The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 4 (July 1, 1938.)
The Golden West
To most people the words “West Coast” suggest a wild and wooded region somewhat difficult of access, with a people of boundless hospitality and considerable unconven- tionality. This is the picture which the words suggested forty years ago, and, because tradition dies hard, there are many people who still do not realise that the wildness, the isolation, and “easy- goingness” of the early days no longer exist.
Those who know the West Coast must often have marvelled at the patience and persistency, the foresight and fortitude of the early explorers and surveyors, and the engineers and builders who followed them. We can scarcely imagine the formidable task with which they were confronted. The magnificent Southern Alps slope rapidly to the sea, so that what is defined as the West Coast is a narrow strip of land between the majestic mountains and the Tasman Sea, a strip of seldom even a score of miles wide. Innumerable streams tumble down the mountain sides, rush down the valleys, roaring on the brief and stony journey to the boundless ocean only a few miles away. The mountain slopes and a great part of the stretches of flat land between the rivers were, in the early days, covered with almost impenetrable bush, closely matted with thick undergrowth. Early travellers, who made their way from Nelson, had therefore to wend their way along the beaches or the few Maori tracks, and, when they wished to go inland, they followed the river beaches towards the range of noble mountains.
Captain Cook wrote of this land in 1770—“An inhospitable shore, unworthy of observation, except for its ridge of naked and barren rocks covered with snow. As far as the eye could reach the prospect was wild, craggy, and desolate.”
Had Capt. Cook landed he would certainly have modified his statement, though he would never have visualised the district as likely to become a centre of activity, where wealth immeasurable was to be taken from the very bowels of the earth, and from the river-beds, and where the fertile surface would feed large herds of sheep and cattle.
The earliest surveyors, Messrs. Brun-ner and Heaphy, reported the country as unfavourable for settlement, and said that the rivers were unfit for even the small coasting vessels to enter. They journeyed from Nelson by way of the sea-coast, as far as the Arahura, and at Teremakau found the few survivors of a once powerful Maori tribe, busily engaged in working at greenstone, either sawing, grinding or polishing.
Mr. Brunner, with two Maoris, later explored the sources of the Buller and followed it down to the sea. He travelled along the coast to the Grey River. He passed up the Grey River, discovering the seam of coal at what is now the township of Brunnerton. He continued his journey up the river, crossed the watershed to the Inangahua River and followed that to its junction with the Buller River, along the upper reaches of which he travelled towards Nelson.
The explorer whose name should live longest, however, is James Mackay, for he it was who purchased the West Coast from the Maoris, on behalf of the New Zealand Government.
James Mackay (after whom Mackay Street in Greymouth is called) came as a boy of fourteen to Nelson. He learned to speak Maori fluently, was friendly towards the Maoris and understood them, so that, while quite a young man, he was often called on by the Government to settle Native disputes with the Europeans at the gold diggings, near Collingwood and, in turbulent times, n the Waikato. When he was about twenty-four Mackay began to explore in the mountainous country near the headwaters of the Karamea and, two years later, went down the coast from Karamea to the Buller or Kawatiri River. The bars at the mouths of West Coast rivers, as is commonly known, are not always navigable, but on this occasion, the weather being fine, Mackay was able to sound the bar and to pronounce it navigable for coasting vessels. He continued along the coast to the Mawhera or Grey River, up which he went in a canoe with a Maori guide, as fas as Ahaura (20 miles).
Mackay's guide was a chief, Tarapuhi. (Tarapuhi Street in Greymouth is named after him). Together they explored the sources of the Grey River and then returned to its mouth. Mackay took soundings of the bar, finding that it, too, would permit coasting vessels to enter the river mouth. He was, of course, able to give much valuable information about the economic possibilities of the district; he took back to Nelson samples of coal from the seam discovered about a dozen years earlier by Brunner, and he was able to report on the splendid stretches of flat land, on either side of the Upper Grey, which would be suitable for pasture lands.
After this journey, young Mackaypage 36 page 37
was appointed Assistant Native Secretary, and his official duties kept him busy in other districts for some time. Yet Mackay was to see much more of “the Coast,” as its inhabitants affectionately call it.
The Maoris had refused to part with the West Coast lands, except under one condition—this was that all the land between the Grey and Hokitika Rivers, from the sources to the sea, should be reserved for the Maoris. This district contained the famous greenstone area of the Teremakau and Arahura Rivers, a district which had been the scene of many and many a raid when Maoris from the present Nelson and Canterbury districts, came to demand or steal some of the much-prized greenstone.
Sir George Grey was most anxious to complete the purchase of the West Coast lands, but, as the Maoris wanted this large tract halfway down the Coast, Sir George realised that the buying of the Coast was likely to prove extremely difficult, and to require prolonged negotiations.
Young Mackay had negotiated the purchase of the East Coast lands from the natives at Kaikoura. He was now commissioned to negotiate the purchase of the western country from Cape Farewell to Milford Haven. His party proceeded from Christchurch over the Alps into the Teremakau, which he followed to the sea, proceeding a few miles north to the settlement of Maoris at Mawhera, the site of the town of Greymouth.
The Mawhera Maoris, under their chief, Werita Tainui, were obdurate. They were willing, for the amount of £200, to sell the district, except that portion between the Grey and Hokitika Rivers. Negotiations failed, for Mackay felt that it was much too extensive a reserve. As quickly as he could, he made the then really arduous journey to Auckland to report to the Governor. Col. Gore Browne, who instructed him to return with an offer of 10,000 acres of reserve, and £300 or £400.
Thus, in February, 1860, Mackay returned to the Coast with £400. His journey was made overland from Nelson, to the source of the Grey or Mawhera River, which he followed to the Mawhera Settlement, a tiny pah, for at this time, as a result of war raids innumerable, there were scarcely more than a hundred natives on the Coast, other very small settlements being near Okarito and in the heart of the greenstone region, and some still further south. The journey was an arduous one. For seven weeks, Mackay tramped on, forced at times to live on weka and fern root, and arrived at Mawhera, footsore and almost in a state of collapse.
A Government schooner, loaded with Government supplies, arrived at almost the same time and the welcome change of food, with rest and care, soon restored Mackay.
A meeting of Maoris was called for, to be held at Okarito (which still bears that name), 139 miles further south.
Mackay, Mackley (his friend—the first to introduce sheep to the Coast), and a surveyor named Burnett, were accompanied by the Mawhera Maoris, led by old Werita Tainui, and as they passed the tiny settlements other Maoris joined in the procession.
Mackay explained that the Governor felt that the reserve asked for was too large for so few Maoris, and made an offer of £300 cash, with a number of small reserves. The offer, after much discussion, was accepted.
The next task for Mackay was to fix reserves which would satisfy the Maori people before the deeds of sale were drawn up.
A further march was made to Bruce Bay, which was to be held as a reserve. Then, still proceeding south by sea coast, or Maori track, they went to Jackson's Bay, where another reserve was to be allowed.
Now began the long tramp back to Mawhera, a few smaller reserves being made further north of Okarito. At Mawhera, on the present site of Grey-mouth, the deed was signed, each of the Maori chieftains giving “his mark,” and Mackley and Burnett, the surveyor, acting as witnesses, as well as some Collingwood Maoris, who had acted as guides to Mackay. Thus, about 7 1/2 million acres came into the possession of the Government for about £300 cash.
Little did Mackay realise as he tramped his often weary and hungry way, of the untold wealth that lay beneath his aching feet, and of the “yellow, glittering, precious gold.” Prob-
(Continued on page44.)