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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter X — The Interior of Canterbury: Sheepfarmers and Scientists

page 100

Chapter X
The Interior of Canterbury: Sheepfarmers and Scientists

Although the Canterbury block was very attractive, the Wakefield system of high priced land encouraged sheepfarmers with limited capital to settle outside its boundaries. Some of these men were Australians, so, rather than lose their capital and experience, J. R. Godley had the moral courage to lease sections of the block itself. Thus the two systems allowed the would-be squatters to select any part of the Canterbury plain from the Hurunui south to the Waitaki. Some went well inland and were minor explorers; M. P. Stoddart and others went up the Rakaia in 1851 and explored the country near Lake Coleridge. The system was so successful that by 1855 any man who wanted new sheep country had to explore the unknown country behind the 'snowy' mountains.

The first there was Mackenzie, a sheep stealer, who in March 1855 took 1,000 sheep over the hills from Cave to the Mackenzie country. Surprisingly little is known about his movements, so that page 101reliable facts are in inverse proportion to the extensive literature on the subject. He may have had accomplices and he may have previously explored the inland route from south Canterbury to Otago. The fact that he was once in Southland makes it possible for him to have heard of Nathaniel Chalmers going from Mataura to Lake Hawea in 1853 and to have heard Reko of Tuturau describe his inland journey from Kaiapoi to Southland.*

The best and most reliable account of Mackenzie's exploits was given by J. H. C. Sidebottom who recovered the sheep and attempted to capture Mackenzie. He was at Cave paring sheep's feet when a Maori named Seventeen came in saying that a Scotsman had stolen part of the flock. Sidebottom took two Maoris and followed up the track of a man, a dog, and 1,000 sheep. Two days later he thought he saw 'the track of a bullock and another man for certain and a third man's track doubtful.' At last just before sundown they came to a pass 'to the West Coast through the Snowy Mountains' and saw below them Mackenzie and the sheep. They caught Mackenzie, tied his hands, and took away his boots. He was very tall, with red hair and piercing ferrety eyes.

Late that evening suspicious calls were heard, the dogs barked, the sheep broke, and Mackenzie began whistling and cooeeing. It was moonlight and page 102Sidebottom decided to leave there and then. Seventeen, armed with a stick, walked beside Mackenzie, while Sidebottom drove the sheep. Fog enveloped them as they crossed the pass and Mackenzie broke away. Sidebottom carried on all night and the next day until he had the sheep, the bullock, and Mackenzie's dog safely at Cave. He then wrote an account of the affair to his employers, R. and G. Rhodes, and mentioned that the tracks suggested the theft of another mob of sheep. He also said that there was 'a fine plain just at the back of the Snowy Range and a first rate pass through the mountains to it.'

Soon afterwards Mackenzie was captured at Lyttelton and given five years' imprisonment. After he made three attempts to escape, Governor Gore Browne pardoned him on condition that he left New Zealand. Mackenzie must have been no ordinary drover; it was a feat to move 1,000 sheep across unknown and still unburned country with only one dog, and Samuel Butler thought that 'his fame would be lasting.' In fact his skill and boldness so impressed the sheepfarming community that his liberation caused no adverse comment.

Meanwhile the Mackenzie country had been traversed by G. Rhodes who followed sheep tracks across the pass to the Tekapo river. He was certain that Mackenzie had accomplices and that other sheep were missing. The Lyttelton Times advertised a reward for information about 500 ewes stolen in page 103May-June 1854. Nothing came of it. Later Rhodes and Sidebottom explored the plain; the former took a block of land in the vicinity of Lake Ohau, the latter applied for 75,000 acres of the plain.

Meanwhile J. B. A. Acland and C. G. Tripp were exploring the upper Rangitata. In September 1855 they went inland to Forest Creek, some twenty-five miles above Peel forest, set fire to the grass, and returned to Christchurch. They obtained leasehold rights and returned in 1856. They then explored up the Ashburton river and by going west past Lakes Acland and Tripp, came to the Rangitata again. By May 1856 they were too busy establishing sheep stations to do any further exploration.

