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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The Last Phase

By the mid-1860s, because of the quest for sheep country, for gold, and for scientific knowledge, the South Island was in the main known. There were tasks left for scientists and mountaineers, especially in the Southern Alps and among the lakes and sounds of the south-west, but the main work was done. Nevertheless, this last phase of exploration, occupying the later nineteenth century, is distinguished by the activity of a man who was at once a great explorer and a notable character, C. E. Douglas – a man equally to be celebrated for his fortitude and for the vitality (both verbal and visual) of his reports and diaries. The area he explored, the peaks, glaciers, and rivers of South Westland offered nothing to the settler, the pastoralist, or the prospector; only the tourist industry could turn it to economic advantage. Accordingly a good deal of Douglas's activity as official explorer and surveyor was directed to the discovery of usable tourist routes.

In 1855, Douglas and Gerhard Mueller explored the Arawata River and its glacial sources and climbed Mount Ionia. Douglas also went up the Okuru River, finding passes to Otago, but none likely to prove useful. Two years later Mueller explored the Landsborough tributary of the Haast River, and Douglas the sources of the Twain River and the Douglas Glacier, all in the vicinity of Mt. Sefton. In 1891 Douglas went up the Waiatoto River and climbed Mt. Ragan. A year later he was sent to find a route between the West Coast and the Mount Cook Hermitage, for tourist purposes, and this task occupied him for the next few years; in 1893, with A. P. Harper, he explored the Franz Josef Glacier and later the Balfour Glacier. Later, Harper went up the Karangarua River from the coast to the Landsborough River and to the Haast. Two overseas visitors, E. A. FitzGerald and Mattias Zurbriggen, climbed Mt. Sefton from the Hermitage and crossed the main divide to the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, accompanied in the later stages by Harper. The organised exploration of the region ended without the discovery of a commercial tourist route from the coast to the interior.

Further south during the later part of the century attention was directed to opening the country between the southern lakes, Manapouri, Te Anau, and Wakatipu, and the sounds, especially Milford. The tourist motive was again important, though some still sought land for sheep and others mineral resources. The most significant discovery, for in the fullness of time it led to a regular route between the lakes and the sounds, was that of W. H. Homer in 1888 of a saddle between the upper Hollyford and the Cleddau River leading into Milford Sound. He became a strenuous advocate of a tunnel under the saddle, and some 50 years later the Homer Tunnel was completed. In the same year Quintin McKinnon and E. Mitchell, by way of the Clinton River at the north tip of Lake Te Anau, had crossed the Mackinnon Pass into Milford Sound and returned by the same route. A track was subsequently cut and the walk across became a celebrated, if strenuous, tourist attraction.

There were still peaks and isolated pockets of remote country left for the explorer by the end of the century; some even remain to the present. But the century of discovery and exploration inaugurated by Cook, and the continuing of exploration in the remoter south, had made the country known. First the coastline of both islands, then the interior of the north, and finally the interior of the south, had been revealed by discoverer, missionary, sealer, whaler, trader, surveyor, scientist, pastoralist, prospector, and mountaineer. Generally speaking, the frontier had been pushed back most rapidly and thoroughly when the impulse had sprung from more than mere curiosity. The missionary seeking souls to save, the Company agent looking for farming land, the trader and whaler keen on their profits, the pastoralist on the lookout for an extensive run, the prospector alert for the gleam of gold in his dish, and (more recently) the mountaineer challenged by a peak or a traverse – these have been the main agents of exploration. Where they led, the scientist and the systematic surveyor most typically followed – though this generalisation must be qualified by the names of Dieffenbach, Hector, Haast, Hamilton, Mueller, and Douglas.

The greatest men were those who could unite a vital and intelligent curiosity with their more immediate purposes; Colenso, not the less zealous as a missionary because he was also a diligent collector of botanical specimens and moa bones; Brunner, with an eye for a coal deposit as well as endurance and courage; Haast, sent out by his employers to find gold but also noting evidence of glaciation; Douglas, instructed to find a tourist route and making the whole nature of a region come alive in his reports and sketches. Their great forerunner, Cook, will fit the same pattern; in the main concerned with geographical knowledge, his mind was not the less receptive to human and social facts, nor yet to the possible uses of timber and flax.

It should finally be noted that, had the Maori been equipped with a written language and the ability to make maps, the story of discovery and exploration would need to be written differently. There can have been little that they did not know about the North Island; its rivers, bush tracks, and coasts were to them highways, used for war, commerce, and sociability. A good deal of the coastal areas of the South Island were known to them too, and routes across the mountains between the coasts. Their knowledge, and frequently their services as guides and porters, were the essential underpinning to the exploits of Pakeha explorers.

by William Hosking Oliver, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professor of History, Massey University of Manawatu.

  • William Colenso, Bagnall, A. G., and Petersen, G. C. (1948)
  • The Discovery of New Zealand, Beaglehole, J. C. (1961)
  • The Exploration of the Pacific, Beaglehole, J. C. (1947)
  • The Exploration of New Zealand, McClymont, W. G. (1959)
  • Early Travellers in New Zealand, Taylor, N. M. (ed.), (1959).