The Old Man Range’s European history revolves around gold mining and farming. Extensive gold deposits were found in Potters No 2, Fraser Basin and Omeo Gully. They were challenging places with harsh winters that killed many miners.
From the late 1800’s most of the upland provided summer grazing for sheep and cattle from Earnscleugh Station and neighbouring pastoral leases. This continues today on parts of the conservation area.
Look up towards the Old Man Range/Kopuwai and you will see Gorge Creek running down from the tops of this mighty range, now part of the Kopuwai Conservation Area. The range is a vast, exposed wilderness offering no shelter from its notoriously extreme weather.
But once gold was discovered in 1862, at a soaring 1,500 m, even this cruel environment couldn’t dampen miners’ enthusiasm. In September 1863 the visiting Otago Daily Times correspondent reported as many as 250 men working and living these high claims,with the largest groups at Campbell Creek and Potters No. 2.
It was from the 9–16 August 1863 that the ‘Great storm’ hit. In severe cold and heavy snow, many miners died from starvation or hypothermia – either up on the range or trying to find the snow pole route to escape it. Up to 35 men may have died between the Campbell Creek goldfields and the packers’ town of Chamounix duringthat fatal storm. Some are thought to be buried near this site.
You can view an interpretation panel about the storm at Gorge Creek. Download information on the panel (PDF, 3,906K).
The legend of Kopuwai (which lives on in the 26 m Obelisk or Old Man Rock)
A rapuwai pakiwaitara or story, recalls a time when hunting parties from coastal settlements venturing into the interior often disappeared without trace. This was because of a giant called Kopuwai who lived near the Clutha/Mata-Au River and preyed on humans with a pack of ferocious twoheaded dogs. The pakiwaitara recalls when Kopuwai found a party from the Kaitangata area and killed all of them, except for a young woman called Kaiamio. He took her as his slave.
Fearsome as he was, Kopuwai had one weakness; warm, nor-west winds made him sleepy. He was aware of this and knew that when he nodded off, Kaiamio would attempt to escape. Whenever he felt drowsy, Kopuwai tied a taura/flax rope to her arm; if either of them moved, he’d know that she was still there. Despite that, Kaiamio was able to outwit him and escape. She undid the taura on her arm and tied it to a nearby rush/wīwī, so that when the giant stirred, he felt the rope give and take, as if his slave was tethered to him.
When Kopuwai woke and saw that Kaiamo was gone, he was enraged. In searching for her, he picked up her scent in the wind along the Mata-Au. This was when Kopuwai lived up to the meaning of his name – waterswallower – as in trying to recapture her he swallowed so much of the river that its bed was dry for some time.
In the meantime Kaiamo had escaped to her home on the coast. Intent on seeking her revenge from Kopuwai, she returned with a party of warriors and they waited for a nor-west wind to put the giant to sleep. When the wind arrived, the warriors blocked the front of the giant’s cave with dry bracken and ferns and lit them. The smoke finally woke Kopuwai and he tried to escape through a portal in the cave’s roof. As he emerged, Kaiamo’s war party grabbed him and beat him to death.
Killing Kopuwai was possible because his ferocious, two-headed dogs were away hunting. When they returned and found their master gone they searched, but in vain. In time, the dogs also died and became transformed into what are now rocky outcrops on hilltops between the Old Man Range/Kopuwai and South Canterbury.
Today Kopuwai lives on at the heart of the conservation area in his physical manifestation, the 26-metre rock, Kopuwai, also known as the Obelisk or Old Man Rock. The area around the rock is the Kopuwai Historic Reserve; a Ngāi Tahu Claim settlement outcome it is a wāhi taoka, a special place.