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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 4 (August 1, 1929)

The Roaring Buller — Thomas Brunner's Great Exploring Expedition

page 34

The Roaring Buller
Thomas Brunner's Great Exploring Expedition


The Return Journey

Leaving the Grey River again at the beginning of March, 1848—during the whole of 1847 not a white man was seen—Thomas Brunner and his companions, Piki and Kehu and their wives, tramped through the bush to the Buller again, and struck the great river somewhere below where Murchison is to-day. Sometimes the party had a square meal; sometimes all hands were on starvation rations.

A Great Explorer. Thomas Brunner.

A Great Explorer.
Thomas Brunner.

They cooked the roots of the ti (cabbage-tree) and enjoyed the sweetness thereof; ti is New Zealand's sugar-tree. They made nets of ti leaves and caught the upokororo and grayling in the streams; they got eels, too; they shot and snared birds—the weka, paradise duck, dabchicks, even sparrow-hawks—all went into the pot. Then in the mountain-beech country they had to tighten their belts. On the South bank of the Buller Brunner tried “a new species of fruit”—the berries of the mako tree. They were palatable enough, he wrote, if you were careful about it, “so that your teeth will only slightly crush the berry without breaking the seed, which has a most nauseous bitter taste.”

“The beastly drip of the bush” got on the explorer's nerves sometimes—no wonder, after a solid year of the West Coast. Rivers were a nightmare; they used to ford some of the rapid streams by “sparring” them, an art which the gold-diggers found necessary along the coast twenty years later—all hands holding a pole horizontally and pressing against it up-stream as they crossed. Other rivers they had to swim, or cross by making rafts.

The Nightmare Country.

“Very bad walking,” wrote Brunner of that return journey up the Buller, where our splendid smooth highway runs today. “The immense, gigantic rocks that belt the river rendered it impossible for us to keep to the bank, and the mountains were too high to ascend, so our day's walking was one continual ascending the spurs and decending the water courses, which only brought us on a short distance by nightfall.” No better picture of the untamed Buller Valley could have been given than this brief but sufficient scrap of topographical description.

In Shivering Camp.

“Hail, snow an’ ice that praise the Lord: I've met them at their work, An’ wished we had anither route or they anither kirk.”

So wrote Mr. Kipling in “McAndrews’ Hymn.” Mr. Brunner and his party of ragged-kilted Maoris could have said something like that, but with more emphasis, about their Bad Lands journey in the wet and cold. Brunner, indeed, in his diary entries written painfully in shivering camps has left us vivid vignettes of fearful days and nights. Here are notes covering three days in April of 1848; scene somewhere on the Upper Buller:

“Rain continuing to pour down. About midday a stream came rolling down the cliffs above us, destroying the shelter on which we had been working all the morning to render our situation comfortable. The fresh also increased so fast that the natives declared we must find means page 35 to ascend the cliff or we should all be carried away by the flood, which prevented us from going either backward or forward. So we made a sort of ladder and managed to clamber up about twenty feet to another ledge, to which we drew up enough of our old shed to erect a break against the wind, but against the rain we had no shelter; and we were just able to keep the kits containing our food dry during the night and nothing more.”

“… down the valley runs a river
Of pearly water.”—J. S. Robertson.

(Government Publicity Photo.) A view of the Buller River, West Coast, South Island.

(Government Publicity Photo.)
A view of the Buller River, West Coast, South Island.

(Next day)—“Rain and thunder continuing. This was truly a wretched day to spend on a cliff in a black birch (beech) forest. The rain poured down in torrents and loosened the stones of which the hill is formed, and these rolled by us and plunged into the river with a fearful noise. The wind tore up the trees on every side, and the crash which ensued caused a simultaneous shudder by all hands.”

(The next day)—“An increase in the gale; and the fresh in the river exceeding all bounds, having reached forty feet perpendicular. God only knows when we shall be able to proceed; for to ascend is impossible, and we can move nowhere until the fresh subsides.”

However, they pushed along, Brunner limping with a stick, for he felt very ill. One day's diary entry: “It was with great difficulty I could move at all to-day, but want of provisions compelled me. Found two fern trees and made an oven.” The reference is to an item of food, the pith of the fern tree, which is just eatable, but no more. It helped to maintain life. At Matakitaki the party got a little fern-root again.

The Sick and Weary Explorer.

Diary entry, in a miserable bush shelter at the Matakitaki:

“May 15th, 1848.—Heavy fall of snow. Kehu collecting ti roots. The river much swollen. I was seized with violent vomiting, which lasted all day and night, and my side gave me much pain. I attributed it to the badness of the living and exposure to the cold weather.”

