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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter XV — Westland

page 155

Chapter XV

The exploration of the West Coast was begun by Brunner and Heaphy in 1846 and continued by Brunner in 1846–8. But Brunner's sufferings during his second trip had so impressed his contemporaries and his reports had been so unfavourable that no one wished to continue the work. Until 1856 the only visitors were sealers from Foveaux Strait, shore whalers at Jackson's Bay, and overseas whalers who sought anchorages for which they would not have to pay harbour dues. When exploration again began, the motive was the discovery of extensive plains which the Maoris said existed in the north-west corner of the Island. To find them James Mackay and J. Clark in 1856 went inland from Massacre Bay up the Aorere and Takaka rivers to the crest of the Divide. They found a pass to the Heaphy river and that great stretch of scrub-covered country now called the Gouland Downs, but saw no country worth occupying.

Mackay was not satisfied and in January 1857 he page 156left with two Maoris and followed Brunner's track from Massacre Bay to West Wanganui and down the coast to the Grey river. With the chief Tarapuhi he went up its lower reaches and south almost to the Taramakau. The natives were not altogether encouraging because the country west of the Alps had not really been bought by Kemp and Mantell in 1848. Consequently, when Mackay returned to Nelson, he reported the matter to the authorities.

But before he returned, several other parties visited the West Coast and made 1857 one of the great years in the early history of Westland. In March the Oakes brothers in the Emerald Isle are said to have visited Martin's Bay, Jackson's Bay, the Hokitika, and the Grey. On 21 May the barque Pacific, a whaler from New Bedford, U.S.A., sank somewhere between Milford Haven and Jackson's Bay. The bow boat and eight men got away to be cast up on the coast without any loss of life. Finding it too difficult to go overland to Milford Sound, they went to Jackson's Bay where the natives received them kindly and gave them directions as to the overland route to Nelson. Then, living on shell-fish and fern roots, the seven whalers walked up the coast from village to village finding the natives 'invariably kind'. Had they not been so, these amateur bushmen could never have crossed the rivers or lived on the country. With very sore feet they reached Nelson in September and one, Theodore Jerome, gave a very page 157matter of fact statement of their adventures. This is a pity because these seven whalers were the first Europeans to traverse the coast from Otago to Nelson.

In November Leonard Harper and a Mr Locke approached the West Coast from another angle. They went over the Hurunui pass (Harper's) which was regularly being used by the Maoris of the Kaiapoi and the Grey river settlements. Brunner, Hamilton, and Mackay had wished to cross it and the elder Dobson, Mason, and Taylor had actually crossed to the Taramakau river in September.* Thus, when Harper visited Kaiapoi, it was natural that he should persuade Tainui, a brother of Tarapuhi, to take him to the West Coast. They crossed the pass on 14 November, noticed some rice and curry left by Yonge and Wilson, and went down the Taramakau. At its junction with the Otira, Harper was told of a pass (Arthur's) at the head of the Otira which saddled with some east coast river. No living Maori had used it, but he thought of returning by it. Farther down the river the track branched north over the hills to the Grey river, but the Maoris chose to make a moki and race past the snags and through the rapids of the flooded Taramakau. At the mouth they met Tarapuhi, and Harper gave him a clay pipe and a waistcoat.

Locke had badly swollen feet, but Harper was in page 158good condition and with Tarapuhi made a long journey down the coast acquiring most useful information about rivers and mountain passes. Tarapuhi led them back to Kaiapoi and owing to short rations and broken shoes no attempt was made to use the Otira pass. The trip was given little publicity, probably because James Mackay had not yet purchased the West Coast. The main point, however, was made quite clear; Europeans could cross from Canterbury to the West Coast.

