Mount Arthur and the Tableland


Tuao Wharepapa and the land around it

Mt Arthur and the Tableland have played host to gold prospectors, graziers, botanists, skiers, trampers, tourists, artists, a Bishop, and Henry and Annie Chaffey - who lived above the bush line for nearly 40 years.

Mount Arthur from Tapawera. Tasman District Council
Click image to enlarge

According to Māori legend, a long time ago, a rangatira named Tūrakautahi fell in love with a beautiful woman called Tuao Wharepapa. He was already married so had to leave his pā. As he journeyed to Kawatiri, where he settled, he passed the mountain and named it for his lost love Te Ao Wharepapa. The Māori name is also said to refer to a flat whare or house "which this well known landmark slightly resembles,"1 but this is disputed. What is not disputed, is the significance which the maunga and the range have for Māori - the range has always been an important boundary marker. 

Sitting on Nelson's Western skyline, Mount Arthur, named after Captain Arthur Wakefield, is a dominant feature of the range west of the Waimea Plains. The Tableland, a plateau of rolling tussock country, approximately 1200 metres above sea level, is surrounded by Mount Arthur, Mount Peel and Mount Lodestone.2

For many years, European settlers searched for this rolling tussock land, which they had heard about. There was a desperate need for more grazing land in the Nelson area, and a thirst for minerals of any kind. In 1856 James MacKay explored the Aorere River and what is now the Tasman Wilderness Area. The following year he followed what later became know as the Heaphy Track, when he traveled from the Buller River mouth and up the Heaphy River. He failed to find any flat land.

In December 1858, Mackay and Captain Lockett walked into the mountains from near the head of the Cobb River, discovering Iron Hill and the Diamond Lakes, searching for gold and grazing land with prospectors John Little and John Lindsay. They found none, but noted beds of quartz, indicating the presence of gold.3

It was Thomas Salisbury who eventually discovered the Tablelands. Thomas was one of three brothers from Lancashire who settled in Pokororo in 1854.4   The brothers ran cattle, disastrously, and then sheep. Searching for pastureland Thomas climbed a hill near his property and from there spied what was later named Flora Saddle, Mount Arthur and Lodestone.  He got lost, made it back home and returned to climb Lodestone from where he saw the rolling tussockland, soon to be know as “Salisbury Open” -  and evidence of gold.5

In 1875, John Park Salisbury (Thomas's brother) drove a mob of 100 sheep from the Graham Valley and turned them out on the Salisbury Open. Later, cattle and 400 more sheep were grazed from Mt Arthur to the Cobb. Stock were grazed in the area until the early 1950s.6  Thomas Grooby, a well-known identity, also ran stock on Mt Arthur, riding his horse there, until the age of 80 (in 1932).7


Thomas Salisbury started the gold rush in 1863 by writing about his discovery in the Colonist.8 Later, Golden Bay pioneer Harry Washbourn described the ground at the Tableland as ‘peat on the top, then decomposed rock, then gold lying on the solid rock, no more than four feet down', with the gold washed into the gullies and hollows.9

Sluicing, Tablelands. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F G Gibbs Collection: ¼ 201
Click image to enlarge

By 1868, it was reported that there were 12-14 diggers searching for gold in the shallow stream beds on the Tableland.10  However, a lack of water to wash the gold was always a problem. Billy Lyons, a neat, dapper little man, was known as the grand old man of Balloon and spent much of his time trying to dig a ditch to bring water from Lake Peel to wash gold on the Tableland.11

Diggers Flume, Baton River. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 181937
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During the early days of gold activity, a man named Edwards ran a store where the Flora Hut now stands. There was no evidence of this store by 1880.12

In November 1870, West Coast gold fields pioneer, Reuben Waite, went to explore the gold prospecting activity and gave the opinion that, with a road to transport provisions, the gold field on the Tableland was capable of supporting several hundred men.  However without a road, he advised ‘that no one will ever do any good there."13

Gold reefs were discovered on the Tableland in 1880, which attracted new interest, with mining licenses issued to six syndicates between 1881-1885. Again there was talk of a road to transport diggers and provisions.  There is no indication that any of the syndicates did any development work and there were few diggers in the area by the late 1890s.

