In 1950, Harry Wigley was proposing a low-cost tourist lodge on the family’s Glen Lyon Station at the north-eastern corner of Lake Ohau, to accommodate over-spill from the Hermitage and to provide a number of recreational activities in the valley adjacent to Mount Cook. Local run holders objected fearing disturbance to stock from traffic, shooters and trampers. Then, from the Avoca run on the western shores of Lake Ohau, the Wigleys obtained 10 hectares freehold about halfway up the lake. Wartime restrictions were still in place and permits for new buildings at Ohau could not be obtained. A solution was found in the form of two accommodation wings being disposed of after the completion of the new hydro electric power control dam at Lake Pukaki.
In 1951 Sir Harry Wigley purchased and transported these buildings from Lake Pukaki. Lake Ohau Lodge was opened in time for the summer season with thirty bedrooms, a dining room and lounge with an impressive local stone fire place, which all remain part of the Lodge today. Riding, fishing, tramping and other excursions were available on request and the launch Thelma and dinghies cruised the lake.
In winter, guests were often taken up to Huxley Gorge to skate on a small pond near the homestead however occupancy of the Lodge inevitably dropped off over winter. And so the Wigleys looked above the Lodge to the great snow basin on Mt Sutton over which Harry Wigley had tramped for many years and seen its potential as a ski field - The Wigleys had always taken their skiing seriously. In the 1930’s, brothers AG and HG Wigley both represented New Zealand with considerable success.
The range of mountains behind the Lodge rises to about 2000 metres with a number of cirques that hold a lot of snow in winter. The highest of these, directly above the Lodge was selected for development as a ski area. The development of a steep four-wheel-drive track up to the basin was begun, although it took 4 years to complete during which time keen skiers had to walk up the last part of the mountain to reach the snow field.
In June 1953, five local run holders, all keen skiers, each advanced the Mt Cook Company £100 to install a rope tow in return for free skiing for life. When the Mt Cook Company later sold the ski field business to Geoff Eames, the five run holders were repaid their £100s. Present owner Mike Neilson likes to tell this story, adding that they would be the only investors in a New Zealand snow field he knows of that have ever got their money back! The rope tow was 549 metres long with a vertical lift of 306 metres. Constructed by Bill Hamilton and installed with the help of enthusiastic run holders, the tow was operational for the Ohau Ski Field’s first season in 1953.
Skiing took place on a small scale for several winters. A day hut was built at the bottom of the field in 1955, the road was completed to the ski field in 1956 and in September 1959, the area staged an official opening. To get there, guests were transported in back of Series 1 Landrovers up a road, some people considered only suitable for Mountain Goats, with about 14 'hairpin' bends to negotiate. At busy times a bus or van would ferry skiers the first section up the mountain to Bus Corner where they would be met by one of the three Lodge Landrovers for the second leg.
Ohau was particularly popular with family groups who would return year after year during the August school holidays. All these patrons got to know one another well, adding to the family atmosphere that prevailed at the Lodge. The basin was close enough to the Lodge that many skiers walked part or all of the way back in the evenings, less than an hours tramp. In 1959 the Lodge was sold to Geoff and Joan Eames, although the Mt Cook Company retained and continued to run the snow field. But by 1963, the Company’s Coronet Peak ski field was booming and their minor operation at Ohau was disposed of, also to Geoff Eames Ltd. The Ohau Ski Field was then run as an adjunct to the Lodge, where the Eames family’s hospitality became renowned.
The popularity of both Lodge and Ski Field grew rapidly, encouraging the purchase in 1978 of a T bar which almost doubled the previous vertical length of the ski run from the 263 metres to about 427 metres. Bill Schmitt, a qualified engineer from the U.S. who had been running the Ski Field for about five years, designed the new tow line. Two helicopters poured more than 45 cubic metres of concrete for the foundations of the T bar towers. It was the longest T bar in New Zealand and ran for 1.1km with two changes of direction. These were designed to allow the lift to follow the contours o the slope enabling maximum usage of the slopes and avoiding the lift running across the better skiing areas as the original rope tows had done.
