Long before the discovery of gold in the Queenstown Lakes, treasure hunters sought another prize - pounamu, or greenstone. It was valued as a tool, for trade and its beauty, and remains an important part of Maori culture. Louise Scott delves into Wakatipu’s past
The discovery of pounamu was a major breakthrough for Maori.
It was easily cut and the dense rock shaped into essential tools such as chisels and knives, as well as ornamental pieces and jewellery.
Ngai Tahu kaumatua Michael Skerrett, of Invercargill, says pounamu was first discovered in the Wakatipu in the 1600s and tribes soon learnt to heat it to speed up the carving process.
Long before permanent settlements were set up on Queenstown’s lakefront, the tribes made seasonal trips in search of greenstone, which is only found in the South Island.
Skerrett: “They were mainly hunter-gatherers down this end and lived on the coast - journeying here annually for pounamu. It was seasonal and fitted in between harvesting for eels in the warmer months and muttonbirds or titi.”
Queenstown, known as Tahuna, was an important part of the pounamu trail and remnants of ovens and camp sites have been found in and around Glenorchy.
One of the last recorded missions, in the 1830s, documents about 40 people travelling down the Waiau River, near Te Anau, loaded with the treasure.
Skerrett reckons their most likely route was down Lake Wakatipu into Greenstone Valley, crossing over into Mavora Lakes system, which links to the Mararoa River, and then down to the coast.
Once back home they would keep some for their own use or prep it for trade to buy essential goods such as kumara and taro, which didn’t grow this far south.
Skerrett: “It was some journey. They had to go through some pretty rugged country. Mainly they walked up and went back on reed boats made out of bundles of flax and built with what was handy.”
To keep their energy up, they cooked up ti kouka, or cabbage tree. That’s like the equivalent of energy bars today, Skerrett reckons, as it caramelised when prepped.
The roots would be harvested and cooked in a ground oven, or unu. Outer layers peeled off, exposing the soft root inside. The high sugar content made it a good source of food and it was also easily carried on journeys.
“One of the things notable in Glenorchy is oyster shells found in the camps,” Skerrett says.
“You wonder how they got them up there in an edible condition. But they are in the food waste so must have been eaten, which is really interesting.”
Queenstown was home to three tribes - Wai Tahu were here first, followed by Ngati Mamoe and Ngai Tahu.
While disputes and skirmishes were commonplace, marriages between the tribes brought them together.
By the 1900s it was a mixture of the three, commonly known as Ngai Tahu Whanui.
Skerrett says the story of pounamu is an important part of Maori culture and New Zealand heritage.
“It is part of our identity - where we have come from and who we are. We are trying to keep our culture alive and maintain it for future generations.
“Pounamu is a really important part of that - the discovery of it, the use of it.”
Lakes District Museum boss David Clarke agrees and says history, and understanding it, helps people explore where we came from.
One of the museum’s old exhibitions also shows the Dart River as an important camping spot for parties travelling to and from the West Coast via the Hollyford Valley.
In 1860, Europeans began to visit the head of the lake and found signs of recent camps along with eel baskets, stake nets and spears.
Other settlement sites have been found in Frankton, known as Oterotu, as well as Bob’s Cove and Lake Hayes.
Where We Come From is a Mountain Scene series exploring the history of the Wakatipu, with help from Lakes District Museum.