SPIRITUAL CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE

When the Dalai Lama visited Christchurch in 2002, he didn’t like the energy he felt there and asked to be taken somewhere else.  His tour organizers took him to a rocky outcrop on a high country sheep station 90km (55miles) away. They hoped he would gain some comfort from the uniqueness of the dramatic rock formations.  The smooth contours at Castle Hill were created by water erosion during the Oligocene age 40 million years ago when much of New Zealand was under the sea. On experiencing the deeply comforting atmosphere he felt there, he declared it to be the “spiritual centre of the universe”.

Castle Hill (tiki wine)

Castle Hill is located on private property within the Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area between Darfield and Arthur’s Pass at the base of the Southern Alps. The imposing cluster of limestone boulders, rocks and columns that make up the stone complex look like the ruins of a medieval castle, hence the name “Castle Hill”. The front of Christchurch Cathedral (currently in ruin after the city’s deadly earthquakes) was made from Castle Hill limestone.

CULTURAL CONSERVATION

The area is of special cultural, spiritual and historical significance to the South Island Maori tribe of Ngai Tahu who named it Kura Tawhiti which means “treasure from afar”. Hidden within the Castle Hill limestone outcrops are traces of 500-year old charcoal drawings believed to have been left by the Waitaha, the first people to travel through this area. In 1998 the Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area was designated as Topuni to ensure that the values Ngai Tahu place on this area are acknowledged and respected. Topuni is the Ngai Tahu custom of placing a chief’s cloak over a place to signify protection, power and authority over it.

Castle Hill (stuff.co.nz)

ENDANGERED PLANTS

The Kura Tāwhiti Conservation Area is a refuge for some of the rarest and most endangered plants in New Zealand. Once covered in forest and shrubs, the area was cleared 600 years ago by fire and for the past 150 years it has been used for grazing. Tussock and pasture are now the norm with just one lone, surviving native tōtara tree.

Thanks to Dr Lance McCaskill’s work in the early 1950s, this is the site of the first reserve in New Zealand established specifically to protect a plant, in this case, the Castle Hill buttercup (Ranunculus paucifolius). In 1954, Castle Hill was gazetted as a Reserve for the Protection of Flora and Fauna’. When the Department of Conservation was formed in 1987, the area was named Lance McCaskill Nature Reserve in recognition of the work that Lance did for the delicate little buttercup. 

Castle Hill Buttercup (RNZ)

With just 67 plants in existence, the Castle Hill buttercup requires very specific conditions for its survival. It is only found within the 6 ha reserve which was recently re-fenced to protect the plants from rabbits. Other dangers facing the buttercup’s dwindling numbers include being chocked by invasive weeds, trampled by livestock and stolen by collectors.  

CLIMBER’S MECCA

Castle Hill is a popular climbing and bouldering spot for New Zealand’s rock climbers. Over the summer months, weekend climbers attack the various formations without rope or harness preferring to show off their arm strength by using balance, foot work and carefully placed hands to ascend their chosen formation. It is also becoming an increasingly popular destination for Instagrammers who use the unique formations as backgrounds for images to post online. The area got some international exposure when nearby Flock Hill station was used for filming the climactic battle scenes of the Kiwi directed 2005 movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some people were surprised when the area was not chosen by the location scouts when looking for Lord of the Ring locations.

I guess with tourist numbers to New Zealand dramatically increasing, there will be more visitors to Castle Hill. It is just one of many natural wonders that make New Zealand so appealing to big city visitors wanting to escape their artificial worlds to experience what nature has dramatically created in this distant Pacific nation.

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Ceidrik Heward

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