Finding Pounamu on a Fiordland Walk
28 Jan 2021
Did you know there are reserves of pounamu or greenstone deep in Fiordland? Māori have treasured and traded this beautiful stone for centuries, and ancient pounamu trails once wound through the area. Pounamu was carved into tools and sharp weapons – and still carved today into greenstone jewellery and symbols of cultural identity. You may occasionally stumble across a raw pounamu stone or two on your guided Fiordland walks: read on to find out what you need to know and if you can take it home!
What are the types of pounamu and where are they found?
Pounamu is the Māori name for greenstone or jade, which is found in many parts of the world. In New Zealand it is found in the South Island only (in fact Te Waipounamu, the South Island’s Māori name, means water and greenstone), and most of the stone is nephrite. Nephrite pounamu has a huge range of colours and textures – such as yellow-orange, white-tinted, flecked or cloudy.
Some rivers of the South Island were once flush with nephrite pounamu, the main areas being West Coast, Fiordland, western Southland and the Nelson district. Gold miners would often dig up greenstone when searching for gold. Some rivers are still speckled with pounamu.
In Fiordland, the Hollyford River was historically a huge source of pounamu. Although pounamu is rare to spot there now, you never know your luck when walking this track!
There’s also a special place in Fiordland with pounamu of a completely different type. In the entrance to Milford Sound you can find bowenite pounamu. Bowenite is as clear as glass and its colours range from teal to olive green. The supply in New Zealand is more vibrantly coloured than anywhere else in the world. Bowenite is softer than nephrite, so it is easier to carve into intricate patterns. These properties, and its rarity, make it a precious adornment in Māori culture where it is known as tangiwai.
Are you allowed to take pounamu home if you find it in the wild?
In some circumstances, you can keep pounamu you find.
In accordance with the Treaty of Waitangi, Ngāi Tahu have legal ownership and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of all raw pounamu occurring in its natural state in the Ngāi Tahu tribal area, including the coastline – this means they are the only ones who can extract pounamu for either tribal or commercial use. Ngāi Tahu sells the pounamu to registered pounamu carvers throughout New Zealand.
However, anyone is welcome to fossick on beaches for pieces to take home for themselves – as long as there has been no restrictions placed on that beach by kaitiaki runanga (the local Māori assembly with a guardianship role of the place).
You could try your luck on beaches from Greymouth right down to Milford. A great time to go is just after rivers have flooded: the waters will have dislodged the pounamu and emptied them fresh onto the coasts. The stones will have an outer layer that is a grey or milky colour, although some pounamu stones can be green if they have been worn away by river stones and sand. The rule is to take away only as much as you can physically carry! You can keep it as is, or even get it carved into something special as a gift for someone else or for yourself.
Is there much raw pounamu left?
In New Zealand, yes. Around the world, greenstone/jade supplies are decreasing: China for example has been extracting jade for thousands of years. India too. But in New Zealand, pounamu has not been extracted so long – and what’s more, its extraction is now protected. Ngāi Tahu doesn’t sell raw stone to overseas buyers, and asks all commercial miners that accidentally discover pounamu to authenticate it with them (and Ngāi Tahu will buy it). There is a remote river Mt Aspiring National Park where greenstone boulders weighing tonnes can still be seen. These boulders were once precious sources of pounamu for Ngāi Tahu and now they make up a preserved archaeological area, with the boulders recorded by local runanga. Entry to the area is by permit only, and DOC staff and geologists visit the area regularly.
Can you buy pounamu jewellery for yourself?
There’s a lot of legend surrounding this precious stone, including the belief that it is tapu or bad luck to buy pounamu for yourself, and that someone must gift it to you instead. This legend speaks to the fact that the act of greenstone carving is sacred, and the greenstone artefacts themselves become heirlooms and hold a lot of mana. However, some carvers (eg. Taonga by Timoti and Mountain Jade) have researched this legend and conclude that although pounamu makes a lovely gift, there is no reason that we cannot buy it for ourselves. Either way, if unsure, you could get the opinion of kaumatua at your local marae.
We hope you enjoy your time here in our outdoor wonderland of Fiordland – a place of natural beauty and a repository of one of New Zealand’s most beautiful natural treasures: pounamu. Get in touch if you’d like to try your luck on one of our Fiordland walks!