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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Note 17.—West Coast Pass

Note 17.—West Coast Pass.

We learn from evidence taken in a Native-land claim decided a few years ago that this route was not unknown to the Maoris, and that in at least one of the war expeditions undertaken by northern tribes against their southern neighbours it was followed. The circumstances, as detailed, are these: During the early days of the third decade of this century a chief named Te Pueko, brother of Te Kaeaea, formerly well known in Port Nicholson by the name of Taringa-kuri (Dog-ear), with a party of about forty Natives, sailed through Cook Strait and down the West Coast. Leaving their canoes on the banks of the Awarua (Haast River), they followed a mountainous pass leading to Lake Oanaka (Wanaka), and, falling by surprise on a few families living there, killed them. Amongst the prisoners taken was a boy, son of the chief person of the place, named Te Raki. The latter, along with his two wives, was absent on the banks of the Hawea. To secure them, and at the same time prevent intelligence of their proceedings reaching the rest of the tribe, two of the war-party were sent in search of the chief, the boy being made to act as guide. The young mountaineer, being fleet of foot, and well acquainted with the passes and defiles of the mountains, succeeded in landing his escort in a ravine from which they had great difficulty in extricating themselves. Meantime the lad made good his escape, and, traversing the intervening mountains with the fleetness of a deer, reached his father in time to alarm him of the approaching danger. Te Raki, being a powerful as well as a resolute man, took his measures accordingly. He waylaid his would-be captors, and pouncing suddenly upon them from a neighbouring height, struck them dead on the spot. Having accomplished that feat he fled, with his wives and the boy, further in amongst the fastness of the mountains. The remainder of the war-party, assisted by the prisoners they had reserved as slaves, built for themselves a mokihi, by which they descended the river Matau (Clutha) till they reached the sea. At a point far below the lakes they met with falls or rapids, which could not be navigated with safety. Landing, they took their mokihi to pieces and carried it piecemeal down to the lower reach, where they again reconstructed it and proceeded on their journey to the sea. Arriving at Molyneux Bay they went inland to Mataura River, where they surprised another Native tribe. Some of the latter made their escape, and conveyed intelligence of the affair to Awarua (Bluff Harbour). From thence it was conveyed to Ruapuke, the stronghold of the southern tribes. A few days afterwards several boats set out, headed by Tuhawaki, the well-known Bloody Jack of South Island adventure, and he in his turn surprised and killed Te Pueko and many of his followers, making slaves of the remainder. Te Raki and his family are known to have lived at Hawea as late as the year 1840, and to have been in the habit of receiving friendly visits from the Waitaki tribes up to that date.

These details were related in evidence many years after their occurrence, and must have passed from hand to hand; and yet it is curious to note how authentic they are down to the minutest detail. Thirty years afterwards the Clutha River was surveyed, for the purpose of ascertaining how far it could be made navigable. From the report of that survey we gather that the only obstacle to the navigation is a shoot of rapids situated on a bar between the mouth of a tributary stream named Tuapeka and a puntage or crossing named the Beaumont. We have here evidence of the care with which the Maori was in the habit of promulgating information at all likely to be useful in the future, and the tenacity with which that information was preserved. Indeed, it has been asserted by some of the very best Maori minds in New Zealand that their traditions are just as reliable as many of our own historical records.

On this, as on many similar occasions, the Maori appears to have engineered his way with consummate skill. Since the event related, some of the best engineer-page 119ing ability has been engaged exploring the district in search of a through railway route to the West Coast. In 1881 the route followed by the Maoris was pronounced the only possible one, and in effect it remains so considered to the present day. A more recent survey suggested a route further south, its superior attractions being that it is seventeen miles shorter than the other. That, however, does not affect the question in its relation to the Maori. What is named in the Maori account Awarua River is now known as the Haast. The short route, as we may call it, starts from a point much further south than the Haast, and does not run within miles of the river, until it gets to the upper reaches in the immediate vicinity of Haast Pass. The difference, therefore, between the mouth of the Haast and the south-western terminus of this route, would certainly make up for the difference between it and the other route. Moreover, the Haast is a large river navigable for canoes, so that for Maori purposes this route, even although it was longer, must have been preferable. In whatever light we look at it, we are bound to admit that, as a fossicker and explorer, the Maori, long before he could possibly have profited by European intercourse, was a man not to be despised. Indeed, it is well known that we are indebted to his sagacity for some of the best traffic-routes, both here and in other parts of the colony.

It will not detract from the credit due to the Maori to add, his was the route followed by Lord Onslow, on the occasion of his recent tour from the west to the east coasts. His Excellency left Hokitika 5th January, 1892, and reached the mouth of the Haast by easy stages on the 13th. Striking inland he followed the north bank until reaching Big Bluff. From thence he journeyed along the south bank, following the Maori track, now known as Clark's route, until he reached the vicinity of Clark's Bluff at the junction of the Clark River. There he camped for the night. Pursuing the route which, beyond this trends in a southerly direction, a few miles brings the track to the vicinity of Burke River, which it crosses at a point named Pool Gorge. From thence it describes a horse-shoe bend, until it reaches the Pass, through the country between the head of the Haast and the Makarora Rivers. The course from thence to the Wanaka, which crosses the last-named river about halfway, follows a direction almost due south. A steamer being in readiness at the head of the lake conveyed His Excellency to Pembroke, where he arrived the evening of the second day from the West Coast.

