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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 6 (October 1, 1928)

How Arthur's Pass was Discovered — The Pioneer Explorer of the Otira Alpine Route

page 25

How Arthur's Pass was Discovered
The Pioneer Explorer of the Otira Alpine Route

One of the most interesting and romantic stories of geographical exploration and discovery in New Zealand—the discovery made by Mr. A. Dudley Dobson in the early ‘sixties, of the Arthur's Pass and Otira Gorge route to Westland—is told graphically by Mr. James Cowan in the following article.

“… Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep, Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as they go the unknown ways, Pioneers! O Pioneers!”—Walt Whitman.

Above the blue-threaded valley of the ice-born Waimakariri as our train climbs steadily towards Arthur's Pass, the grey pyramidal mountains, backed by shadowy purple ranges, rise in tremendous regular slants for thousands of feet. Their aged sides are split and gashed and deeply ravined in countless places; those couloirs that seam the wasting sides are debris-loaded, the work of frosting rain and snow. The bare, short-peaked summits stand out in grey, a company of weary old giants, against the brilliant blue. The glacier-made riverbed is a mile wide; the erratic river was only small portions of it, rushing and growling along in several streams through the grey and brown wilderness of shingle and gravel.

One can picture the ancient appearance of this region in the ages of the past when this Waimakariri (the name literally means “winter-born waters”) was one mass of ice, when a vast ice-sheet in fact, extended over a great portion of the South Island. Glacier action is clearly marked everywhere around us—in the incalculable quantities of morainic debris flattened out over the alluvial plains and in the ice-grooved and polished boulders and cliff-sides. But the glaciers have shrunk back into the higher hills, the heart of the dividing range, and rock avalanches and discoloured torrents of gravel and rock-charged waters take their place.


The railway train traveller who speeds in safe comfort through the Waimakariri-Otira country to-day may well give a thought to the pioneers who traversed this alpine land

“Up along the hostile mountains,

Where the hair-poised snow-slide shivers.”

The men who carried their swags and made precarious bivouac among the glaciated peaks, who waded icy rivers and climbed trackless precipices, who blazed the trail through dripping forests, found a way over the great dividing range. On the western side of the Alps hunger and cold and daily risk of death were the lot of the very early explorers, pushing through the black-beech woods, fording snow rivers, living on fern root and eels when their provisions gave out.

The names of Brunner, Heaphy, Mackay, Rochfort, carry with them poignant narratives of privation and achievement. Those plucky pathfinders of the ‘forties and ‘fifties and early ‘sixties were the first who systematically explored the forests and ranges of the West Coast, and the narratives of the adventures and hardships they endured read like a romance in these days.

But it was left for a man of a generation younger than Heaphy and Brunner to make the greatest geographical discovery of all, the transalpine route at the head of the Waimakariri by which the railway and road of to-day traverse the South Island from east to west.

This pathfinder of the early ‘sixties, the discoverer of Arthur's Pass and the Otira Gorge route to Westland, is Mr. Arthur Dudley Dobson, of Christchurch. Barely twenty-two years of age when he distinguished himself by his exploring survey, Mr. Dobson, after sixty-four years of very active professional work, is still practising as a consulting engineer. His career is a lesson to young New Zealanders in enterprise, courage, and assiduous devotion to one's calling, and it is such men as this hearty veteran—the last survivor of the old pioneer band—whose page 26 name and memories deserve national honour in a high degree. They risked their lives in the cause of knowledge and progress. They skirmished far ahead of the early settler and the man of commerce, and they did not regard their explorations in the light of “exploits”; it was all in the day's work.

The narrative of how Arthur's Pass was discovered was given to me by Mr. Dobson a few years ago. It was a plain and simple story, unembellished with thrills or frills; one has to read between the lines and to know something of that formidable country of torrents and ice and snow and mountain crag to bring up a mental picture of the difficulties and hazards of the pioneer pathfinder's job in the days when so much of New Zealand was still an unmapped “no man's land.”

Before the Great Gold Rush.

