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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (September 1, 1933)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 6 — Three West Coast Explorers: — Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy, James Mackay

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 6
Three West Coast Explorers:
Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy, James Mackay.

History was made in our North Island by the long wars between the Maoris and the British and Colonial forces. In the South Island the story of adventure was provided chiefly by the early explorers and surveyors who penetrated the great unknown land and blazed the way for settlement, and by the golddiggers who thronged to the wonderfully rich alluvial fields. In this sketch of pathfinding enterprise the writer describes the difficulties encountered and the tasks accomplished by three notable pioneers of Nelson and the West Coast.

Thomas Brunner.

Thomas Brunner.

The record of pioneering exploration in New Zealand differs in one special feature from that of similar enterprise in Australia. The want of water was the greatest obstacle to the progress of discovery in the interior of the Australian continent. Here the trail-breaker found conditions exactly the reverse of that. There was no need to carry a water supply here; on the contrary, the explorer and surveyor found the rivers, especially in the South Island, were their chief hindrances. The bush and the mountains were formidable enough to the men who blazed the way, but they were a known quantity. But the snow and rain-fed torrents of the South, and particularly the wild West Coast, subject to sudden floods, were a continual source of anxiety and peril. Drowning came to be regarded as a natural death on the Coast in the days of the pioneer map-makers and golddiggers. The rivers, and the forests that masked most of the West, made the task of the early explorers slow and difficult. To a few men of stubborn courage and great powers of endurance the young colony was indebted for lifting the veil of mystery that lay over the Wai-Pounamu, and revealing its mineral treasures that brought so much wealth to the country.

In the first two decades of British settlement in the South Island three great names are associated with the record of exploration and of the opening of Maori territory to Pakeha settlement—Thomas Brunner, Charles Heaphy, and James Mackay. Contemporary with Mackay was John Rochfort (the discoverer of the Buller goldfields), and others followed, each surveyor or prospector adding something to the outside world's knowledge of the unknown land. Cold and hunger and almost daily risk of death or accident were the lot of those foreloopers of the Pakeha race in the sparsely peopled or quite uninhabited land; loaded with heavy swags, sometimes ill and lame, fording rushing torrents, climbing precipices, and when their scanty stores gave out, living precariously on birds and eels and other food of the bush.

Brunner and Heaphy in 1846.

Thomas Brunner carried out the most arduous exploring expedition in the history of New Zealand. He was a member of the Nelson survey staff, and he had made several reconnaissances of the South Nelson and West Coast country before his great journey of 1846–48. With Charles Heaphy and William Fox (afterwards Sir William Fox), both of whom were in the service of the New Zealand Company at page 26
Major Charles Heaphy, V. C.

Major Charles Heaphy, V. C.

the Nelson settlement, he explored, in February, 1846, much of the country about Lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti, and the headwaters of the Buller River, and with Heaphy he made, later on in that year, the first path-finding tour down the West Coast as far as Arahura. On that journey the explorers, with their Maoris used some of the bush ladders made for climbing the precipices on the rugged Coast by a war-party which had gone down the Coast some years previously. Heaphy and Brunner named many features of the country as they went, and mapped the region traversed. At Arahura and Taramakau they found the Maoris working pounamu or greenstone in the ancient manner, shaping and polishing meres and pendants, and Heaphy placed on record a description of the methods used.

Major Heaphy, V. C.

Heaphy entered survey work in the Auckland district in after years, and it was when he was serving as Captain in the Auckland Rifle Volunteers in the Waikato War that he performed the deed of bravery for which he was awarded the first Victoria Cross won by a colonial officer. This was in a skirmish at Waiari, on the Mangapiko River (a tributary of the Waipa) in the early part of 1864. A British soldier was wounded and was lying helpless, exposed to the Maori fire, when Heaphy ran to his assistance and carried him into a safe spot, and afterwards attended to other wounded men. He did useful service as military surveyor in the war and was promoted to the rank of Major. Heaphy was a gifted man, a clever artist, and many of his drawings of Maori life, fortifications, war episodes and scenery are preserved. He was a pioneer of a very fine type, associated with the development of the country from the foundation of British settlement, and particularly with the opening up of the interior of Nelson province.

Brunner's Long Tramp.

When Thomas Brunner set out from Nelson on his greatest journey (Dec. 3, 1846), his object was to explore the Buller River downward to the sea from its headwaters, to go down the West Coast as far as practicable, and to seek an opening to the east—the then unpeopled Canterbury district—across the unknown mountains. He did not find it possible to fulfil the last mentioned mission, but he made known a great deal of the terra incognita of what is now Westland, and produced a report, the fruit of dogged perseverance and courage in the face of almost incredible difficulties, which won him fame and the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society for a great work of exploration. He had only Maoris for companions; two of these, Kehu and his wife, stuck faithfully to him through all his travels, and shared his privations; indeed he would have perished in the wilds but for them. His equipment was simple in the extreme; he lived mostly on bush fare, the products of the wilderness.

Foods of the Wilds.

