Story: European exploration

Page 6. Canterbury and the search for a pass

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Before organised settlers arrived in 1850, Canterbury was known to only a few European travellers. There were whalers on Banks Peninsula and agriculturalists like the Deans Brothers who had settled at Riccarton in 1843. In 1844, Bishop G. A. Selwyn met Edward Shortland, sub-protector of aborigines (Māori), just south of Timaru as each went about their duties. Land commissioner Walter Mantell visited Kaiapoi while trying to settle the boundaries of land reserves for Māori.

Heading inland

Early knowledge was largely confined to the coastal plain. Inland exploration was driven by the desire of sheep men to find unclaimed land for squatting. Some, such as J. B. A. Acland, Charles Tripp, and in 1860 the writer Samuel Butler, explored the Rangitātā en route to very respectable reputations. Another, James Mackenzie, discovered a large inland plain, but ended up in prison for stealing sheep.

Passes to the West Coast

Keen to expand westward, the provincial government voted £100 for the discovery of a pass over the Southern Alps. In 1857 the provincial engineer Edward Dobson, with runholders Mason and Taylor, followed a route known by Māori up the Hurunui River and over a pass to the Taramakau River. But it was young Leonard Harper, son of the first Anglican bishop of Christchurch, who later that year crossed all the way to the West Coast and gave his name to Harper Pass.

Harper Pass was too indirect, so the hunt continued for a better route. Samuel Butler had seen a pass west from the Rakaia valley, and in April 1863 the provincial survey office sent John Henry Whitcombe and Jakob Lauper to explore further. Without Māori guides, and carrying bags of biscuits and flour (which got wet), they finally crossed to the coast, where Whitcombe was drowned in the Taramakau River.

Arthur’s Pass

In March 1864 Arthur Dobson (son of Edward), acting on a hint from a West Coast Māori named Tarapuhi, followed a route up the Waimakariri River, the Bealey River, and over a pass to the Ōtira River. The route became known as Arthur’s Pass. But when news of gold on the West Coast made it east, prospectors still scurried over Harper Pass.

The hunt for passes became more intense. A traditional Māori pass, Noti Raureka, known as Browning Pass after one of its Pākehā discoverers in 1865, was used for a while. A track was carved out and sheep were driven up the Wilberforce River and down to Hokitika. In the end, Arthur’s Pass became the major route to the West Coast.

Julius Haast

From 1861, searching for minerals, the provincial geologist Julius Haast systematically explored all the river valleys of Canterbury to their alpine sources. He also married Edward Dobson’s daughter, Mary.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'European exploration - Canterbury and the search for a pass', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007