A few days later: “Camped on the banks of the Tiraumea. Rain… . We proceeded to our shelter of last year, an overhanging rock, which protected us from the rain, and there dried our clothes. A small basket of mine, which was hanging to the roof of our rock, fell down on page 36 the fire during the night, and was burnt, by which I lost all my sketches, several skins of birds, some curiosities, two letters which I carried for the Messrs. Deans, in case I had crossed over to the East coast, and some memorandums.”

Some days later Brunner and his Maoris reached the shore of Lake Rotoiti, and found their canoe safe. They came to the river Puhawini, named the Howard, and camped, in fearful weather—snow, rain and a fresh in the river. Civilisation now was near; they went on and saw some sheep on the Rotoiti hills.

“… each spot is rich with endless joys
Of leaf and fern.”

(Government Publicity Photo.) A pretty scene in the Buller Gorge.

(Government Publicity Photo.)
A pretty scene in the Buller Gorge.

A Pakeha Voice Again.

When the weary little party reached the junction of the Motupiko and Mapou rivers they caught twenty-five wekas. It was a glad camp that night, a square meal for all hands once more.

Sore-footed, scratched and scarred, and shaggy as an Antarctic explorer, Brunner stumbled into a white man's hut at ten o'clock the next night. It was the shepherd Fraser. He wrote in his diary: “It is a period of nearly 560 days since I wished Fraser good-bye on the bank of the Rotoiti River to my seeing him at his house this evening. I have never during this time heard a word of English since, but the broken gibberish of Kehu and the echo of my own voice and I rather feel astonished to find I can both understand and speak English as well as ever, for, during many wet days, I had never spoken a word of my own language, nor conversed even in Maori, of which I was well tired.”

Brunner expressed himself satisfied of one thing; he had shown that it was possible to live in the bush entirely independent of any food, but that which the country provided. (But it was mighty hard living.) He also had proved it possible for a white man to go without boots for a long period. He had travelled long distances barefooted, or with flax or ti leaf sandals for the rougher places.

The Goat and the Blackberry Bush.

In a note at the end of his journal and report, Mr. Brunner expressed the opinion that the introduction of goats would be a benefit to the Maoris along the West Coast. His remark was in a way prophetic, for are not goats recommended for Westland to-day? Not indeed for the natives, who are very few in the land—it is difficult to find them—but to deal with that notorious blackberry bush, which, as all truthful page 37 Coasters will tell you, is just one patch, only, unfortunately, it is two hundred miles long!

James Mackay's Explorations.

In 1860 a great deal of arduous exploration work was done by James Mackay, of Nelson, afterwards a high officer of the Native Department, for many years in the North Island. We saw much of him in Auckland in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties. His summary of his adventures, written at my request, is a little Iliad of endeavour and endurance to one who can read between the lines and fill in the local colour of weather stress and hard travelling and semi-starvation. After recounting his explorations between 1855 and 1860, he described as follows his work between the Buller sources and the Grey River:—

“In 1860 I travelled from Nelson to the Grey by way of the Upper Buller, Devil's Grip, Tiraumea, Matakitaki, Maruia, and Grey River, to what is now Greymouth. I had Alexander Mackay and Frank Flowers (one of my sheep station hands) and three Maoris. We ran out of food by the time we reached Maruia Plains, and my cousin and Flowers returned to Nelson.

“Where feathery ferns and moss have been
From long-forgotten centuries.”

Typical fern clusters in the Buller Gorge.

Typical fern clusters in the Buller Gorge.

I and the three Maoris kept on; we were forty-eight hours once with only one woodhen to eat between the four of us. We blazed the present line of coach road through the bush from the Upper Buller to the Grey River. On my return to Nelson the Provincial Government gave me £150 for this service. I purchased the seven and a half million acres of Westland for £300, and 14,500 acres of Native reserves.”

John Rochfort's Swag.

Another doughty explorer down the Buller seventy years ago was John Rochfort. In after years he made the pioneer surveys of the present Main Trunk railway route in the North Island. Rochfort, unlike the Mackays and his colleague, Charles Wilson Hursthouse, in the North, was not a big man physically. His feats of endurance and strength, however, were often the source of surprise to his fellow-bushmen. Mr. W. Aitchison, who was one of Rochfort's party on some of his exploring journeys, said of him that his ordinary swag was never less than 75lbs. weight. With this pikau up he had been known to tramp and climb six miles without a spell. A 50lbs. swag, he used to say, only served to “steady a man.”