The travellers considered themselves in luck when they found a place where weka or woodhen were plentiful. “The weka,” Brunner wrote in his diary, “is the most useful and valuable bird for a bushranger.” Sometimes they got grey duck, paradise duck and dabchicks in the streams. But the inhospitable black beech bush in the interior was sparsely inhabited by such birds as pigeon and kaka; there was no food for them there. Eels were the great standby in the bush commissariat, and the little fish upokororo was caught in fine-meshed flax nets in the streams. Out at the small settlements of the Maoris on the Coast there were potatoes, in limited quantities.

The Fernroot Eaters.

In the heart of the back country, such as the Matakitaki, on the Buller, Brunner and his Maoris were on occasion reduced to eating the pith of the korau or mamaku fern-tree, and in the clearings they got fernroot. Brunner mentioned in his diary having 30lbs. of fernroot as portion of his swag; that was in the Matakitaki district, Buller Valley. When they were restricted to this diet he and his Maoris suffered what he described as “excruciating pains,” and the illness sometimes compelled them to lie up in camp. That was in the mountain beech country; when they reached the lower and more level lands, where there were kahikatea and miro pines they obtained a better diet, the rich levels were full of birds, which Brunner page 27 shot or the Maoris snared. In June of 1847, in the Buller Gorge, Brunner was reduced to killing and eating his dog, and when that was done he and his companions were without food for nearly three days. The almost constant rain experienced added to their misery. When they reached the Coast the Maoris they expected to find at a village were absent, and instead of a good meal of potatoes, as they had anticipated, they were compelled to gather seaweed for food.

The Perfect Bushman.

Brunner spent several weeks at Taramakau and the Grey River mouth (Mawhera), recuperating and waiting for the spring of 1847. In October of that year he continued his journey southward along the coast, mapping the country, sketching, and noting all the features of the land. On October 21, the day before he reached Okarito (100 miles south of Hokitika) he wrote in his diary:

“I believe I may now assert that I have overcome the two greatest difficulties to be met with by bushmen in New Zealand, viz., the capability of walking barefoot, and subsisting on fernroot. The first, the want of shoes, had been a dread to me for some time, often fearing I should be left a barefooted cripple in some desolate black-birch forest on this deserted coast; but now I can trudge along barefoot, or with a pair of native sandals, called paraerae, made of leaves of flax, and what is more durable, the leaves of the ti or flax-tree (cabbagetree). I can make a sure footing in crossing rivers, ascending or descending precipices; in fact I feel I am just commencing to make exploring easy work. A good pair of sandals will last about two days’ hard work. They take about twenty minutes to make.”

Far Down the West Coast.

After a rest of a few days at the Okarito village—there were only six Maoris living there at the time—the explorer continued southward. There was, he noted, the remains of a very large pa at Okarito, which was resorted to for fishing in the large lagoon and for bird-catching. “That it abounds in eels,” he noted, “I had full proof during my visit here, our diet being nothing else; it was served out in liberal quantities, to dogs as well as Christians, three times a day.”

Brunner trudged down the great desert coast, fording the small streams and making rafts of flax-stalks to cross the larger ones, until he and his Maoris reached Paringa. There he was delayed by an accident which lamed him, and in December he slowly retraced his steps northward to Hokitika and the Mawhera. On December 31, he noted in his diary, that the whole of 1847 he had spent among the Maoris and had never heard a word of English during the year.

Canoeing on the Grey.

On January 20, 1848, Brunner began his return journey through the great wilderness of
James Mackay.

James Mackay.

the interior. The first day was a happy change from the eternal tramping. He and his Maoris joined a party of natives bound up the Grey River in four canoes. “It is really a very exciting scene to see four canoes paddling and poling up a fine stream on a fine day,” he wrote. “We stemmed about five miles of the river and camped at an old fishing station prettily situated on an island, called Mautapu, which rises about one hundred feet above the level of the river.” About a mile above the island there was a large coal seam on the river edge; this is where the Brunnerton coal mines are to-day. From the island camp the canoe voyage was continued up the Grey and by way of the Arnold River into Lake Brunner (Kotuku-Whakaoka); there the party camped on a small low island.

Home to Nelson.

Leaving the Maori eel-fishing party, Brunner and his companions explored the Upper Grey and trudged on through the forest and the ranges to the Buller, and gradually worked homeward to Nelson.

The weather became very wet and cold, and the explorer was ill. It was the middle of June when he and the two Maoris who remained with him—Kehu and his wife—at last reached a sheep settler's out-station near Lake Rotoiti and once more tasted food other than the products of the bush.

It was a period of 560 days since he had last seen a pakeha face or spoken to a man of his own race. “I felt rather astonished,” was his last note in his diary, “to find that I could both understand and speak English as well as ever, page 28 for during many wet days I had never spoken a word of my own language, not conversed even in Maori, of which I was well tired.”

James Mackay's Adventures.

