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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter XIII — The Otago Gold Rushes

page 133

Chapter XIII
The Otago Gold Rushes

The sheepfarmers who explored central Otago had barely time to stock their runs before wave after wave of gold-miners followed in their wake. There was the rush to Gabriel's Gully in 1861 and the great rush to the upper Clutha in 1862. Every creek and every river-flat was prospected until, by the end of 1862, miners, packhorses, and pack bullocks were crossing the ranges to the Arrow, the Shotover, and Lake Wakatipu. The conditions were exceptionally severe, for the country was almost devoid of timber and the miners had to work thigh deep shovelling gravel from the icy turbulent waters. Boats were often capsizing on the wild capricious lake; men and huts were swept away when the Shotover rose in flood; others died of exposure when caught in snow-storms on the exposed ridges. But this did not hold up the advance into the mountains. From the canvas town (Queenstown) around Rees's once isolated sheep station, men skirted the eastern shores of Wakatipu until they page 134reached its head and entered the mountain valleys of the Rees and the Dart. Peaks 8,000 ft. high now-barred the way and passes had to be found to tap the riches of the unknown and to connect the Lake district with harbours on the West Coast. This would bring Queenstown only a few days from Melbourne and revolutionise the transport to the goldfields. No longer would the miner curse the muddy road to Dunedin, and no longer would the 'Old Identities' control the business of central Otago.

To solve the problem Charles Cameron, J. H. McGregor, and F. Foot went up the Dart in October 1862, branching up the Routeburn and reaching the watershed of its north branch. The last few hundred feet were diffcult and ropes had to be used to reduce the danger of falling over rocks and into crevasses. They built cairns and left their names and the date engraved on powder flasks. Cameron then returned to Dunedin and offered to show the route for £1,000. J. T. Thomson objected and the superintendent of the province said that an expedition was being organised to explore and survey south-west Otago. Cameron returned to the head of the lake and made an amazing journey east across the ranges to Lake Lochnagar, from which the Shotover rises. His description is most exact and the name, if he gave it, is most appropriate because it does resemble the original tarn in Scotland. From here the party, by some unknown route, reached Wanaka almost page 135exhausted from lack of food and from continuous walking in the snow water. Meanwhile Symms and Sutcliffe had found a route from Wakatipu to the West Coast. They disclosed absolutely nothing and offered the pass to the province for £1,000. When their offer was refused, they chartered a boat and approached from the sea the point they had reached from the head of the lake.*

The next explorer, P. Q. Caples, did much more than Cameron. In January 1863 he went up the Dart river, following the south branch of the Routeburn to the snow and ice around Lake Harris. He cut steps with a shovel and followed channels in the ice until he could cross the saddle and descend to the river which he named the Hollyford. He went downstream for some miles coming to the Hidden Falls creek up which he went to reach the headwaters of the north branch of the Routeburn, and return by Cameron's track. With fresh stores he returned to Lake Harris, climbed a nearby peak and, having better weather, saw to the west a large lake and beyond it smoke issuing from the bush which fringed the seashore. Not having enough food, he chose to go up the Hollyford river until he came to the low saddle separating it from the source of the Greenstone river. Here were the two lakes—Howden and McKellar—which Gunn and McKellar had just discovered. To get back to Lake Wakatipu he crossed the Ailsa page 136mountains to the Caples river, following ice couloirs, cutting steps with sharp stones, and dodging rock avalanches. The valley was then followed to the lake so that he could tramp up its west bank to the Dart settlement. McKerrow, the surveyor, was there and very interested to hear of an unknown river flowing into a lake which drained into the Tasman Sea. He could not accept Caples's invitation to go over with him, but he gave him a compass and tracings of the latest map of Otago.

Caples then went to the Greenstone river, following it to Lake Howden and crossing the watershed to the Hollyford. Keeping above the bush line on the north bank, he explored until he was within a few miles of the ocean and could see, near the beach, a rudely constructed hut. Afraid that he would meet hostile Maoris (stories of wild Maoris in the mountain fastnesses were common), he camped that night without lighting a fire. As he said, 'It is easy for a person to find courage when he has law and assistance at his back, but let him be alone and beyond any assistance, near the camp of savages, he will find how fleeting courage is.' After secretly examining Martin's Bay and 'washing his hands in the salt waters of the ocean', he went back up the river, ravenously hungry, to eat every rat he could catch. From Lake McKellar he made an astonishing journey, probably with the aid of McKerrow's map, along the ridges to Nokomai. So ended three months of first-class page 137exploration. Other miners followed him, but none of them covered such an area of country or gave such accurate descriptions.

Meanwhile the provincial government had been organising an expedition to explore the West Coast from the sea. J. T. Thomson was to be the leader and Dr Hector the official scientist. Since nothing whatever was known about the interior of the West Coast, Hector, in October 1862, went to Wanaka and up the Matukituki to the summit of Black Peak, hoping to see some portion of the country before they approached it from the sea. All he saw was a gap in the range south of Mount Aspiring, but it was so encouraging that he decided to explore it as soon as he heard the expedition had been postponed until a suitable steamer had been purchased.

