Nic Low made more than a dozen crossings of the Kā Tiritiri-o-te-moana, the Southern Alps, retracing ancestral routes across Te Waipounamu for his book Uprising. Here he consults a map prior while planning an approach to Mt Torlesse. (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

Nic Low is a young Ngāi Tahu man with a passion for walking. His recently-released book Uprising tells the story of a multi-year project of retracing the traditional Ngāi Tahu crossings of the Main Divide. 

Nic uses walking as a pathway to knowing. By situating himself in the mountains of Te Waipounamu, placing one foot after the after as he climbs through snow and ice on more than a dozen crossings, a recognition of ancestral belonging grows — that the mountains of Kā Tiritiri-o-te-moana are, as Tipene O’Regan once put it, “the womb from which we spring as a people . . . the source of who and what we are.”

Nic’s adventures bring him close not only to his Ngāi Tahu roots, but also to his Pākehā side: a family history of tramping in the great outdoors. During his journeys for the book, he finds himself in the same place he made his first overnight tramp, at age nine, in Arthur’s Pass National Park, but now in pursuit of a very different kaupapa. 

In the following excerpt, he imagines how different the experience would have been had Ngāi Tahu not been swindled out of vital reserves by the colonial powers.

We pick up the story at Klondyke Corner, beside State Highway 73 . . . 


Traffic on SH73 amid the peaks of Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill. (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

I pitched my tent and kindled a fire as the first raindrops fell. But the wind was wild and changeable, whipping smoke into my face no matter where I sat. I doused the embers and stood with sooty hands on hips to watch the storm swallow the peaks overhead. Northwest up the Bealey, what looked like peaks were actually boiling clouds. The true horizon lay open, suggesting a pass.

I’d officially made it to the first wilderness of my childhood: Arthur’s Pass National Park. The track to Anti Crow Hut, where Dad took us on our first tramping trip, was two kilometres south. A few hundred metres up the road, I’d set out on my first proper alpine exploration, at age 12, to Barker Hut. Both routes follow the Waimakariri up towards its source at the Main Divide.

In the late 1840s, Ngāi Tahu had wanted to keep this land as part of a hundred-thousand-hectare strip running through to the West Coast. Walter Mantell ignored their instructions because the proposed reserve included significant grazing land. 

Eighty years later, the pristine scenery trumped grazing rights. Instead of a native reserve, it became a nature reserve, to protect the land for future generations. Arthur’s Pass National Park was created in 1929. As a member of those future generations, I was grateful. 

But what if Ngāi Tahu had been allowed the reserve, and New Zealand’s walking culture had developed with Māori still owning the land? What kind of hybrid traditions might have emerged if Kemp’s Deed had been honoured, the mahika kai preserved?

With two million acres of land and serious capital to develop it, Ngāi Tahu would by now have been an economic powerhouse for seven generations. There would be thriving seasonal settlements beside all the inland lakes and rivers and wetlands — flashing past your car window every minute or two — with houses that were part traditional Māori whare, part alpine chalet. 

High-country sheep stations would have carved wooden posts and gates out front, and generations of shearing gangs would sleep in Māori meeting houses beneath the peaks. 

There would be vast wetlands and forests supplying weka, tuna, kākāpō, kiore (native rats) and kiwi to a thriving Māori and Pākehā middle class who’d come up for weekends of eeling and birding, storytelling and mountain biking, and of course tramping.

Tramping wouldn’t be just from hut to hut, but between mahika kai. Part of the joy of walking would be harvesting your own food along the way, and it would be common to meet large family groups on the trail in Gore-Tex and merino hiking gear with white pails full of weka swinging from their hands. 

The highlight of the trip, the thing every kid would look forward to for months, would be white-water rafting back to the coast on updated mōkihi. 

Everyone would go out into the hills with their maps showing Māori and English names, and with knowledge of the stories behind each one. And whereas in Europe we might look to ruined castles for a sense of history, here we’d find it in those names, and in the ground beneath our feet.

Nic Low negotiates a steep section of loose rock beside Cave Stream, near Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill. (Photo: Kennedy Warne)

The tribe is on its way to realising this vision. Through the Waitangi Tribunal process and the courts, Ngāi Tahu finally forced the Crown to acknowledge it had defaulted on Kemp’s Deed, and eight others, and had systematically excluded Ngāi Tahu from land, payment and resources. 

Compensation paid in 1997 was worth less than one per cent of what was owed, yet tribal businesses have since turned that sum into assets worth over NZ$1.5 billion. Some of the proceeds are being used to rekindle the inland fires.

Ngāi Tahu has bought three high-country stations and runs a range of inland tourism businesses — updating the long tradition of guiding visitors through our domain. 

The Dark Sky Project at Takapō (Tekapo) is an observatory that combines Western and Māori astronomy. 

Local rūnaka host or run a range of walking and history programmes, and are revegetating wetlands and lakes across Te Waipounamu. 

Seventy-two nohoaka (encampment) sites approximate traditional mahika kai beside rivers and lakes, with tribal members allowed to camp for more than half of each year.

Multiple walking programmes combine Ngāi Tahu values with Pākehā tramping culture. 

Te Ara Whakatipu leads a group of high-school students across the Hollyford pounamu trail. Manawa Hou sees teenagers spend four days in the bush in a different part of our territory each year. The tribe’s main leadership programme, Aoraki Bound, brings 25 people into these mountains on a cultural-immersion bootcamp. An annual alpine expedition sees four Ngāi Tahu don crampons and climb to Ball Pass, right beneath the great ancestor-mountain Aoraki himself.

Collectively, we were taking kindling left in a cleft at Flock Hill five centuries ago,* and lighting a bonfire that would be visible from every mountaintop in the land.

*In 1983, a flax backpack containing shells, feathers, bones and unfinished paua pendants, along with a stash of kindling and firewood, was found in a shelter among the limestone tors at Flock Hill, near Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill. It is estimated that the gear was left there by a traveller some 500 years ago.

View from a traditional Ngāi Tahu rock shelter on Flock Hill near Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill (Photo: Nic Low)

This is an extract from Uprising: Walking the Southern Alps of New Zealand, written by Nic Low and published by Text Publishing.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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