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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter XI — Otago and Southland: Sheep Country

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Chapter XI
Otago and Southland: Sheep Country

The early settlers of Otago did not take any great interest in the country outside the original block. The majority of them were artisans and tradespeople who willingly accepted Captain Cargill's policy of 'concentration and contiguity' which was intended to make Dunedin a market town and to prevent settlers from becoming barbarous through isolation. The few practical farmers, not having the capital to establish sheep runs, occupied small holdings on the plains between Dunedin and Balclutha; the rest of the population settled about Otago harbour. Thus the colony, like a tadpole, was all head and no tail, and continued to be so until sheep-farmers came to explore and then settle the rugged interior of the province. In 1856, eight years after the foundation of the settlement, J. T. Thomson, the chief surveyor, had heard of only one party which had been more than thirty miles into the interior. If he meant the district west of Dunedin he was quite correct in his statement. The party had been led page 113by Charles Kettle in February 1851 from Waikouaiti, across the ridges, to the Strath-Taieri plain. The meandering Taieri river was followed for some miles before the party struck north-east across the hills until they could see, in the distance, the Maniototo plains. Then it was east again by the Shag valley to the coast. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first entry by a European into central Otago. In March Kettle and W. H. Valpy went from the latter's station near Lake Waihola, over the hills to Waitahuna, seeing Lake Waipori and going on past the source of the Tuapeka river. In the distance they saw the valley of the Molyneux river and beyond that the Blue Mountains, the highest point of which, until gold-mining times, was known as Mount Valpy. The route back was almost due south to the Tokomairiro plain only then being settled by small farmers such as Martin, Duthie, Chrystall, and Salmond.

These two journeys were not even reported in the Otago newspaper. The editor promised to publish a report but unfortunately Kettle became involved in a quarrel with Captain Cargill and had other matters to concern him. This was unfortunate because he kept no complete diary of these pioneer expeditions. Two other facts are worth noting: Kettle followed the directions of Te Raki Raki of Taieri mouth, and Valpy was a sheepfarmer, son of Otago's only man of wealth, and interested in new country.

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The same year, 1851, W. B. D. Mantell, now land commissioner, made the first overland journey from Dunedin to the Bluff with the intention of buying Southland from the Maoris, making a boat journey to the West Coast, and collecting scientific specimens. With him went several Maoris, a Mr Stephen, and Findlater, the local policeman. After Balclutha an old Ngatimamoe acted as guide. When they reached Waiwera, the Maori had lost his way and the party divided, Mantell and Stephen going by compass to the Maori village of Tuturau, while Findlater took a course of his own which apparently led him back to Dunedin. Reko, the local Maori, then guided the party across the plain to Oue, on the estuary of the Oreti river near Invercargill. Here Mantell spent Christmas Day before going on to Riverton.

On New Year's Day 1852 Messrs C. J. Nairn and Pharazyn arrived from the Oreti river, having apparently come overland along Mantell's tracks. So while Mantell visited the Maori settlements as far as the Waiau river, Nairn and Stephen went inland to Lake Te Anau, guided by George Wera Rauru te Aroha, a native of Te Anau and 'the only one' who knew the way. The route was up the Aparima and north-west by the Otautau river to the Waiau, where the natives went eeling and built moki to use on their return. From the hills to the east they saw Lake Te Anau and, since Nairn shows it on his map, they probably saw or heard of Lake page break Redrawing of rough tracing form W.B.D. Mantell's Sketch Map showing his coastal routes in 1848 and 1851–2 and C.J. Nairn's route to the lakes of the interior in Jan. 1852. page 115Monowai. On 26 January they reached Te Anau and the next day went five miles up its eastern shores, noting the heavy waves breaking on the beach and the distant peaks and pinnacles which rose above the western bush.

They returned by much the same route, flatly refusing to go down the Waiau in the moki. At Oue they joined Mantell and went back with him to Dunedin. Nairn's diary was copied and with an explanatory map was sent by Mantell to the Native Department. On this interesting map, recently discovered in the Alexander Turnbull Library, the southern lakes are correctly named by a Maori scholar who had them from a Te Anau native. Thus Lake Poteriteri is Potiritiri, Hauroko is Hauroka, Monowai is Manakiwai, Manapouri is Moturau, the Mavora lakes are Hikuraki and Manawapora.

