43 Rakaia to Ellesmere

Rakaia to Ellesmere

Whilst Christchurch appears to have been the Chinese capital of South Island, with Akaroa the centre of the Banks Peninsula operations, Rakaia Huts appears to have been the major operation centre controlling the exploitation of the metallic mineral wealth of the Southern Alps, north of the Ashburton River to Selwyn River and the shores of Lake Forsyth, Banks Peninsula..


The Chinese constructed a major fortified city and harbour, at what is now called Rakaia Huts, situated alongside Rakaia Lagoon and the southern Pacific. From here, navigation of the Rakaia River gave access to the area around Mount Arrowsmith. A canal to Lake Ellesmere gave access to the Selwyn River and west to the Springfield area. A further canal from Lake Ellesmere, via Birdling Flats, to Lake Forsyth gave access to the iron ore around the lakes shores.

RAKAIA HUTS. A FORTIFIED CITY(172d, 14`, 20E. 43d, 53`, 17S)

The Chinese fortified city site (c3.5ha) is now mainly occupied by the camp site and some private housing. The site appears to have been part excavated to form a flat area.
The majority of the periphery of the site is accessible, a magnetic anomaly survey over this area revealed the presence of the remains of the c1.8m wide defensive stone wall. The eastern wall is free from housing, the leveling of the site created c 5m high rampart, up which runs a very pronounced ramp to access the eastern gateway. A further survey across the camp site indicated the remains of the foundations of the internal buildings. The city was capable of accommodating several thousand.

An internal canal linked the site to a small harbour on the shores of the Lagoon. At the eastern end of Rakaia Lagoon, the heavily reeded area was once the site of a large harbour capable of accommodating ocean going junks. The outline of one junk was located under the accessible reeds. The outline is probably that of the Junk`s remaining ballast, all timber having rotted away.

From Rakaia Huts a 12m wide canal, designed with passing places for multi-junk operation was constructed to Lake Ellesmere. Many flooded sections of this canal, which presumably was sealed with puddled clay, are clearly visible. The size of the canal indicates that it was designed to handle the standard ocean going junks c 47m x 11m, possibly with some ballast being removed to reduce the draft and reshipped for ocean voyaging. The canal water lost to evaporation and leakage was continually made up be a series of aqueducts which carried water from local creeks and surface water. On track alongside the canal by Rakaia Huts, Selwyn Council have erected a sign; this states “Dangerous Bank Subsidence Approach at Your Own Risk”. A magnetic Anomaly Survey run along the track indicated that the subsidence, which is at regular intervals, is caused by the settlement of the Chinese aqueducts under the weight of vehicles.


This section of canal c 8km long and 12m wide, linked in Lake Ellesmere via Birdling Flats to Lake Forsyth. There is no visible evidence of a canal, as it has been backfilled by gravel washed in by Pacific Storms. But the original line of the canal alongside Birdling Flats can easily be followed by the clumps of brightly coloured flowering plants, each clump situated at the end of a still flowing aqueduct, these being installed to supply make up water. The positions of the aqueducts being located by a magnetic anomaly survey parallel to the line of the canal.


In the Secret Land, (1) Messrs Cook & Brown published an extract from Tranz NZ Institute`s Paper (c1871) by Dr Haast regarding a survey around the mouth of the Rakaia. In which he describes a c20acre (c8.3ha) site to the north of the mouth of the Rakaia, covered with Moa ovens. These consisted of dished areas of closely packed stones, some containing evidence of charcoal, c 8ft x 5ft and some 8ft in diameter. One wonders at a 20acre (c8.3ha) kitchen, especially one using charcoal. Charcoal, is an expensive, time consuming product to manufacture and due to it`s fragility, difficult to transport. Therefore is normally used only for processes requiring a high degree of heat.

The map from the Institute`s Papers also clearly shows a dyke had been constructed to prevent the river flooding the site. (Surprisingly on Dr Haast`s map, North is depicted 180degrees out).

Waikato University`s web site gives the information that “Ovens” have been carbon dated from 1026Ad to 1735AD in the Rakaia River area and in Wakenui, Ashburton, near Rakaia, an “Oven” was carbon dated to 1321AD. These dates are pre Maori invasion of the South Island.

The use of the description “Oven” appears to have been used somewhat indiscriminately.
An oven when constructed, is an enclosed structure, the normal design would preclude the fire coming into direct with what was being cooked. Waikato University appear to qualify one of their “Ovens” as being of rim type.

What Dr Haast is describing appear to be c 8 foot diameter ore roasting dishes.

The most likely use for the area was as a Chinese industrial area for metallic ore preparation and smelting etc. The large stone dishes are most likely to have been utilized for roasting ore, prior to it being smelted. Roasting iron ore at a lower than smelting temperature, when the ore is present as ferrous carbonate (FeCO3), drives of the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) leaving Ferrous Oxide (FeO). Ore taken to a second stage of roasting, will convert the ore to Ferric Oxide (Fe2O3) which is chemically the same as haematite and a higher quality. (Tylecote, Metallurgy in Archaeology).

One wonders at reports of large middens containing moa. As families tended to kill for the pot, the presence of large Moa abbatoirs, especially coupled with Dr Haast`s comments re the absence of human bones, excludes their use by small Maori tribes. Especially as Dr Haast considered that the Moa had been extinct before the Maori invaded New Zealand. Therefore the middens are most likely to have been for use in this particular case, by the inhabitants of the nearby Chinese City of Rakaia and for the provisioning of junks for ocean voyaging. Adjacent to Dr Haast`s site between the river and the dyke, has been marked by Dr Haast as the only midden found which contained human bones. . One can only assume that the small site was only occupied for a short time by invading Maori, as it appears to be based outside the dyke, ie in an area prone to flooding.


To those who doubt the Chinese had the ability to navigate the Rakaia and other rivers of New Zealand, one can but recommend “A Single Pebble” by John Hersey. This describes a voyage up the Yangtze`s rapids (the ten thousand mile river) in a 30m x 6m Junk. This was hauled up the rapids by it`s own crew of 40 “Trackers”, assisted at the worst rapids by another team of ”Trackers”, 300 strong, using ropes made from bamboo. I would anticipate New Zealands rivers being navigated by much smaller Chinese Junks assisted in the shallower areas by the construction of dams and locks and in the case of dangerous sections, by the construction of bye pass canals, such as has been noted on the rivers in the Catlins area..

T.C.Bell 7/2003

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