The next to use the pass were John Rochfort and James and Alexander Mackay. They went over to the Taramakau in 1859 and then separated, Rochfort going overland to Lake Brunner and the mouth of the Grey, and the Mackays taking a moki down the Taramakau to the sea. The former surveyed the boundary between Nelson and Canterbury while James Mackay attempted to purchase Westland. When negotiations failed because the Maoris would not sell the greenstone-bearing country between the Grey and the Hokitika rivers, the Mackays walked north to the Grey where they expected to find stores brought by sea from Nelson. But they had been dumped at the Buller, from which it was impossible to bring them overland to Grey. So the party remained at the Grey, living on the country and accepting potatoes from the Maoris. The Mackays made one attempt to reach Nelson by a direct route up the Grey to the watershed above the Maruia page 159which flows into the Buller river. The idea was very sound, but bad weather ruined their chances and sent them back to the coast where they were picked up by the store ship on its second visit.

The Nelson provincial council was now more active, and in August Rochfort was sent by ship to the Buller to begin a survey of its portion of the West Coast. He went up the river noting coal seams and the presence of gold. In his diary he said that F. Milligan discovered gold 'lying on the edge of the river, glistening in the sun, and in such quantities as induced rather a mutinous spirit….' Gold was found farther up the river, but the survey went on until the canoe, with their food and gear, was swept down the river. Nothing more could be done and a sorry looking party returned to the mouth of the Buller. The survey was not complete, but the discovery of gold was important and men from the Collingwood goldfields began to take an interest in the regions over the mountain.

Meanwhile, Mackay, after explaining to the Native Department the land problem on the coast, had been ordered to return and complete the purchase. To establish a more direct route from Nelson to the Grey he decided to reach, from the north, the point which he had attained when advancing up the Grey. Early in 1860, with his relatives A. and J. Mackay, he went to Lake Rotoroa and down the Buller. Following much the same route was Dr Haast page 160making a geological survey of the province for the Nelson government. He naturally went more slowly and James Mackay, after his relatives had to turn back, left him far behind. The dangers of the lower Buller he avoided by turning south up the Maruia river, one of the tributaries of the Buller. At the head he found a pass to the Grey river and reached the country he had explored the previous August. Had he not been short of food and tormented by a poisoned knee, Mackay would have been jubilant, for he had discovered a very direct route from Nelson to the mouth of the Grey. As it was, he had to open up his knee with a razor and limp on until he reached a cache of provisions left for him by Tarapuhi. Before he reached the river mouth he met several Europeans inspecting the valley. They went no farther, for then-Maori guides wished to return with Mackay to discuss the land sale. It was concluded after Mackay had gone down the coast to Bruce Bay and met the majority of the populace. When crossing the Grey on his way to Nelson, his canoe capsized, but Mackay, like a wise Scotsman, reached the shore with the bedraggled deed of sale and 100 sovereigns which he had not spent. He led back to Nelson twenty miners disappointed with the coast and reduced the coastal route by deviating up the Wakapohai (Heaphy) river and across the mountains to Aorere and Collingwood. The Nelson government, well page 161satisfied with his new route to the mouth of the Grey, gave £150 as a reward.

While all this was going on, Haast had been carefully collecting scientific data and making his way to Greymouth. His route was, to all intents and purposes, that taken by the indefatigable Mackay, and his encouraging report was most valuable.

Meanwhile another section of the routes from the east coast to Westland had been explored. In February 1860 W. T. L. Travers and C. Maling began the search for passes from north Canterbury to the West Coast. They began by going from the upper Wairau to Lake Tennyson and thence by Maling's pass to the headwaters of the Waiau. They named the Ada, the Ann, and the Henry rivers and ascended the Divide to see a river which they thought was the Grey and a pass to it from another tributary of the Waiau. They returned with such an enthusiastic report that Maling and Lewis were sent to inspect a possible bridle track. They crossed the range and 'descended 2–3000 feet down ugly slips and thick scrub to the supposed Grey.' Before they came to some hot springs, it went through a narrow ugly gorge (Cannibal gorge) which had to be crossed over forty times in 1½ miles. Then it swung north and proved itself to be the Maruia river which flowed into the Buller. This was useless, so they went back up the gorge and over by the pass now called Lewis pass to the Lewis river and then to the Boyle. Curiously enough, page 162they thought both these eastern rivers flowed into the Grey, and when Maling returned in 1861 to find a better route to the West Coast than Mackay's, he was surprised to learn from a Mr Handyside that the Lewis and the Boyle met to form the Hope river which flowed into the Waiau above Hanmer. However, he continued to the crest of the Divide and though he found no improved route, he returned confident that a pass could be found from the Doubtful river south of the Lewis, to the Ahaura and the Grey.