Quite the equal of Thomas Brunner as a bushman, and his superior in knowledge of the Maori people and their life, was the stalwart James Mackay, who in his old age in Auckland was well known to the writer of this article. Mackay was the perfect type of frontiersman—of powerful physique, indomitable courage and tenacity of purpose. From his boyhood—he came to Nelson from Scotland with his parents at the age of thirteen—he was inured to rough backblocks life. He was sheepfarmer, goldseeker, goldfields warden, explorer, and Government agent in Maori affairs. His exploring work began in 1855, and between that year and 1862 he traversed most of the north-west part of the South Island, tracing the rivers to their sources. In 1857 he travelled down the West Coast with two Maoris as far as the Grey River. There, and also at the Buller, he took soundings, and discovered the entrances to be navigable. He canoed up the Grey, where he had some trouble with his Maoris. One of them he threw into the river, and he knocked another down in the canoe. Mackay was a man of abundant tact when occasion called, but he had a Highland temper, and he was handy with his fists. Returning to Nelson, he carried in his swag the first sample of Grey River coal.

In 1858, 1859 and 1860 James Mackay, his cousin Alexander Mackay (afterwards Judge of the Native Land Court), and John Rochfort had many perilous adventures in the torrentsplit South Nelson and Westland country. James once just managed to save Rochfort from drowning by clutching at him as the furious current of the Taramakau swirled him past. He was now in the employ of the Government, and was entrusted with the task of purchasing South Island Maori lands. He first bought for the Government two and a half million acres of land on the East Coast, from Cape Campbell to the Hurunui River, and then he was instructed to negotiate for the purchase of the vast West Coast region, from Kahurangi Point, on the Nelson coast, southward to Milford Sound.

Buying the West Coast.

This was a task of great difficulty, not so far as the Maoris were concerned, but because of the enormously rough territory to be traversed searching out all the Maoris of the Coast, right down to the remote Mahitahi (near Bruce Bay). He and a companion, Mackley, set out from Nelson and visited every little settlement where a signature was to be obtained to the document of purchase. Mackay carried 400 sovereigns in his swag, and when he had concluded his negotiations he had 100 surplus sovereigns to carry back to Nelson. He bought seven and a half million acres for £300. Certain native reserves, including part of the present site of Greymouth town, were marked off on the map for the Maori owners; the rest of the Coast passed to the Crown.

Their First Pakeha.

Rough travelling, rough living it was, that greatest of all pioneer land-buying expeditions. Canoe capsizes and narrow escapes in the icy rivers were all in the day's work. When Mackay and Mackley reached the Mahitahi settlement, nearly two hundred miles south of Hokitika, they were a source of great curiosity to two or three very old Maori women who had not up to that time (1860) seen any white men. The strange coats of the Pakeha were described by the ancient wahines as “whare o te tinana” (“houses for the body”), their waistcoats “pakitua” (a kind of small mat), and their trousers “whare kuwha” (“houses for the thighs”). As for Mackay's footgear he was a thorough Maori; he had no boots, but wore flax sandals (paraerae), as his predecessor, Brunner, had been compelled to do in his explorings.

The Maoris at the various far-scattered villages having been assembled, the payment for the Coast was made at the Mawhera. The Ngai-Tahu people, from whom the great purchase was made, numbered a hundred and ten. 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.

Blazing the Buller Trail.

Mackay was a pathfinder in the literal sense of the word. He penetrated the most forbidding regions, sometimes alone, usually with two or three Maoris. In 1860 he blazed the track through the bush down the Buller Valley along which the present motor route goes, and on to the Grey River. This alone was a tremendous task. Mackay told me about this experience, at Auckland in 1906. He and his three Maoris were once forty-eight hours with only one weka to eat between the four of them.

That was one momentous phase of James Mackay's adventures and services in the vast untrimmed places of the land. He was transferred to the North Island when the Waikato War began, for special Government duty, and his life there, from 1863 to the middle Seventies, was full of incident, a record that would fill a book.

“I once had the experience,” he told me, “of sitting waiting for ten minutes while the Maoris debated whether they would shoot me or not.” Whenever there was trouble in the Maori districts, in the nervous years following on the wars, the Government sent Mackay to deal with it. Sir Donald Maclean, the greatest of our Native Ministers, had the greatest faith in “Hemi Maki,” as the Maoris called him; he was a man after Maclean's own heart.

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Facsimile Of A Letter Of The Olden Times. Prompted by the article, “The Royal Mail,” in the May issue of the “N. Z. Railways Magazine,” Mr. H. McArtney (of the H. M. Sauce Co.) sent in specimens of letters received in New Zealand in 1844 and 1848, before adhesive stamps were in use. The handwriting is so fine that it averages about a dozen lines to the inch. The script of one of the letters would fill about eight columns of a daily newspaper.

Facsimile Of A Letter Of The Olden Times.
Prompted by the article, “The Royal Mail,” in the May issue of the “N. Z. Railways Magazine,” Mr. H. McArtney (of the H. M. Sauce Co.) sent in specimens of letters received in New Zealand in 1844 and 1848, before adhesive stamps were in use. The handwriting is so fine that it averages about a dozen lines to the inch. The script of one of the letters would fill about eight columns of a daily newspaper.