In 1909, a licence was granted to the Karamea and Tableland Mining Co. Ltd, which envisaged pumping water to the early workings from Lake Peel. Nothing came of this venture, except for Mt Balloon Hut, which was built by the company.14

Flora Hut. The Nelson Provincial Museum, F G Gibbs Collection: 3x4 105
Click image to enlarge

Great Outdoors

Tourists to the area included Bishop Andrew Suter, his wife Amelia and  a party of  young people. Recorded in Edward Jennings' journal, the group, guided by Thomas Salisbury, spent several days exploring in January 1880. Their luggage included ladies' swags, blankets, six tents, 1 cwt flour, 1 side bacon and a quarter of a chest of tea.15  Bishop Suter preached a sermon to diggers at Bishop's Cave, near Cundy Creek on this trip.16

Charles Heaphy. View of the Nelson District. Mt Arthur in the Distance. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Click image to enlarge

Until the late 1920s, the only accommodation on the Tableland was the old Mt Balloon Hut and the Rock Shelter, a huge rock outcrop- used to this day, plus a scattering of huts dating from the 1800s built by the Salisbury family.  Teacher and keen botanist, Fred Gibbs, became interested in the construction of a new hut at Mt Balloon in 1915 and the Mount Balloon Scenic Hut Trust Board was formed in 1926. Over the next few years, the Mt Balloon Hut was repaired and new huts built at Salisbury Open and the Flora Clearing.17

By the 1930s, the Trust Board's brochure of information for would-be visitors to Mt Arthur described the three huts as bases for ‘many delightful trips' in the area. Mr Jas Heath of Pokororo packed goods for visitors to any of the huts: £1 day for his own services and 10 shillings a day for each packhorse required.18

John Mulgan was there in the summer of 1930. He later wrote ‘Man Alone' - the classic Kiwi wilderness novel. Artists, including John Gully, James Nairn, Mountford Tosswill Woollaston and Enga Washbourn, have represented the mountain in their paintings.

Mount Arthur. Archibald Willis [c.1886]. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Click image to enlarge

‘Mount Arthur Area a Potential Resort' was the headline in the Evening Post in June 1937.  The newspaper reported three miles of excellent downhill skiing from the summit of Mount Peel to Balloon Hut, with a further 2.5 miles to Salisbury Hut and ‘nursery slopes' near Lake Peel. It was considered that, if extended to the Tableland, a proposed road to the asbestos deposits, would take cars close to the ski fields.19  The Nelson Ski Club had been skiing on Mt Arthur since 1930, but eventually found the walking distance too great, with Mt Robert, at Lake Rotoiti, offering easier access.20  

In the early 1940s, it was proposed that 163,000 acres of mountainous country, including Mt Arthur be added to the Abel Tasman National Park.21 This did not happen, but Mt Arthur  became part of  the Kahurangi National Park, which was formed in 1996.

Cultural significance of Wharepapa/ the Arthur range.22

Wharepapa is a taonga and central to the identity, cultural and spiritual wellbeing of Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui. The iwi has a kaitiaki role over the mountain, which is a boundary marker for Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui, iwi of Motueka. It is the mountain referred to in the mihi of people of the iwi and a sacred source of Wai (water) for the rivers which flow from the mountain to the sea and it serves as a link to Rangi and Papa (the primal parents).

Wharepapa is home to a wide range of plant and animal species which are of great significance to Te Ātiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui. Two notable species are the Mountain Neinei, which is the longest living indigenous tree, and the Powelliphanta (land snail). The Neinei was once used to manufacture wet weather capes. There are also a number of tomo (sacred caves) situated within this maunga (mountain).

