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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 2, November 1982

Some Early Journeys from Nelson to the Wairau

Some Early Journeys from Nelson to the Wairau

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Soon after settlers arrived in Nelson it was evident that there was not nearly enough farm land to supply those who had paid for it before leaving Britain. On 17 November 1842. less than a year after the founding of the colony. John Sylvanus Cotterell, a young surveyor, left Nelson with five men to explore to the south-east of the then known land. Exactly a month later the Editor of the Examiner announced his safe return and rejoiced that an easy route had been found to the extensive Wairau Plains. (Nearly ten years later that same route was being described by the paper as a miserable track, not worthy of being called a road.)

Some accounts of early journeys follow, editorial notes are in square brackets.

John Sylvanus Cotterell – Surveyor 1842

17 November 1842. At noon started from base-line at Waimea South, and travelled four miles up the Wai-iti Valley. Six miles.

18th. Travelled ten miles.

19th. Followed the valley for two miles when we discovered the river to rise from a narrow steep ravine in a mountain range bearing E.N.E. Ascended the high range, proceeded three miles having a deep valley between us and the mountain range. Discovered a pass in the mountains to the left, but a large extent of forest lay between us and that. Also discovered another valley and river to westward which appeared to be connected with the pass. Made the valley and found it covered with grass, the soil very poor, land rising in terraces. Camped inside wood – course S.S.E. 10 miles.

20th. Proceeded through wood, about 12 miles, all black birch, very little underwood, soil composed of rotten trees and leaves.

21st. Followed pass for two miles S.E. then E. three miles and arrived at summit level and found water flowing eastward and land falling considerably in that direction. Wood of same character. Observed large wooded valley stretching S.W. bounded east by snowy range. At seven miles broke out of wood into valley of Wairoo, forty chain wide, covered with grass and a large river flowing through it. Camped at river's bank with a snowy range on either side. Above point of junction with Wairoo it is thick black birch forest.

22nd. Two miles below encampment a low range of hills crosses the valley, leaving only a passage on the south side for the river, and, as the river took close to the north side we waded it, though with some difficulty and a good wetting. After making a fire and drying ourselves, proceeded a little further down this valley and encamped by the river side. Distance 20 miles. Course N.E.

23rd. At 1 mile crossed a river which proceeds from a narrow gorge S.S.W. and which, from quantity of water, appears to come a long way in that direction. Continuing down the valley, at 3 miles walked over a low range of hills running across the valley except for the opening of the river to the northward. From this range the valley appeared of one character about a mile and a half wide here and increasing as it proceeded and all covered with grass as far as the eye could reach; the river always running on the north side in a channel averaging half a mile in width. Descended into the valley and travelled N.E. by E. for ten miles always over grassland, sometimes very thick page 52and quite fit for the scythe, sometimes thin and stony. We also passed a bed of fine flax growing on high ground of nearly 1,000 acres, enclosed on river. Distance 15 miles.

24th. Travelled over several flax swamps and regained high grassland. At ten miles went into hills to look for a pass. Hill on hill rising in rear with many deep ravines and much heavy fern, so glad to retreat to plain. On return found Wairoo on south side of the plain, valley not more than one mile wide and a large growth of flax in it. Distance 23 miles. N.E. by E.

25th. Started down on course E. by N. Ascended bank at two miles and could see nothing but grass as far as the eye could reach. At 3 miles crossed a large valley and river coming from S.W. after which the plain of the Wairoo rapidly widened. We now had a succession of remarkably green grassy valleys and low easy hills, all covered with clean grass and watered by many hill streams till at the distance of 20 miles we reached the bluff that was in the extreme distance in the morning and attained the head of the alluvial flat. The valley of the Wairoo at this point appears a full 10 miles wide without taking into account branch valleys. There are some swamps as you come down from the table grassland into the alluvial flat, but with good natural facilities for draining. This flat is particularly rich land covered with docks, sow thistles and other plants indicative of good soil, besides having the advantage of a deep navigable river for 18 miles through it and the water level ranging from 4 to 10 feet below the surface of the flat. Encamped on the river with Port Underwood lying N. and White Bluff Head E. by N. Distance 23 miles. (From Nelson Examiner, 17 Dec. 1842.)

