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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Cruise of the Gipsy — A Pioneer Surveyor on the Golden Coast

page 258

The Cruise of the Gipsy
A Pioneer Surveyor on the Golden Coast

THE first systematic survey of the principal part of the Westland coast, from the Grey River southward, was carried out in 1863–64 by an adventurous and plucky young Canterbury man under conditions of difficulty and danger strange to think of to-day. The narrative of this early-days surveyor, who found the Greenstone Land as wild and rugged a wilderness as it was in Brunner's and Heaphy's day, is quite an Odyssey of toil and peril by sea and shore. Sailoring in a tiny vessel on a stormy coast, shipwreck, trail-breaking through the unknown forest, navigating strong rivers, fording Alpine torrents, bushcraft of all kinds, were incidents in this first official traverse of this new, raw land. Arthur Dudley Dobson, a Christchurch lad not quite twenty-two years old, was the explorer and map-maker of the country that in a few months became the scene of one of the greatest goldfields rushes in history.

In 1863 the West Coast of the South Island was all but unknown to Europeans. The Admiralty charts showed the principal headlands, but nothing inland except the general line of the Alps. It was, however, well known to the Ngai-Tahu Maoris, who had a regular route, albeit a very rough, hard trail, from Kaiapoi, in Canterbury, by way of the Hurunui and Taramakau Rivers to the Arahura. The Provincial Government of Canterbury decided to have a survey made of the whole of their West Coast, and with this in view, tenders were invited for the survey in two page 259 blocks, one from the Grey River to Abut Head, and the other from Abut Head to the Otago boundary. Arthur Dudley Dobson tendered for and obtained the work to survey the Coast from the Grey to Abut Head, a distance of about 75 miles. The coastline was to be traversed, and so were all the rivers as far as possible into the mountains. The mountains and lakes, and all the country between the rivers, were to be be sketched in by intersecting bearings. Mr. Dobson had previously done some rough field work; he had been engaged as topographical surveyor by the Canterbury Geological Department, and had surveyed the lakes which feed the Waitaki River and all the rivers running into them, together with the glaciers and the mountains round Mount Cook. His chief in this exploration work was Julius (afterwards Sir Julius) von Haast, Provincial Geologist. Dobson's father was the Provincial Engineer of Canterbury.

The young surveyor left Christchurch on June 10th, 1863, for Nelson, where he set about getting an outfit and chartering a vessel to take his men, stores and equipment to the Coast. He obtained a fore-and-aft schooner, the Gipsy, of only fifteen tons burden. He bought about a ton of bacon and enough flour and general stores to serve ten men about twelve months. All the small stores were put in drapery cases and filled up with flour; the zinc lining was well soldered down watertight, and the cases extra-heavily hooped, so that they would be perfectly safe from water and rats.

All the goods and the little schooner were ready by August 7th, and on the 8th the Gipsy sailed from Nelson. The ship's company comprised Jack McCann, the page 260 skipper, with three sailors. Dobson had three hands, also two men to whom he gave a passage. These men were to make themselves useful for at least two months if the surveyor could make use of them, then they were going prospecting for gold. Dobson gave them free freight for a large parcel of stores. This made a total of ten men. As the ship was not built for passengers there were only four bunks in the little cabin. The rest of the men bunked down in the hold on rough mattresses on the cargo.

The galley was simply a large tin-lined packing case, with a small stove in it, and a chimney through the top of the case. This was right enough in fair weather, Dobson narrated, but when it blew a gale of wind cooking had to be postponed till fine weather.

On the morning of the 9th of August, when off Separation Point, a strong N.W. wind got up and the Gipsy ran in behind Tonga Island and anchored for shelter. On the 10th they got up anchor and sailed for Farewell Spit, but the nor'-wester was too strong. The schooner had to run before it and sailed across the Bay to Croixelles Harbour, and anchored near the Maori village. A heavy gale with rain now set in and continued until the 13th. The crew gathered pipi shellfish on the beaches.

