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The Exploration of New Zealand

Chapter IX — Nelson to Canterbury

page 94

Chapter IX
Nelson to Canterbury

The need for a route to Nelson arose as soon as it was decided to establish the Canterbury settlement on the plains inland from Banks Peninsula. F. Dillon Bell, the Company's agent in Nelson, reported that the high prices which stock of all description realised on the first formation of a settlement would induce the station owners, whose flocks and herds were fast increasing, to send a portion overland if a route were discovered behind the Kaikouras. They would be able to undersell the Australian dealers and get rid of surplus male stock which limited the pasture for breeding stock. He also remarked that both he at Wairau and Tinline at Motueka had obtained from aged Maoris a detailed account of the route from the upper Wairau to the Awatere river and across the range to north Canterbury. Even if the route were not obvious, he was sure that the want of additional runs would drive the stock owners to find a track within twelve months. Once the settlement was founded, the page 95Canterbury runholders were also interested because they wished to avoid the risks of sea transport. Variable winds could prolong a voyage, sheep could die, and the settler be ruined before he stocked his run. But the problem was not easy to solve because several parallel ranges, two of them 8,000 feet high, separated the settlements.

The river valleys between these ranges were the natural highways, and enterprising Europeans had already begun to explore them. Frederick Weld, who with Charles Clifford stocked a run in the Wairau in August 1847, went up the Awatere river soon after his arrival and decided that a route could be found to the south. j d Hamilton and Eyre in 1849, combining exploration with mountaineering, had failed,* and the search was carried on by some Nelson settlers and two Indian Army officers.

The idea was that Lieutenant Impey of the Bengal Engineers and Captain Mitchell of the 4th Regiment together with Messrs Dashwood and Tinline should leave together. But Tinline, being sheriff of Nelson, was detained during the sitting of the assizes, so in April 1850 Mitchell, Dashwood, and a whaler named Harris went up the Waihopai, a tributary of the Wairau, and over a saddle to the Awatere river. They followed the valley and climbed south over a saddle to the Acheron river which they followed to the Clarence. Down its valley they went for several page 96miles before they saw a possible track over the last range of mountains which separated them from the plains of north Canterbury. It was certainly no stock route but they managed to get their mule and their horses over and to reach, late in May, Caverhill's sheep station at Motunau. From there they set off for Kaiapoi and after some miserable days in the swamps, fireless and soaked by a snow-storm, they were found by the Maoris. Their condition was not much better when they reached the surveyors' camp at Riccarton, but Thomas and Jollie thought that they spoke 'like gentlemen' and gave them each a glass of grog and some dry clothes. In due course the trip was described in various publications, for it was a fine piece of work well worthy of the publicity given to it by the Canterbury Association and the New Zealand Company.

The other party—Impey, with McRae, a runholder, Jordan, an old whaler, and two Maoris—had followed soon after and while the first party were up the Waihopai had preceded them up the Awatere. They had every trouble imaginable. Impey and one Maori, Eopi had dysentery, heavy rain fell, and Ewi, other Maori, was so unwell that he 'wanted to become acquainted with his forefathers.' After it snowed and McRae was nearly lost, they returned and left the search to Mitchell and Dashwood.

In December of the same year, 1850, Weld, who had visited Lyttelton with Godley, went home to the page 97Wairau by the coast. On the way he and his companion C. Wilkinson met several Maoris and heard vague reports of a pass from north Canterbury to the Awatere river. This was encouraging, so with a companion, Lovegrove, he went up that river over Barefell pass to the junction of the Guide and the Acheron. From here he looked towards the valley of the Clarence and thought that he saw the plains of North Canterbury. So, early in 1851 he and Clifford sent drovers along the route with 700 wethers. They reached the Clarence, found another range between them and Canterbury, and abandoned the stock. In May Clifford said, 'Weld has made a great mistake in supposing he had found a practicable route—he was misled by mirage or something else because it is impossible he could have been within 30 miles as far south as he supposed himself to be—I believe my sheep are safe but believe they will have to come back to Flaxbourne.' They did not come back and for several years men were looking for the lost sheep as well as for a stock route to the plains.

At the end of 1851 E. J. Lee travelling alone improved upon the route discovered by Dashwood and Mitchell. He went from the Awatere to the Acheron by Weld's Barefell pass and forced his way down the river to its junction with the Clarence. On several occasions he found traces of Clifford who had been looking for the lost sheep, and even when he sought a route over the hills to the plain he found page 98evidence of other travellers—probably the drovers who had been forced to desert the flock. Having only himself and his horse to worry about, he found a route over and created quite a stir when he appeared in Christchurch. The press decided that men had hitherto been 'inordinately frightened' by the supposed dangers of the route. Clifford and Weld, however, thought the last range too difficult and in March 1852 preferred to send 1,500 ewes by the coastline from Wairau to Canterbury.

Lee preferred the more direct route, and in March and April 1852 he and Edward Jollie took 1,800 sheep from Nelson to the Wairau, up the Awatere, and over Barefell pass to the Acheron. Lee did not think that the flock could be taken through the scrub and the 'wild Irishman', so the party followed the range to the west of the Acheron. From a high hill, Jollie saw in the distance a wide gap through the final range and beyond it 'the yellow grassy hills beyond the Hanmer Plain.' He took a compass bearing of its position and the party followed the range to the Clarence. Jollie and Perceval then went to 'the great gap in the mountains' (Jollie's pass) and down through scrub and birch forest to the edge of the Hanmer plain. Using 'a lucifer match' they set fire to the scrub and after several days were able to take the sheep over the pass and so stock the runs they had taken up in the Cheviot country. Their success soon had results. In February 1853 several parties went to Canterbury page 99with 5,000 sheep and 400 cattle; in 1854 flocks of 4,000 sheep were following Lee's route. The importation of Australian stock had been reduced by the Victorian gold rushes so the market was good and the Nelson Examiner could say, 'To Mr Lee… we are under the deepest obligation.'

Actually it was a very long route, for the sheep were taken from Nelson to Tophouse, down the Wairau, and then back up the Awatere to Barefell pass which was, as the crow flies, not very far from Tophouse. As Weld had been exploring the upper Clarence in 1853, the Nelson provincial government asked him, in 1855, to find a more direct route. He arranged to send stores up the Awatere to the Acheron and then went up the Wairau. This led him to the tarns of the present Tarndale, from one of which the Acheron flows. He went on to his stores and then well up the Clarence. Turning east from here he gazed down upon what he erroneously took to be the source of the Wairau; it was, in fact, a tributary of that river. He went back down the Clarence and on to Stonyhurst in Canterbury by the Waiau.

The Nelson government was satisfied. Stock could be taken to Tophouse and by Tarndale to the Acheron and the Clarence. The trip down the Wairau and up the Awatere was cut out; travellers could now go from Nelson to Christchurch in six days. It was not a first-class route but it was an important factor in stocking the Canterbury runs.