Cotterell continued along the sea coast toward the south, crossing the mouth of the Kaipari te Hau [Awatere] River and noted the fertile valley. Finally he reached the Waipopoo [Clarence]. It was impossible to ford this large river, so he re-traced his steps. At the mouth of the Kaipari te Hau a most welcome sight was a schooner whose crew provided food and a whale boat in which they travelled first to Cloudy Bay on December 6, leaving the next day for Nelson which was reached on the 11th.

The Editor of the Nelson Examiner, on the 17th December expressed relief that the expedition had returned safely and added. "The result of this expedition is highly satisfactory as it determines the practicability of an easy communication between the valleys."

[Unfortunately Cotterell was one of the victims of the Wairau Affray. He had spent 16 months in Nelson and was aged 23. His work is remembered by a plaque on the Blenheim-Lake Rotoiti Highway, and in the naming of Mount Cotterell.]

Joseph Ward – Surveyor June 1847

[The surveyor, Joseph Ward was the son-in-law of Henry Redwood Sen, and set out in June 1847 to join Budge who was in charge of the survey of the Wairau. Sir George Grey had completed the purchase of the Wairau Plains and land-hungry Nelsonians waited anxiously to claim rural land bought before they left England. Ward kept a diary of his time there and to it he confided his various frustrations.]

June 21 1847. Set out to McRaes.

23rd. At Morse's sheep station – some rain.

25th. Wet day, miserable walk. We are ahead of the tents – running short of food. [Fortunately the party with tents and food appeared.]

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26th. Al small stream a mile or so from the Waiopa River (Waihopi) – too deep and strong to cross, encamped on bank.

27th. Report during night that stream rising – moved to higher spot. Dark and raining – miserable. Very short of food.

28th. Same place. Had some sow thistle at this place and wild greens – very poor diet. Could not cross Waiopa. Sent one of the men on horseback to get food.

Tuesday 29th. All started again. Crossed on black horse one at a time. Had rope on horse's head to bring him back – six crossed, others staid longer to give horse a rest. We got to Opawa. Crossed and reached station at Wood after wading through swamps which seemed endless. Dreadful!

30th. At station at Wood. Eating etc. to recruit [recuperate?]

July 1st. Making place to keep provisions from rats.

2nd. Doing little or nothing. Some men after pigs. Caught 3.

3rd. Cutting traverse lines down river towards pah.

4th. At station, at work. Young fellow named Coleman went to Cloudy Bay to see if vessel had arrived. If he brings word that she is in Budge gives him 5 pounds. If not nothing. Must bring word by tomorrow night.

5th. Coleman returned, brought back word of vessel's arrival.

11th. At principal station on Opawa – afterwards called Budge-Budge.

16th. Went to Parkinson's old station on little Opawa to form a station. Looking round – found every spot liable to flood. Bad!

18th. At station No. 2 Manuka (Beaver Station) on little Opawa. Saying prayers. Writing etc. Dinner – "doughboys" and pork. Rough!

19th. Thatching Warre [Whare].

21st. Began road line. Commenced nearly opposite our station (Beaver Station).

August 1st. Sunday. Very wet and windy day. Dreadful! From southwest. Arose and made fire. River rising. Water all around – before we could bail water floor of warre was covered – it soon put fire out. Said my prayers. Water kept rising, all day the same. Dreadful! Uncertain when 'twould stop. Edwards made a breakwater of some section pegs. Night came – dreary night. Storm still raging. Water rising. Miserable night. Edwards saying he feared we should not see the morning – self uncertain. Wrote in pencil a short letter to my dear Martha [wife] Said my prayers. Edwards watched. I slept for half an hour or so. Then I watched and he lay down. Wind turned to south west. Water sunk suddenly 1½ inches at 4 or 5 o'clock. Storm abated. Flood gradually lowering. Slowly. Great relief. Thanks. Thanks from my heart! Had a sleep! – Ward's Diary. Nelson Provincial Museum.