On the 13th the schooner left the Croixelles with a light S.E. wind, which took her into the Strait, and well towards Cape Farewell. The next four days the wind veered from N.W. to S.W., and on the 18th, driven back by a heavy gale, the vessel ran into Greville Harbour, on the west side of D'Urville Island, for shelter.

“It was far from comfortable for ten men,” Mr. page 261 Dobson said, in describing that long tempestuous voyage. “There was only room for six men to squeeze into the cabin. The hold was the only other place, and with six men in the cabin the air was unpleasantly hot. The north-west gales lasted until the 25th. Meanwhile we thoroughly explored Greville Harbour, caught a number of pigs which we salted down, and loaded the decks with fish.

“On the 25th August we sailed with a fair wind. On the 27th we were off the mouth of the Buller River, where there was a small settlement (now Westport), chiefly storekeepers and others, to supply the few miners who were working gold up the Buller. By the 30th we lay off the entrance to the Grey River, but the sea was far too rough to attempt taking the bar.

“We were now looking to see if we could find any river we could enter south of the Grey: and with that end in view kept near the land whenever the weather permitted. It was very thick, with rain squalls, and a heavy sea. Every now and again it blew very hard; the spray would break all over the ship, and all we could do was to heave-to, lash the tiller, and go below, leaving the little craft to ride it out under a storm-jib and close-reefed mainsail.

“On the 11th September, when we were about a hundred miles south of the Grey, the weather cleared, and we had an excellent view of Mount Cook. Just under the snowfields of great Aorangi lay the head of a glacier, the terminal of which was a quite low elevation, and was in amongst the beech forest at the edge of the level land. I did not name this glacier, as it was not in the block of country comprised in my contract survey, page 262 so left it for the man who was supposed to be about to survey that country. This glacier was afterwards first explored and ascended by the late Sir Julius Von Haast, who named it the Franz Josef, after the Emperor of Austria, the native country of his friend Dr. Hochstetter.

“In gales on that wild coast we didn't know quite where we were sometimes. Rain and mists and clouds hid the mountains from us. I knew our longitude, but for latitude I had to wait until I could get a sight of the sun. I took sights when the weather cleared on the 11th. I used a box sextant I had with me for the survey work. We were right down off Okarito then, and when I found our position we put about and sailed north for the Grey. The skipper was not a navigator; I was the only one on board who could take sights and ascertain the position.

“By the afternoon of next day, September 12—we had made fast sailing with a good fair breeze—we lay off the Grey River bar—five weeks out from Nelson!

“We were now short of water, and we were inexpressibly anxious to get into the river and set foot on land again. With a favourable breeze we stood in for the bar. It was high water, but unfortunately the sea was far rougher than we anticipated, and on getting into the first break of surf, the wind was not strong enough to give us steerage way. The schooner was soon broadside on to a heavy sea, every wave breaking right over us. We were all stripped to our flannels ready for a swim. We were knocked about against the masts and deck as we clung to the running rigging. It seemed a page 263 long time before we touched the shore, which we did after a while. The little vessel was thrown up against the bank of drift timber that fringed the beach all down the coast in those days.

“The bulwarks were torn off, some of the planking beams broken, and the hold was half full of water. The deck was swept bare. We all dropped off the bowsprit on to the drift timber, and found a large party of Maoris with four white men ready to help.

“The Canterbury Provincial Government had a few weeks previously sent a schooner to the Grey and established a relief store, which was placed in the hands of a Mr. Townsend, who had with him a cook and a carpenter. There was also a young man named Sherrin, who had been gold prospecting but who was now looking for a chance to get back to the diggings on the Buller River. (Townsend soon afterwards was drowned on the Grey bar, with two of his men.)

