Mahitahi or Maitai Valley, Nelson
The Mahitahi/Maitai Valley to the east of Nelson city is a popular recreational area, with numerous picnic and swimming spots. These include Black Hole, Dennes Hole, Sunday Hole, Sharlands Hole, the Maitai Reserve and Smith's Ford. Nine kilometres up the river is the Maitai Dam, Nelson's main water supply. The river has great significance for Māori. Some of the cultural associations of local iwi with the awa (river) are described in another Prow story.
The Mahitahi is now a special place for all who live in Whakatū/Nelson. It is the main source of Nelson's fresh water and has great recreational values. The council-owned land extends well beyond the golf course, over 10,000 hectares up the Mahitahi Valley, and beyond to the Brook and Roding reserves in adjacent valleys to the south and west.
The Dun Mountain, at the heart of the Nelson Mineral Belt, is one of the most geologically interesting areas in New Zealand. Its diverse minerals also mean it has an interesting history - from early use by Māori as a source of argillite adzes, and in early European settler times as the centre for hopes of wealth from copper mining.
The Nelson Mineral Belt consists of heavy ultramafic rocks such as serpentine, which formed the ocean floor and were thrust into the crust of the Gondwana super-continent some 280 million years ago. New Zealand is a small fragment of Gondwana that began breaking apart about 100 million years ago.
Argillite, known to Māori as pakohe, is a tough but workable rock that starts out as mudstone, before it is heated and compressed within layers of serpentine, causing a chemical reaction. At the Rush Pool quarry you can also see the layers of green glassy serpentine. The superior quality of Nelson argillites made them highly prized - they were traded by local Māori, while Māori from elsewhere travelled to Nelson to acquire stone for tools.
The first argillite used by Nelson Māori was probably from rocks washed down the Maitai river. After these easier finds were used up, it was time to hunt for the source, well up the Maitai Valley. The Rush Pools, which leads off from the Maitai Dam, takes you up to this source: a stone age site, just a stone's throw from a modern city. The argillite was worked into stone tools; in skilled hands it was shaped by flaking. Large hammerstones - some of granodiorite obtained from the Boulder Bank - were carried up to the site and were repeatedly dropped against a particular spot on the argillite outcrop until it fractured. The argillite was then further broken and flaked into smaller shapes.
The quarry is an unusual and valuable site, highly regarded by Māori. It should be treated with respect, and visitors should conform to the Māori practice of not eating food in a sacred place.
The valley was divided up and sold as sections by the New Zealand Company, when the new settlement was first named in 1839/40. Some of the early settlers are remembered by names in the landscape or stories still told about them.
The North and South branches of the river have been part of the city's water reserve, and Dam, since the 1960's. In the North branch, early landholders included William Long Wrey, who had and interest in the copper, Henry Dwyer, who built an accommodation house in 1864 along to the track to the Te Hoiere/Pelorus, which burned down in 1875. George Dolamore owned 370 acres in 1897, which he cleared for timber. He also had a school on his land in 1900. Schools shifted according to where the most children lived, until 1938 when the last one closed and children had to go to Nelson Central. At one time, the flat sections beyond Smiths Ford were mooted as public picnic reserves. However, this was not to be and George's lands were soled to the Brewerton family in 1907.
The land around the South branch of the river had direct access to the minerals of the Dun Mountain and much of the land was taken by people associated with the Dun Mountain Copper Mining Company, before use was dominated by farming and milling. One significant landholder was Thomas Cawthron, who contracted to build mine shafts for copper before becoming a business and shipping man, able to purchase 2,500 acres of land on Dun Mountain and the Maitai Valley. Other families who owned land were William Thomas and George Henry Rollinson, the Linton family and John Franklyn Osborne.
Lower down the valley, William Groom and Samuel Herbert Strong owned land on the Maitai side of Tantragee Saddle (around Groom Creek). Another early landholder was James Walter Smith, whose wife, Margaret, encountered the Maungatapu murderers en route to commit their crime in 1866. James became the first ranger in the Valley (appointed primarily to prevent poaching) in 1885, but misfortune struck when his home and the school situated beside it, the earliest school in the Valley established 1882, was burned down in 1886.
