A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 5

Ascent of the Waimakiriri — Crossing the River — Gorge — Ascent of the Rangitata — View of M’Kenzie Plains — M’Kenzie — Mount Cook — Ascent of the Hurunui — Col leading to West Coast.

Since my last, I have made another expedition into the back country, in the hope of finding some little run which had been overlooked. I have been unsuccessful, as indeed I was likely to be: still I had a pleasant excursion, and have seen many more glaciers, and much finer ones than on my last trip. This time I went up the Waimakiriri by myself, and found that we had been fully right in our supposition that the Rakaia saddles would only lead on to that river. The main features were precisely similar to those on the Rakaia, save that the valley was broader, the river longer, and the mountains very much higher. I had to cross the Waimakiriri just after a fresh, when the water was thick, and I assure you I did not like it. I crossed it first on the plains, where it flows between two very high terraces, which are from half a mile to a mile apart, and of which the most northern must be, I should think, 300 feet high. It was so steep, and so covered with stones towards the base, and so broken with strips of shingle that had fallen over the grass, that it took me a full hour to lead my horse from the top to the bottom. I dare say my clumsiness was partly in fault; but certainly in Switzerland I never saw a horse taken down so nasty a place: and so glad was I to be at the bottom of it, that I thought comparatively little of the river, which was close at hand waiting to be crossed. From the top of the terrace I had surveyed it carefully as it lay beneath, wandering capriciously in the wasteful shingle-bed, and looking like a maze of tangled silver ribbons. I calculated how to cut off one stream after another, but I could not shirk the main stream, dodge it how I might; and when on the level of the river, I lost all my landmarks in the labyrinth of streams, and determined to cross each just above the first rapid I came to. The river was very milky, and the stones at the bottom could not be seen, except just at the edges: I do not know how I got over. I remember going in, and thinking that the horse was lifting his legs up and putting them down in the same place again, and that the river was flowing backwards. In fact I grew dizzy directly, but by fixing my eyes on the opposite bank, and leaving Doctor to manage matters as he chose, somehow or other, and much to my relief, I got to the other side. It was really nothing at all. I was wet only a little above the ankle; but it is the rapidity of the stream which makes it so unpleasant — in fact, so positively hard to those who are not used to it. On their few first experiences of one of these New Zealand rivers, people dislike them extremely; they then become very callous to them, and are as unreasonably foolhardy as they were before timorous; then they generally get an escape from drowning or two, or else they get drowned in earnest. After one or two escapes their original respect for the rivers returns, and for ever after they learn not to play any unnecessary tricks with them. Not a year passes but what each of them sends one or more to his grave; yet as long as they are at their ordinary level, and crossed with due care, there is no real danger in them whatever. I have crossed and recrossed the Waimakiriri so often in my late trip that I have ceased to be much afraid of it unless it is high, and then I assure you that I am far too nervous to attempt it. When I crossed it first I was assured that it was not high, but only a little full.

The Waimakiriri flows from the back country out into the plains through a very beautiful narrow gorge. The channel winds between wooded rocks, beneath which the river whirls and frets and eddies most gloriously. Above the lower cliffs, which descend perpendicularly into the river, rise lofty mountains to an elevation of several thousand feet: so that the scenery here is truly fine. In the river-bed, near the gorge, there is a good deal of lignite, and, near the Kowai, a little tributary which comes in a few miles below the gorge, there is an extensive bed of true and valuable coal.

The back country of the Waimakiriri is inaccessible by dray, so that all the stores and all the wool have to be packed in and packed out on horseback. This is a very great drawback, and one which is not likely to be soon removed. In winter-time, also, the pass which leads into it is sometimes entirely obstructed by snow, so that the squatters in that part of the country must have a harder time of it than those on the plains. They have bush, however, and that is a very important thing.

