The Port Hills - our place

News News & events

21 Dec 2018

They are visible on the skyline to the south from most of Christchurch, the familiar volcanic ridge that divides the city and plains from the hilly Banks Peninsula. But how well do local residents actually know the Port Hills?

For Ara Sustainability and Outdoor Education specialist Ivor Heijnen, the Port Hills are an outdoor classroom with layers of recreational opportunities, cultural context, sustainability issues and solutions, and historical markers that collectively give us a sense of not just where, but who, we Cantabrians are.

Heijnen interviewed eight expert outdoor educators for his master’s thesis, collecting a treasure trove of responses focusing on the potential for the Port Hills for contributing to students’ mental and physical wellbeing.

His interviewees are working in primary schools, secondary schools, tertiary institutions and commercial operations, but what they have learnt about the Port Hills has relevance for all residents of Otautahi Christchurch.

Somewhat familiar?

Heijnen’s ideas about outdoor education have changed, he says. He no longer prioritises pristine, far-away places over familiar places close to home.

“Often we feel we need to go far away, on holiday, or to the big mountains or to some untouched place representing what ‘New Zealand’ is, to connect with nature. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of value in wilderness areas, but I think there are a lot of benefit to having experiences on our own doorstep.”

However, the familiar is not as familiar as we might assume. “There was not much research on or about the Port Hills; there is not much known about them for something that is so close by,” Heijnen says. “I have mountain biked, rock climbed, walked and run in the Port Hills for 15 years and there are still little bits that I don’t know, or it changes with the seasons. I have to stop running to look and I don’t know how many places in the world have that on the doorstep of a city.”

Recreation is a good start

While some of us will have also walked or biked in the Port Hills, one outdoor educator said that some of his students had no idea where the Port Hills were and had never been there.

“To me that is amazing, but they don’t get that opportunity,” Heijnen says. What they are missing out on is more than the chance to be out in the elements, grappling a little with muddy or steep paths, and discovering that they can manage. “The other side is that being so high above the city you can step away from your everyday stress-filled life and get a different and new perspective. One interviewee described it this way: when they are up there life feels lighter on their shoulders.”

To kickstart students’ personal relationship with the Port Hills, some of our local outdoor educators are taking them there by public bus, so that the students know how to return, maybe with their friends or family in tow.  

What’s in a name?

New perspectives can be quite powerful – for all of us and not just for students. Tribal stories are a very valuable and significant tool for this, because they often contain important knowledge about a place. Take Te Tihi-o-Kahukura (Castle Rock), for example, a popular pre-quake climbing area whose traditional name relates to the Ngāi Tahu deity Kahukura.  “It is a quite pronounced outcrop of rocks, you can stand there and see how hard it would be to climb up that spur and you’ve got a great cliff at your back. So if you needed refuge, that is where you would go, because it is well protected and you can see everywhere. Introducing our students to this narrative can help them imagine a different world-view, landscape and way of life.”

While the narrative of the Port Hills involving the first four ships and the Bridle Path, the steep route over the hills to the new settlement of Christchurch, is quite well known, the Port Hills are full of place names inspired by Māori legends and pre-colonial historical events.

One name for the Port Hills is Ngā Kohatu Whakarakaraka o Tamatea Pōkai Whenua. This name references a story of Tamatea Pōkai Whenua, a renowned explorer of pre-European times who, having climbed the hills to gaze down upon the vast plains to the west, got caught in a ferocious southerly storm that froze him in his tracks. Tamatea began to recite karakia (incantations) seeking the assistance of Ngātoroirangi, a powerful tohunga (priest or expert) from the central North Island district, to send warmth to his people via the earth (geothermal activity).

This is one of many stories relating to the hills and the harbour.

Heijnen will develop his relationships with the people of Rāpaki Marae (Lyttelton Harbour) and Te Puna Wānaka (Ara’s Māori and Indigenous Studies school) in the new year to deepen his cultural connections, while also pursuing te reo (Māori language) studies to inform his own teaching practice.

Sustainability in action

Human activity changed the ecology of the Port Hills, and ongoing sustainability issues play out here, but projects are underway to restore native forests.

“I think the Port Hills is like a link. It is a peri-urban area with elements of urban, rural and conservation/restoration of native ecological systems as well, so it is the meeting place of all those elements. You can talk about urban creep for example – everyone wants to live on the hill, but not many folks who live on the hill want more houses being built there.”

Ara sustainability and outdoor education students work to restoring the environment through practical projects including trapping, planting native forests, building or maintaining mountain bike tracks, doing bird counts and collecting rubbish.  

Heijnen takes the example of planting. “Most of our students come to that first planting session not really inspired, but we work with the wonderful and very knowledgeable council staff who explain what it was like before Māori arrived, before European colonisation, what was lost and how are we trying to reintroduce some of the species and why. And then we actually go and work, and get stuck in.”

“We will then go for a walk up the Bowenvale valley and see the results of planting from 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 15 years, and they can see what previous students have done and they become part of this positive progression. And students love to see they are having a positive impact, they are really empowered by that I think.”

Being more (place) constructive

Having completed his thesis, Towards Place Constructive Outdoor Education, Heijnen will create a practical resource for Christchurch’s teachers to learn more about the Port Hills, take their students there and pose some interesting questions to them, such as: What can we can contribute to the Port Hills?

This is actually a central idea for Heijnen. “‘Constructive’ is in the title because it means the student-Port Hills relationship can be and should be reciprocal, so it is not only what can we get from the Port Hills - but what can the Port Hills get from us?”  

The language of education is not exactly on his side with this, he says. “As educators we talk about ‘graduate profile outcomes’, and ‘learning outcomes’ that are assessed, meaning at the end of this programme the student knows this or can do that. What about the Port Hills - what do they get out of it? What are the benefits for the local community, the hapū, and what about the non-human ecological communities out there?”

This is certainly a new perspective and as the potential of ‘education outside the classroom’ gains currency, it is a perspective that outdoor educators and their students may find themselves considering - and taking action on.

Hello Port Hills!

So you want to…

Take a walk in the Port Hills - check out Port Hills Tracks and Reserves Christchurch City Council

Get involved with some planting - go to Summit Road Society planting days

Learn Maori place names and stories - explore the Map of Canterbury place names

Explore by bike - check out Port Hills Mountain Biking Map Christchurch City Council

Learn to be a sustainability and outdoor educator - visit Ara’s website