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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 3 (July 1, 1929)

Down The Buller — The Odyssey of Brunner the Explorer

page 17

Down The Buller
The Odyssey of Brunner the Explorer

By a coincidence, this article was written and set in type just before the great earthquake of 17th June, which damaged a section of the famous highway in the Buller Gorge and affected Murchison and other places in the Nelson and West Coast districts. The road here described is blocked at present, but repairs have already been begun, and the restoration of the areas is a task in which Government and settlers are joining hands. The splendid spirit of the West Coast pioneers is exhibited again in the courage and resolution with which the people along the Buller have attacked the problems of reconstruction of their homes. As for the route, it will be a highway of greater scenic and historic interest than ever when communications are restored.

Some day, when the West Coasters get all their hearts' desire, the traveller will speed smoothly down the grand valley of the Buller River in a luxurious railway carriage, and glancing up now and again from his detective novel will remark on the beauty of the bush and the fern-tapestried cliffs, and before he realises it he will find himself out on the levels at Westport or that other coalopolis of the land of many minerals, Greymouth.

For the present he must be content to make the journey from the South Nelson railhead to the western mountains by motor car; and an excellent service it is that links up the two ends of the iron rails.

A few years ago he would have had to travel by the mail coach, which took exactly twice the time that the motor does. But even the horse-coach was lightning-speed travel by comparison with the journeyings of one whose pioneer tramps through this tremendously broken region will be recalled in this article.

I never can travel through such country without mentally contrasting the conditions to-day with those which confronted the old-timers, the surveyors, explorers, bush scouts, the men who carried everything on their backs, who kept themselves in food as they went along if the country offered any, who starved for days, camped when there was plenty, who almost daily risked their lives by river, cliff and mountain. Their pains were many, their rewards few. Here and there their names are on the maps, but to most travellers, these days, they are but names. Few know just why those places were named Rochfort, Mackay, Brunner, Fox, and so on. The most strenuous pathfinder of all was Thomas Brunner, who explored the Buller from end to end just over eighty years ago.

The Old Horse Coach.

First come with us some way down the Buller from the point where the north road strikes its wooded, rocky banks. One's memory goes back to the old coach days, when we used to board the five-in-hand at Corlett's Inn, six miles from Motupiko. A good hundred miles of coaching is before us, two days' run over mountain and down glen and along cliffy river-bank to Westport.

It is a glorious day, up on the box seat, as we swing along in this exhilarating mountain atmosphere. We cross up from the Motupiko watershed to the Hope Saddle (2,000 feet), and from there have a glimpse of the distant sea, the mountains round the Sounds, and the blue wooded ranges in the rear of Nelson. Wave after wave of green mountains to the south melts into purple haze, and the distant glimmer of the snowfields on the Spenser Ranges, where Mt. Franklin's frosty peak rises to a height considerably over 7,000 feet. Descending from the sharp backbone of the land, we curve and zigzag down the gullies into the Hope Valley, where we strike the head of the Buller, fresh from its mountain lake. A lovely, cool, forest-shaded creek is the Hope, singing over its rocky channel. The mountain country is clothed in beech woods, the trees silver-barked and thin of foliage.

At the meeting of the waters, where the Hope hands over to the Buller, we begin our page 18 course seaward in close company with the powerful river; it is our constant company for eighty-five miles. Precipitous mountains now rise on each hand. From rocky water-side to cloudy peak the ranges are densely timbered. The gleaming waters roll onwards into the narrow defile and vanish beyond a far-ahead spur of purple gloom. Our road is cunningly carved from the mountainside, the rocky river banks on the one side and the climbing forests of the range on the other.

Every road crook opens up a scene of fresh enchantment. The sun by this time is well down to the westward; we drive along under the cool shadows of the hills, and through the loneliest of forests. This mountain-beech country harbours little life; not one note of a bird falls on the ear. The sole living thing is an occasional dark-brown weka (the “Maori hen”), wandering down the white road, and sometimes coolly tarrying in the middle of the way, with its impudent little eyes fixed on us until the leaders are nearly on top of it and then scuttling away in a comical hurry into the fern to which its plumage is so near akin in hue. Sometimes the river roars down in a brawling rapid, then it lies smooth and gloomy in silent black pools.

