As the cold weather bites, Jackie Breen from DOC’s Heritage team tells us about the Kiwi love affair with ice skating at Mt Harper – thought to be the first (and largest) purpose-built public ice rink in the Southern Hemisphere.
If I had a time machine this winter, I’d take a trip to the Mt Harper ice rink in its 1930s heyday, when it attracted thousands of ice skaters and hockey players.
Despite being remote, and a real pain to get to, the landscape was so spectacular and the ice so good that people from all over New Zealand – and the world – made the effort.
The rink was built by Wyndham Barker in the early 1930s. This coincided with growing leisure time for middle class urban New Zealanders, increasing interest in outdoor recreational pursuits, and easier travel due to the expanded rail and road networks and improved motor vehicles.
Open to all
Mt Harper is thought to be the first (and largest) purpose-built public ice rink in the Southern Hemisphere.
Barker began work on the rink in the summer of 1931–32. He cleverly used a natural stream to shallowly flood the area, allowed the water to freeze, then flooded again. Unfortunately, strong nor’west winds rippled the ice making it difficult to skate on.
A second rink was a huge success. Despite the remote location it attracted many people, often for the weekend. One year 400 skaters attended the season opening, and the record number of skaters in a day was 3,000 – including 12 busloads from Christchurch.
You had to really want to get to there – the trip wasn’t for the faint hearted. The adventurers had to travel along a bumpy and windy road up the gorge, then cross the mighty Rangitata River.
In the early years, before a swing bridge was built, skaters were ferried across the river in a precarious punt that could only carry 20–30 people at a time. More than once this was swept away with passengers aboard.
Something for everyone
The rink’s black ice was noted a number of times in the visitors book for its speed, and attracted speed skaters and ice hockey players. There was also skate sailing, ice yachting, curling, tobogganing, and even a motorbike with a chain that towed adventurous souls over the ice.
As well as the rink, Barker’s drive and passion (possibly helped by inclusion of ice hockey in the 1920 Olympics, which received a surprising amount of coverage in New Zealand newspapers) led to the establishment of the Erewhon Cup in 1937, an ice hockey tournament still contested today.
Perfect ice, excellent facilities
It must have been an amazing family day out or romantic weekend away (there was a lodge nearby). Although awkward to get to, the rink was well worth it once you were there.
Barker and his wife Brenda provided fantastic amenities. A 1934 visitor to the rink recalled there was a warm welcome after the chilly journey: “Before going on the ice, one is escorted to a cosy hut where a hot cup of tea is served.”
In 1940 a publication in Timaru wrote: “There are two heated rest rooms, a restaurant, skating library, and a library of skating pictures, beside the ice, where skates, curling and other equipment can be hired.”
Photographs show that hydroelectric power had been installed at the Mt Harper ice rink by the 1938 season. This provided electricity for heating and cooking, as well as lighting for night skating on Wednesday and weekends.
The domestic arrangements were well ahead of the times. The Barkers lived at the rink year-round. Their house had the luxury of insulation and central heating – something many Kiwi homes still don’t have 85 years later!
Archive news footage shows some great historical photos and the memories of Mrs Phyllis Kerr reminiscing about enjoying ‘perfect ice’ in stunning scenery and ‘glorious’ colours.
Watch archive news footage
The rink’s demise
Sadly, public use of the rink ceased in the mid‐1950s. This was likely due to a combination of factors: increasingly warm winters; flooding altering the course of the river making crossing difficult; petrol rationing during and after WWII; the increasing availability of other, easily accessible, entertainment such as cinemas and dances; and the opening of indoor rinks in Timaru (1951) and Christchurch (1952), which although lacking the natural grandeur of Mt Harper were more accessible and had more reliable ice.
Little is known about Barker’s life, but the information available suggests he was an eccentric but driven man. Born in Canterbury, he was apparently educated in England and Europe, which seems to be where he discovered ice skating. He returned to New Zealand with the apparent intention of establishing an ice rink.
Mount Harper ice rink is on a flat terrace at the base of Mount Harper/Mahaanui in Hakatere Conservation Park, 56 km from Geraldine.
The rink is managed by DOC though the O Tu Wharekai Wetland Project.
How much fun would that have been. I remember the days the Maniototo used to freeze over and you could skate on it. With these recent cold spells maybe sometime again.