Lake Grassmere


When Kupe circumnavigated New Zealand, c. 900 AD, Māori tradition is that he was obstructed by the inhabitants in the vicinity of, what is now, Lake Grassmere.  In revenge Kupe turned the sea onto their plantations thus making Lake Grassmere.The Māori name for the lake is Ka-para-te-hau, or windblown lake.

According to Ngāi Tahu,2 Ka-para-te-hau was where the iwi sought revenge against Ngāti Toa following the disastrous attacks on Ngāi Tahu in Canterbury. The people of Kaikōura heard the exact date of the impending arrival of Te Rauparaha on his food gathering expedition to Ka-para-te-hau. Ngāi Tahu regrouped under the leadership of their southern relatives, and a large war-party was organised. They travelled north in what was to be known as Tauāiti (the small war party) or Ōraumoaiti. Upon arriving at Waiharakeke (Flaxbourne Stream), the war-party hauled their waka ashore. They then proceeded overland to Te Paruparu (the outlet of Ka-para-te-hau), where they hid. As Ngāti Toa landed, Ngāi Tahu ambushed them, and many Ngāti Toa were killed. Te Rauparaha managed to escape by swimming out to a long-boat that had not come ashore. Tradition tells us that the canoe was already fully laden, but a woman was pushed overboard to make room for the great chief!3

Once the battle was over, Te Rauparaha told Ngāti Rarua: "I muri i au kia kāti ngā pūtātara o Ka-para-te-hau (After this, do not blow the trumpet call to return to Lake Grassmere)."4

Lake Grassmere. Photo courtesy Dominion Saltworks
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Plan of land taken for Aviation purposes. Marlborough Museum. 
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In the era when there were several whaling stations along Marlborough's East coast, the area was known as Cobbler's Hole.5

Until World War II the Lake remained in a more or less natural state, i.e. dry and dusty during the summer months and covered in water during the winter. In the spring a number of  birds would nest in the lake area. These included swans.

Around 1940 railway-men working in the Kaparu area just north of the lake found fragments of egg-shell believed to be from moa eggs. My father had a collection of about fifty such fragments that he had collected. Moa bones were also collected from the site at Bert Dick's farm, Te Hau, at Lake Grassmere. These, and their story, is displayed in a virtual exhibition at the Marlborough Museum.

In 1938 the Government of the day had a survey plan drawn up for approximately  three-quarters of the lake area, being the area east of the railway line, and the next year this was officially designated as Land for Aviation Purposes.  Subsequently an airfield and a bombing range were established in the area. These were used for training pilots based at Woodbourne during WWII. Incidentally, in later years , a Director of Dominion Salt, used the same airfield when making quick business trips from Christchurch.6

Lake Grassmere Saltworks, 1960's. Marlborough Museum
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During the early years of WW II George Skellerup , a Christchurch businessman, was trying to recycle old tyres, as rubber was a rare commodity at that time, and he required salt to do this. Importing salt in large quantities was unlikely to be approved by the wartime government, so he looked around for a way to make salt locally, and thus the salt works at Lake Grassmere was born. Requirements for making salt were:  a large area of flat land, proximity to the sea, which would retain water; low rainfall; high evaporation (wind and sunshine); and proximity to transport (road, rail etc.). He found these requirements at Lake Grassmere and, on 23 December 1942  he was granted a "Licence to Manufacture Salt". Actual construction of the necessary ponds etc. started in 1943.7

Farming and salt manufacture haven't always got along well though! In some of Marlborough's droughts the local farmers have considered the possibility of artificially inducing the clouds overhead to drop rain on their land, but Dominion Salt has made it clear that it may pursue legal action to stop such an undertaking. On the one hand a long period of drought promises a `bumper` salt harvest, while the same season causes farmers loss of production (and income).8

2010. Updated May 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Elvy, W.J. (1949) Kaikoura coast; the history, traditions and Māori place-names of Kaikoura. Christchurch [N.Z.] Hundalee Scenic Board, p. 7
  2. Pitini-Morera, Hoani (n.d.) He korero mo Tuteurutira raua ko Hinerongo. Extract from MS Whakapapa Book of Hoani Pitini-Morera, Oaro, Kaikōura: translation. Manuscripts Collection. Ngāi Tahu Archive. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. p.51.
  3. Elvy, p.40
  4. Pitini-Morera, Hoani
  5. Elvy, p.45
  6. Marborough Express
  7. Marlborough Express
  8. Marlborough Express, approx. 1958

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