“Deep in the glen, the merry waters racing…”—A. G. Wilson. The junction of the Owen and Buller Rivers, South Island.

“Deep in the glen, the merry waters racing…”—A. G. Wilson.
The junction of the Owen and Buller Rivers, South Island.

The river-bank configuration is curious; the floods have guttered the rocks into all sorts of strange shapes—rounded isolated bosses, stratified parapets, caves, overhanging rock-freaks. Away up on the mountain tops the golden light of late afternoon paints the feathering trees in fiery radiance; then, all suddenly, the sun drops down over the ranges and the forest changes to a dark blue wall. The first morepork's melancholy call comes from the bush and tells us it is full time for kaikai—and just then our Yuba Bill swings round into a little open flat, ringed by the mountains, and draws up all jingling and rattling at the door of the Long-ford Hotel, an old-fashioned two-storeyed building, half-way to Westport. (You will look for it in vain to-day; the old inn has vanished long ago.)

That was the first day's run on the coach journey of the pre-motor days. The route is the same, the road is improved, the speed is double and more what it was.

On the second day we were roused at an hour which would bring many a grumble to-day. We were off again at seven o'clock a.m., and it was seven o'clock at night before we climbed down off the box seat at Westport, stiff and incredibly hungry.

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But the charm and wonder of the road made up for it all—that soul-quickening run down the lower Buller—sixty miles of it, through the sheer canyon in places, past gold-dredges working the river, through that lost and forgotten-looking old digging township of Lyell; through small farming settlements here and there; Fern Flat, Tois Flat, and other little oases, a bush schoolhouse, an orchard or two, again the forest, silent and gloomy.

Bush Pictures.

Down steep sidings, around sharp rock-hewn corners, swingletrees jingling and the ten pair of ironshod hoofs striking flashes from the stony way; the Buller, brown and headstrong, tearing along over the rocks below.

“… On each side Of rock-hewn road, the fern trees cluster green.” (Govt. Publicity Photo.) The cliff road at Hawk's Craig, in the Buller Gorge, West Coast, South Island.

… On each side Of rock-hewn road, the fern trees cluster green.”
(Govt. Publicity Photo.)
The cliff road at Hawk's Craig, in the Buller Gorge, West Coast, South Island.

The sombre beech forest gives place to more attractive and varied timber. The drooping, dull-golden tasselled rimu; tall kahikatea, straight as a gun-barrel, grow thickly on the lower levels and the little flats. The dainty white flowers of the houhere (the lacebark, ribbon-wood or “thousand-jacket”) peep out from the tangled green; sprays of koromiko blossoms, some white, some a delicate pink, festoon the rocky walls and lean down over us so close that they can be plucked from our seats. Tufted bunches of the bright sword-leaved kiekie climb the trees, and silvery-grey and brilliant red mosses and lichens, kept ever damp and cool by the oozing water trickles, coat the rocks.

The Narrow Way.

In the lower gorge the vertical cliff-faces have no shrub or fern; but all around the fragrant bush climbs in high unbroken green. The mountains send densely timbered buttresses sheer to the yellow-brown river, and along the straight left bank our road is carved, chambered, trenched, tunnelled. The railway, when it comes, will, I suppose, take the other bank, the right, which mercifully is less steep than the way our road has been scooped.

And at last the hills step back, and with relief after the long defile of bush and cliff we tumble out and fall to on a square meal in Westport, where our coal comes from.

Well, that is a sketchy outline of the Buller way to-day. Now, jump back into the past, eighty odd years, and discover our pioneer pathfinder, scout of the trackless woods, trudging the Buller country, gun on shoulder, fifty pound swag on back, not for a brief excursion but turning his steps away from the last outpost of civilisation for many a month.

page 20

The Explorer's Long Adventure: Eighty Weeks in the Wilds.

It was in the early part of December, 1846, that Thomas Brunner left Nelson, with a party of four Maoris—two men and their wives—to explore the Buller River downward to the coast and to seek a pass across the Southern Alps to the eastern plains.