West and north of Christchurch there had been less active exploration, and in 1855 it was suggested that the provincial council should vote £100 for the exploration of the country between Lake Coleridge and the West Coast. Nothing was done, probably because the settlers were capable of doing their own exploration. In September 1857 E. Dobson, the provincial engineer, and Messrs Taylor and Mason went up the Hurunui river, following the route used by the Maoris and mentioned so often to earlier explorers. They cut tracks for their horses and above the gorge came on flat land watered by six lakes, the largest of which was named Lake Sumner. They carried on over the pass (Harper's) to the Taramakau until they were held up by four days' rain. On their page 104return all available land was taken up for sheep runs, for, according to Dobson, it was good country justifying exploration even if the West Coast was useless. So little country was left for new settlers that the Lyttelton Times hoped that private enterprise would complete Dobson's route to the coast. Messrs Yonge and Wilson soon afterwards went to, at least, the crest of the pass and in November Messrs Harper and Locke extended Dobson's route from the upper Taramakau to the Maori village at its mouth.*

Soon after, really original work on the Canterbury side of the Alps was done farther south by men searching for sheep country. The most notable was Samuel Butler, who arrived in 1860 and found that if he wanted a sheep run he would have to discover unoccupied country. He systematically explored the great river valleys. First he went up the Rakaia and its tributary the Harper until he saw the glacial source of the Avoca river. Then he went up the Waimakariri hoping to find 'some little run which had been overlooked.' The scenery was wonderful but he missed the inns of the Swiss valleys with their vin ordinaire. He went up the Bealey river and saw a low saddle to the West Coast. This was Arthur's pass, and if he could have left his horse 'Doctor' he would have gone up to it.

From here he went south to the upper Rangitata page 105and saw Mount Cook 'towering in a massy parallelogram, disclosed from top to bottom in the cloudless sky, far above all others.' His Mesopotamia sheep run was in this region but he returned to Christchurch and went up the Hurunui and from the pass saw the waters of the Taramakau flowing to the West Coast. Then he spent the winter at Mesopotamia making sure that sheepfarming was possible. He was very single-minded in his efforts to make a fortune which would give him the time and money to devote himself to art and literature.

While Butler was exploring almost every great valley of Canterbury, a young surveyor named J. H. Baker was exploring the Rakaia and the Waimakariri so that he could lease any unclaimed areas and then sell his rights to less venturesome men. Even in Butler's own Rangitata district Acland, Tripp, and C. Harper had been exploring the headwaters of the river in the vain hope of discovering a large plain which the Maoris said existed there.

When the winter was over Butler and Baker combined forces. Just how they had met is not known, but Butler, bent on making his desired competence, probably saw that Baker would be an ideal companion when exploring for new sheep country. Late in December 1860 they followed up the headwaters of the Rangitata—first the Havelock, then the Clyde, and finally the Lawrence. Here they left their horses at the limit of pasture, went forward on page 106foot, and ascended the Jollie range. They expected to see below them the West Coast and were rather surprised to see the headwaters of the Rakaia. But they did see in the distant Main Divide a pass to the coast.

They retraced their steps to Mesopotamia and went up the Rakaia to this pass. From there a stream flowed to the West Coast and they followed it until the boulders were too dangerous and the current too swift. The adjoining bush was very dense and they turned back, certain that no grazing country lay to the west of the Divide. The pass was their most notable discovery and Acland persuaded Butler to forward a description to the survey office. Shortly after, a surveyor named Whitcombe went over by this route and was drowned when crossing the Taramakau.* Since then the pass has been named after him.

Butler did no more exploring and when he had doubled his capital he returned to Britain. There he completed his satire Erewhon, in the opening chapters of which he described most accurately the upper Rangitata and the general atmosphere of east coast river valleys. One side could be 'blue with evening shadow' and the other still 'brilliant with sunset gold'; through the river flats there flowed 'the wide and wasteful river with its ceaseless rushing; and at night there was the moonlight bright upon the mountains, the rattle of falling stones and the boom of far off avalanches.'

page 107

Baker, Butler's companion, continued the search for sheep country. In 1861 with E. Owen he visited the head of Lake Tekapo, the Hopkins and Dobson rivers at the head of Lake Ohau, and the Ahuriri branch of the Waitaki. Not satisfied, and having heard of a low pass (the Haast) to the West Coast at the head of Lake Wanaka, they went over the Lindis pass to the newly established sheep stations at the south end of the lake. Being given the use of a boat, they went to the head, taking seven days owing to the adverse winds. There they followed the Wanaka river (Makarora) to the crest of the pass. Baker says he climbed a high tree and 'obtained a good view of the country beyond.' It was all bush, so they made their way back to the sheep stations and then tried west Wanaka, going up the Matukituki and its southern tributary the Mototapu.* Once again they found no pass and no sheep country; in fact no new country could be found on the Canterbury side of the Southern Alps.