Between Mantell's two visits to Tuturau there had been several other European callers. One of them was Nathaniel Chalmers of the Clutha district who, at the cost of a three legged pot, persuaded Reko to guide him through Otago to Canterbury by an inland route. Early in September 1853 he went to Tuturau complete with gun, salt, blanket, flint and steel—and the pot for Reko. With another aged Maori they set off up the Mataura, up the Nokomai, and over the hills to the Nevis and the Kawarau. They crossed by the Natural Bridge and went down the river to the flats above Cromwell. They then page 116followed the Clutha valley to Wanaka, living on eels and ducks and wearing sandals made from flax or cabbage-tree leaves. Moki were then made and the Wanaka river crossed so that they could go on to Lake Hawea.

When there, Chalmers, who was exhausted could go no farther, although Reko quite truthfully said that two more days' walking would take them over the Lindis pass to the Waitaki. The Maoris prepared a large moki, made paddles from the driftwood on the lake shore, and then at great speed they swept down the river to its junction with the Wanaka, carrying on through the gorge past Cromwell to approximately the site of the present town of Clyde. Here, at a place called Te Houka, they landed and went to Popotunoa and their respective homes. This remarkable expedition was not recorded until 1909, but it probably had considerable influence on future exploration. Chalmers, a prominent runholder, could hardly have kept it secret, and Reko was always being consulted by Europeans seeking new sheep country.

The first signs of increased interest appeared in 1853–4. Mantell went south to complete the purchase of the Murihiku block, and with him went a group of men with capital to invest in sheep runs. Canterbury was almost completely occupied, and the choice was the more rugged south or the back country which was being explored by Tripp and page 117Acland, Butler and Baker. Thus in 1854 Messrs Freeman and Jackson went to Lake Te Anau, and in 1855 W. H. Pearson, J. Saunders, and P. Napier went up the Shag valley to the Maniototo plains. These expeditions were encouraging, although the pastoralists hesitated before occupying the more remote country. There were no roads, wild dogs were destructive, and many shepherds had to be employed since wire fencing was as yet unknown.

However, by 1855–6 the provincial council was at last realising that the Wakefield system should be dropped and the province opened up for the benefit of pastoralists as well as for agriculturists. In their enthusiasm Macandrew and the aged Captain Cargill accepted the credentials of a Dr Schmidt and supported his proposal to explore Otago for the benefit of science, the extension of settlement, and the discovery of a route to the West Coast. He talked of going inland from the sounds and then along the ranges to Canterbury; the council, who ought to have known how impossible this was, foolishly voted £100 to cover expenses. Schmidt went to Stewart Island and then returned to Waikawa, whence he attempted to traverse the dense bush of the Catlins district, to reach some stores he had left at Port Molyneux. The country was extremely difficult, his natives left him, and in some unknown spot he died of exhaustion. A search was made for him and the natives were questioned, but the subject page 118has always been somewhat of a mystery. Dr Hocken thought that he was an impostor, but the diaries of some cultured settlers do not support this conclusion. A much more sensible step was to attract sheep-farmers to the province and leave exploration to them. W. H. Reynolds as an honorary emigration agent directed to Otago several Victorians with capital and experience. The council drafted some encouraging land regulations and the result was a series of expeditions by prospective runholders. In 1856 John Chubbin, M. McFarlane, and J. and C. Morrison, following directions from Reko, went up the Mataura and in three days forced their way through the forty miles of speargrass and matagouri which barred the way to Lake Wakatipu. There a lighted match set fire to the accumulated vegetation of centuries. The explorers had to wade into water up to their necks, drag the horses in after them, and stay there for several hours. The native quail perished in hundreds. Chubbin gave a description of the south end of Wakatipu to J. T. Thomson, the newly appointed chief surveyor.

This gifted surveyor had been trained in the Indian Survey Department and, coming to Auckland for health reasons, had been persuaded to settle in Otago. From the date of his arrival in 1856 the scientific survey of Otago can be said to have begun. He had been assured that his duties would be confined to the survey office but he found that the country page 119west of Dunedin was almost unknown. To strangers the townspeople would 'shrug their shoulders and point to the snowy mountains as an index of what was beyond.' The settlement was stagnant; the settlers were dissatisfied with ill success and poverty; discontent had made the people the most fractious in New Zealand. Thomson actually doubted if he would stay, but he decided that the country had better be explored and surveyed well enough to encourage more active settlement.