In the latter part of 1863 Mr. Dobson (by the way, he is a “Pilgrim” of the first Canterbury ships—he arrived as a boy of eight in the “Cressy” in 1850) undertook a contract with the Provincial Government of Canterbury to survey the West Coast from the mouth of the Grey River southward to Abut Head, and inland to the river sources in the Southern Alps. The distance along the coast was seventy-five miles. It was a rough task, full of hardship, but to the enthusiastic, athletic young surveyor it was a congenial job and indeed a grand adventure. He had already gained valuable experience as a cadet and topographer under his father, Canterbury's pioneer surveyor, in the survey of the Alpine regions on the east side of Mt. Cook.

The Young Explorer. (From a Photo in 1864.) Mr. A. D. Dobson in the ‘Sixties.

The Young Explorer.
(From a Photo in 1864.)
Mr. A. D. Dobson in the ‘Sixties.

Arthur Dobson reached the West Coast by sea—it was the only way to get his stores and equipment there. There were adventures and peril in plenty from the very beginning for the little schooner Gipsy, which he had chartered at Nelson to take him and his party and their stores—which included a ton of bacon—to the West Coast. The schooner took five stormy weeks on the voyage, and the passage ended in shipwreck on the Grey Bar. But Dobson got all his stores on shore and presently he was at work on the traverse of the new unpeopled country. This was before the great gold discoveries on the Coast which brought tens of thousands of diggers from all quarters of the world.

After several months work, Dobson returned to Canterbury to report progress to Survey headquarters. He crossed the Alpine Range by the Hurunui Pass, with a party of West Coast Maoris bound for Kaiapoi. The Hurunui was then the only practicable pass in the northern part of the dividing range. It was possible to cross by Browning's Pass from Arahura or Hokitika via Kanieri, but it was too high to be useful as a highway; and the Canterbury authorities foresaw that a road through the mountains would presently be needed to develop that part of the Canterbury Province.

Mr. Cass, the Chief Surveyor in Christchurch—the Cass railway station on the Midland line preserves his name—was pleased with the young surveyor's work. He ask him before he returned to the West Coast to explore the mountain region between Waimakariri and the rivers running into Westland in order to ascertain whether any available passes between east and west existed in that part of the country. This reconnaissance Dobson agreed to make at once.

Up the Waimakariri.

Mr. Dobson set out from Christchurch on 8th March, 1864, with his younger brother Edward. The pair of explorers rode to the upper Waimakariri country, traversing a great lonely land with a few sheep stations at long intervals. Two days on horseback took them to the sheep station of Mr. Goldney, near where the Cass railway station now stands. Next day they rode up the Waimakariri page 27 River bed to where a large snow-fed tributary flowed swiftly into the main river. This tributary Arthur Dobson named the “Bealey.” The two brothers rode up the Bealey as far as they could take their horses, and camped, the first two white men, so far as they knew, who had ever reached that wild spot with the mountains towering all round.

Finding the Pass.

Leaving their horses secured, the brothers followed up the alpine river next day to its source in the mountains. The water ended in a high and rather swampy flat. This proved to be a pass, but that fact was not made clear until the following day. The Dobsons camped on the flat for the night (12th March). Next day they tramped along the saddle and found that the flat ended at an ancient glacial moraine which lay across the valley. Down below this and to the left a strong torrent came dashing down a defile from a high mountain on the south. This lofty peak, a glacier-hung height, Arthur Dobson named “Mt. Rolleston,” after the Hon. William Rolleston. The wild river ran down over huge confused masses of moraine rocks and plunged between high precipices into a defile which became a long narrow valley between the forested ranges. This, as it was afterwards ascertained, was the head of the Otira River, flowing down into the vast woods of Westland to join the Taramakau.

The Discoverer Of Arthur's Pass. (Clifford, Photo, Christchurch.) Mr. A. Dudley Dobson, M.N.Z. Soc. C.E., M.N.Z.I.S.

The Discoverer Of Arthur's Pass.
(Clifford, Photo, Christchurch.)
Mr. A. Dudley Dobson, M.N.Z. Soc. C.E., M.N.Z.I.S.

A Practicable Route.

