The lime and marble of Tākaka Hill


Tākaka Hill divides Nelson and Golden Bay / Mohua. Its steep, twisting road reveals the ancient craggy lime and marble formations and caving system that give the hill its popular name, Marble Mountain. Its resources have been widely used.

Takaka Hill RoadTākaka Hill Road, The Nelson Provincial Museum , Ellis Dudgeon Collection, 212128/7
Click image to enlarge

Tākaka Hill is a mysterious place, with its rocky karst landscape and extensive cave system  which featured as a film location for Lord of the Rings.

It is also a place of legend. Local Māori believed the taipō (devil) lived in the Canaan area on top of the hill. Taking refuge from Te Rauparaha on the hill at Canaan, they fled when they heard deep underground rumbling, fearing it was the growl of taipo.1 Charles Heaphy who, in 1843 became the first recorded European to cross the hill to Golden Bay / Mohua,2 was later asked whether he had come across the taipō.3 The noises, which can still be heard, are thought to be caused by the underground drainage of the hill4 through the Middle Earth Cave system.

In early years, the usual way to get between Nelson and Golden Bay / Mohua was by sea, around Separation Point. Following the Aorere gold rush  in the 1850s, a foot track over the hill was widened and improved. In the 1870s the Bates brothers began calling for a bridle track over the hill to Tākaka, and then a coach road. Planning for a coach road began in 1886, following a different route to that of the foot track. This was despite arguments that a road to Golden Bay should follow the coastline.5 On January 3, 1888 it was announced that two buggies had been driven over the road, taking three and a half hours to ascend the Tākaka side and two hours to descend to Riwaka.6

Takaka Lime Works  Nelson Provincial Museum, Kingsford Collection, 163231/6
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The opening of a road made the quarrying of the hill's limestone and marble resources possible. Quarrying began at Kairuru, 10km from Riwaka7 on the Nelson side of the hill, in the early 1900s.

Marble from there gained national prominence in 1911, when it was chosen for use in the construction of the new Parliament Buildings in Wellington. The Government architect, John Campbell, specified Tākaka marble from Kairuru because it had the necessary strength and could be polished to a high creamy lustre. The heavy marble blocks were transported via a tramline down the steep hillside for 10.4 km to Sandy Bay and shipped to Wellington. A total of 5000 tonnes of marble had been quarried at Kairuru by the time Parliament Buildings were completed in 1922.

Later, the quarry provided marble for the Massey Memorial  in Wellington and for decorative features in the Beehive in the 1970s. Some of the old machinery from the original quarry can still be seen on the privately owned Kairuru Farm.8  Today, marble for tiles and building panels comes from a new Kairuru quarry in the Holyoake Valley.9

Limestone from the Tākaka Hill produces high quality lime when crushed.

McKee Lime and Marble CoMcKee Lime and Marble Co Tākaka, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Kingsford Collection 165163
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In 1938 Arthur McKee and his sons Guy and Tasman bought a quarry near Ngarua, which led to the formation of Lime and Marble Ltd. The McKees had established the Fruitgrowers Chemical Company, which produced spraying oils and lime sulphur for the apple industry, Port Māpua in 1932.10 The quarry also supplied lime for glassmaking and burnt lime for local agricultural purposes.11 Lime is still produced from the Ngarua quarry by Ravensdown Fertiliser Co-Op Ltd,  near the Ngarua Caves.