This was discovered by John Rochfort late in 1861. From the Grey river he went up the Ahaura river and the Waiheke river and crossed the Amuri pass to the Doubtful river. Before pointing out the route, he asked the Nelson government for a bonus and the superintendent 'consented to pay the sum required.'* It was then inspected and a bridle track cut across in 1862; by 1863 Freeth had driven over 500 sheep and Mackley 100 ewes and two heifers.

On the West Coast European activity was increasing. Nelson was developing the coal deposits, gold-miners were fossicking in the Buller and sheepfarmers such as Francis, Young, and the Ollivier brothers, had sailed down the coast to Jackson's Bay looking for grazing country. Canterbury had taken very little interest in its portion of the coast, but in 1863

* This fact, and the award to Mackay for his discoveries, were precedents, known perhaps to the Otago gold-miners who asked for £1,000 before revealing passes they discovered. See Chapter xiv.

page 163gold was found in the Taramakau, and the government decided to cut a track over Harper's pass. Drake was sent to survey the track and with him went the Sherrin brothers and one, Jacob Lauper, who had previously spent some weeks in that region. After considerable suffering they reached the mouth of the Taramakau and went south to inspect the Hokitika river and the country some three miles inland. They returned by Harper's pass, and the Sherrins by their enthusiastic description of the Hokitika river aroused the interest of Christchurch. Its 'discovery' was said to be of unparallelled importance; the Press, thinking of the Australian trade, thought that a town at its mouth would become 'the capital of the West Coast, if not of the Middle Island.' And there was the possibility of a goldfield being discovered on the coast.

But the route from Christchurch to Hokitika by way of Harper's pass was one taking three sides of a rectangle, so the government was advised to find a pass up the Rakaia or the Waimakariri, otherwise 'The town in the West Coast… will become an offshoot from Melbourne and will belong to Canterbury only in name.…' The result was that Cass, the chief surveyor, instructed Henry Whitcombe to search for the desired route up either the Rakaia or the Waimakariri. The latter, being the nearer to Christchurch, was the obvious choice, but Whitcombe, who seems to have heard of the pass page 164discovered by Butler and Baker, was permitted to explore the Rakaia. In April 1863 he and Jacob Lauper, expecting to meet Europeans on the coast, went over the Whitcombe pass and down an unknown river with no gun and food for only fourteen days. The gorges were very difficult and the explorers went very slowly; rain fell heavily so that their sugar was melted and their biscuits reduced to dough. When they reached the coast, Lauper realised that they had come down the Hokitika and were far from the Grey. They hurried on and at the Taramakau they had another disappointment. Neither Europeans not Maoris were to be seen and their only chance was to go upstream and find the Maoris. But Whitcombe, harassed by hunger, cold, sandflies, and fleas became impetuous to the verge of recklessness. Two old battered canoes were found and lashed together with flax. With one inch of free board the argonauts pushed off and were swept downstream over the bar. Whitcombe was drowned; Lauper clung to the canoes and eventually was cast up on the beach. He fell asleep and awoke to find his hands black with sandflies. Not far away he found Whitcombe's body and covered it with sand and driftwood. Lauper then went up the river and with Maori assistance reached Lake Brunner where Howitt's party was cutting the track from Harper's pass. When he recovered, he went back over the pass and took the sad news to Christchurch. For the page 165time being Cass was satisfied, for he sent no party to explore the more likely Waimakariri river.

