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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter XIV — Lake Wakatipu and the West Coast

page 142

Chapter XIV
Lake Wakatipu and the West Coast

Early in 1863, while P. Q. Caples was exploring the overland route from Wakatipu to Martin's Bay, at least four expeditions went by Foveaux Strait to the West Coast. The ketch Courier with Messrs Symms and Sutcliffe and party arrived in April and prospected the creeks flowing into Thompson's Sound, Charles Sound, and Bligh Sound. The weather was frightful; the horizon was obscured by fog and rain; terrific thunder storms boomed down the gullies and reverberated back from ridge to ridge. Flashes of hghtning burst through the gloom and as Sutcliffe said, 'rendered the scene particularly uninviting and materially assisted us in coming to the conclusion that we had chosen the wrong season for exploring the Western side of the Island.' Symms and Sutcliffe, who had hoped to find inland the country they claimed to have reached overland from Wakatipu, returned with three others to Port Chalmers. Six prospectors remained with a 22 foot whale-boat and ten months' food at a depot page 143in Bligh Sound. They prospected there for five months, spent several days in Milford Sound, and then sailed to Jackson's Bay. Here they met Bain, the Canterbury surveyor,* and were employed by him until one of the party was drowned when trying to cross the Arawata river on a raft. Having had enough of danger and hardship, they returned to Invercargill in February 1864.

Long before this the cutter Aquila had reached Milford Sound and sailed north to the Awarua river. The party landed, each man with powder and shot, 10 lb of biscuits, 1½ lb of sugar, and a little tea; the Aquila was taken to safe anchorage in Milford Sound. One group prospected the Awarua and the rest—Duncan, Crawford, Captain Alabaster, and others—went down the coast to Martin's Bay and the Hollyford river. The former appeared on the map, but the latter, just discovered by Caples, was quite unknown and justified more examination. The prospectors used a leaking canoe belonging to the local Maoris to paddle up the river and discover Lake McKerrow. Expecting the Aquila to return with stores, they went back to the bay where they were joined by the Awarua party. The Aquila did not arrive, and food became scarce, for the Maoris were living a hand to mouth existence. Therefore five men, with an allowance of ½ lb of biscuits each, went overland to Milford. The trip across some page 144fearful country took four days, but they found the Aquila and hurried the captain to Martin's Bay. The little ship was taken in over the bar and up the river to Lake McKerrow.

Using one of the ship's boats, a party went up the Hollyford, some hauling the boat, some cutting tracks and others prospecting. On 14 June several of them, including Captain Alabaster, ascended a mountain near Lake Howden and saw the rivers flowing east to Wakatipu. Alabaster and Duncan were master mariners and they plotted their position fairly accurately. Then, to please those who complained about the absence of gold, they went back to Lake McKerrow and rowed up the Pyke river to discover Lake Alabaster before returning to Foveaux Strait.

Contemporary with this expedition was that of Andy Williamson and others in the cutter Nugget. They entered Bligh Sound late in April and, after going up a river flowing into it, decided that 'nothing without wings could go inland from that place.' At Milford Sound the precipices turned them back so they went on to Jackson's Bay where they laboriously cut out a dock for their little craft. Then they went up the Arawata dragging the ship's boat against the current, walking up to the waist in water, tortured by myriads of sandflies and mosquitoes. Finding little gold, they went back leaving the Nugget at the Waiatoto river and walking overland page break
The Hollyford Valley

The Hollyford Valley

page 145to the Haast. Canoes were cut out, and up the river they went encouraged by Haast's report that at the confluence of the Burke gold had been found. One group went up the Clarke and Landsborough. The other followed the Haast and its tributaries, the Burke and the Wills. They found a tin dish, a birdcage and some old flour-bags, and wondered if they were the mining tools Haast said he had left. There was little sign of gold and still less in the Thomas which Haast had thought a likely spot. They returned to the ship and, using it as a base, prospected the country from the Waiatoto to the Cascade. The results were poor and they returned to Invercargill in November, having been away for eight months.

The last ship to reach the coast was the Matilda Hayes, chartered by the Otago provincial council for Hector, who wished to begin a geological survey before the steamship St Kilda arrived to convey the official expedition under T. J. Thomson. Being an explorer as well as a scientist, Hector hoped to find a route from the coast to Wakatipu. For this reason, before the ship sailed, he made a short trip to the lake and inspected the Greenstone river. Bad weather held him up, but he saw enough to suggest that it might saddle with some West Coast stream. Curiously enough, he did not meet Caples who had just returned to Queenstown and he did not read the local papers which reported the discovery of the Hollyford river. When the full report of Caples's adventures page 146was published in the Otago Daily Times, Hector was at Riverton, and although he did not leave for eleven days, no copy of the paper reached him.

