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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter VIII — The Acheron Survey

page 85

Chapter VIII
The Acheron Survey

In answer to many complaints the Admiralty, in 1847, appointed Captain Stokes of H.M.S. Acheron to survey the coast and harbours of New Zealand. This led an eminent geologist, Dr Fitten, to suggest that an experienced naturalist should be attached to the expedition. The New Zealand Company went further and arranged for scientific investigation of the interior in order to assist the directors in their scheme of colonisation. The assistant surgeon was Forbes, a capable geologist, and the chief surgeon was Lyall, a botanist who had accompanied Sir J. D. Hooker when he went to Antarctica with Sir James Clark Ross of the Erebus and the Terror. At its own expense the Company was permitted to have J. W. Hamilton added to the staff of draughtsmen. He had been secretary to Governor FitzRoy and could speak Maori, an accomplishment likely to be of value when expeditions were made into the interior. In New Zealand he was to assist in the examination of its geological structure and to page 86ascertain the most eligible sites for settlement. In other words he was to be an explorer.

The Acheron reached Auckland in 1848 and went to Akaroa in February 1849. The nautical survey of Banks Peninsula was begun and Stokes and Hamilton attended the land sale then being completed by Mantell. That completed, they went on a sixteen days' trip inland to inspect the country just chosen by Captain Thomas for the Canterbury Association. At Riccarton they were joined by Strange, one of the ship's company who had been for a few days up the Waimakariri. The party then went across the river and north-west to Mount Grey. From the summit Stokes saw the great plain stretching 100 miles to the south and 'watered by a multitude of streams.…' He sent a very enthusiastic report to Sir George Grey, Captain Thomas's choice was confirmed, and the news was sent forthwith to London.

The Acheron then went south to chart the east coast of Otago and the question was whether Hamilton should explore its interior. It was decided that the approaching winter would prevent his going far inland and that he could be better employed exploring the attractive country north of Mount Grey and perhaps attempting to cross to the West Coast.

Therefore on 2 April Hamilton, two Maori porters, and an officer of the Acheron left Riccarton for Kaiapoi. From there they were guided by an aged Maori named Te Hua, 'the egg'. He described the page 87route to the West Coast but insisted that anyone attempting to cross the mountains so late in the season would have his 'toes broken off like bits of grass by the cold and snow.' They came on this well defined West Coast track on 5 April but Hamilton did not follow it any distance. The natives had heavy packs and were rather vague about the time required to traverse north Canterbury. He preferred to go north to the Waiau, follow it to the Greenwood's station at Motunau and then return by the coast until he could strike inland to Kaiapoi. There they recounted their adventures and explained that the fossils they had collected were signs of Noah's flood. In due time he sent the directors a report of the fine grazing country he had traversed. Apparently it had not been expected, as from the sea the line of coastal hills had given a false impression of the interior. He thought it a place worthy of settlement, preferably by squatters like the Deans until enough knowledge was acquired for organised settlement.

Soon after, the Acheron returned to chart the coasts of Cook Strait, and Hamilton was employed on board. In August, however, the ship was taken to Sydney to refit and to load coal, and during its absence he was free to explore. He wished to find the Maori path from the Wairau to north Canterbury and William Fox, principal agent of the New Zealand Company, wished him to cross the mountains from Canterbury to the West Coast.

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To solve the first problem Hamilton was joined by E. J. Eyre, Lieutenant-Governor of New Munster, which included the South Island. With some Wellington Maoris they went to the Wairau and then to the Awatere river and on 12 November 1849 were camped on the main spur of Tapuaenuku, the highest peak of the Kaikouras. The following day Hamilton remained at the snow line, 6,000 feet; he argued that he needed spiked shoes and mountain gear, that a survey was useless without a theodolite, and that the summit was not sufficiently high above its neighbours to show the route into Canterbury. Eyre and four Maoris went on to attempt the first ascent—if men worried about such matters in those days. Eyre, who had traversed West Australian deserts, was quite eager to ascend the snow slopes. For thirteen hours the party plodded through the snow and were within fifteen minutes of the summit when failing light forced them to turn back. Now in the late afternoon the soft snow was freezing again and becoming very dangerous to the amateur mountaineers. So, when Eyre was leading the party down 'a steep face of the hill little less than perpendicular', he heard a cry and saw one of the Maoris, Wiremu Hoeta, sliding down the ice slope. The Maori bumped and rolled over projecting rocks and when past the snow-line ricocheted from ledge to ledge until he crashed to death in an inaccessible ravine 1,500 feet below. Later Eyre himself slipped, page 89but managed to recover his balance by using his iron-shod pole. Then another native slipped and after falling about fifteen feet clutched a rock and saved himself. After these incidents the party stopped 700 feet below the summit and spent a cold night amidst the snow before completing the descent of the mountain next morning.