On the West Coast Europeans were still arriving and the Canterbury government sent Mr Townsend to establish at the Grey river a store for the relief of distressed prospectors. The Sherrin brothers, whom Whitcombe had hoped to meet, reached the coast after a voyage of sixty-one days, and went exploring up the Hokitika river. They came on one of Whitcombe's camps and went far enough to see some saddle over the mountains. When they returned to the Grey, they heard that Howitt and his two men had been drowned in Lake Brunner. Then, after getting fresh stores at the depot, they went south hoping to reach Jackson's Bay. But the Maoris said that it was too late in the season and that the Waiho river could not be crossed. All that they could do was to go twelve miles up the Wanganui river and far enough up the east Wataroa to see the gorges.

Towards the end of the year (1863) the Canterbury government decided to survey the West Coast. Robert Bain was given the contract for the south and he began work in November, moving north from Martin's Bay. He had very bad luck, for his ship, the Pride of the Huron, was wrecked and his whale-boat was afterwards destroyed. After reaching the Haast river he returned to the east coast by way of Hector's route up the Hollyford. His contract was allowed to lapse, and John Rochfort, using Maori page 166labourers, completed the survey north to Abut Head.

The section from here to the Grey was given to Arthur Dudley Dobson. His arrival by sea is noteworthy because he sketched the Franz Josef glacier, but did not name it, as it was within John Rochfort's area. The large rivers made the work dangerous and when Townsend of the depot was drowned, Dobson's men had had enough. Maoris were employed and worked well until they wanted to spend their wages in Kaiapoi. Dobson went over Harper's pass with them and Tarapuhi casually mentioned the pass at the head of the Otira river. Dobson was interested and when he gave the newspapers a description of the coast he included it in his list of passes.

This may have been one of the reasons why, in March 1864, Cass sent him up the Waimakariri in search of another pass to the West Coast. Dobson and his brother Edward branched off up the Bealey river, cut their way through bush and scrub, and reached Arthur's pass. They went down about 500 feet and thought that a zig-zag route could be cut to the coast. They returned to the Goldneys' sheep station and Arthur Dobson went to the pass again with one of them. Using poles, flax ladders, and a flax rope for a dog they went down the Otira river to its junction with the Rolleston. This was far enough because Goldney saw no sheep country and Dobson had learnt that they could not take horses by that page 167route to the coast. The Canterbury authorities did not take any immediate action in the pass because their interest in the West Coast was rather on the wane. The Lyttelton Times suggested its development as a penal settlement. By June 1864 the surveyors, Dobson and Rochfort, were ordered to return and Revell, the agent at the relief store, was advised to leave by September.

But prospectors such as French, Smart, and Hunt had been getting gold in the Grey district, and Revell went post-haste to Christchurch to convince the council of its faulty policy. It reversed its decision and the province hoped for great discoveries, although the Lyttelton Times then made its famous comment that the settlers must submit to fate and console themselves with the fact that the goldfield would be in 'the remotest corner of the province.' Miners hurried from the Buller and from Nelson, and by October Liddle, Donnelly, and others were working the fields near Hokitika. By February 1865 the rush was beginning; Cobb's coach to Kaiapoi was being crowded with miners en route to the Hurunui and Harper's pass. Late in the month one parcel of 1,375 oz and another of 1,000 oz left Hokitika. The exodus from Canterbury and Otago then began and in one week of March over 1,000 men went through Kaiapoi on their way to Harper's pass.

The Canterbury government once again realised page 168that the route was unsuitable, being in bad condition and too indirect. Therefore George Dobson was sent in haste to see if a road could be constructed across the pass his brother found in 1864. Christchurch awaited his return with interest and, when a public meeting was held to discuss the goldfields, the council's reply to questions about a better route was practically, 'Wait and see. George Dobson will soon be back.' He was back in March after having gone up the Bealey and over the pass to the Otira which he followed to the Taramakau. On his return he crossed Goat pass which was 500 feet higher and so steep that he went over on his hands and knees. Neither pass pleased him and his report was very discouraging. The council, convinced that no good road could go by Harper's pass, sent Edward Dobson senior to see if a road could be forced over Arthur's pass and George Dobson to find a better pass from any of the many tributaries of the Waimakariri.