The tourist-traveller, at all disposed to set at defiance the ordinary rules of the road and take his chance of a few days' experience of gipsy-life, could not find a better opportunity than this route. The Haast Pass cuts through the dividing range at a height of 1,847ft., and is surrounded by mountain peaks and ridges rising to the summit-level of 4,000ft. and 5,000ft. From thence, proceeding westward, the traveller follows the upper waters of the Haast until he reaches a tributary stream named Willis River, in the vicinity of which huts suitable for camping have been constructed. From thence he will follow the course of the Burke River to its crossing at Pool Gorge. This is described as a most remarkable stream. It passes through what is named the Grand Cañon, which we are informed rivals many of the famous cañons to be found in the Rocky Mountains of America. The river itself, in a distance of one-and-a-half miles, has a fall of 400ft., and throughout the whole length runs between walls of rock 200ft. to 300ft. high. These are not perpendicular, but absolutely undercut by the wear and tear of ages. The width of the river is nowhere at the bottom less than 50ft., whereas at the top there are several places where a 10ft. or 12ft. bridge would span the dreadful chasm. A look downwards makes one shudder, for the depth is so great that nothing but a glimmer of the tumbling and boiling waters below can be seen. It is described as one of Nature's grandest works, the like of which is not to be met with anywhere in New Zealand. By a mile or two's further divergence from the Haast track, and by keeping along the above-mentioned short track, the traveller reaches Mueller's Pass, which crosses the range at an elevation of 1,820ft. Here, to the west, and about half-a-mile from the top of Mount Victor, there is a most imposing mountain gateway. The range is cleft in two, down to a level of about 300ft. or 400ft. above the pass. The width at the bottom of the cleft is about two page 120chains. The walls on both sides consist of solid rock rising to a height of 1,500ft., with an inclination very little removed from the perpendicular, for the distance of the rock-walls from each other at that height seems to be only five or six chains. From thence the Mount Victor face continues to be steep, to the very top of that mount (6,319ft. high), whereas on the other side of the gateway the slope towards the top of Mount Macedon is gentler. One traveller amidst these regions describes his experience: "At the junction of Strachan's Creek with the Burke, we found ourselves completely blocked. It is a large creek, tumbling down in a succession of cataracts and waterfalls between perpendicular rock-walls from 100ft. to 150ft. high. As the span from bank to bank was too great, and there was not the slightest chance of effecting a crossing by means of dropping a tree over the creek, we travelled up its southern side to an altitude of 1,830ft. before we were able to descend into the creek-bed; and then, with the help of a few saplings, which we managed to rest on big rocks lying in the centre of the streams, we effected a crossing. However, our troubles were not over, for another branch of the same creek, equally rock-bound, drove us up to the grass-line, where, at an altitude of 3,600ft., we camped for the night. But even in the open, we found next morning, we could not cross the creek, and we had to follow it up to the very top of the spur, 4,450ft. high." Returning to the main track, the traveller will meet with another cluster of huts a few miles from the Burke crossing, at which he can put up for the night, probably quite satisfied with his day's exertions. From thence he will make the mouth of the Haast, and journey over a well-frequented road to Hokitika and the West Coast districts, each of which has an interest and experience all its own.

These wild bewildering scenes recall to mind some of the more thrilling narratives in Old-World history. We hear in shrill cadence the pibroch sounding, sounding, and footsteps bounding, bounding, to the march of the Cameron men. Dry details in the pages of historical fact become enlivened with a romance in real life, and the Lays of the Last Minstrel are no longer a remnant of the past but an adjunct of the present.

The dark hours of night and of slumber are past,
And morn on our mountains is beaming at last;
Glenaladal's peaks are illumed with the rays,
And the streams of Glenfinnan leap bright in the blaze.

Ye sons of the strong, when that dawning shall break,
Need the harp of the aged remind you to Wake?
That dawn never beamed on your forefather's eye
But it roused each high chieftain to vanquish or die.

O, sprung from the kings who in Islay kept state,
Proud chiefs of Clanranald, Glengarry, and Sleat!
Combine with three streams from one mountain of snow,
And, resistless in union, rush down on the foe.

To the brand of each chieftain, like Fin's in his ire.
May the blood through his veins flow like currents of fire.
Burst the base foreign yoke as your sires did of yore,
Or die like your sires, and endure it no more.

In the sequence of events the mind's eye beholds Glenfinnan on the memorable 19th of August, 1745, when the standard of the royal Stuart was unfurled amidst pomp and circumstances the most exciting and by far the most romantic in the history of the British Throne. The heir of that ill-fated dynasty landed in the kingdom of his fathers an exile and proscribed man, and yet for the nonce his fortunes seemed to rise superior to the evil genius of his unhappy lot, and which eventually ended in the total extinction of this long line of kings and princes. From thence we follow the current of events over the wild and dangerous traverses of the Corry Arrack until we find the young adventurer, to the consternation and dismay of the Hanoverian Scot, in undisputed possession of the ancient capital of the kingdom. Amidst the wild western mountains of New Zealand we have the sequestered Glenfinnan and the formidable Corry Arrack reproduced in all their native grandeur; and at a distance corresponding with that in the fatherland we have New Edinburgh represented in this Britain of the South. Here, however, the analogy ceases, the observation ends. There is nothing in colo-page 121nial life at all conformable with the gathering of the clans or the sally of the Highland host, by whom these stirring events were so ably sustained. Adventurers we have—both young adventurers and old adventurers—but by no stretch of imagination can they be invested with the romance of Bonnie Prince Charlie. No doubt this, the nineteenth, century will be able to tell a tale in history, but it will be a tale of wonder rather than one of excitement—it will be the story of a subdued wilderness rather than the reminiscence of a conquered race; the triumphs of engineering skill and scientific research, but not the victory of arms and subjugation of nations. How under these unpromising auspices the romance of the next generation is to be provided for is difficult to imagine. With nothing more palatable than the snortings of the iron horse and the echoes of the fog-horn, poetry and romance will find but indigestible morsels to feed upon.