Maitai Valley Memories

From the low lying reaches near the sea to the headwaters high in the Bryant Range, the Maitai River has been one of Nelsonian’s favourite recreation places for many generations.

Long before a road reached Smith’s Ford and The Forks beyond, families had whares or baches up the valley, reached on horseback via track and riverbed. Many a youngster was introduced to the adventurous world of hunting, fishing and camping up the Maitai.

Kidson Whare
The two-roomed Kidson whare in the upper Maitai Valley which was sited beside the river just above the North and South Branch forks. (photo: Barbara Currie)

Barbara Currie’s story of the Charles Kidson whare in the 1940s:


Milk as collected daily from neighbouring Tom Elliots farm in Rae's Creek Valley
Milk as collected daily from neighbouring Tom Elliots farm in Rae’s Creek Valley. (photo: Barbara Currie)

The lower reaches were the local backyard playground while the swimming holes – Girlies, Denne’s, Black and Sunday were the official ‘swimming baths’ of Nelson schools. River banks would be crowded with spectators on official Sports Days but none as unusual as a 1937 visitor…

Jumbo Papers Past
Maitai River Elephant. (photo: Evening Post 24 September 1937, Papers Past, A.R. Kingsford photograph)

‘Nelsonians going home to lunch yesterday were somewhat surprised to see an elephant feeding by the Maitai River. Jumbo, a member of a circus now on a visit to Nelson, fed on unconcernedly, apparently enjoying his brief freedom.’

The Maitai continues to hold a special place in Nelsonian’s hearts, especially for Project Maitai/Mahitahi, a joint community, Council and Iwi initiative that aims to improve the health of our river so that people can safely swim, take kai, enjoy and be proud of!

Maitai River Race 1976
Maitai River Race 1976, Nelson College. (photo: Nelson Provincial Museum, Sclanders Collection A24119284)
Sunday Hole
Sunday Hole. (photo: Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection 311114)

Sally Kidson, great great granddaughter of Charles Kidson shares memories of the 1970s:

Swimming Sports
Swimming Sports Sunday Hole. (photo: Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection 312657)

While the growth of the city has impacted on the river’s health, it is the damming of the river in the 1980s to provide water for the city’s growing population that has had the most dramatic effect. However, local freshwater ecologist Roger Young says the Maitai is still relatively healthy, as he says:

“There aren’t too many urban rivers around that you would think about swimming in.”

As a recent English visitor commented, when viewing the river:

“This is what I remember the river being like on our farm when I was a kid, some 20 years ago. But today our river back home is all brown and dirty and no one goes swimming there now.”

The river’s name – Maitai / Mahitahi is a very old Maori name, referring to one particular Mai or matai (black pine) which once grew on the banks of the river and fruited abundantly in season.

Visit to find out more about Project Maitai/Mahitahi.

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