The survey, for the first few weeks, was in the extreme south, and exploration into the interior did not commence until Milford Sound was reached. He went up the Cleddau river until he was faced by the great rock walls which rise abruptly thousands of feet above the river-bed. There was obviously no pass to Wakatipu. Hector decided to go up the coast in a whale-boat and, when passing Martin's Bay, saw the smoke of Maori fires. His pilot, Henry Parramatta, told him about the Hollyford river which the Acheron survey had not placed on the charts. This was news indeed, so Hector landed and met Tutoko and his family. The Matilda Hayes was brought in to Lake McKerrow and Hector, noting signs of the miners who preceded him, went up the Hollyford river. At the point where it turns sharply south, Parramatta advised them to follow up a creek. They did so and found that it drained Lake Howden; nearby was Lake McKellar and the Greenstone flowing into Wakatipu. Hector now knew where he was and carried on to Queenstown.

The miners received him with great enthusiasm. 'The streets and bars were thronged by eager and breathless crowds, anxiously canvassing the probable results of the discovery to the township.' The Dunedin newspapers thought the 'mystery of the West Coast page 147was solved' and believed that there would be a trade route from Melbourne to Martin's Bay and overland to Queenstown and Dunedin. This justified celebrations in honour of the intrepid explorer and a public dinner, arranged by prominent citizens, was held in the Shamrock Hotel. Many fine speeches were made and Hector, when replying to his toast said that he had had no knowledge of the work done by Caples, Cameron, Alabaster, and Sutcliffe. He praised the zeal and perseverance of Caples and remarked that it was difficult to find any portion of the province that was not known to prospectors. He was not confident that a new goldfield would be discovered, but he was certain that a road could be constructed to Martin's Bay and that a passable harbour could be created. A report was given to the council and Hector went back overland to his ship in Martin's Bay.

The degree of publicity given to Hector aroused protests from other explorers. Cameron reminded the public that he had once offered a route to the provincial council; Symms revealed the fact that he and Sutcliffe had once valued a pass at £1,000. In reply J. T. Thomson complained that they had 'concealed their discoveries and demanded public money to reveal the same.' On the other hand, he was quite willing to defend Caples and Alabaster when the press, in its ignorance, asserted that they 'had failed to find the easy valley route discovered page 148by Hector.' In fact, quite rightly, he removed Hector's place names from the map and substituted those of Caples.

The future history of the Greenstone-Hollyford route is one of sudden disappointment. The miners who went over by it found no gold and the surveyors who began work in 1864 reported that a road was impossible. The provincial government, now as pessimistic as it had previously been hopeful, dropped the idea of developing the West Coast. The survey expedition was abandoned and Thomson had to be satisfied with the hasty observations of Caples, Alabaster, and Hector.

The mining element refused to be beaten. A. J. Barrington began the exploration of the complicated country between the Hollyford and the Haast. To get there he first tried going up the Dart and then in December 1863, with E. Dunmore and W. Bayliss, he branched up its tributary, the Wild Dog creek (Routeburn). Here they met McGuirk, alias the Maori Hen, a noted character who, every few weeks, came in to the head of the lake for provisions and left again for the West Coast. Any parties who followed him were always given the slip. However, he agreed to lead Barrington and his party over a pass (North col) at the head of the north branch of the Routeburn. The snow was deep and their lives hung in jeopardy every few minutes. From the Hidden Falls creek, in which they then were, they went up page 149over another pass (Cow saddle) to the headwaters of the Olivine river, following it down until they could cross the range to Lake Alabaster. The party then set to with a tomahawk and made a canoe from a log of white pine. At 3 p.m. on 5 January 1864 the Maori Hen was launched. Dunmore and McGuirk crossed to prospect while the other two went back for provisions.

The latter had to force their way back through driving snow-storms and risk sliding down the slopes below each pass. For some reason Barrington went back to Queenstown and left Bayliss at the head of the lake where he went 'on the spree' and talked so much that they were followed on the way back. Barrington parted with Bayliss and took James Farrell in his place. Their swags were 107 lb each, but they hurried—still followed—to Lake Alabaster. Misfortune followed misfortune. Snow fell, rivers flooded, and Barrington had an attack of dysentery. By the time they were half-way Farrell had made two attempts to get back for more food; and when they did get to the lake they found 'Dunmore sitting on a stone by the river—a complete living skeleton.' They had never seen anything like him alive and promptly fed him and put him to bed. The Maori Hen had left for civilisation and probably died on the way.

Food was still short, so Farrell stayed with Dunmore, and Barrington returned to Wakatipu. A page 150large party came back with him but only Antoine Simonin would make an extended stay in the country. To get powder and shot Barrington and Farrell went back to Wakatipu and then rejoined Simonin at Lake Alabaster. They explored up the Pyke river to Lake Plenty (Wilmot) and beyond it over a saddle to the headwaters of the Gorge river. By following it up among granite boulders or through heavy bush they reached the Gorge saddle which leads into the Cascade river. Conditions were bad. The heavy frosts of approaching winter hardened their water-soaked clothes; the dog, when sent to catch kakapos, preferred to eat them himself. They did not scorn killing a robin and three wrens to obtain some small joints. All that kept them pressing forward was the presence of a little gold in the river flats of the Cascade. But by the end of April they had to get back or spend a winter on the coast. Barrington wanted to move north and reach the Haast, but the others voted for Wakatipu, not by the circuitous route they had come, but straight across country. For boldness born of desperation this decision must be unique in New Zealand history. It meant the traversing of 7,000 feet snowfields, the ascent of broken glaciers, and days without food.