2008  (updated December 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Smith, Dawn (1997). Abel Tasman Area History, Department of Conservation, Nelson, NZ., Department of Conservation, p.8.
  2. Newport, J.N.W. (1978). Footprints Too, Further Glimpses into the History of the Nelson Province, Nelson, N.Z.: Jeff Newport, p.108.
  3. Heaphy, Charles (1844, January 13). ‘Notes on an expedition from Motueka overland to Massacre Bay' in Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.385.
  4. Sixtus, E.J. (1992). Canaan: the hidden land of the marble mountain. Motueka, N.Z., E.J. Sixtus, p.61.
  5. Newport (1978), p.108-110.
  6. Newport, J.N.W. (1975) Golden Bay: 100 Years of Local Government, Nelson, NZ., Golden Bay County Council, p.42.
  7. Newport (1978), p.109.
  8. Smith, p.21.
  9. Nathan, Simon and Hayward, Bruce, Building Stone, Te Ara:
  10. Cleaning up Mapua: The history of the Fruitgrowers' Chemical Company site (2011) Ministry for the Environment:
  11. Fisher, Helen (2000). ‘Tasman McKee' in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Vol.5, 1941-1960, Auckland, NZ., Auckland University Press and Department of Internal Affairs, p.318. ; McKee, F.R (1943, 10 March),‘Arthur McKee, 1863-1943,' Nelson Evening Mail

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  • Man, I wish i was a hill, woodnt it be kool

    Posted by Louie Morris, 20/11/2018 3:13pm (6 years ago)

  • I believe my late grand father had a lease on the Kairuru Quarry some time between about 1912 to about the 1930's and was wondering if there are any records regarding the leases. He was a sculpturer from Scotland and did stonework below the Road to the Cobb and various other things from Golden Bay to Wharenui. His name was William Robert Benson Vass (Bill).
    Will see what I can find out from local sources and will get back to you. Ed

    Posted by Angela Parker, 17/08/2017 9:52am (7 years ago)

  • The McKees didn't actually own the Ngarua quarry. In 1935 Tas McKee took up a quarry lease agreement for Lime & Marble Ltd with the Ngarua farm's owner, George Hobson, which allowed the company to operate there for many years. The Hobson family did however sell the Ngarua limeworks to Ravenscroft in much more recent times.

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 03/11/2015 3:22pm (9 years ago)

  • Very interested as I know the area well.

    Posted by barrie gates, ()

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Further sources - The lime and marble of Tākaka Hill



  • Bertram, Gavin. (2008) ‘Peaks and valleys: The Gathering, Real Groove, (171) 48-49.
  • Chug, Kiran (2007, August 28). Caver feared death, cheers end three day ordeal for family and rescuers. Nelson Mail, p.1.
  • Fisher, Helen (2000). ‘Tasman McKee' in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Vol.5, 1941-1960, Auckland, NZ., Auckland University Press and Department of Internal Affairs, p.318
  • Grzelewski, Derek. (1997, Apr/Jun). Tales of the underworld. New Zealand Geographic, 34, 24-52
  • Heaphy, Charles (1844,January 13). ‘Notes on an expedition from Motueka overland to Massacre Bay' in Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.385, Papers Past, accessed 11 December, 2008.
  • Lawry, R. Courtney (1989). History of the Lime Industry in the Waimea County, Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2, (3), 5,7,9
  • Mackay, Deirdre. (1992, May 23). Making a life on Takaka Hill: no shortage of challenges on Marble Mountain. Nelson Evening Mail, p.8- 9.
  • McIver, Sharon. (1999,January 9). Dance 'til you drop - and more. The Press, sup.p.2
  • Murdoch, Helen & Hayman, Kamala.(2008, 10 January). Huge rescue for inexperienced climbers. The Press, p.A1.
  • Notes taken on a Journey between the Rewaka [sic] and Takaka Districts, 1844.(1844, May 18) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 3(115), p.43.
  • Scott, R H. (1955) Land development in Nelson District. New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, 91, (1), pp.2-12
  • Tasman District Council. (2008). Takaka Hill Loop. Tasman Walks. pp. 84-85


New Zealand Film Archive - available to view on  MediaNet at Elma Turner Library, Nelson Public Libraries:

The Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • Campbell, Alexander Le Grand. (1848; 1852) Diary [exploration trip of Takaka Hill]. MS CAM.
  • Johnstone, Paul. (2006). No stone left unturned: a history of the mineral extraction industries of the Nelson Province. qMS JOH.
  • Lawry, Courtney. (10.10.2005). Takaka Hill marble. Sound recording. NHS 137.
  • Sixtus family. (1928-2003). Canaan Downs collection. AG 494.

Web Resources