I shall not give you any full account of what I saw as I went up the Waimakiriri, for were I to do so I should only repeat my last letter. Suffice it that there is a magnificent mountain chain of truly Alpine character at the head of the river, and that, in parts, the scenery is quite equal in grandeur to that of Switzerland, but far inferior in beauty. How one does long to see some signs of human care in the midst of the loneliness! How one would like, too, to come occasionally across some little auberge, with its vin ordinaire and refreshing fruit! These things, however, are as yet in the far future. As for vin ordinaire, I do not suppose that, except at Akaroa, the climate will ever admit of grapes ripening in this settlement — not that the summer is not warm enough, but because the night frosts come early, even while the days are exceedingly hot. Neither does one see how these back valleys can ever become so densely peopled as Switzerland; they are too rocky and too poor, and too much cut up by river-beds.

I saw one saddle low enough to be covered with bush, ending a valley of some miles in length, through which flowed a small stream with dense bush on either side. I firmly believe that this saddle will lead to the West Coast; but as the valley was impassable for a horse, and as, being alone, I was afraid to tackle the carrying food and blankets, and to leave Doctor, who might very probably walk off whilst I was on the wrong side of the Waimakiriri, I shirked the investigation. I certainly ought to have gone up that valley. I feel as though I had left a stone unturned, and must, if all is well, at some future time take someone with me and explore it. I found a few flats up the river, but they were too small and too high up to be worth my while to take.

April, 1860. — I have made another little trip, and this time have tried the Rangitata. My companion and myself have found a small piece of country, which we have just taken up. We fear it may be snowy in winter, but the expense of taking up country is very small; and even should we eventually throw it up the chances are that we may be able to do so with profit. We are, however, sanguine that it may be a very useful little run, but shall have to see it through next winter before we can safely put sheep upon it.

I have little to tell you concerning the Rangitata different from what I have already written about the Waimakiriri and the Harpur. The first great interest was, of course, finding the country which we took up; the next was what I confess to the weakness of having enjoyed much more — namely, a most magnificent view of that most magnificent mountain, Mount Cook. It is one of the grandest I have ever seen. I will give you a short account of the day.

We started from a lonely valley, down which runs a stream called Forest Creek. It is an ugly, barren-looking place enough — a deep valley between two high ranges, which are not entirely clear of snow for more than three or four months in the year. As its name imports, it has some wood, though not much, for the Rangitata back country is very bare of timber. We started, as I said, from the bottom of this valley on a clear frosty morning — so frosty that the tea-leaves in our pannikins were frozen, and our outer blanket crisped with frozen dew. We went up a little gorge, as narrow as a street in Genoa, with huge black and dripping precipices overhanging it, so as almost to shut out the light of heaven. I never saw so curious a place in my life. It soon opened out, and we followed up the little stream which flowed through it. This was no easy work. The scrub was very dense, and the rocks huge. The spaniard “piked us intil the bane,” and I assure you that we were hard set to make any headway at all. At last we came to a waterfall, the only one worthy of the name that I have yet seen. This “stuck us up,” as they say here concerning any difficulty. We managed, however, to “slew” it, as they, no less elegantly, say concerning the surmounting of an obstacle. After five hours of most toilsome climbing, we found the vegetation become scanty, and soon got on to the loose shingle which was near the top of the range.

