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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 6 (September 2, 1935)

Marauder — Mackenzie

page 36


The name, Mackenzie Country, is synonymous with sheep: it is undoubtedly the largest sheep district in New Zealand. Commencing about 20 miles inland from Timaru (where Levels County merges into it), it sweeps from the latter county across vast glacial plains, over high mountains, to pull up suddenly against the formidable barrier of the Southern Alps. Southward it is bounded by the great Waitaki River and Lake Ohau: northward it merges rather uninterestingly into the Ashburton County. In this great area we find Lakes Ohau, Tekapo, and Pukaki: the largest glacier in temperate zones, the Tasman; and the great mountain peaks of Cook, Sefton, Tasman, Malte Brun, De La Beche, and scores of other notable peaks.

Mackenzie Country — rugged and rough as the old Ross-shire shepherd who discovered it.

When James (“Jock”) Mackenzie first saw the light of day, in 1825, in a little cottage in Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands, no one could have dreamt that his name would live forever in a strange new land, 11,000 miles away. Yet such proved to be the case. The wanderlust entered Mackenzie's soul at an early age: he decided to try his fortunes in Australia and landed there in 1845. From Australia it was but a short jump to New Zealand, and two years later “Jock” was in the Dominion. He wandered about from station to station doing odd jobs, mostly droving. He had with him a Scottish collie, an outstandingly sagacious animal, about which many strange stories have been told. That the dog was possessed of amazing intelligence there is no gainsaying, and dog and master were devoted to each other. Stories have been told that Mackenzie's dog was so trained that at a sign from her master she would not recognise him. Moreover, if her master wished her to remember anyone as an enemy, a sign on the occasion of the first meeting was all that was necessary, and this person, no matter how slight the meeting was tabulated forever in the dog's brain as a foe. Neither of these stories, however, appears to have any substantiation in fact.

Mackenzie was droving sheep round about Mataura for some time when the wanderlust entered him once again. He had done a little roaming about Otago, and now decided to go further afield. So with only his dog and a pack-bullock as companions, he set off. Where he was going he didn't know, nor did he know where he intended finishing. His wanderings, of which there appears to be no record, must have taken him over an enormous area; in time they led him to a pass in the hills that overlooked the mighty Mackenzie Country. This pass was known to, and had been traversed by, Maori tribes in South Canterbury, and was known to them as Manahune. None of the white settlers in the Levels district had gone beyond the hills rising at the back of Fairlie, so when Mackenzie stood looking down on the stretches of tussocky and shingly country, he was the first white man to do so. Mackenzie, the shepherd, realised that here was ideal sheep country, and determined to make use of it. He visited the Commissioner of Lands at Oamaru and obtained a Government license to occupy this new territory. But Mackenzie wasn't a rich man and couldn't afford to buy his sheep, so he adopted methods not entirely legal.

The Rhodes Brothers were the biggest runholders in the Levels County at this time, and their sheep were scattered over extensive areas. Early in March, 1855, it was discovered that a mob of 1,000 sheep had mysteriously disappeared from the “Levels Run.” John Sidebottom, manager for the Rhodes, immediately gathered one or two Maori hands and set off on the trail of the missing sheep. The trail was easily followed, for there had been rain, and 1,000 sheep cannot be moved without signs. Sidebottom was surprised when he discovered where the trail was leading him, for he was entirely ignorant that a route through the hills had been discovered. It was not long before he was looking down page 37 on the plains of the Mackenzie: looking down, too, on Mackenzie himself and the mob of sheep tended by one collie.

Sidebottom accused Mackenzie of stealing the sheep, and immediately the men came to blows. It was a man's fight that, fought in a lonely, inhospitable region: a fight that could finish only with the defeat of one or the other. And Mackenzie, huge and muscular though he was, went under to the superior strength of Side-bottom.

