In 1841 the New Zealand Company turned its attention to the north of the South Island, looking for sites for settlement. In October, William Wakefield led an advance party across Cook Strait. He chose Nelson for initial settlement, attracted by its harbour. But it soon became clear that there was not enough flat land nearby. In March 1842 the surveyor Frederick Tuckett travelled west to Golden Bay. In November, J. S. Cotterell went over a pass into the Wairau valley. His reports of its rich lands led to a violent confrontation the following year, when Ngāti Toa leaders Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata resisted the survey parties.
Brunner, Heaphy, Fox and Kehu
Another possibility for land was in the south. Thomas Brunner, a young surveyor in the company, had heard reports from Māori of a huge inland plain. The draughtsman Charles Heaphy made two trips to the area around Lake Rotoiti. In February 1846 he joined Brunner, William Fox and Kehu, an experienced Māori guide, to explore further south-west. Each carried a load of 75 pounds into the ‘big wood’, with one of the party looking, in Heaphy’s words, like ‘a grotesque Atlas’ and another like a ‘peripatetic mushroom’. 1 The party were the first Europeans to see Lake Rotoroa. They started down the Buller River, but turned back before reaching the coast.
Down the West Coast
Soon after returning, in March 1846, Brunner, Heaphy and Kehu set off from Farewell Spit for the Buller River on the West Coast. Carrying heavy loads, they added another Māori, Etau, to their group. But Kehu was the star. Heaphy concluded that he was ‘a perfect bushman … a good shot … a capital manager of a canoe, a sure snarer of wild-fowl, and a superb fellow at a ford … he is worth his weight in tobacco!’ 2 Eating weka, pāua, sea eggs and hot penguin soup, and clambering up cliffs on rata vines, the party reached the Buller and then the Taramakau River before turning back.
Charles Heaphy admitted that sometimes explorers had a slender meal, but ‘more frequently they dine off pigeon, off grey and blue duck, off eel and crayfish, or, queen of wild fowl, woodhen. … Hail to thee, weka! – tender as chicken, gamey as pheasant, gelatinous as roaster. Elia, when he wrote his essay on sucking pig, knew not of thee.’ 3
Brunner’s big journey
Although confident that a large inland plain did not exist, Brunner remained unsatisfied. He set off again in December 1846 with Kehu, another Māori guide called Pikewate, and their wives. They went down the Buller to the coast and proceeded south as far as the Paringa River. The party returned via the Grey River, where Brunner discovered coal, ‘very bright and sparkling’.
When he reached Motueka, in June 1848, Brunner had been away for 550 days without hearing a word of English. He had endured bitter cold, rain and starvation. He had eaten from the bush, becoming so hungry that he was forced to eat his dog, Rover, which earned him the name Kai Kurī (dog eater). It was the most sustained feat of endurance in New Zealand exploration. Brunner had acquired, in his own words, ‘the two greatest requisites for bushmen in New Zealand, viz., the capability of walking barefoot, and the proper method of cooking and eating fern root.’ 4 He had also firmly laid to rest the possibility of vast grassy acres for the Nelson province.
To the south-east
Unable to find suitable land in the west or south, Nelson stockmen looked to the south-east. After Lieutenant Governor E. J. Eyre had spied possible routes from near the summit of Tapuae-o-Uenuku in the inland Kaikōuras in 1849, sheep men tried to find a pass. In 1850, A. Impey, Captains W. M. Mitchell and Edwin Dashwood, and Frederick Weld all explored Awatere and Wairau routes. Then in 1852 Edward Lee and Edward Jollie succeeded in bringing 1,800 sheep south via the Wairau River and Jollies Pass and on to Hanmer. Weld found a shorter route three years later.