In seven hours from the time we started, we were on the top. Hence we had hoped to discover some entirely new country, but were disappointed, for we only saw the Mackenzie Plains lying stretched out for miles away to the southward. These plains are so called after a notorious shepherd, who discovered them some few years since. Keeping his knowledge to himself, he used to steal his master’s sheep and drive them quietly into his unsuspected hiding-place. This he did so cleverly that he was not detected until he had stolen many hundred. Much obscurity hangs over his proceedings: it is supposed that he made one successful trip down to Otago, through this country, and sold a good many of the sheep he had stolen. He is a man of great physical strength, and can be no common character; many stories are told about him, and his fame will be lasting. He was taken and escaped more than once, and finally was pardoned by the Governor, on condition of his leaving New Zealand. It was rather a strange proceeding, and I doubt how fair to the country which he may have chosen to honour with his presence, for I should suppose there is hardly a more daring and dangerous rascal going. However, his boldness and skill had won him sympathy and admiration, so that I believe the pardon was rather a popular act than otherwise. To return. There we lay on the shingle-bed, at the top of the range, in the broiling noonday; for even at that altitude it was very hot, and there was no cloud in the sky and very little breeze. I saw that if we wanted a complete view we must climb to the top of a peak which, though only a few hundred feet higher than where we were lying, nevertheless hid a great deal from us. I accordingly began the ascent, having arranged with my companion that if there was country to be seen he should be called, if not, he should be allowed to take it easy. Well, I saw snowy peak after snowy peak come in view as the summit in front of me narrowed, but no mountains were visible higher or grander than what I had already seen. Suddenly, as my eyes got on a level with the top, so that I could see over, I was struck almost breathless by the wonderful mountain that burst on my sight. The effect was startling. It rose towering in a massy parallelogram, disclosed from top to bottom in the cloudless sky, far above all the others. It was exactly opposite to me, and about the nearest in the whole range. So you may imagine that it was indeed a splendid spectacle. It has been calculated by the Admiralty people at 13,200 feet, but Mr. Haast, a gentleman of high scientific attainments in the employ of Government as geological surveyor, says that it is considerably higher. For my part, I can well believe it. Mont Blanc himself is not so grand in shape, and does not look so imposing. Indeed, I am not sure that Mount Cook is not the finest in outline of all the snowy mountains that I have ever seen. It is not visible from many places on the eastern side of the island, and the front ranges are so lofty that they hide it. It can be seen from the top of Banks Peninsula, and for a few hundred yards somewhere near Timaru, and over a good deal of the Mackenzie country, but nowhere else on the eastern side of this settlement, unless from a great height. It is, however, well worth any amount of climbing to see. No one can mistake it. If a person says he thinks he has seen Mount Cook, you may be quite sure that he has not seen it. The moment it comes into sight the exclamation is, “That is Mount Cook!” — not “That must be Mount Cook!” There is no possibility of mistake. There is a glorious field for the members of the Alpine Club here. Mount Cook awaits them, and he who first scales it will be crowned with undying laurels: for my part, though it is hazardous to say this of any mountain, I do not think that any human being will ever reach its top.

I am forgetting myself into admiring a mountain which is of no use for sheep. This is wrong. A mountain here is only beautiful if it has good grass on it. Scenery is not scenery — it is “ country,” subaudita voce “sheep.” If it is good for sheep, it is beautiful, magnificent, and all the rest of it; if not, it is not worth looking at. I am cultivating this tone of mind with considerable success, but you must pardon me for an occasional outbreak of the old Adam.

Of course I called my companion up, and he agreed with me that he had never seen anything so wonderful. We got down, very much tired, a little after dark. We had had a very fatiguing day, but it was amply repaid. That night it froze pretty sharply, and our upper blankets were again stiff.

May, 1860. — Not content with the little piece of country we found recently, we have since been up the Hurunui to its source, and seen the water flowing down the Teramakaw (or the “Tether-my-cow,” as the Europeans call it). We did no good, and turned back, partly owing to bad weather, and partly from the impossibility of proceeding farther with horses. Indeed, our pack-horse had rolled over more than once, frightening us much, but fortunately escaping unhurt. The season, too, is getting too late for any long excursion. The Hurunui is not a snow river; the great range becomes much lower here, and the saddle of the Hurunui can hardly be more than 3000 feet above the level of the sea. Vegetation is luxuriant — most abominably and unpleasantly luxuriant (for there is no getting through it) — at the very top. The reason of this is, that the nor’-westers, coming heavily charged with warm moisture, deposit it on the western side of the great range, and the saddles, of course, get some of the benefit. As we were going up the river, we could see the gap at the end of it, covered with dense clouds, which were coming from the N.W., and which just lipped over the saddle, and then ended. There are some beautiful lakes on the Hurunui, surrounded by lofty wooded mountains. The few Maories that inhabit this settlement travel to the West Coast by way of this river. They always go on foot, and we saw several traces of their encampments — little mimis, as they are called — a few light sticks thrown together, and covered with grass, affording a sort of half-and-half shelter for a single individual. How comfortable!

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31