The Exploration of New Zealand
Chapter XVI — The Southern Alps and the Tourist Routes
The Southern Alps and the Tourist Routes
With the decline of gold-mining and the failure to found settlements at Martin's Bay and Jackson's Bay, there was no desire to complete the exploration of south Westland. However, in 1875 two geologists, S. H. Cox and A. McKay, who were sent to study the structure of the country west of Mount Cook, thought of going up the Fox glacier to the Main Divide to see if Mount Cook could be ascended from the West Coast! Cox afterwards explained that they dropped the idea as soon as they saw the peak from Gillespie's beach. But they did cut steps up the Fox glacier and ascend the range between it and the Balfour glacier. From the crest they had an excellent view and Cox was afterwards able to give the first description of the vast snowfields which feed the Fox and the Franz Josef glaciers. More important still, he suggested that Mount Cook must be a separate peak to the east of the Divide.
After 1878 the West Coast Survey worked according to the system of triangulation instituted by J. T. page 174Thomson, and by 1887 the only unmapped areas between Hokitika and Martin's Bay were the mountainous districts behind the fringe of almost impenetrable bush. Only a most experienced bushman could explore them and G. J. Roberts found such a man in the person of C. E. Douglas. He was a descendant, on his mother's side, of Sir William Fettes of Edinburgh; his father was an accountant and a 'successful and diligent amateur painter'; his brother was Sir William Fettes Douglas, one of Scotland's great painters. After being educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh* he was first a bank clerk and then a gold-miner in Otago and Westland. Life must have had little to offer this cultured but rather introspective Scot until he met Roberts in 1878 and was shown how to use a compass and surveyor's chain. His inherited facility with pencil and brush was developed to quite a high standard, and it is surprising how many specimens of his work are scattered throughout New Zealand. He was first employed by the Department in 1879 and as the years went on he became the main figure in the exploration of the coast. In the Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives he became 'Mr Explorer Douglas' and the author of some delightful reports, quite out of keeping with the usual run of parliamentary papers.
* The classical side was very strong, as Boswell once made Dr Johnson admit. Hence it may be true that Douglas read Homer in the original and used classical place names whenever possible.
One of his most important journeys was undertaken in 1885 when he went with Mueller, the chief surveyor, to explore the Arawata river, visited by Hector in 1862 and by Andy Williamson in 1863. Thus they named one branch of the river the Williamson and its source the Andy glacier. Douglas sketched this glacier which flowed into a lake (now nonexistent) and broke into miniature icebergs. The other tributary, the Waipara, they traced to the Bonar glacier which drains the west slopes of Mount Aspiring. To complete the survey, they climbed Mount Ionia by using a rope and cutting steps. It was not difficult but Mueller thought that no mortal would ever ascend its neighbour Eros.* Later in the year Douglas went up the Okuru river seeking passes into Otago. He found four, 'utterly useless for road or railway' and suitable only for 'an Alpine Explorer or other Lunatic'
* In 1935 a party landed by aeroplane on the Arawata flats, ascended Eros but failed to climb Ionia from another angle.
Later in the year he was more cynical and said that he was seeking a pass or bridle track which 'would enable West Coasters to plunder tourists.' Actually New Zealand was developing its tourist centres and finding that the topography of the South Island prevented easy movement from one to another. Therefore men in the south explored the possible routes between the sounds and the Otago lakes, and the West Coast Survey looked for passes across the Main Divide. There was particular need for a route from Mount Cook to the West Coast and in 1892 Douglas was sent 'to discover a pass available for mule traffic to the Hermitage.' The nearest West Coast valley was that of the Copland river and he went to its head with Betsy, his dog, and H. Cuttance, a bushman. They saw Baker's saddle but it led to a spot above the icefalls of the Hooker glacier. Douglas told the Department that they could have a road only if it went 'over a sloping ice field swept by avalanches or under the glacier by a tunnel.' Between the saddle and Mount Sefton there was another gap (Copland pass) in the Divide, but it was snow covered and unsuitable for a mule track. The rest of the report was typical of Douglas; it had sketches, geological diagrams, and comments on the bird life and vegetation of the valley: 'The bell bird sang its chorus in a style only now to be heard south page 178of Jackson's Bay; while the blue ducks were as tame as of yore.'
When the other valleys were explored, Douglas was assisted by A. P. Harper who had been one of the enterprising amateurs climbing in the Mount Cook region. In 1893 the Franz Josef glacier was partially explored and each man produced an excellent report. Harper dealt with the scenery and glacial action, Douglas with geology, botany, and bird life. According to Douglas, Mrs Kiwi now said, 'What's the use of my laying that awful egg which Nature has given me, if the stoat sucks it; yes, actually sucks it while we are sitting on it. No, I'll be stuffed or roasted first.' The following season, 1894–5, they visited the very secluded Balfour glacier and Harper went from the Fox glacier to the Franz Josef glacier and attempted to reach its head, the Graham saddle. He failed owing to the 'eight hour day' principles of a man he had persuaded to go with him.
But this work was not leading to the discovery of tourist routes to the east coast, so they decided to explore the Karangarua and go over the hills to the Landsborough from where Brodrick pass led to the Huxley river and Lake Ohau. They started, but Douglas, broken by his past exertions, returned, and Harper went to the Landsborough and down to the Haast with a Maori porter. They returned by much the same route and reported that a route to Lake Ohau was feasible but too long for tourists. The page 179Department decided that Harper should re-explore the Copland for a pass not necessarily free from ice. But before he started, E. A. FitzGerald and Mattias Zurbriggen arrived from the Hermitage. They had climbed Mount Sefton and seen below them the gap Douglas had scorned because it would not be suitable for a mule track. It was almost clear of snow so they soon after crossed to the Copland and struggled down the river-bed until they met Harper. He took them from the Fox glacier to the Franz Josef and back to the Hermitage by the Graham saddle.
The New Zealand papers had much to say in favour of FitzGerald's pass, perhaps because he was a visitor and perhaps because it was thought that Douglas had failed. However, FitzGerald was quite modest until he returned to Britain, where he claimed to have made the first crossing of the Southern Alps and to have succeeded where the Survey Department had failed. There was a storm of protest from New Zealand, but many years passed before FitzGerald's friends admitted that a piece of simple mountaineering was not exploration on a grand scale.
Meanwhile the organised exploration of the coast came to an end. Harper left and afterwards wrote his excellent book; 'Mr Explorer Douglas' retired, and the Royal Geographical Society awarded him the Gill Memorial prize. In the Survey report it was written 'His attainments as a botanist and geologist page 180would have placed him in a much better position were it not for his retiring habits. For twenty years he has led the life of an enthusiastic explorer, and is undoubtedly the first bushman on the coast. He has frequently gone for months, without cutting a track or the assistance of a comrade, up the untrodden densely timbered inland valleys of Westland, traversing the rivers and streams, scaling peaks, determining geological features, patiently tracing mineral belts, making sketches of the scenery, and afterwards sending up good plain maps, replete with information of the greatest interest and importance.' He was later employed by the Department to report on minerals, timber, and road lines and to write delightful and accurate monographs on the lakes, rivers, and passes of the coast. If they are ever published, students can decide whether Douglas or Brunner was the greatest explorer in New Zealand history.