Kura Tāwhiti is a high tussock basin surrounded by the Torlesse and Craigieburn ranges. The area is of special significance to Ngāi Tahu.

In this section

Ko Maungatere te maunga ki runga
Ko Waimakariri te awa
Ko Ngai Tuahuriri te hapu

Kura Tāwhiti.
Kura Tāwhiti

In this high tussock basin bounded by the high mountains of the Torlesse Range to the east and the Cragieburn Range to the west, the limestone formations of Kura Tāwhiti (Castle Hill) dominate the landscape. This area is of special significance to Ngāi Tahu, with ties that stretch unbroken from distant ancestors to present generations.

These ties were strengthened in 1998 by the designation of this area as Tōpuni in the Ngāi Tahu Deed of Settlement with the Crown. This designation recognises the cultural, spiritual, and historical values of Kura Tāwhiti.

Kura Tāwhiti was claimed by the Ngāi Tahu ancestor Tane Tiki, son of celebrated chief Tuahuriri. The nearby mountains were famed for kākāpō, and Tane Tiki wanted their soft skins and glowing green feathers for clothing to be worn by his daughter Hine Mihi.

Such stories link Ngāi Tahu to the landscape of Te Wai Pounamu. The traditional knowledge of trails, rock shelters, and places for gathering kai (food) in the area known as Kura Tāwhiti, form an integral part of past and present tribal identity. The life force (mauri) of Kura Tāwhiti binds together the spiritual and physical elements of this landscape with those of the Ngāi Tahu people, who once depended on its resources.

Ngā tuhituhi o neherā - the drawings of ancient times

Hidden amongst the limestone outcrops are traces of 500-year old charcoal drawings. Tradition says these drawings were left behind by Waitaha, the first people to shelter here on their travels through this landscape.

The swift and successful absorption of Waitaha first by Ngāti Māmoe and then by Ngāi Tahu meant the opportunity to pass on the meanings and traditions associated with these ancient drawings was lost.

These later arrivals continued to place high value on this landscape and its resources. The long association with Kura Tāwhiti and the significance of the drawings have led to the tapu status of the limestone outcrops. Ngāi Tahu, whose mana now extends over this land, have the traditional responsibility for preserving these taonga.


Ngāi Tahu wish to encourage respect for their association with Kura Tāwhiti. A rock-climbing code is in place, and rock climbers are asked to be aware that to Ngāi Tahu, climbing the outcrops denigrates their tapu status.

Mahinga kai

Rangatiratanga over the lands and waterways of this area is still held by Ngāi Tuahuriri, the hapu descendent from the Ngāi Tahu ariki Tuahuriri. They are centred at Tuahiwi, not far from the ancestral pā of Kaiapoi.

The waterways and the originally extensive beech forest were important food gathering sites for the people from Kaiapoi. Each site was named and their resources were allocated to different rangatira and whānau (family groups). On their seasonal visits to the area, the people followed a network of trails that designated sites for camping and gathering kai.

These expeditions also served other vital purposes:

  • Keeping cooking fires burning on the land - ahikaroa
  • Handing down knowledge of methods and practices -matauranga
  • Telling the associated traditional stories - korero purakau
  • Passing on familiarity with tribal and hapu trails and boundaries - hikoi rohe

Kiore (Polynesian rat) were the main food taken at Kura Tāwhiti, particularly after prolific beech seed years resulted in eruptions of kiore populations. Preserved in their own fat, kiore were a favoured food of Ngāi Tahu.

The beech forests were also the source of birds (kākāpō, kākā, kūkupa, weka and kiwi). The staple food aruhe (fern root) was gathered in the area. Fresh-water fish such as tuna and koukoupara and waterfowl such as putakitaki, pārera and pākura were taken from the waterways.

Ngāi Tahu Whānui

Present-day Ngāi Tahu are a collective of three tribal groups who have occupied Te Wai Pounamu over the centuries. Each of these groups have had long associations with Kura Tāwhiti.

Stretching back to the first settlement of the Te Wai Pounamu are the Waitaha, the first hunter-gatherers to seek the shelter of the limestone outcrops and draw on their smooth surfaces.

Then came Ngāti Māmoe, who migrated south from Aotearoa (the North Island) and absorbed the Waitaha by the process of intermarriage, warfare, and peace.

Finally from the north came Ngāi Tahu, who after a similar process of displacement and absorption assumed customary authority over the land.

The stories, traditions, and customs of all these people are now interwoven into the present identity of Ngāi Tahu Whānui. Ancestors linked with Kura Tāwhiti and this alpine region include Tutekawa, Te Rakitamau, Tutepiriraki, Tane Tiki, and Raho, then in more recent times Tarapuhi, Tainui, and the indomitable traveller Aperahama Te Aika.

Ara - Te Kura Tāwhiti; Te Maeaea; Tatawahia; Te Aratitere; Omumaha; Takapuomaha; Takauohinehou; Haere ki Waikirikiri; Tiota; Hereru; Tuana; Haere ki te ara Te Waikari; Te Ratahi; Otaumata; Tauhinu; Kaiwaha; Tarekautuku; Makonui; Te Kororoataupoko; Tatua; Maunoa; Whenuakuru; Otuheikura; Te Puaka; Kapunawai; Te Kahakawao; Patakuate; Te Awakokomuka; Te Heke Te Ra; Taumatakuri; Kai Kakariki; Kaiapoi.


The Kura Tāwhiti map illustrates the area under Tōpuni status.

Map of Kura Tawhiti.
View a larger version of the map of Kura Tawhiti (JPEG, 103K)

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