“As it was spring tide and we had come ashore on the top of high water, in a short time the schooner was high and dry. Before dark, with the help of so many hands, we had everything ashore, and well housed under a big tent we had made with the sails. As all my stores had been packed away in drapery cases well soldered up and strongly hooped, the soaking in the hold had done no harm.

“My men were very pleased to get ashore; they were very sick of the long unpleasant voyage. But the first news we had set them thinking, and that was that Mr. Charlton Howitt, surveyor, who had been sent out by the Canterbury Government to open up a foot track on the page 264 old Maori route over the Taramakau saddle had, with two of his men, been drowned in Lake Brunner.”*

So adventurously opened Dobson's surveying expedition to the wild West Coast. Many of the incidents of this really great and difficult task, which occupied twelve months, were narrated in his MS. story given to me in 1926.

After Dobson had retrieved his supplies from the wrecked schooner he found his men were thoroughly disheartened by the perilous voyage, the depressing outlook in the lonely, wild, inhospitable country of the West, and the risks of death by drowning. His reply was to pay them off and give them plenty of stores to carry them over the pass at the head of the Taramakau into the Lake Sumner country in Canterbury, where there were sheep stations. He now decided to work with the Maoris for his survey. He was fortunate in making the Maoris his good friends; fortunate also because there were many canoes on the rivers. The Maoris were skilful canoemen in navigating their swift strong streams. Fred Reed, a half-caste who lived at the Mawhera (where Greymouth town now is) spoke a page 265 little English. He had a Maori Testament, and with help from him Dobson soon had a grip of the language. He did little outside for a month of wild wet weather, and by this time he could speak Maori pretty freely, and understood most of what was said to him. He found the Maoris were willing to do the class of work he required, and from that time (the end of October, 1863) he began systematic work on his contract for the Canterbury Government.

“As I had several hundred pounds' worth of stores at Mawhera,” narrated Mr. Dobson, “I was esteemed a rich man, and the Maoris were quite ready to do business with me. They had canoes at every river, huts in many places, and several whatas (storehouses built on wooden piles, for fear of damage by rats and water). I arranged to rent some of these whatas, and paid the natives to swag stores down the beach to them. I also offered to pay for the use of the canoes when required. In a month's time I found I was in an excellent position. The natives were thoroughly honest, the inhabitants of the little villages along the Coast were always pleased when my party came along, and were always ready to help in any way, knowing they would be well paid in stores or with orders they could cash in Kaiapoi, across in Canterbury. At all the river mouths there were small settlements, with hidden canoes available for those who knew where to find them.

“By the end of December, 1863, I had surveyed the Mawhera to its junction with the Arnold, up that river to Lake Brunner, and southward from there to the Taramakau at about where the railway bridge now crosses. During January I traversed from the Mawhera page 266 southward to Abut Head (73 miles). I established friendly relations with the natives at every river. No time was lost anywhere, and the work went on rapidly. I then started surveying up the Taramakau to the saddle between the Taramakau and the Hurunui. During this trip I had four regular Maori hands. Three were married men, whose wives came with them. The women had the run of the camp stores and tobacco, in return for which they cooked, looked after the camp, and caught birds and eels. We were never short of game and fish so long as they were with us, in the summer time.

“Whilst surveying up the Taramakau I was joined by a number of natives going over the mountains to Kaiapoi. We numbered in all 25 men, women and children. We bought a large canoe capable of carrying nearly two tons up the river to above the junction at the Otira, where we hid it in the bush for our return. I carried the traverse over the Alpine pass into Canterbury about seven miles down the Hurunui. There I parted company with my party; I wished to hurry on to Christchurch. They could not travel fast on account of the women and children, so I pushed on with a white man whom I picked up trying to make his way back to the east from an unsuccessful trip to the Taramakau. The Maoris had served me very well indeed, but they had by now earned what seemed to them a lot of money and they were going to have a good long spell at Kaiapoi, and were in no hurry to return to work.”

