South Island History
Discover the dramatic history of the South Island of New Zealand. From Maori settlement to the later European settlement, to the natural history carved in the land.
South Island History Overview
Evidence of the history of the South Island of New Zealand can be found everywhere. From architecture, to memorial monuments, to museums, to the naturally carved stories in the land, you can discover it for yourself.
Maori legend tells of Maui, a demi-god who lived in Hawaiiki. He went fishing with his brothers, and pulled up the North Island of New Zealand 'Te Ika a Maui' (or the fish of Maui). The South Island is known as 'Te Waka a Maui' (or the canoe of Maui).
Although legend told of Maui fishing up the North and South Islands, it was the great Polynesian navigator Kupe who actually discovered them. Kupe also lived in Hawaiiki, mythical ancestral homeland of the Maori, and he journeyed to New Zealand in his waka. His people followed and Maori settlment of New Zealand began.
Abel Tasman became the first European to sight New Zealand, but it was after Captain James Cook began his circumnavigation of the country in 1769 that European migration began. The first European migrants were whalers and missionaries.
Christchurch Cathedral Square
Cathedral Square is the urban heart of Christchurch. As its name suggests, it's directly in front of the city's most famous cathedral—Christ Church.
The Cathedral was designed in the gothic revival style by prominent English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Although its foundation stone was laid in 1864, construction wasn't complete until 1904. The timber was sourced from Banks Peninsula—over 50,000 pieces of matai and totara were used in the roof alone. The stone was sourced from Castle Hill in the Canterbury high country, from Amberly in North Canterbury and from the nearby Port Hills.
Open every day, Christ Church welcomes visitors. For a small charge you can climb the Cathedral Tower and enjoy the amazing views of the central city.
NB: Due to the Christchurch Earthquakes, these buildings may be temporarily unavailable.
West Coast Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
Nature began this work of art about 30 million years ago. Over thousands of years, alternating layers of small marine creatures and sand became buried and compressed on the ocean floor. This created areas with multiple layers of hard limestone and softer sandstone. Earthquake activity then lifted the ocean floor high and dry, and those slow motion artists—the rain and the wind—began to erode the softer sandstone. The outcome is cliffs and ravines with hundreds of horizontal slices along their vertical faces, like huge stacks of pancakes.
In many places, deep inside the cliffs, narrow vertical air shafts created by the rain met with horizontal tunnels created by the pounding ocean. Today, around high tide, the ocean swells rush headlong through ever-narrowing tunnels and force large amounts of water and compressed air to race upward through the vertical shafts. The result is a hissing, heaving, thumping countryside that rhythmically emits geyser-like plumes of salt water. At high tide in a strong westerly swell, this creation of nature is a very impressive sight.
First Ascents of Aoraki/Mount Cook
Mt Cook was first climbed by Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham, on Christmas Day, 1894.
On 3rd December, 1910, Emmeline Freda Du Faur became the first woman to climb Mt Cook. Her attempt was also the fastest ascent to that date.
In 1949 New Zealand's most famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, along with Harry Ayres, made the first ascent up the challenging south ridge on the south peak. They also completed the grand traverse. On May 29, 2003, a bronze statue of Sir Edmund Hillary was unveiled outside The Hermitage, Mt Cook, looking out to the mountains Hillary climbed.
The known history of Dunedin dates back as far as 1100 AD with the arrival of the Maori to the area. Some 600 hundred years later Captain Cook stepped ashore the Otago Harbour. He alerted of the presence of the numerous seals in the area bringing sealers to the region. The port later became an international whalers port.
The Scottish settlement and gold rush of the 1800s brought with it the stunning Edwardian and Victorian architecture that Dunedin is famous for. In 1848 The Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland founded Dunedin as the principal town of its Scottish settlement. The name of 'Dunedin' originates from the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh—'Dùn Èideann'.
Charles Kettle, Dunedin's surveyor, instructed to copy the characteristics of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital city, in the construction of Dunedin. The result has been described as 'both grand and quirky' as builders attempted to reconstruct Charles' vision across Dunedin's challenging landscape.
Today Dunedin is New Zealand's oldest university city, and is known as the centre of learning in New Zealand.
South Island Accommodation
South Island is a popular tourist destination and offers a wide range of accommodation options:
- South Island Motels
- South Island Hotels
- South Island Bed and Breakfasts
- South Island Holiday Houses
- South Island Campsites and Holiday Parks
View more South Island Accommodation options.
Useful South Island Links
To help plan your South Island holiday choose from the main categories below:
- South Island Accommodation
- South Island Tours
- South Island Attractions and Activities
- South Island Transport
- South Island Cuisine and Dining
- South Island Shopping
- South Island Visitor Information
South Island Region Information
Key information and facts about the South Island region.
Major activities and attractions in the South Island region.