After he had mastered the office details he went south to survey the township of Invercargill. At Tuturau, Reko described the interior and gave details of the route he had once taken from Kaiapoi to the Mackenzie country and over the Lindis pass to Lake Hawea and on to the Mataura. Thomson confined his attention to Southland, and in 1856–7, leading a sort of gipsy life that was good for his Indian liver, he inspected the country which the sheepfarmers had been occupying between the Aparima and Mataura rivers. His encouraging descriptions in the local press and in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society brought about a 'rush' from the pastoral districts of New Zealand and Australia. Within the next twelve months from three to four million acres had been applied for.

Thomson was then free to explore central Otago by the natural highways formed by the Shag and Waitaki rivers. In November 1857 he went over the page 120Horse range from north Otago to the Shag valley which he followed over the Pigroot to the Maniototo plain, to the Ida valley and the Manuherikia. This fine country was ideal for sheep grazing and, although the weather was bad, Thomson spent several weeks in the district.

In December he went up the Waitaki to the plains around Omarama and, using the information given him by Reko and other Maoris, followed the Ahuriri to Longslip Creek which led him to the pass over the hills to the upper Lindis. From the summit of Grandview he saw, 3,000 feet below him, 'the Hawea Lake, deep blue and narrow, surrounded by extensive forests reaching from the snow line to the white gravelly shores; and about five miles westward lay the Wanaka Lake, more open but broken into by promontories and islets, and having the peculiarity, marked on all Maori sketches, of a long narrow eastern arm.' To the south-west was a high mountain with a huge leaning rock on its summit which justified its being named Mount Pisa, to the north-west was a glorious pyramid of ice and snow which he named Mount Aspiring.

After reaching the Clutha river, the party returned to the Waitaki and visited Lake Ohau. From there, on 28 December, Thomson went to the west side of Pukaki, reaching a point four miles beyond its head from which he had a commanding view of the valley with the milky blue lake, the miles of swamps page 121and the 'desert of sand' leading to the base of the Mount Cook range. Thomson thought he was entitled to name some of the prominent features. The main stream feeding the lake he called the Upper Waitaki, the shingle flats were the 'Valley of Sand' and the great peak west of Mount Cook was 'Mount Stokes'. These names appeared on several maps until Haast explored the valley in 1862. Thomson in 1873 said, 'Dr Haast, following me some years afterwards, has, no doubt inadvertently, altered these names to Tasman, and the great mountain… which I… named Mt. Stokes, he has altered to Sefton.'

The report of this extended exploration was widely read and in eighteen months the whole of the explored area was taken by sheepfarmers. Even while he was making the expedition, several sheep-farmers had been exploring on their own account. The most successful were Alexander and Watson Sherman who, early in December 1857, left the Tokomairiro plain and went across some rather rough country to the upper Tuapeka. They camped in Gabriel's Gully and went on to Evans Flat where they did a little unsuccessful prospecting. They reached the hills overlooking the Clutha river and, to avoid the scrub, followed the crest of the Knobbys rather than the valley itself. Eventually they came to the Manuherikia river flowing through 'a land of promise' to join the Clutha, where the town of page 122Alexandra stands to-day. They crossed and followed the Clutha to the present town of Clyde, and then retraced their steps to follow the Manuherikia and cross the Raggedy range into the Ida valley. They returned along Rough Ridge, descending to the Dismal Swamp, and then back along the Lammerlaws to civilisation. At the survey office all central Otago could have been leased—if they had been able to stock it. But this was more difficult than exploration, and they were satisfied with what were afterwards the famous stations of Galloway and Moutere.

This settlement had preceded the survey, so Thomson, who detested future boundary complications, sent A. Garvie in February 1858 to make a reconnaissance survey of the country the Shennans had leased. His route was from west Taieri across the ridges to Sutton, and thence directly across country to the present Alexandra. One of the party was James Buchanan and he found small specks of gold in the Manuherikia, and at Cromwell 'fine scale gold pretty plentiful—a handful of gravel washed in a pint pannikin producing several specks.' In March Garvie led the party from Waipori across country to Waitahuna and the mouth of the Tuapeka. Buchanan, when prospecting 'found scale gold similar to that found in the upper Clutha, and plenty even on the surface…. a quantity of about two handfuls from the very top produced eleven specks.' Traces of the metal were found near Waitahuna and page 123while they linked their survey to Thomson's tri-angulations in Southland, more was found. These returns were so good that Thomson reported the matter to the provincial council who apparently thought no more about it. Private prospectors worked on, and sheepfarmers were undisturbed until 1861 when Gabriel Read discovered a workable goldfield.