The Avon River (Ōtākaro)

I can’t begin to fathom how surreal the afternoon/evening of the 16th December 1850 would have been for the Deans brothers. Especially as they may have stood in the doorway of the Deans Cottage while the shrieks and shouts of two stripped down male settlers splashed about in the Avon River – their echoes adding to the chaos in Riccarton that day.

The ‘Charlotte Jane’ and the ‘Randolph’ – the first two ships belonging to The Canterbury Association – docked in Lyttelton that morning and some of the newly arrived settlers were already piling over the Port Hills via the Bridle Path and walking to the only populated area on the plains, Riccarton – the home of the Deans.

Over the next few years as more ships arrived, anywhere from 50 to 100 people would stop at Riccarton daily, needing a feed (up to 4 sheep were killed each day) and a place to spend the night. No one was ever turned away.

The Avon River – named by the Deans Brothers in 1849 – started its life during New Zealand’s last ice age. That would have been around 18,000 to 25,000 years ago. Fed by water that flows under the Canterbury Plains, it is also helped along by winter snow melting off the Southern Alps, rain fall and these days, storm drains. At the length of 26kms, it begins (above ground) in Avonhead (Head of the Avon), flows through Ilam, Riccarton, Fendalton, Hagley Park, the CBD, Avonside, Dallington, Avondale, Aranui and Sumner – flowing out to sea at the Avon Heathcote Estuary.

Named ‘Ōtākaro’ by the Maori – meaning ‘A place of play’ as the children would play on the banks once the gathering of food and other materials was done for the day. Those who chose to live on the boggy river banks were referred to as ‘O Roto Repu’ – meaning swamp dwellers. Most chose not to live on the Ōtākaro, it was strictly for hunting water fowl that made it home or pulling in the native trout, whitebait and eels from its waters. The water springs that bubbled up were believed to have healing powers and were sacred to firstly, the Ngai Mamoe and then the Ngai Tahu.

The Canterbury Association had planned on calling it the ‘Shakespeare’ but the Deans made a special request to name it themselves. They named it the ‘Avon’ after the river that flowed through Ayrshire, their home town back in Scotland.

The following, William Deans wrote home in 1843: “This is certainly by far the best place I have seen in New Zealand and, for squatters like ourselves no place could be better, as there is plenty of level land with good pasture for cattle of all descriptions…there is a wood about 200 acres [Riccarton Bush is now only 13 acres] in extent at the back of our house, and a river of water clearer than crystal (indeed the finest water I ever saw) running close past the front.”

By 1870, a mere 20 years after the arrival of the first four ships, the Avon River was stated to be too polluted to drink from and bath in. Just 20 years!!!!

Pictured here is the nearest I have gotten to the beginning of the Avon – in Archdall Place in Avonhead. A kind lady who was out in her garden took me down to the bottom of her property so I could see this. It was amazing. I do hope to get even closer to the source one day.

*Photo taken by Annette Bulovic*

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