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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 12 (March 2, 1936)

The Ascent ofThe Mount Cook Tourist Co. — The Pioneer Work of R. L. Wigley

page 15

The Ascent ofThe Mount Cook Tourist Co.
The Pioneer Work of R. L. Wigley.

Mr. R. L. Wigley.

Mr. R. L. Wigley.

“The Mount Cook Tourist Company of New Zealand Limited,” is a sonorous and splendid title. It has a ring and an impressiveness which can be easily explained, for its main concern is with the greatest mountain giant of these Southern Seas and the valleys of wonder that lie about him.

In this short sketch, I want to tell of the early days of this big organisation which to-day presents such an imposing spectacle with its intricate network of routes, tourist hostels, de luxe motor services, efficient systems of “land cruises,” array of winter sports and Alpine pleasure grounds. It offers as a commonplace statement that one can leave bustling Wellington one evening and dine in the other-world sweetness of Queenstown the next evening. The magnitude of many of our business undertakings is always a source of wonder to overseas observers who know that the Dominion is not yet a century old, and that our population is less than that of many a single city of the Old World. I instanced some months ago, the U.S.S. Company in the forefront of these, and I make the claim now that the practical achievement of this pioneer tourist company should be a source of pride to our countrymen. Its enterprise should be regarded with gratitude by those who believe that the realm of beauty which is our possession should be seen by the world's sightseers. The Mount Cook Company has been, since the beginning of things, rendering magnificent service in the fight to get recognition for New Zealand ownership of endless treasures of varied loveliness.

Its early difficulties were colossal, and their overcoming has involved strenuous and gallant effort from the beginning of the century. It will take the later retrospective view of history to give to this company adequate recognition for its work in placing our country on the map of the world's leading tourist resorts. I will detail, necessarily briefly, just a few of the stern trials, the heart-breaking obstacles, which its founders had to face. As is always the case when an offensive of this magnitude reaches its objective, a commander has to be discovered,
(Photo., E. D. Burt, Wellington) Mt. Cook (12,349 ft.) from Red Lake, South Island, New Zealand.

(Photo., E. D. Burt, Wellington)
Mt. Cook (12,349 ft.) from Red Lake, South Island, New Zealand.

and, in this case, the leader was Rodolph Lysaght Wigley, who, now and again in these pages, as the legal documents say, will be “herein after described and referred to as ‘R.L.’”

I will pause here to say again that no new country was ever so blessed as ours in the standard of character, culture, and high enterprise possessed by our forebears. Moreover, no province had a finer array of early great men than Canterbury. Among its pioneers, none was held in more esteem than the Hon. H. T. Wigley, nephew-in-law of Sefton Moorehouse and Member of the Legislative Council for over twenty years. I like to think that in R.L. he left the “worthy son of a worthy sire.”

The young man's life could have lain in easy places. In 1898 he was in the First Fifteen at Christ's College, the school whose traditions mostly led to the professional career or the spacious and easy going life, particularly in those days, of the pastoralist. But R.L. was a being of another sort. He had a mechanical turn, for one thing, and his first carburettor is page 16
The old Hermitage at Mt. Cook.

The old Hermitage at Mt. Cook.

on record, made of two-inch piping filled with staples, and a needle valve. He envisaged the possibilities of mechanical traction and he founded the firm of Wigley and Thornley, who undertook the motor transport of the wool clips of the Mackenzie Country from woolshed to wharf. The canny members of the county councils of those days, whose worry was road maintenance, found this innovation full of startling dangers. The story of the incessant, indecisive, and stern legal fighting would fill a fascinating “Famous Cases” volume, littered with the corpses of slain by-laws. Many and ingenious were the stratagems employed, and I have room for only one story. Mr. Richards, one of R.L.'s first lieutenants, had opened a Queenstown office for the company and was running excursions from the town. Those were the days of two drivers for each motor car, so that one could alight and lead the oncoming horse vehicle past the new mechanical fiend. The Lake County had a by-law which shut off an integral two miles of the trip, compelling a long detour, and it forbade the passage of this little bit “by any vehicle propelled by its own power.” The district laughed and the by-law died when Mr. Richards engaged a horseowner to meet the car at the entrance to the prescribed strip. The car engine was shut off, and the car and passengers solemnly towed to the other end.

R.L. fought the good fight for the establishment of modern transport with varying fortune, but I suspect that all the time his eyes were turning to Mount Cook. The mountain climbers of those days were fit men long before they reached the foot of the “Sky Piercer.” It was an arduous three days’ journey from Christchurch before they could essay the great adventure. I would like to say here, too, that R. L. Wigley's interest in the mighty peak is not merely that of a commercial entrepreneur. It was a real thrill for South Canterbury when the news flashed through on 12th August, 1923, that he, with guides Milne and Murrell, had made the first (and only) winter ascent of Mount Cook. It was characteristic of the man that his friend and partner, Mr. Charles Elms, all unknowing of the enterprise, heard the news at the Grand National Meeting.

So was evolved the first motor service to the Hermitage.
The Hermitage, Mt. Cook, as it is to-day. (Rly. Publicity Photo.)

The Hermitage, Mt. Cook, as it is to-day.
(Rly. Publicity Photo.)

“The Beetle” was the first mail car. We show it in its pristine state, and, as later, improved. In case it would seem that “The Beetle” solved the mail transport problem, we show R.L. on horseback in the “Great Snow” of 1908, “seeing it through.” Burke's Pass was four feet under snow from end to end and here it was that Charles Carney made his famous dash on skis from Tekapo to Fairlie to bring medical aid and life to a woman who had gashed her wrist and was bleeding to death out of reach of ordinary help.

Those were the days when motoring was a task for heroes. Even when the epoch making Stepney wheel arrived, the high pressure tyres used to burst while changing. However, the Canterbury bred courage of R. L. Wigley knew no faltering. Slowly and steadily, as our illustrations show, the standard of the cars improved. What an event it was when the canvas roofs were fixed, for even in those days, complexions were not proof against the southern sun. Mr. Elms who met the cars with his coaches slowly reduced his trip as the road was made and the bridges built, and the time came when the cars drew up at the old Hermitage shown in our picture. This latter building was abandoned when the glacier broke through, and the new Hermitage came into being. The site was the inspiration of genius. Nowhere in the world of Alpine scenery is there any view so lavish of

(continued on page 49).