[Undoubtedly it was this happening which is reputed to give the name of Beaver to the area later known as Blenheim. Lindsay Buick in Old Marlborough says: "The legend about the origin of the term 'Beaver'…is that while the land was being surveyed one of the periodical south east floods occurred and a survey camp on the banks of the Omaka and the whole plain was inundated. Surveyors were compelled to roost up in their bunks. Mr Joseph Ward later declared: 'they sat there like a lot of Beavers in a dam'."

Despite efforts to change the name or at least make it Beaverton it remained "the Beaver" until Marlborough became a separate province in 1859 – and in common parlance much longer. Now it is affectionately revived in Blenheim's Beavertown.]

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Dr. David Monro – Landowner 1848

[Dr Monro had bought three sections of land before he left Scotland, he had also bought sheep in Australia and was anxious to get them on to his rural land. As soon as country acres were allotted he set out to take one thousand sheep to his station, Bankhouse, in the Wairau. It was fortunate that the weather was favourable when he set out in March 1848. He described the trip in a letter to a sister in Scotland:]

"I had about 1,000 sheep and five men with me and two horses with baggage…The Pass through the mountain chain from this side into the Wairau is ten miles long and wooded throughout. This is the worst part of the road. We entered the dark, gloomy forest at sunrise and did not get on the other side until just as the sun was going down." [He describes the awful track with its network of roots, steep ascents and descents and rushing streams. The scene made a great impression on him:] "When I went through the wood there was a splendid halloo and echo. The sheep marching along nearly in single file, stretched themselves out for about half a mile. The men shouted, the dogs barked, the sheep baa-ed, the trees multiplied and reverberated every sound, and I sang, as my ability and the small amount of breath in my body allowed me." [The view when they were through the Pass and looked down on a blue glen backed by forested mountains was grand. In the grassy valley of the Wairau they enjoyed their pot of tea and supper and slept "like dormice". The only other trouble was the crossing of two "rapid and considerable rivers". The remainder of the journey contained no difficulties, and the flock arrived with "no loss to speak of".] (Abridged from a letter quoted in Thoroughly a Man of the World by R. E, Wright-St Clair.)

[The search for a better route went on. Surveyors and explorers made journeys in search of the easier and shorter route that they thought must exist. Always it was the same story – the track would be too steep ever to become a dray road. The most favoured was the Maungatapu route to be used by many diggers when gold was discovered in the Wakamarina and to be made famous by the murders. Horses could be taken over it and in November 1863 Monro took his wife Ninna and daughter Georgie (then about 16) on horseback to the Wairau. A packhorse, led by Monro carried the baggage.]

March 19, 1863. Up in good time but the weather somewhat dubious, a shower fell and I thought we would have to give up for the day. However, it looked better and we got off about 10. Everything went very well. The young horse led well and the pack horse rode steadily – on the top of the Mokitap I tied up the leading rein and after that he followed famously. At the fern patch near the foot of the hill we had a snack. Got as far as the Pelorus bridge all right, but after that poor Nina began to knock up very much and when she got to Wilsons she was dreadfully tired. Georgie was quite fresh. Got Nina to bed as soon as possible. Barring fleas the bed was comfortable and clean.

March 20, Friday. A wet day but no great hindrance for Nina is so tired that we should have had to stop at any rate. Mrs Wilson was very civil and made some nice chicken broth for Nina. In the afternoon she got up and was better. About sundown the rain ceased and we had a calm night.

March 21. A grey morning with promise of a fine day. Packed up and got off about nine. Nina now almost restored. Paid Wilson his bill, 2 pound 12 shillings, his charges are high. On through the Kaituna, the day having brightened up beautifully. Met an old Mr Stewart and afterwards Conrad page 55Saxton. Stopped by a nice stream and had something to eat. About 4 we reached Mailers. I went to Davis to enquire about the river and ascertained that it was high. Finding that Davis sold no grog and could make us pretty comfortable decided to stop there all night and accordingly we went there. Had a very good bed and slept soundly. Mrs Davis is a tidy little woman. The horses also had plenty of good oaten hay. Paid Davis bill, 1 pound seven shillings.