The natives were now rather disconsolate and would not assist Eyre when he proposed to continue his way to north Canterbury. Hamilton then accepted a passage to Banks Peninsula in a whale-boat and en route carefully charted the coast from Flaxbourne to Port Cooper with special emphasis on the boat harbours and the paths across the coastal hills to the interior. When he reached the peninsula he found that every able-bodied Maori was determined to wait in Akaroa until the land commissioner distributed some money. The best he could do was to move about Kaiapoi and re-ascend Mount Grey. To make the situation more annoying, some West Coast Maoris came over the pass from the Taramakau to the Hurunui. They had much to say about the route and Hamilton wished that he could go over to add more details to the map prepared by Brunner.

By the time the natives were free to assist him, the Acheron returned from Sydney and Hamilton was taken south to Foveaux Strait. The marine survey lasted from March until June 1850 and Hamilton was occasionally free to report upon the mainland. page 90In April he visited the Bluff which he thought would be the port-town of the district; later he went with Stokes in a six-oar whaler some thirty miles up the Oreti river. Hamilton thought that 'a more desirable tract of country… could hardly be found.' Soon after, with Lieutenant Spencer, he went for several days up the east bank of the Aparima river, back to the Bluff, then overland to Dunedin.

They left the Bluff early in May with some local natives who carried about 70 lb of food and gear to the Europeans' 30 lb. On 9 May they were at Tuturau, near Mataura. Hamilton was impressed with the country and noted that potatoes measured nine inches in length. From here they followed the Maori track east to the Molyneux river and spent some days at Omaru shooting pigs with some settlers named Chalmers. They then went on to Dunedin where they rejoined the Acheron.

The report which Hamilton prepared was probably the most important he ever sent to the directors of the Company. The map, based on the Acheron survey, was really accurate, the route of the party was clearly shown, and his description of the interior exceedingly informative. The more remote lakes and rivers were shown although the natives were not very familiar with them. Only four old men of Foveaux Strait had ever been inland to the lakes. There were only 500 natives in the south and Hamilton suggested that the block be bought for £2,000. page 91Some of this information was embodied in a report which Stokes prepared for the lieutenant-governor. It was read to the Royal Geographical Society in 1851 and among those present was Tuckett who, in 1844, had not been impressed with Southland. He still maintained that the country south of the Mataura was not good; he was an obstinate man, well-meaning but cantankerous.

The inhabitants of Dunedin were not extraordinarily excited by the report on Southland. Few were interested in farming and few had any capital. Since it could not be a Presbyterian colony, Captain Cargill wrote post-haste to the London agent of the Lay Association suggesting that the report be sent to zealous and leading laymen of the Independent and Wesleyan denominations. He thought that they might found another church colony and described those of Otago and Canterbury. Nothing seems to have resulted, probably because the New Zealand Company was about to cease operations. E. G. Wakefield would certainly have favoured the idea; Sir George Grey would have detested another church settlement.

The Acheron, meanwhile, had been refitted at Wellington and had charted part of the coast of Nelson. It returned to Foveaux Strait towards the end of 1850 and Stokes chartered the Otago to carry stores and engaged some of the whaling fraternity to pilot his ship to the south-west sounds. Such page 92assistance was necessary because with the exception of Dusky and Doubtful Sounds, no charts existed of this remarkable region. Sealers and whalers were, however, familiar with almost every coastal indentation from Foveaux Strait to Cape Foulwind.

The two ships with several parties in whale-boats surveyed the sounds and then went up the West Coast. In March 1851 they sighted Mount Cook—'a stupendous mountain' which had hitherto remained undiscovered; Stokes very appropriately named it after his illustrious predecessor. Curiously enough no mention was made of the great glaciers which are so notable a feature when the Alps are seen from aboard ship.

By the end of March the ship was back in Wellington with information of some value. Milford Sound, used only by whalers, was said to be one of the grandest sights in the southern hemisphere. The scientists had made several important discoveries: Lyall had made a wonderful collection of the lower botanical orders including the finest buttercup in the world—the Ranunculus lyallii (Mount Cook lily); he had obtained several kakapos (ground parrots) and was preparing a description for the Zoological Society. Forbes had increased his knowledge of New Zealand geology and Evans, the master, had been adding to the list of New Zealand shells.

Apart from a brief survey in Queen Charlotte Sound this was the last work of the Acheron survey. page 93The crew returned to England and the once fine paddle steamer was replaced by the Pandora (Commander Byron Drury). Several members of the Acheron expedition were later to achieve eminence: G. H. Richards, the Commander, and Evans were afterwards successive Hydrographers Royal; Lyall went botanising in Vancouver; Forbes wrote the first paper on New Zealand geology; Hamilton remained in New Zealand and died in 1883 after having been a proprietor of the Lyttelton Times, a member of the Canterbury provincial council and of the governing bodies of Christ's College and Canterbury College.