Peel Forest is somewhere we had talked about staying some time, now we have a caravan to aid our exploring of New Zealand. We have finally carved out some time for a visit.
Peel Forest is at the foot of the Southern Alps – 23 kms north of Geraldine in South Canterbury, 140 kms from Christchurch. It is part of the Mt Peel/Waikari Hills Conservation Area, situated by the Rangitata River, which braids itself across the Canterbury Plains draining from the Alps to the sea. It is braided river systems like this that have created what we know as the Canterbury plains.
There are lots of walks – from short ones for up to an hour, to walking tracks to serious tramping and multi day hikes. There is a short wheelchair accessible walk into the forest to see some of the totara giants.
To Geraldine and back: I rode to Geraldine one day – easy riding on a sealed road, however once I hit the State Highway there was very little shoulder and much more traffic, and I held my breath every time a car passed me. I turned into the Geraldine Orchard Farm Shop for a welcome break.
Along the route through this Canterbury farm country, there were driveways that hinted at the old estates built behind them. This route would be an excellent and easy to create off road cycleway with lots of flat area beside the road to use. Crossing the Orari River the only real obstacle.
Up the Rangitata Gorge: Turning right from our campground is a gentle no exit road which is an easy ride (all on a sealed road with very little traffic) up to the Rangitata Gorge. We cycled 10kms as far as the turnoff to Rangitata Rafts – about 10 kms.
On the left after 5kms there is a beautiful church set up on the hill – follow the sign post. Rebuilt after the Christchurch earthquakes, it is a quaint memorial to what was obviously once a thriving community. One vicar who was there for 50 years is buried in the grounds along with his wife.
Try the door which is often left open for visitors, and enter into a hushed world of stained glass and candles – it appears there is no electricity here. (Another church in this Anglican parish is the small one in the Mt Peel community beside the store.)
Built by the early settlers in 1868 – you can wander the graveyard and read some of their stories. First the huge trees were milled, then carted out via bush tramways. Used mostly for fencing (totara) and building (matai). Then the land was cleared for farming. Acland and Tripp are reported to have burnt 20,000 ha in 3 days.
We met Johnny Akland on his motorbike on his way back to the old homestead for lunch. These days the station runs beef, sheep and deer and he talked about the contempory issues he is having trying to figure out how to fence off the many waterways that run across this flat land.
Ancient trees a legacy
Not everyone saw clearing the land a benefit. Some were appalled at the loss of so many ancient trees. In 1881 a visiting British MP Arthur Mills (Akland’s brother in law) was horrified by the forest devastation, and bought 16 ha of uncut forest to save it. On his death this became the embryo of the present Peel Forest Park. Thanks to this action. we can still see some of the ancient trees that once covered the landscape.
It seems a shame that it is some random British MP Peel whose name is memorialised here and not Mills, or the mana whenua who resided here first. In their story when chiefs Tarahaoa and Huatekerekere died the were turned in mountains (Mt Peel and little Mt Peel) and their tamariki are the mighty totara of the forest and their mokopuna are the four peaks.
Make sure you visit some of these forest giants before you leave.
What a treasure this is – a beautifully maintained site amid patches of native bush – it has powered and unpowered sites, and cabins, hot showers and a communal kitchen. It has water on tap, though no dump station. $20pp ($10 for kids) and powered site for $23. Come prepared, nearest shops are 10 kms away. Being a DOC reserve – no dogs please.