The Richardson family were major landholders in the Valley. Ralph Richardson arrived in 1840, purchased a large block of land in the Valley then returned with his family to Wales. His son Ralph inherited the Maitai lands and returned in 1870 to administer and also enlarge the holding. Ralph died young and his wife Effie inherited the property, passing it to their Ralphine, on her death in 1928. The women continued to manage the land and buy more, so that by 1950 the "Maitai Run" extended over 6,500 acres. Effie's ownership was fraught with many battles with tenants and Waimea Council, and the notorious Dennes Hole access dispute with F.G. Gibbs after she fenced off all access up the valley to Nelson residents. Dennes Hole was named after Johan George Denne who rented use of a rope walk to the hole from 1876-1892. When Ralphine died the land was sold to Maitai Farms.
The area around Sharlands Road, now forestry, was known as Beckman's Valley, after early landholder Johann Beckmann. John Marsh Packer leased land here in 1885. John, or "mad Jack" was a real character, whose story2 is recorded by the Packer family and in this visual story. He could turn his hand to anything, leasing various blocks of land, cutting timber and flax, running goats for milk and meat. His name is remembered in Packers Creek, along the road to what is now the rifle range. Further down Beckman's valley Samuel Jickell purchased land. Jickell was responsible for many construction projects in Nelson, including Rocks Road. Jickells Bridge is named after him.
The Sharland name is well known in Nelson - James Henry Shaw (Sharland) arrived in Nelson in 1857. He changed his mane to Sharland to avoid scandal as he had eloped with his wife, Julia. He purchased land in the Valley and set up a flax mill. The land stayed in the Sharland family until 1969, when Miss Richardson died, and the Sharland block and some of her property became part of the Hira State Forest.
The high mineral content of the soil gives the Dun Mountain its sparse and stunted cover of vegetation and characteristic reddish brown rock-strewn landscape; with early Māori possibly also having burnt off the vegetation on these slopes. The combined effect creates the open appearance noted by the first settlers, who called this ridge Bare Spur.
'Wilding pines' are a problem in the Mahitahi valley. These self-set trees are a menace and will destroy the fragile ecology of the mineral belt and modify the landscape and historic sites, if not kept in check.
"We have to assess the greatest threats to this area and decide on management targets that are achievable and able to be sustained over time," says Council Asset Development Adviser Paul McArthur. The wilding pines on the front face of Dun Mountain and around the Rush Pools were cut down in 2009, with the programme concentrating in following years on Mt Malita in the Roding catchment.
It takes specialised plant species to survive on the heavy metal concentrations of the Mineral Belt, but it is home to over 28 plant species that are threatened, rare or with a restricted range. These include ultramafic tussock, a small gentian, scree plants, a forget-me-not, a serpentine Olearia and a hebe that is restricted to this area. Some of the vegetation is nationally rare and contains a large number of threatened plants.
The Maitai Cave walk takes a southern turn into the limestone area of the mineral belt. The limestone has been tilted to vertical by earth movements, making channels for water that carve out cave formations. These have their own unique ecology including a rare forget-me-not (Myosotis monroi).
There is a growing range of walks and mountain bike trails in the Mahitahi/Maitai Reserve. The Valley also has popular swimming holes and a golf course. Settlers early on exploited the fishing and hunting opportunities in the Valley - an area long valued by Māori as a mahinga kai. Settlers imported animals specifically for hunting, many of which later devastated the environment. Introduced birds included skylarks, finches, blackbirds. Red deer were released as early as 1850, brown trout in the 1870s and possums (for skins) in 1867.
After settlement access to the Maitai was restricted by various landowners, however, increasingly much of the Valley became public reserve. Thomas Cawthron bequeathed his land in the South Maitai to Nelson City Council in 1913, land which included access to the Maitai Caves. In 1918 the Council finally managed to acquire some of the Richardson land as a public reserve, including Dennes Hole, Sunday Hole and most of the land beside the river - Branford Park and beyond. The Government gave financial support for this Council purchase, but it was a battle long-fought in the Courts with Mrs Richardson. In 1971 a large block of land from Sunday Hole to the Motor Camp was purchased as Waahi Taakaro Reserve from Maitai Farms - the name now taken by the Golf Course, a club which had first been established in 1937 on land leased from Mrs Richardson. It became a municipal course in 1974. In 1949 the boy scouts had the Roger Kingsford Memorial hut and land in the area that is now the carpark at Branford Park and more land was bought or exchanged by Council.
