Charmed by Port Chalmers

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

Steeped in New Zealand history, the vibrant settlement of Port Chalmers is teeming with Māori legends, historic buildings, galleries, eateries, and stores. Alina Suchanski visits Port Chalmers and shares her impressions.

Just a short drive from Dunedin, on the northwest shore of Otago Harbour lies the charming settlement of Port Chalmers. Its main street, named after George Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, leaves no doubt as to what this town is about. Walking down the George Street trottoir, past century-old buildings, you see in the distance stacks of shipping containers, giant cranes, and sometimes the loading of an ocean-going ship. On the left is the quaint old building of Pioneer Hall, built in 1939, and on the right, Port Stabled dating back to 1867. Further down, on the corner of George and Grey Streets, is the historic Bank of New Zealand building (1880) and facing it across Gray St. is the Town Hall building of 1889, now housing the public library.

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 12 minutes

Steeped in New Zealand history, the vibrant settlement of Port Chalmers is teeming with Māori legends, historic buildings, galleries, eateries, and stores. Alina Suchanski visits Port Chalmers and shares her impressions.

Just a short drive from Dunedin, on the northwest shore of Otago Harbour lies the charming settlement of Port Chalmers. Its main street, named after George Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, leaves no doubt as to what this town is about. Walking down the George Street trottoir, past century-old buildings, you see in the distance stacks of shipping containers, giant cranes, and sometimes the loading of an ocean-going ship. On the left is the quaint old building of Pioneer Hall, built in 1939, and on the right, Port Stabled dating back to 1867. Further down, on the corner of George and Grey Streets, is the historic Bank of New Zealand building (1880) and facing it across Gray St. is the Town Hall building of 1889, now housing the public library.

Local lore tells the story of a group of Māori warriors who beached their canoes in front of a nearby cave, well above what they thought was the high-tide mark. When they woke up the next morning, they found their waka floating in the bay, carried away by the high tide. That’s how the place became known as Kōpūtai, meaning ‘high tide’.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the South Island was largely inhabited by the Ngāti Māmoe (aka Kāti Mamoe), who originated from the Hastings area. The Ngāti Māmoe were subsequently absorbed through marriage and conquest by the Ngāi Tahu as they migrated south.

Around the time of the arrival of the first Europeans, Te Mātenga Taiaroa was a leader of Ngāi Tahu, at Ōtākou on the Otago Peninsula in association with his cousins Karetai and Kohi – the chief of the last known hapū at Kōpūtai. In 1840, Kōpūtai was included in Te Mātenga Taiaroa’s sale of land to the French whalers Pierre Darmandarits and Edouard DuBern.

Another Māori legend talks about Kohi (who has a street named after himself in Port Chalmers) burning a boat on the beach at Kōpūtai shortly before his death at the hand of his cousin Taiaroa in 1842. More than a century later, that story may have inspired the distinguished New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere to produce one of his most striking works: the colossal Black Phoenix. But more about it later.

In 1844, Frederick Tuckett of the New Zealand Company arrived in Aotearoa aboard the schooner Deborah with the task of choosing a site for the projected New Edinburgh settlement. As a result of his South Island reconnaissance, Tuckett selected the Otago Block and nominated Kōpūtai as its deep-water port.

The Otago Deed of Purchase was signed at Kōpūtai on 31 July 1844, the oldest of the official Ngāi Tahu land purchase deeds. Four years later, Scottish settlers arrived. They named the place Port Chalmers, after Free Church hero Thomas Chalmers.

The first two groups of organised European settlers sailed to Otago Harbour on the ships John Wickliffe and Philip Laing, which arrived within three weeks of each other in early 1848. They found a settlement surrounded by dense bush to the water’s edge except for a small clearing behind the centre of the beach. The only buildings present were the New Zealand Company’s store, Tuckett’s cottage, and three Māori whare (huts).

These events and more are immortalised in the Port Chalmers Maritime Museum, fittingly housed in the former Post Office building constructed in 1877.

The journey from Britain to Otago by sailing ship was the longest migration voyage in the world. In the 1860s and 1870s, more migrants chose to come to Otago than any other New Zealand province.

A pair of islands lie across the harbour between Port Chalmers and the Otago Peninsula. They are Quarantine Island/Kamau Taurua and Goat Island/Rakiriri which served as the quarantine stations for Otago from 1863 until 1924. When ships arrived in Otago Harbour with infectious diseases, passengers were quarantined for one to two weeks, sometimes longer. Quarantine Island was used for married couples and single women, while single men were quarantined on Goat Island. Today these islands are publicly accessible recreation reserves.

By the 1860s, the town population rose above 100 and a road was built along the side of the harbour between Dunedin and Port Chalmers, which allowed ships docked at Kōpūtai to transport their goods to Dunedin by road. What today takes 20 minutes by car, in those days took two hours by horse-drawn wagon.