The first section of his heavy task successfully accomplished, Mr. Dobson made his way back by horseback in 1864 to complete the bush and coast survey.

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In the meantime he had discovered the Alpine saddle now known in Arthur's Pass. This important exploration was made in March, 1864. Arthur Dobson, with his brother Edward and Mr. Goldney, sheep-farmer, crossed the saddle and descended the wild gorge of the Otira.

When Dobson returned to Westland he had four ex-sailors, including a whaleship's cooper, who was a good carpenter. Presently this handy artisan was at the head of his gang in a novel job of work, hewing out a canoe Maori fashion.

“I had canoes available for crossing all the rivers and creeks along the Coast,” Mr. Dobson narrated, “and for the survey of the Hokitika River I had had a large canoe made for me by one Hakiaka, a renowned canoe-maker at Hokitika. That was before any white men had settled there. I was detained by very wet weather at the Taramakau, so in order to be independent of the natives at that strong, swift river, I selected a large kahikatea log, and, with my new gang, headed by the ship's carpenter, set to work to dig out a waka. In five days we had cut out and finished a fine large canoe, two tons burden. This did excellent service on the river. The canoe, though cut out in one solid piece, was a close imitation of a Maori canoe with fitted topsides. The lines were more flat-bottomed than those of the native waka, and it was not so cranky as the Maori-made canoe in poling up the rivers. Some of the native canoes were so tender that, although you could pole in them when standing up, you would at once capsize if you sat down, unless there was a good deal of ballast aboard.

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“A clipper canoe was made on the Grey when I was there. When it was launched on the river a number of the Maori girls jumped into it, before any ballast was put in, and sat down. It immediately rolled over and capsized them into the river, amidst great laughter. I asked the owner if he had named it, but he said he had not made up his mind. Next time I came I found he had selected as a suitable name, ‘Tahuri Tonu’ (‘Complete Capsize’).”

Mr. Dobson, discussing those old bush days, said he always had plenty of food distributed in little whata storehouses, Maori-fashion, along the Coast too, and so, after a while the party never had to swag their supplies any distance. As to camp comfort in that land of ever-dripping bush and over-much rain, he said: “Throughout the whole of the work, which occupied twelve months, I never once had wet blankets or wet clothes to sleep in. All my sleeping gear was all day long tied up in a waterproof envelope, with matches and a little bit of dry wood for kindling, ready to start a fire when we returned to the camp.

“Gold had been found in the Hohonu, a tributary of the Taramakau. The Maoris and a few white men were working there. The Government had blazed a track over the Hurunui Pass and down the Taramakau, through the bush, wherever the river-bed could not be used, and prospectors were swagging their way through from Canterbury. With my men and horses, swimming the horses behind the canoes where the rivers were too deep to ford, I went down the Coast to the Whataroa River, then worked steadily north, traversing each river up to the mountains. By the end of September, 1864, I page 269 had finished all the work. There was now quite a little canvas-town at Greymouth. I sold my horses, canoes and supplies at a good profit, paid off my men—who were all going gold-digging—and sailed for Nelson in the steamer Nelson, and returned to Christchurch laden only with my field books, my contract carried out.”

(Mr. Dobson was knighted in 1931 in recognition of his pioneering and development work in the Dominion. He died in Christchurch in 1934, at the age of ninety-two years.)

* Later information received by Mr. Dobson regarding Mr. Howitt's death was that Howitt had cut a track to the Taramakau and down that river, and across the open land to Lake Brunner. He made a canoe of white pine (kahikatea) for eel-fishing by spearing; not realising that the new and unseasoned dug-out would sink, he went out eeling one night with two of his men, and was never seen again. The cook, Harnett, having cut his foot with an axe, had been left in camp. When Mr. Howitt and his men did not return next day the cook make a raft of dry kahikatea logs and paddled all round the edge of Lake Brunner, but without finding any trace of his companions. Nothing was ever heard of them.