It was now evening, and too late to think of moving the sheep, especially over a district that Sidebottom did not know well. During the night, mists descended on the party, and Sidebottom became obsessed with strange fancies. He though he heard sounds indicating the approach of Mackenzie's accomplices, the existence of whom, be it noted, was never proved. Sidebottom there and then made up his mind to attempt a return. Mackenzie went quietly with the party until he suddenly attacked his captors, knocking over the Maori boys, and fled into the mists.

Mackenzie headed north after his escape from Sidebottom, finally reaching Lyttelton. He made an astonishingly quick trip, so quick that when he was captured in the Canterbury port the Rhodes would not believe it was the same man, declaring he could never have covered the ground in the time. Mackenzie's intentions were to flee the country, leaving for Australia by the little steamer “Zingari.” The vessel was not due to leave for a day or two, so Mackenzie went into hiding.

Immediately the Rhodes knew of the existence of Mackenzie they offered a reward of $250 for any information that would lead to the capture of the sheep-stealer and his accomplices. It seemed certain he had accomplices for surely one man and one dog couldn't move a mob of 1,000 sheep as easily as he had done; but there they under-estimated the capabilities of both man and dog. In addition to the reward of $250 a special reward of $100 was offered for the apprehension of Mackenzie himself. With this reward—a huge sum in those days—in the offing, everyone was naturally on the alert for the marauder. Inspector E. W. Seager, in charge of the Lyttelton gaol, disguised as a country ruffian, affected a neat arrest in the room where “Jock” was sleeping. Mackenzie was brought up for trial shortly afterwards.

He maintained a stubborn silence in court, attempting to convey the impression that he could not speak English — only Gaelic. His dog was brought in and she immediately recognised her master, going into transports of delight. Mackenzie himself broke down, crying bitterly. It will here be noticed that the two stories, related earlier, concerning the dog's superintelligence, are discounted, for the dog recognised her master at a time when, if he had been able, he would surely have signed to her not to recognise him. Moreover, John Sidebottom was in court and she made no display against the man who had attacked her master in the Mackenzie Country.

His identity now proved beyond doubt, Mackenzie was sentenced to five years' penal servitude. Sentence announced, Mackenzie broke into impassioned speech, demanding—in English, not Gaelic—if he were to go to gaol, that the dog be allowed to go with him; but this was not permitted.

A man like Mackenzie could not stay five years in one place. He broke gaol on three separate occasions; at least twice getting well away. Each time he was recaptured he was placed in irons.

The frequent escapes and the expenses incurred in recaptures (on one occasion a reward of $10 was offered for his capture, claimed by Rapaki Maoris), decided the authorities that something must be done. In January, 1856, the Governor (Colonel Gore-Browne) granted Mackenzie a pardon provided he left the country. He was warned he would serve his sentence if ever he returned. Some years later he did set foot on New Zealand shores again, but a polite hint from the authorities sent him hurrying back to Australia where at last he appears to have settled down.

There is little doubt that Mackenzie stole other sheep before this big theft. Sidebottom, when tracking the big mob, discovered. old trails leading into the Mackenzie Country, and only Mackenzie could have been responsible. In May, 1853, the Rhodes Brothers lost 500 ewes, and there were other suspected reavings. It was suspected, but never proved, that “Jock” took these sheep through the back country and brought them out on the Taieri Plains where he sold them.

Mackenzie's name will live forever in those vast tracts of prosperous sheep country. He discovered it years before it would have been discovered in ordinary circumstances, for settlers were too intent on establishing themselves to devote any time to exploring, especially when the mountainous nature of the country gave no indication that it was suddenly to open out into large plains. On July 16th, 1856, Watson and Gladstone opened the first run in the Mackenzie Country. This was situated at the south end of Lake Pukaki, and occupied some 10,000 acres. On 4th December, 1894, the area was officially designated, Mackenzie Country.

Where Sidebottom captured Mackenzie at the foot of the Mackenzie Pass is a plain grey stone monument: a dual reminder of a man who is famous for discovering the Pass, and of a man who is infamous as a sheep-stealer.

page 38