Another road leads out of Port Chalmers inland over the Mihiwaka Hill to Blueskin Bay. The road and the bay are both named after Hikutu, a heavily tattooed Māori who lived in this area in the mid-1800s. His facial moko was so dense it made his skin look blue, hence his nickname ‘Blueskin’.

The discovery of gold in 1861 led to the Otago Gold Rush which, over a three-month period, saw 16,000 new arrivals pass through the port. The resulting dramatic increase in trade meant that by 1864, Port Chalmers had grown to be the third-largest port in Australasia with a population of at least 1,000 and boasting five hotels, three restaurants, six general stores, two chemists, two bakeries, two barbers, two blacksmiths, two churches and two schools.

Since roads on Otago Peninsula were non-existent, boats were used to cross the harbour. The first dedicated ferry service was introduced in 1859, but it was not profitable. As the region’s size rapidly increased due to the Gold Rush, scheduled ferry services began between Port Chalmers and Portobello and ran from 1876 to 1954.

Port Chalmers is where New Zealand’s modern export trade began. It was from here, in February 1882, that New Zealand’s first cargo of frozen meat left for London in the refrigerated ship Dunedin. Its arrival 98 days later, with the meat still in excellent condition, heralded the beginning of New Zealand’s expertise in the handling of refrigerated cargo (Port Chalmers, n.d.).

After the 1894 visit by a Norwegian whaling and sealing ship credited with the first substantiated landing on the Antarctic continent, Port Chalmers began servicing Antarctic exploration. Robert Falcon Scott visited it aboard the Discovery in December 1901 and his final doomed Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica in November 1910. The town hosted Ernest Shackleton on his Nimrod (1908) and Endurance (1916) expeditions, American Richard E. Byrd (1928), Lincoln Ellsworth (1933), and several other American, French and New Zealand explorers over the following decades.

The town continued to develop, and in 1961, its population reached 3,120. From the 1970s, an artists’ community emerged in Port Chalmers and Careys Bay, giving the town a bohemian character. The creative arts are still important to the area’s economy. Port Chalmers and the surrounding suburbs have a thriving arts community of painters, potters, musicians, jewellers, sculptors, and writers. Of particular note, was Māori artist Ralph Hotere, who lived and worked in Kōpūtai from 1971 until his passing in 2013. A prolific painter and sculptor, Hotere made the local landscape and birds as well as national and international politics consistent features of his art. His paintings and sculptures often include poems and proverbs in both Māori and English.

Controversial attempts to site an aluminium smelter at Aramoana, near Port Chalmers, in 1975 and 1980 deeply polarised the community of Otago. Ralph Hotere was amongst local artists and writers actively opposed to the smelter. The group also included painter and sculptor Bill Culbert, poet Cilla McQueen (Hotere’s wife), painter Marilynn Webb and poet Brian Turner.

Ralph Hotere’s studio at Observation Point was located on the large bluff overlooking the container terminal. When the port’s facilities were expanded (despite strong objection from many of the town’s residents), part of the bluff was removed, including the area of Hotere’s studio. What’s left of the bluff now houses an award-winning sculpture garden – Oputae, organised in 2005 by Hotere and featuring his own works as well as other noted New Zealand modern sculptors.

One of Hotere’s most significant works – Black Phoenix – is a major installation that incorporates the prow of a fishing boat flanked by burnt planks of wood. Other planks form a pathway leading to the prow. Several of the boards are inscribed with a traditional Māori proverb, Ka hinga atu he tete-kura haramai he tete-kura (“As one fern frond (person) dies – one is born to take its place”). Hotere changed the wording of the proverb, replacing haramai (transfer, pass over) to ara mai (the path forward), referring to the perpetual nature of life and death, as in the legend of the phoenix reborn from the ashes of its predecessor.

Although a little out of the way, Port Chalmers is worth a visit. Whether you are coming from the north, on the Blueskin Road over the Mihiwaka Hill, or from the south along the Otago Harbour waterfront, the Centenary Lookout provides excellent views of the port, town, harbour, and the Otago Peninsula. A short walk through native bush leads to the Hotere Garden.

 

Other points of interest include the Flagstaff Lookout and the time ball, local art galleries, and a short drive away – the Aramoana village and mole, an artificial breakwater which extends for 1200 metres from Aramoana into the sea, built to keep the main channel of the Otago Harbour clear of tidal sand. If you are tired and hungry at the end of your sightseeing visit, the historic Careys Bay Hotel provides excellent seafood meals complemented by stunning views of the Otago Harbour.

 

 

Sources: 1. Explore Dunedin, Summer 2020/21, Port Chalmers/Koputai 2. Port Chalmers History and Photos, portotago.co.nz; 3. Port Chalmers, Wikipedia 4. Christchurch Art Gallery bulletin

Photos: Alina Suchanski

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