The surveyor realised that he had discovered a practicable pass. The altitude of the flat, which formed a watershed between east and west, was 3,000ft. above sea level, by barometrical reading. This was the same as the Hurunui Pass, which Dobson had crossed from west to east after his survey work on the Coast. “I saw,” he said, “that it would make a very useful pass. It was clearly quite impassable for horses where we looked down into the Otira, but when money was available to make it, it would be a highway to the Coast. It would require several miles of very extensive work to be done before it was made fit for horse traffic down the Otira, but a road could be carried through the mountains at a much lower cost than by way of the Hurunui Pass.

A Further Exploration.

Heavy rain came on while the brothers were examining the Pass, so they returned to their horses and rode back to Goldney's sheep station at the Cass. Mr. Goldney was very much interested in Arthur Dobson's account of the new pass. “I wonder if there's any open grass country over there,” the sheep grazier said; “I'd like to go and see for myself.”

Dobson thereupon offered to take Goldney over with him, as he was anxious to complete his reconnaissance and see what the west country looked like lower down. Of course all this was new, unknown territory to surveyor and settler alike. There were no maps of that part of the country, and the gap between the Waimakiriri on the eastern side of the range and the Taramakau and Arahura on the west, was a virgin land to the Pakeha.

Down the Wild Gorge.

So, on 15th March, the Dobsons and Goldney rode up the Bealey River bed as far as they could take the horses, and camped. Next day heavy rain kept them in camp. On the 17th they climbed up the pass and crossed to the head of the Otira. There, at the edge of the old moraine, the torrent plunged down about two hundred feet over great rocks into the narrow gorge.

The explorers descended these precipices with much difficulty. In one place they had to make a rough ladder, Maori style, with flax and the kiekie climbing-plant, to get down a vertical cliff face, forty feet high. They had to lower their dog down this precipice with a flax line, and haul him up again getting back. Down in the torrent bed they page 28 waded in many places up to their waists in the icy water as they made their way down the Otira. They went right down the defile to the open river flat—where the Otira railway yards now are—and continued on for some distance towards the Taramakau.

The Great Forest Land.

There was no grass land there for the sheep farmer from tussock land; that was evident. The travellers climbed up a hillside and gazed through the trees over the unknown land, but as far as they could see there was nothing but forest, a succession of bush-covered hills, and not a blade of grass. Satisfied now that this was the coming overland route to Westland, the explorers returned to the pass, fording the torrents and climbing up their flax and kiekie ladder. By 21st March they were once more at the sheep station, where Arthur Dobson parted from Mr. Goldney and rode home to Christchurch.

Back to the Golden Coast.

After reporting his discovery and giving in his data for the information of the Survey Office in Christchurch, Arthur Dobson returned to the West Coast to continue his survey of the district from the Grey River southward. He engaged a party of men, all sailors —they intended to go gold-digging when the survey job was finished—and went up the Hurunui Valley and over the pass at its head. When he reached the Taramakau River he made a further exploration and fixed various positions, and he discovered that the river down which he and Goldney had come from the saddle was the Otira, and that it joined the Taramakau.

Looking Down Otira Gorge.

Looking Down Otira Gorge.

Mt. Rolleston, rising to a height of more than 7,000 feet, was the most conspicuous object in the landscape. He was able to identify it was the landmark peak which the Maoris at the Arahura called Tara-a-Tama, or Te Ra Tama. A splendid sight it was from that placid lake of the woods—Lake Brunner—out of which the Arnold River flows into the Grey.

The Great Highway.

Such was the manner of the discovery of the route by which the rail and road now cross the great Alpine chain—a discovery that quickly proved of enormous value to Canterbury and the West Coast. The 3,000 feet saddle which Mr. Dobson traversed on the Waimakariri-Otira watershed was named Arthur's Pass, after him, and it was not long before the rugged defile down which he clambered, often in the icy water, became a splendid safe highway for wheel traffic.

For more than half a century travellers between east and west traversed the roof of the Island in the well-horsed stage coaches. Important as the route was in the coaching days, it is infinitely more valuable to-day, when passengers by the railway speed smoothly and easily through the heart of the mountains, taking the wonderfully-engineered subterranean short-cut through the tip of the pass, and cover, in seven hours, the journey from coast to coast —a journey that used to take us two long days.

Looking Up Otira Gorge.

Looking Up Otira Gorge.