March 22. Sunday. After breakfast got the horses in, fed them and packed up. Davis accompanied us and we crossed the river, by this time run down almost to its lowest level. Once on the other side we went on briskly. Went round by Renwick town and got to Alexander's about 1. [Alexander Binning Monro who managed Valleyfield was a nephew of Dr David Monro. While at the Wairau Monro spent time attending to business to do with his estate Bankhouse and made a trip to Picton.]

March 23. I rode across in the morning to Bankhouse and saw Mackay. They are threshing oats there. In the afternoon drove in the trap to Blenheim. [Where they stayed.]

March 24. Tuesday. A most lovely day, one of the finest I ever saw in New Zealand. The air as soft as silk, the light glorious and the temperature everything that could be desired…We ordered the trap and started for Picton. The Picton road is in very good order. Ninna enjoyed the drive very much, the descent from the saddle into Picton looked particularly beautiful with the blue waters of the Sound among the wooded hills.

March 25. An important day for Marlborough - the day of the meeting of their council and election of Superintendent. We all of us including the ladies went down to witness the proceedings. There was an expectation of a bit of discord but it all went off very smoothly and tamely and Mr Carter was elected.

March 29. In the afternoon the Wanga came in and we heard of more troops going to Taranaki.

March 30. Returned to Blenheim and to Valleyfield. Over to Bankhouse.

April 2. Out on Alexander's horse, Punch, looking for horses. [It was usual to turn horses loose and let them find their own grazing.] 1 went up the Omaka and along the low hills. In a gully at the foot of the high hills I found Ferryman and Poppet and shortly afterwards, not far from Fraser's house I found the other three. I caught Primrose and exchanged her for Punch whom I liberated. (Met Ninna in Alexander's trap and went on to Benhopai.) We found Mr and Mrs Watts there and Kate Otterson. It is really a wonderful place considering its out-of-the-way position. The bedroom we were put into was like a bedroom in an English country house with every comfort about it and the house is in keeping with it generally. The garden too is in excellent order.

April 3. After breakfast one of Canning's horses was put in Alexander's trap and Ninna and Mrs Canning drove up to the Waihopai Gorge. There is a much better view of it than the point from which I took it. [Monro was a keen photographer.] After looking at the gorge we got back in time for dinner and immediately afterwards we started home [to Valleyfield] in company with Mr and Mrs Watts. At the shearing shed Alexander and 1 changed places, he getting on to Primrose to look for horses about Frasers, I driving the trap. We got home abou: dusk and not long afterwards Alexander brought the horses down which were put in the paddock.

page 56

April 6. Up early this morning and got horses ready and pack on. Georgie rode Primrose and Prince followed. I rode Ferryman and led Traveller. Alexander very obligingly put his horses into the trap to drive Ninna as far as he could. At Renwicktown old White joined us and we went together. The Wairau River was a little bit up but we got over quite comfortably and we went on as far as Alexander's trap could go, where we stopped and had something to eat. Said goodbye to Alexander who returned. On to Wilson's which we reached about 5 just as heavy rain set in. Fed the horses, but there being no stable the poor creatures had to "bide the pelting of the pitiless storm". Thousands of mosquitos at Wilsons and very little sleep.

April 7. Breakfast and off by 9…Paid bill, one pound eighteen and six, and off. Stopped at the Tinline and had a snack. Got over the Mokitap comfortably. In the Matai Valley stopped ¼ of an hour for another snack and on briskly to Nelson which we reached about ½ past 4 and went to Hamilton Villa. Next day to Bearcroft [Waimea West]. – (From Monro Diary 1863, Nelson Provincial Museum.)

[Of course there remained the original means of transport, by sea. The first surveyors went by boat, as did the ill-fated expedition to defend the Wairau against Te Rauparaha – some of the survivors made their way back by the Tophouse route to be found, ill and starving, some thirty miles from Nelson (see the Three Ordeals of John Kidson, Journal Vol. 3 No. 3). Lack of space forces us to leave our diaries of sea travellers till the next number.1