julius Von Haast, one of the first to study the district, made a large collection of these, which included some hitherto unknown specimens.
The botanist, too, has been rewarded here with important finds. There are plants that grow only in limestone country, plants on the shingle-slips characteristic of that environment, high alpine plants, and species found nowhere else in New Zealand.
To us, lovers rather than students of nature, the statuary is the chief interest.
There are a number of caves in the district, but the most attractive feature to the venturesome is the underground passage of Murderer's Creek. This stream enters a hillside cavern, drops down a ten-foot waterfall and runs through a very narrow rock-walled passage where single file is a necessity, over minor falls and emerges, after about a quarter of a mile's run, on the other side of the hill, in a valley where it joins Broken River.
We have camped in this district at various spots and in various seasons, but the site of our first camp could scarcely be bettered. It was October. Our tent was pegged on the fringe of the bush which skirts the Craigieburn Range, its flap open towards the snow-clad Torlesse Ridge. The position is sheltered, gives easy access to the most interesting rock groups, and the proximity of the bush spells bird-music night and morning. Tea here, in the October twilight, after a day's exploring on the surrounding hills, is priceless. What a dining room! “While evening's dewy fingers draw the gradual dusky veil,” the blackened billy hangs from its tripod over the leaping flames of a wood fire, and as the blue smoke rises, curls and melts in the deepening dusk we are at peace with the world. The last sleepy twitters of the bush birds are sounding by the time we make our tea, but there is no hurry—we have left all that behind us. The meal is leisured, unconventional and perfect.
No less satisfying is it later to lie in a three-walled bedroom looking out to a starry sky supported across the way, by ghostly moonlit peaks, while the only sounds are the eerie calls of a morepork owl in the bush.
And falling fast from gradual slope to slope, With wild infracted course and lessen'd roar It gains a safer bed, and steals at last Along the mazes of the quiet vale.”
The Whangarei Falls, North Auckland, New Zealand.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)