It was the middle of June, 1848, before he saw civilisation again. For eighty weeks he was in the vast forest wilderness of the West Coast, enduring privations which seem almost incredible to-day, living exactly as the Maoris lived, scouring the bush, the rivers, the coast, for wild foods—for the small supply he and his companions carried on their backs was soon exhausted. The hardships, the dangers, the frequent narrow escapes from drowning, the sickness caused by the hard fare of the forest, the eternal rain, the snow-storms, make the story of the long journey a wonderful record of dogged endurance, of suffering and of determination to carry on in spite of all obstacles. The Buller was explored, so were many other parts of the Coast, and the famous coal seam on the Grey River was discovered. When the story of Brunner's great feat was published, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him the medal for exploration. His material rewards were very small. Performances of far less moment, journeys done under quite luxurious circumstances by travellers of to-day, make a great deal more noise in the world and win much profit and limelight glory. It was different in Brunner's day.

“… the gleam—The shadow—and the peace supreme!”—Wordsworth. (Govt. Publicity Photo.) A charming glimpse of the Buller River, South Island.

“… the gleam—The shadow—and the peace supreme!”—Wordsworth.
(Govt. Publicity Photo.)
A charming glimpse of the Buller River, South Island.

But the memory of his heroic endeavour remains as a splendid chapter in our national story. The name of Brunner has high mana on the maps. The Brunnerton coal region, on the Grey, and Lake Brunner, which we skirt on the Otira railway route, preserve his name.

Brunner and His Maoris.

Mr. Brunner was a member of the official surveying staff in the New Zealand Company's Nelson settlement, and he had already made journeys into the interior and to the West Coast with Charles Heaphy (afterwards Major Heaphy, V.C.) and Mr. Fox (Sir William Fox of political fame later on). With Heaphy he had reached Arahura, near Hokitika; the Coast beyond that and the interior towards the Southern Alps was a terra incognita.

page 21

It is curious to read of the extremely simple and economical preparations made by Brunner for his long journey southward. The total outfit for himself and his four Maoris cost only £33 9s. 4d. The only provisions taken from Nelson were 10lbs. of flour, a few biscuits, and a little tea, sugar, salt and pepper. Most of the expenditure was for spare clothing and two shot-guns and a supply of ammunition. The members of the party, of course, had to be their own packhorses, and when they had finished what they carried in their swags they must live on the foods of the wilderness.

By way of Lakes Rotoiti—where they took leave of Fraser, a shepherd who accompanied them that far—and Rotoroa, the five adventurers set off down the valley of the Buller head-stream. They spent a week at Rotoroa gathering and preparing fern-root for food, before they started off for the Matakitaki.

Now their troubles began. It was terrific rough going, down that narrow gorge, along the sides of the trackless mountains with the flooded torrent roaring below. Brunner recorded that his load, when he began the hard struggle through the upper gorge, consisted of his gun, 7lbs. of shot, some powder, 8lbs. of tobacco, two tomahawks, two pairs of boots, five shirts, four pairs of trousers, a rug and blanket, and at least 30lbs. of fern-root. With such loads he and his Maoris could travel but slowly through that tangled, dripping, cliffside forest. They could travel only about two miles a day at the most, and sometimes only half a mile. Two months out, the last handful of flour was used. There was very little to sustain life in those black-beech forests; and at last they had to be content with one meal a day of their fern-root from Rotoroa. An occasional eel was caught in the river.

“The river knows the way to the sea: Without a pilot it runs and falls …”—Emerson. (Govt. Publicity Photo.) Looking up the Buller River.

“The river knows the way to the sea:
Without a pilot it runs and falls …”—Emerson.

(Govt. Publicity Photo.)
Looking up the Buller River.

Starvation Land.

They struggled on, those hard-travelling five, the women carrying as much as the men. For weeks they followed the great winding river. At last they reached the Coast, six months out from Nelson, after countless adventures and all but starved. They had to kill and eat Brunner's dog. They expected to find Maoris on the Coast, but the settlement was deserted, and all they could get to eat there was seaweed from the rocks.

Later on, when they travelled by slow stages down to the Mawhera—the Grey River—and on to Taramakau and Arahura, where there were some Maoris, they fared better.

(To be continued.)