The Dobsons went together and tried the Hawdon tributary at whose head was a pass (Walker pass) crossed by McRae, a shepherd, and by Messrs Pearson and Walker. The descent to the West Coast was difficult and they returned to camp where they met Browning and Cahill. The latter was an engineer, the former was on the survey staff, but being on holiday was exploring as an amateur. They had been up the White river and found a pass which they had not been able to ascend because of loose rock. The page 169Dobsons now separated, George going up the East Poulter over a saddle to the Taramakau and back by Arthur's pass, Edward going first to Arthur's pass and then up the east branch of the White until some sheepfarmers told him that it had a glacial source. George then went up the West Poulter and over the pass discovered by Worsley, Percival, Leech, and Thomas. It led to the ugly gorges of the Otekahe and was therefore of no use.

All this time Christchurch was discussing the West Coast route. A deputation asked the provincial council to get a better route than Harper's pass and some merchants offered a reward of £200 for the discovery of a good pass. Everyone now realised that geography was deciding whether the wealth of the goldfields was to go overland to Christchurch or by boat to Australia and to other parts of New Zealand. Consequently several active gentlemen—FitzGerald, Harman, Johnstone, and Armstrong—hired one of Cobb's coaches and by superb driving were taken up the Waimakariri almost to its junction with the White river. There they met Browning and Cahill and organised two parties.

Harman, Browning, and Johnstone went up the west branch of the White, over a pass (Harman's) and down a gorge until they reached a waterfall. Harman and Johnstone forced Browning to return, thinking that they had risked their lives often enough already. When they reached camp, they heard that page 170an accident had befallen Cahill and Armstrong who had gone up the main branch of the White to the pass (Campbell pass) seen by Cahill and Browning. Armstrong had climbed to the top, and when making another ascent with Cahill, had been knocked insensible by falling boulders. Cahill had taken the helpless man to the tent 2,000 feet below and then gone for the assistance of the others. This ended the exploration of the upper reaches of the Waimakariri, for Edward Dobson senior had already decided to cut a bridle track across Arthur's pass. When the magnitude of the goldfields was realised, 1,000 men constructed a coach road in less than a year.

This burst of exploration had one interesting result. J. W. Hamilton suggested that the Maoris should be asked to describe routes across the mountains. The Rev. J. W. Stack at Kaiapoi made inquiries and heard of a pass up the Rakaia, quite different from that crossed by Whitcombe. The route now tapu had been popular until a party crossing in winter had been snow-bound in a cave where they died of cold and starvation. A map and description were sent by express messenger to Harman who, with Browning and Johnstone, then went from the Waimakariri to the Rakaia. Following instructions, they went up the Wilberforce branch and there met Messrs Griffiths and Otway who had just been to the pass (Browning's) with its small lake and the river flowing west. The parties joined, spent a week among page 171the gorges of this river, and returned to the nearest sheep run.

Browning and Griffiths returned to the pass, followed the Arahura for some distance and then went over Griffiths' pass (Styx saddle) to the north branch of the Hokitika. They struggled through the bush and then floated downstream in a moki. Their arrival at Hokitika created a sensation. Griffiths applied for the promised reward of £200 and in a very short time a track was cut for the use of miners and stock drivers.

On the coast itself the rush was moving fast to the south. Haast, on his geological survey, followed the miners as far as the Waiho river and went inland to the Franz Josef glacier which he named after the Emperor of Austria. By the end of the year 1865 the prospectors had reached Otago territory and explored inland for miles. The desire for gold will make men overcome insuperable difficulties, and the miners followed many a river to its glacial source. Unfortunately, few records were kept, but we know that a rush up the Cook river led some miners to the La Pérouse glacier whose terminal moraines they mistook for auriferous wash, that in 1866 'Harry the Whale' and Dick Nicolls discovered the Balfour glacier, and that the former, with 'German Harry' and 'Tony the Greek' went from the Cook river over the ranges to the Copland river. There must have been hundreds of expeditions page 172similar to these and worthy of more notice than they have yet obtained. When the map of Westland was completed towards the end of the century, only the glacial sources and the upper reaches of a few rivers had yet to be explored.