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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August 1, 1935)

Butler's Friend, John Baker

Butler's Friend, John Baker.

Anything that will add to our knowledge of Butler's life in New Zealand and throw light on some of the sources of his inspiration is a welcome discovery. In a recently published book of reminiscences, the life of John H. Baker, a pioneer surveyor in the South Island who was a contemporary and friend of Butler, there is a chapter which narrates some exploring expeditions in which the two young adventurers penetrated hitherto unknown Alpine regions, and described episodes and scenes that clearly helped to shape the story of “Erewhon,” or at any rate its introduction and setting. In this book, “A Surveyor in New Zealand, 1857–1896,” a diary is drawn upon for the incidents of this association. The story is far too brief; one feels that there should have been a whole book in it, the camp talks, the long horseback journeys, the perils and narrow escapes of those expeditions, rather than one chapter, or portion of a chapter.

Butler had been established at Mesopotamia several months when John Baker, the 19-year-old surveyor—who had just completed his cadetship in the profession—arrived at the sheep station on the Rangitata, for an expedition into the higher country to the west. This was at Butler's invitation; he had met Baker in Christchurch early in his first year in New Zealand. It was on Christmas Eve, 1860, that Baker rode in and the next day three young pioneers sat down to a Christmas dinner in the homestead hut; the third member of the party was Cook, Butler's station manager.

On December 29 the explorers set out from Mesopotamia, with a packhorse carrying tent and camp gear and food, and rode up the southern branch of the Rangitata, now known as the Have-lock. The object of the trip was to discover new unoccupied land for sheep-runs; foresighted young Baker did not intend to depend on surveying work alone for his future. They found the pass at the head of the branch impracticable as a route, and returned to Mesopotamia. On the way back to where they had left their horses they had an adventure which might easily have proved fatal to both. Crossing the swift river on foot, they were both swept off their feet, and were washed down a rapid. They struggled out of the icy torrent, tramped down to their camp, put on dry clothes, boiled the billy, and slept on their fern couches as serenely as if such experiences were everyday matters.

After a week's rest at Mesopotamia, the two explorers set out again for the high country with their horses and camp gear. They followed up one branch of the Rangitata, but finding no available pass at the head of it they rode up the Lawrence branch as far as there was any feed for the horses and then camped.

In “Erewhon” there is more than one vivid passage exactly descriptive of those camp nights on the banks of snow-fed rivers.

Leaving their horses tethered in a sheltered patch of grass, they made up their swags of blankets and provisions, and carrying the necessary billy and pannikins, they started off on foot—for the higher mystery land.

About mid-day a fierce storm burst on them. They sheltered from the fury of wind and rain in the lee of a great rock, where they lashed one of their blankets to their two “glacier poles” (they had no ice-axes) and stuck it up against the boulder to form a sloping shelter. In this precarious bivouac they spent all that night and next day and night. Butler, as Baker narrated told his friend stories of his college days, of his quarrels with his father, his thirst for liberty of thought and action and his final determination to come out to New Zealand.

When the weather cleared the two friends were able to move on. They climbed up into the snow and reached the saddle of the pass for which they were making. But instead of a sight of the western land they found themselves looking down on what was evidently the Rakaia river valley; they could recognise the hills beyond it. Then across the Rakaia head they noticed a quite low pass leading evidently to the West Coast, but to reach it they would have to make an entirely new expedition. Accordingly they returned to Mesopotamia, and a ride of two days from Butler's hut saw the surveyor back in Christchurch.