The only regions unvisited by Europeans were the glacial sources of the great lakes and rivers. Their exploration was begun by Dr Julius von Haast when he went up the Rangitata in February 1861 to continue his geological survey of the Canterbury province. His companion was Dr A. Sinclair, a noted botanist and once Colonial Secretary. Their host at Mesopotamia was Samuel Butler. In March, after they had

* They were not the first explorers. See Chapter xii.

page 108systematically explored the Havelock and the Lawrence, tributaries of the Rangitata, Dr Sinclair returned for stores and when crossing the river was washed off his horse and drowned. His body was taken to Mesopotamia and buried 'near the bank of the river, just where it emerges from the Alps, with perpetual snowfields glistening in the sun, amidst Veronicas and Senecios and covered with Celmisias and Gentians.…' After news was sent to Christchurch, Haast went up the Clyde and in April left Mesopotamia to explore the Ashburton river to its glacial source.

The following year, 1862, there was another reason for the geological survey. Gold had been found in Otago and Haast was naturally called on to report upon the mineral resources of Canterbury. Since the most likely area was the upper Waitaki, he went there in February with A. D. Dobson to search for gold and make a geological survey. Dobson had to extend the topographical survey begun by Edward Jollie.

They began from Tekapo, trudging the interminable miles up the shingle flats of the Godley valley. At its head Haast named the Classen and Godley glaciers and attempted to follow the latter to a pass (the Sealy) which obviously led to Westland. The snow was too deep and the party returned to Tekapo and went across country to Pukaki, following its eastern side and reaching the shingle flat below the page 109terminal face of the great Tasman glacier. Shepherds had probably reached it because they told Dobson that the valley ended in a wall of rock. This was the face of the terminal moraine and Haast's party stumbled over its miles of loose rock to the clear ice which they followed to a point opposite the present Ball Hut. The incomparable cone of ice to the north of Mount Cook was appropriately named Mount Tasman and the 3,000 feet of icefalls draining the plateau between them was named the Hochstetter. They then returned by the western edge of the glacier past Blue Lake to the flats below Mount Sefton.

Here the surroundings were infinitely more beautiful than those of the Godley. There were clumps of beech trees, senecios and veronicas, innumerable mountain daisies, and Mount Cook lilies. Keas, kakas, and wekas abounded and every night the camp was worried by hosts of grey Norwegian rats. Haast investigated the two great glaciers which meet below Mount Sefton and named them the Hooker and the Mueller. With Dobson he ascended the spurs of the Mount Cook range and saw, far off to the north-east, the icefields of the Murchison glacier. It is the second largest in New Zealand and is noted for an evil moraine and for the fact that few people have ever visited it.

The Lake Ohau region was the next to be explored. The Dobson river was partially surveyed and the Hopkins, running parallel to it, was followed to its page 110glacial source. The weather was bad but they could still appreciate the wide river flats through which the Hopkins was winding and rippling to Lake Ohau.

From here they returned to Christchurch and Haast presented his report to the provincial council. To their sorrow, he stated that the gold resources of the province were confined to the West Coast. But when certain papers by Haast appeared in the journals of European societies there was quite a stir in scientific circles. An academic storm had been raging as to the degree of past glacial activity. Those who were revolutionary and thought that it had once been extensive had been limited to observations in the northern hemisphere. To support them Haast was able to produce evidence of intense glaciation in New Zealand during the Pleistocene Age. He, therefore, brought to himself and New Zealand a great deal of merited attention.

Meanwhile Canterbury still wanted a goldfield and before the end of the year 1862 Haast returned to Ohau and completed his geological survey. When he was certain that this was not gold-bearing country, he went to the Wanaka-Hawea area to be joined by Young, a surveyor, and to cross the Haast pass to the West Coast.* By then he had explored the glacial sources of every Canterbury river from the Rangitata south to the boundary of Otago and had page 111collected thousands of specimens—geological, zoological, and botanical. Sir J. D. Hooker wondered how a geologist had found time to contribute 'more new species to the Flora of the islands than any collector since Mr Colenso.'