The mining tools were dumped and the Cascade followed above its gorge until, to get past a waterfall, they climbed the adjoining precipices with their lives 'depending on a few blades of grass.' Soon after page 151they reached easier slopes and climbed to the summit of the Red hills and descended into the Red Pyke. They knew that this river after describing a semicircle joined the Pyke, but they would not deviate from their direct route. Then in a mist Barrington lost his companions and had to weather a heavy storm which left two or three feet of snow round his tent. He thought of the Maori Hen and was pleased to eat the roots of spear grass. All his gear, except notes and gun, were thrown away and he hurried on until by observing smoke he found the others enjoying two wekas and drying their clothes. Having only a 5 × 6 fly, they had not enjoyed the snow-storm.

Not daring to lose time by any indirect route, they struck up to the very head of some branch of the Red Pyke and camped at the foot of a glacier. The next day these desperate men went up what Barrington called 'a mile of pure ice, as pure as crystal.' Beyond were two miles of snow and then a really steep snow slope up which they struggled with toe and finger holds. Over the crest they came to great fields of snow, above which peaks of between seven and eight thousand feet rise in every direction except the west. Glaciers fell away in all directions but the miners chose to go between the Furies and Gyrae and follow a steep snow slope into the gorge of the Barrier river. Barrington, describing the descent says, 'At one time Simonin was behind me; page 152I heard him sing out… I turned round and he was coming down the snow at a fearful rate, head first on his back. He held the gun in one hand but had to let it go, when both he and the gun passed me at the rate of a swallow and did not stop till they reached a little flat about two miles down, with a fall of 1,000 feet… not hurt but a little frightened. He concludes the day's notes saying, 'Such a day I hope never to see again.'

After three days of lowering each other down flax ropes they got through the gorge of the Barrier to the main Pyke and Lake Alabaster. They fed on ducks, wekas, and fern roots until they could make the last rush to Wakatipu. The trip was by the old route with the boulders and sub-alpine scrub loaded with feet of snow. Wet and miserable, they forced their way through, taking six days to travel what had once taken one day; a roasted rat was said to be 'the sweetest meat we ever ate.' On 7 June they reached the saddle (Cow saddle) above the Routeburn and found the frozen snow would almost carry their weight. So down they slid and rolled, sometimes crashing through the crust and disappearing into the drifts and hidden scrub.

In the valley they had the good fortune to shoot seven kakas, thereby feeding themselves and saving the life of the dog. He had probably been reserved for the next meal, for in the snow he had no value as a bird catcher. The three living skeletons then page 153made their way to the lake and so to the hospital. They were badly frost-bitten and according to observers, 'their cheek bones and noses, besides their elbows, hips and other parts of the body were protruding through the skin in places.' The generous community subscribed £40 to cover hospital expenses.

When they were sufficiently recovered, a public meeting was held and Barrington, in a speech interrupted by acclamations and cheers, described the West Coast. They had found gold eighty miles from Wakatipu and thirty miles from Jackson's Bay, but they never intended to go overland again. They were going to charter a boat and go round with twelve months' provisions. Prominent citizens asked questions and were satisfactorily answered. The meeting ended with a unanimous recognition of 'the services rendered by Mr Barrington and his party prospecting a difficult and unknown portion of the Province' and with the heartfelt wish that they would have future success in developing the new goldfield. Later in the year there was a minor sensation when Barrington accompanied a friend to the bank and with 'a paternal interest' watched him sell 16 oz of gold of a type unknown in the Lake district. Those who observed the incident said they went away in 'close confab'. But what intensified public interest was the Lake Wakatip Mail's account of his expedition, column after column of romantic adventure, page 154outstanding in a paper already unequalled for romance. By August, when news came of good returns in the Grey, the miners were restless and the Dunedin press said that the West Coast had 'taken many by the ears'.

In the summer of 1864–5 the Petrel, the Thames, the Colleen Bawn, and the Nugget conveyed prospectors to Barrington's country. Barrington went in the Nugget and led thirty-eight miners up the Cascade river to the point where his party had left their gold bag and mining tools. They prospected there and in the Arawata without having any success. The other parties were also unsuccessful and all went back to the Grey river, where good returns were being obtained. This is the last we hear of Barrington who had accomplished one of the finest pieces of exploration in New Zealand history. Without Maori aid, with less vegetable food than Brunner obtained in the Nelson bush, and with an infinitely more severe climate to endure, he had explored the Pyke and the Red Pyke, the Gorge, the Cascade, and the Barrier rivers. The publicity given to his efforts drew attention to the Coast and in 1865 was partially responsible for the exodus from the Otago goldfields.