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Settlers and Pioneers

16 — Westland Past and Present

page 114

Westland Past and Present

The telephone, then the radio, and now the aeroplane successively conquered space and time; they have brisked up the whole West Coast. When first I travelled that way through to Otago, in 1906, nearly a week's journey by horse from the end of the wheel road, the South Westlanders seemed as strange to the world as a sailingship's crew at the end of a long voyage; and a traveller's arrival south of the Haast was something of an event. That isolation was accountable in part, I suppose, for the warm hospitality extended to visitors. It was isolation, indeed, in that land without bridges or shipping port; the only access by horse, the only goods traffic by packhorse, except for the small steamer to the Bruce Bay and Okura open roadsteads two or three times a year. The inhabitants perforce were healthy; there was no doctor within a hundred and fifty miles of the Haast. Now a sick person can be flown to the Hokitika Hospital in a few hours. Men hurt in bush accidents have been page 115carried for days by relays of their mates and the settlers along the way, over ranges and through forests by the rough and bridgeless roads, until they reached the first wheel road where they could be taken on by wagon or coach. As for the women, they tended each other; it was the survival of the fittest in the south country.

The bush regions of South Westland are becoming more settled, there are large sawmills far down the coast, and gold prospecting has received a stimulus from the ease with which such places as the Arawata and other isolated valleys can be reached. In the homes of the pioneer gold-diggers and cattle farmers and their families children grew to adult years without having seen a town or a shop or a railway train or even the mail coach. Hokitika was as remote as London to them; the only world they knew was that strip of wild bush country between the Alps and the surf. There were greybeards there who had not travelled fifty miles from their homes since they landed on the coast in the middle sixties. Those ancients of the treasure countries are not yet extinct. It is a land for long life.

Noting the wealth of this land of many resources, following upon the golden age of the sixties, it is curious indeed to remark that all this vast West Coast from the Nelson boundary down to Milford Sound was acquired by the Government for £300. page 116The area was estimated at seven and a half million acres. The Government agent who bought it was that great frontiersman and pathfinder James Mackay, whom we knew in the Waikato long afterwards in his mission of strengthening the border defences and restoring inter-racial peace.

Down the Coast he assembled the Maoris at the various far-scattered villages, with great care and patience, and the payment was made at the Mawhera (Greymouth). The Ngai-Tahu people, from whom the great purchase was made, numbered a hundred and ten. That was in 1860. So passed to the State a vast territory which in a few years was to produce enormous treasure in gold and attract tens of thousands of eager diggers from all parts of the world. The Maoris were content, because liberal reserves were made for them.