The field’s third access road, “Higgins Highway” (named for the contractors who did the work), had been improved too at a cost of $15,000, enabling private cars as well as the field’s own 4WDs to reach the field. Two car parks had been built giving parking for 120 vehicles. However all the expenditure proved too great a financial burden for a purely family concern and the ski field was sold at the end of 1978. A public company Lake Ohau Skifield Ltd continued the development of the field under the chairmanship of Derek Satterthwaite. They completed the installation of the T bar, installed a platter lift for beginners and a fixed grip intermediate rope tow.
A series of poor seasons added to the burden of debt and in 1985 a new group of businessmen and ski enthusiasts purchased the ski field. The Eames family had sold the Lake Ohau Lodge in 1981, Peter and Carol Rutland and their adult family leased the Lodge. After the departure of the Rutlands, a series of managers then employed by absentee owner Ian Healey of Auckland proved less than ideal. The family atmosphere of the Lodge was lost, and patronage declined radically.
By 1989 regular bus tours no longer visited, and the future of the Lodge once more seemed forlorn and matters concerning the Lodge came to a head. In early 1990, the Ohau Ski Holdings company chairman Mike Neilson arrived from Christchurch with just a toothbrush and the clothes he was wearing in a last ditch effort to rescue the operation. The ski company took over the Lodge and one group once again owned the Lodge and snowfield. Mike and Louise Neilson continue as hosts and proprietors of both, with on going improvements.
Ngāi Tahu association with Lake Ōhau
Ōhau is one of the lakes referred to in the tradition of “Ngā Puna Wai Karikari o Rakaihautu” which tells how the principal lakes of Te Wai Pounamu were dug by the rangatira (chief) Rakaihautu. Rakaihautu was the captain of the canoe, Uruao, which brought the tribe, Waitaha, to New Zealand. Rakaihautu beached his canoe at Whakatū (Nelson). From Whakatū, Rakaihautu divided the new arrivals in two, with his son taking one party to explore the coastline southwards and Rakaihautu taking another southwards by an inland route. On his inland journey southward, Rakaihautu used his famous kō (a tool similar to a spade) to dig the principal lakes of Te Wai Pounamu, including Ōhau.
It is probable that the name “Ōhau” comes from one of the descendants of Rakaihautu, Hau. For Ngāi Tahu, traditions such as this represent the links between the cosmological world of the gods and present generations. These histories reinforce tribal identity and solidarity, and document the events which shaped the environment of Te Wai Pounamu and Ngāi Tahu as an iwi.
Ōhau was traditionally occupied by the descendants of Te Rakitauhope and was the site of several battles between Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Mamoe. Later, it supported Te Maiharoa and his followers in the 1870s when they took occupation of land in the interior in protest against the Crown’s failure to honour the 1848 Canterbury Purchase.
As a result of this history of occupation, there are a number of urupā and wāhi tapu associated with the lake. Urupā are the resting places of Ngāi Tahu tūpuna and, as such, are the focus for whānau traditions. Urupā and wāhi tapu are places holding the memories, traditions, victories and defeats of Ngāi Tahu tūpuna, and are frequently protected by secret locations.
Ōhau was an important mahinga kai, and part of a wider mahinga kai trail that ran from Lake Pūkaki to the coast. The main foods taken in this area were weka, forest and water fowl and freshwater fish such as tuna (eel) and kōkopu.
The tūpuna had considerable knowledge of whakapapa, traditional trails and tauranga waka, places for gathering kai and other taonga, ways in which to use the resources of the lake, the relationship of people with the lake and their dependence on it, and tikanga for the proper and sustainable utilisation of resources.
All of these values remain important to Ngāi Tahu today. The mauri of Ōhau represents the essence that binds the physical and spiritual elements of all things together, generating and upholding all life. All elements of the natural environment possess a life force, and all forms of life are related. Mauri is a critical element of the spiritual relationship of Ngāi Tahu Whānui with the lake.