In February 1863 Hector, Sullivan, and Rayer went to the head of the west branch of the Matukituki and crossed Hector col (Matukituki saddle). The western side was so steep and loose that they felt 'like flies on a wall.' They slept that night on the rock face and descended next morning to negotiate a glacier. Hector produced 80 feet of light rope and with its moral support he cut steps across crevasses, hauled the swags over, and generally assisted his companions. At the terminal moraine of the glacier they cached some flour and a tin of sardines before following the Waipara river, which it fed. Deep gorges held them up, and had they not ascended page 138a hill and seen the far off ocean, they would have turned back. But by struggling on they reached the Arawata river and plodded on to within eight miles of Jackson's Bay.

Here they turned back. Rain had been falling heavily, the river was rising, the bush was devoid of bird life, and not one eel would bite. From 23 February until they reached a cache of flour and pemmican on the 26th, the three men fed on one pigeon and one kaka. Another food shortage occurred when they found that the rats had broken into the stores at the glacier and eaten everything except the tin of sardines. They made soup from toi-toi roots and six square inches of sheep skin, and from it and the sardines obtained enough energy to ascend the glacier and cross the pass to a store of food hanging safely from a tree. After a huge meal and a long rest they returned to the lake and Sullivan sent a report to the Otago Daily Times. The main features concern the great rivers and the difficult pass (Hector col) but there are interesting references to new birds, to the first prospectors, and to the bushmen cutting down the beech trees near the lake.

There was similar activity at the head of the lake in the valley of the Makarora. Timber was being cut down and explorers were leaving there to seek passes to the West Coast. In January 1863 the ubiquitous Charles Cameron went up the Fish river and on to, the Haast pass. Of his later movements no clear page 139account can be found. He briefly stated that he reached the coast 'just south of the Awarua River' (Haast river) and then returned to Makarora. Here he passed Haast and his party making their way to the coast. Cameron apparently boasted of his exploit, because Häring, one of Haast's party, told him 'to spin such yarns to marines and Gaelic Brethren, but blue-jackets wouldn't believe him.' Cameron returned to civilisation and on 11 February wrote a letter to the Weekly Colonist, the Dunedin correspondent of the paper vouching for its authenticity.

Meanwhile Haast was studying geological features and searching for the Maori pass to the West Coast. He had acquired a description of the route from a Maori living at Waimate; it was slightly confused, but they reached the pass and Haast went on to ascend Mount Brewster. The next two weeks were made miserable by howling north-west storms. The bush was wet, the creeks were flooded, and in that time the party covered only the eleven miles to the confluence of the Burke and the Haast. They chose to follow the north side of the Haast, a bad mistake because the country was very rough and the Clarke river flowed in from the north-east. It had to be crossed Maori fashion with a heavy pole pointed upstream and all five stumbling abreast so that the man farthest upstream broke the force of the current. The Haast was still heavily in flood and instead of following the easy shingle flats they had to push page 140through the bush which fringed the northern bank. It was heavy going and the coast was not reached until 20 February. They had taken four weeks; the Maoris had said that it took less than that number of days. The return was made in better time and Haast was able to correspond with Hector who was just back from his expedition. After a rest Young and Haast went some distance up the Wilkin river and up the Young and Hunter rivers, thus thoroughly surveying the upper Wanaka region. News of the pass created a sensation and miners promptly went over, to meet with little success.

Some months later the Haast-Cameron subject was heatedly discussed in the press. Häring and Holmes could not believe that Cameron had moved so fast; he must have gone 'like the Flying Dutchman'. This was a weak argument because the Maoris never varied in their estimate of two to three days. Haast with bad weather and a bad route had taken a month, but that was no reason to doubt Cameron's speed in good weather. However, the most important fact was that Cameron said the coast was rugged, which immediately south of the Haast it definitely is not. From this it would seem most improbable that Cameron ever reached the coast. In fact, opinion at the time was inclined to question whether he ever reached the pass. That point was settled in 1881 when T. N. Brodrick discovered Cameron's powder flask at the top of a high snow-covered peak (Mount page 141Cameron) to the west of the pass. Brodrick wrote, 'I can almost conclusively prove that Charles Cameron's statement that he discovered Haast Pass in January 1863 is correct…. whoever put it [the powder flask] there could not have failed to see the Pass as he could not have ascended from any other direction. It was a very unfrequented place—in fact until I discovered it I was under the impression that I was the first man who had ever visited it. The flask is half of one of the old powder tins and has the inscription scratched on it, "Charles Cameron, January 1863." ' This evidence together with Cameron's confusing description suggests that he crossed the pass and went down the Haast river to its junction with the Clarke. He certainly attempted to market his discovery, for he offered it to the Canterbury government—at a price. When his offer was not accepted, he worked his claim at Sandy Point and eventually recruited, in Otago and Southland, 100 men to serve in the Maori wars. The Hawke's Bay Herald said he was an old settler and explorer, a tough customer who had already suffered much from the Maoris. What happened to him after this date is not known.