2011 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Peart, J.D. (1937) Old Tasman Bay. Nelson: Lucas & Son, p.134
  2. Nolan, T. (1976) Historic gold trails of Nelson and Marlborough. Wellington, New Zealand: Reed, p.70
  3. Nolan, p.102
  4. Brereton, C. B. (1947). No roll of drums. Wellington, New Zealand: Reed, p.115
  5. Nolan, p.70 and p.118 
  6. Cobb Valley, Mount Arthur, Tableland (2011). Retrieved from Department of Conservation:
  7. Newport, J. (1978)  Footprints too : further glimpses into the history of Nelson Province. Nelson, N.Z.: author, pp.120-122
  8. The Colonist, Nelson Friday March 27th, 1863 (1863, March 27) The Colonist, p.2:
  9. Nolan, p.70
  10. Newport, p.128
  11. Brereton, p.8
  12. Nolan, p.125
  13. Waite, R. (1870, November 4). Trip to the Karamea. Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 4. Retrieved November 12, 2009 from Lockett and McKay's trip in 1858:
  14. Newport, pp.129-131
  15. Brereton, p.153
  16. Brereton, Denis. (1974, October) Tableland days. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society 3 (1), 5-11
  17. Newport, pp.150-150
  18. Mt Balloon Hut Scenic Board. [193-?]. Mount Arthur: Information for would-be visitors. [S.l.: s.n.]. Nelson Provincial Museum Research Library & Archive: A865
  19. Skiing in Nelson (1937, June 7) Evening Post, p.7
  20. Newport, p.151
  21. Tasman National Park (1943, November 6) Evening Post, p.8
  22. Te Tau Ihu Statutory Acknowledgements 2014, Nelson City Council, Tasman District Council, Marlborough District Council, p.117

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  • Regarding Maori crossing the Mt Arthur ranges ... really? While Maori artifacts and tree stumps were very apparent in tributaries of the Motueka River, there have been NO archealogical evidence up on the Tableland of middens, etc. And in 50 books I've read, inc. Mitchell's, nothing.
    Please, tell me where this "Vital trail to the West Coast for food and resource gathering" actually ran!? if indeed, this is in a printed book somewhere?
    Ed. We will check where this information came from

    Posted by Ray Salisbury, 19/05/2019 2:41pm (5 years ago)

  • Hi... there are several apparent errors in Joy's article on the Mt Arthur Tableland. (I have just returned from my sixth season there as DOC hut warden).

    As a direct descendant of the original Motueka River pioneer, John Park Salisbury, I am writing a book on the Tableland, therefore have done a tonne of research, and spent over 40 nights on location.

    1) In 1863 Thomas Salisbury discovered the Tableland, and gold, effectvely starting the gold rush by writing about his discovery in the Colonist paper.
    But it wasn't until 1875 that his brother John gained a grazing license, and drove 100 sheep to 'the Salisbury Open.' Later, 1000 ewes on the Cobb River.

    2)I have proven that James McKay failed to find the Tableland in 1858, by retracing his steps, re-taking his compass bearings, and reading his diary.

    3)There WAS accommodation on Salisbury's Open - way back in the 1800s. Contrary to Newport's belief that my family did not build huts, we actually built lots of them!
    The first was John Salisbury's small hut near the Dry Rock Shelter. (I have his sketch of this, it's on old maps, and mentioned by CP and Denis Brereton.)
    John's son Frank Stanley Salisbury built 'whares' near Ruby Lake, Mt Snowden and Lake Stanley... as well as the present hut on Sugarloaf above the Graham Valley.
    They also had a log cabin on the Leslie River. The original Myttons Hut was apparently built by a Salisbury.

    If you have any more information regarding the Mt Arthur, Cobb and Tableland district, I'd be keen to see it!


    Raymond John Salisbury

    Ed. Thank you for that information, we will check and change as appropriate. Looking forward to seeing the book

    Posted by R. John Salisbury, 24/12/2017 4:11pm (6 years ago)

  • In recent years the plural term 'Tablelands' has become common usage however the correct term is the singular, 'Tableland'. All the early writings from Salisbury, Brereton to Newport use Tableland. I have recently advised DOC to return to the original 'Tableland'.
    Cheers Steve. [Ed. We have amended the term in response to this]

    Posted by Steve Bagley, ()

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