Tantragee arboretum sits alongside the Mahitahi/Maitai River on the route to the Maitai Dam. The idea for the Arboretum was first proposed in 1979. Converting the 14 hectare block, from gorse and weeds to a carefully arranged palette of deciduous and evergreen trees under-grazed by sheep, would complement established amenity plantings in the valley and create a much needed fire break between Sharlands Hill and Fringed Hill.
In February 1981 a disastrous fire started in the Tantragee saddle area and swept onto Fringe Hill and the Hira afforestation areas. In 1983 the arboretum proposal became a reality as a joint New Zealand Forest Service and Nelson City Council project. Private forestry companies continue to support the arboretum. Today there are over 50 species of trees; deciduous species chosen for autumn display, conifers for contrast, other species for scientific interest, timber quality or flowers and fruit.
Tantragee is the name given to the arboretum and the Saddle adjoining Brook Valley. Early settler John Kidson had a property in the Brook Valley which was referred to as Tanderagee in newspaper reports of the Dun Mountain Railway construction. This was probably the source of today's name Tantragee; possibly a corruption of Tanderagee, a small market town in Armagh Ireland. In Belfast, within St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral, stands a stone statue known as the Tanderagee Idol. Visually powerful despite its two foot height, it is said to represent the early Celtic ruler, King Nuadha who had his battle-severed arm replaced with one made of silver.
Friends of the Maitai
In 1976 the Council saw an opportunity to make money from the Maitai Reserve land, which they had named Waahi Taakaro Reserve, and proposed development for forestry. This was highly controversial and prompted the formation of the Friends of the Maitai in 1977. However Council got legal clearance in 1978 to continue with the plantation. After a fire wiped out the early planting, the Council negotiated sale of the reserve to the Forest Service, with rights to the water pipeline remaining under Council control and continued public access except in times of high fire danger. The Tantragee saddle was developed as a public amenity, and the arboretum developed. Friends of the Maitai and other environmental groups continued to fight the decision, a legal battle finally lost in 1984. The Friends of the Maitai continues as a very active environmental group, and has been responsible for assisting with many native plantings along the Mahitahi.
Based on and article which first appeared in LiveNelson in 2009. Revised and updated December 2022.
Sources used in this story
- Venner, G. (2001) The Maitai Valley a history of the valley and its people, Nelson, N.Z.: The author
Packer, D.W. (2016) The Packer chronicles : the Packers of Nelson [Nelson] : Beyond Design, 
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Further sources - Mahitahi or Maitai Valley, Nelson
- Crowe, A.(2004) The current state of the Maitai River: a review of existing information, Nelson, N.Z.: Cawthron Institute
- The geology of the Dun Mountain subdivision, Nelson.(1911), Wellington, N.Z.:Government Print
- Johnston, M. (1987) High hopes : the history of the Nelson mineral belt and New Zealand's first railway, Nelson, N.Z.: Nikau Press
- Packer, D.W. (2016) The Packer chronicles : the Packers of Nelson [Nelson] : Beyond Design, 
- Venner, G. (2001) The Maitai Valley a history of the valley and its people, Nelson, N.Z.: The author
- Walk Nelson (2007) Nelson, N.Z: Nelson City Council
- Wright, M. (2009) Big ideas: 100 wonders of NZ engineering, Auckland, N.Z.: Random House
- Johnston, M, (1983) Chromite and the Dun Mountain Copper Mining Company. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(2), 4-13
- Maitai Stories. Nelson Virtual Heritage Festival 2020 (How the Maitai River influenced Maurice Gee's writing). YouTube, Retrieved July 2020:
All Maitai Oral histories (Maurice Gee, Fred Shallcrass, John Mitchell, Jane Martin, Mac Crampton) can be found here:
- Memories of Packers Bush. Nelson City Council YouTube Channel:
- Maitai Valley memories on Story Map:
- Mahitahi - the story of the River. One of a series of short films created for Te wiki o te reo 2019:
- Project Maitai. Story Map. Retrieved from Nelson City Council: