The Exploration of New Zealand
Chapter VI — Nelson and the West Coast
Nelson and the West Coast
Nelson like Wellington, had a colony thrust upon it. The New Zealand Company, having been refused permission to occupy Canterbury, looked about for suitable land on the shores of Cook Strait. Good country was said to exist on the shores of Blind or Tasman Bay, so, in October 1841, the ships Whitby, Will Watch, and Arrow were anchored in the Astrolabe Roads to the north-west of the present Nelson. Land had to be found immediately and Captain Wakefield, the Company's agent, was inclined to be easily satisfied. With Frederick Tuckett, the chief surveyor, he examined the country west of the Moutere river and decided that the town should be at Kai-teri-teri. Tuckett, who was more cool-headed, thought that there was not enough good land and wished to explore Massacre Bay (now Golden Bay), where European visitors had already discovered coal.
But Captain Wakefield had other ideas. He sent Tuckett and William Budge to explore the Moutere page 64river and this led to their going across country to discover the Waimea plain. Tuckett, being cautious, thought that only a paltry 6,000 acres were worth. occupying. However, two other exploring parties came back with better reports. Charles Heaphy and a man named Brown had gone up the Motueka river and had followed the Riwaka river. According to Heaphy, there were 600,000 acres awaiting settlement. Wakefield was even more convinced that Kai-teri-teri should be surveyed.
Before much work had been done, Nelson harbour was discovered by Messrs Moore, Cross, and Brown. In spite of Tuckett's pleadings for further exploration, Captain Wakefield accepted the district as the site for the new settlement. The survey began immediately and for some months everyone was satisfied. The Nelson Examiner thought that the harbour was superior to those of Genoa and Marseilles and 'not equalled by the ports of Charleston and Baltimore.' The surveyors gave glowing reports of the Waimea plains but it is significant that in March 1842 Tuckett went west round the coast to Massacre Bay and overland from there to West Wanganui. That pessimist wanted more land. By November 1842 when there was no doubt about a shortage, Captain Wakefield sent S. J. Cotterell, Mr Cullen, Richard Paynter, and an old French whaler to explore some fine plains said to exist near the Kaikouras. The public interest was naturally very great, 'so much page 65respecting the locality of a great portion of the rural sections depending on his report,' as the Examiner expressed it.
Cotterell went up the east branch of the Wai-iti river, over a pass into the Wairau valley, and so down to the sea. He followed the coast past the White Bluffs to the Awatere river and beyond it on to a beautiful undulating plain. Going south of Lake Grassmere, he crossed the ridges inland from Cape Campbell and followed the coast to the Clarence river. It could not be crossed so he returned to the Wairau and thence went by whale-boat to Nelson. His report pleased the Company's agents, for Wairau was 'particularly rich land' and approachable from Nelson. They saw in this attractive country a home for the impatient settlers who were clamouring for country sections. The future seemed more hopeful now that Cotterell had tested the vague tales of the Maoris and the whalers.
But he had not reached the Kaikouras and found that plain which the French whaling captain had described to Daniell and Duppa in 1841. Therefore he went up the Motueka river to Tophouse and looked down the Wairau valley. Instead of going south-east to the imaginary plain, he went southwest and discovered Lake Rotoiti in January 1843. Seeing no sign of any route to the deserted plain, he climbed a peak to the south-east of the lake. It was page 66very high—snow and high pinnacles surrounding him on every side—but he still saw no plain.
The Wairau, however, was some satisfaction. Private parties added their efforts to those of the Company's explorers, and endeavoured to find a route which would bring it within easy reach of Nelson. They were not very successful, but the land-hungry Company, in spite of native protests, began to survey the plains. The result was the Wairau massacre and the despatch of an expedition to find fertile plains in the uninhabited south-west.
After exploring the course of the Motueka from its mouth in August 1843, Thomas Brunner of the survey staff arrived in Nelson with 'intelligence from the natives of an immense plain in the interior, boundless to the eye, where there were birds larger than geese which killed their dogs, and to which the former inhabitants had escaped from the attack of Raupero' (Te Rauparaha). He was sent back with the promise that, if discovered, the plain should be named after him. Bad weather hampered him and he returned without success. Doubt as to the existence of the plain was now entertained. Heaphy, however, believed that both Cotterell and Brunner had fallen into the error of keeping too much of a southerly course, thus leaving the great extent of country to the south-west unexplored. Accompanied by J. W. Spooner and four men, he set out in November to explore the country to the west of Lake Rotoiti. page 67They reached the lake on 15 November and set off down the Buller river. The following day they met J. C. Boys and two other men who had been sent by Tuckett to explore in the same direction. They had come through the bush by compass from the Motueka. Joining company the two parties went through the gorge which they called the 'Devil's Grip', saw no flat country to the west, and returned to Nelson.
At the same time land hunger seems to have removed any fear of re-entering the Wairau. Two parties went overland to Pelorus Sound and in January 1844 Messrs Bishop, Drake, and Watts with a local native went to Pelorus Sound, up the Kaituna river, and so to the Wairau. This improved the route but it did not increase the area of available land. The only hope was the apparently impassable country to the west.
In some ways it had been a pleasant journey. There had been in the party 'a good plain cook, a first rate tailor, two glee singers and a dispensing physician.' 'E Kehu had been a first rate bushman. Not only had he a wonderful sense of direction but he was also a good shot… a capital manager of a canoe, a sure snarer of wild fowl, and a superb fellow at a ford…. He is worth his weight in tobacco.'
Yet Brunner and Heaphy were not satisfied. They wanted to see the mouth of the Buller river and the adjoining country which the natives thought was comparable with that of Taranaki. The only European who had been there was Toms, a sealer, who had just obtained 150 skins near the Three Steeples and seen fine land and a large river (the Buller). He also said that he had seen footprints on the sand and some writing directing a person to follow the writer to Cape Farewell. This Robinson Crusoe story showed that there was a route along the coast. Hitherto Europeans had thought that the West Coast was reached either by crossing the passes on the mountains or by going round in a ship. Heaphy and Brunner promptly made inquiries and found that the natives of the greenstone country had page 70been known to go up the coast as far as West Wanganui.
Consequently Brunner and Heaphy dropped the idea of following the Bullcr to its mouth. In March 1846 with E Kehu they went past Golden Bay and overland to West Wanganui where they obtained the services of a slave belonging to the local chief. Their packs were reduced to about 60 lb. Even so they were a burden and the cause of much worry when the route lay over steep sea bluffs and necessitated climbing with both hands and feet. Food was not plentiful and they lived on mutton fish (paua shellfish), sea urchins, and sea anemones. The last named were most recherche and were eaten with one's eyes shut. Eventually they reached the Buller river and went south to the Grey. Tins was the most difficult section which they had to cover. The bluffs were so steep that they had to use the rotten flax ropes of old war parties. However, on 19 May they were at the Grey and eating potatoes, whitebait, and dogfish.
Still not satisfied with their work, they went on to the Taramakau river. Here the greenstone industry was still flourishing. The inmates of each house were preparing weapons, tools, and ornaments, and the presence of European axes and pots was proof of a regular trade across the Alps to Canterbury. In fact some of the younger men had been over to Canterbury the previous summer. The route was up the page 71Grey river, thence to a lake (Brunner), and over the hills to the upper Taramakau, which could then be followed to a pass clear of snow in summer. The cattle station of the Deans in Canterbury was then only two to three days away. The explorers, naturally enough, wished to cross, but no native was willing to go up the rivers then flooded by winter rains.
So they returned to Nelson by the way they had come. It was heavy going—each with 60 lb of potatoes and 12 lb of dried whitebait. When that supply was consumed it was shellfish, palm tree stems, and an occasional woodhen, described by Heaphy as the 'queen of wildfowl… tender as chicken, gamey as pheasant, gelatinous as rooster.' Even fish long cast up on the beach were unanimously declared fresh.
Nelson was reached in August and a report was prepared by Heaphy. It is full of interesting information about the route to Port Cooper, the greenstone industry, the visits of sealers, the wrecks along the beach, and the massacre of the survivors. The coastline was accurately recorded, for Heaphy was a surveyor, and when the Acheron charted the coast of New Zealand much of his map was used.
Even then Brunner was not satisfied. In December 1846 he left again for the coast with E Kehu, Epiki-wati, and their respective wives. The newspapers of the time said he was going to look for a route to Port Cooper from Lake Rotoroa. If he failed to page 72find one he was going to follow the Buller river to the coast and come back over the Alps to Port Cooper. From there he might explore the east coast rivers, even the Molyneux. He might take five months; he might be back next spring. He was going to live on the country and it was thought that the expedition was as difficult as any that could well be conceived.
He began by looking for the route south of Rotoroa and, failing to find any, went down the Buller to the sea. For three days they were without food and Brunner had to eat his favourite dog, which in better country would have been an invaluable hunter of birds. For this desperate act the Maoris named him Kai Kuri (dog-eater). Even when he reached the mouth of the Buller he had to worry about food. A sealing party had visited the place and the potato gardens were empty. However, he reached the Grey and the Taramakau and waited for the natives to finish work in their gardens. Then he was taken south to the Arahura, to the Hokitika, and to the Wanganui. It was October 1847 by then and he could use flax sandals, walk barefoot, and live on fern roots. He went on to Okarito and had a surfeit of eels. To-day the view from here is unsurpassed in New Zealand and Brunner thought so too. The rata gave a touch of flaming red to the dark bush and above it were the great peaks of the Alps, rose-red page 73in the morning sun, glistening white at mid-day, red again at sunset, cold and hard at night.
He still went on, crossing the Waiho at some risk, and yet not mentioning the Franz Josef glacier which flows down into the bush. Brunner, like Captain Cook, had probably not heard of glaciers. At Tititira Point he twisted his ankle on the boulders of the beach and at last turned back to avoid spending another winter on the coast. Besides he wanted to go up the Taramakau and over to the Deans at Riccarton to whom he carried a letter of introduction. When he did get to the Taramakau, no natives would take him over the mountains.
Thus to return by a new route he had to go up the Grey river in January 1848. He named it after the Governor and found a seam of excellent coal. The party, living mostly on eels and whitebait, went up the Mawhera-iti to an easy pass leading into the Inangahua. From the watershed he climbed a peak of the Victoria range and thought he saw in the distance the Canterbury plains. This was impossible and fortunately for him the hungry Maoris refused to return that way. They preferred the Inangahua which led them to the Buller and to food. But even there game was scarce. The weather was bad and Brunner, constantly wet, lost the use of one side of his body. E Kehu and his wife were most loyal but the other couple left and went ahead eating up the game. Brunner was in agony most of the way, and to fill page 74his cup of sorrow, his sketches, specimens, and curios were burnt. At last on 15 June 1848 he reached the sheep station in the Motueka which he had left 560 days before. In all that time he had not heard one word of English save 'the broken gibberish of E Kehu and the echo of my own voice.'
Thus ended the greatest piece of exploration in the history of New Zealand. Brunner had explored a great part of Westland, found coal, and traced the course of the Grey river. The cost was £33 9s 4d. He did not think that further exploration would be worth the expense, and did not encourage anyone to complete the unknown section between Tititara Point and Milford Sound. The Royal Geographical Society gave him a small monetary award and the Nelson provincial council eventually made him its chief surveyor. But his health had been broken by his privations and he died at a comparatively early age.