West of Wakatipu
In 1861 Gabriel Read discovered gold in Otago. The rush of prospectors to Gabriels Gully was followed by another gold rush to the upper Clutha River. By early 1863 the canvas town which would become Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, was swarming with miners.
Exploration began in the mountains to the west, driven by the hope of new gold prospects and the need for a quick route to the West Coast’s harbours – the miners wanted to be freed from the long, muddy trudge to Dunedin.
The move westwards brought more explorers, all of whom travelled without Māori guides:
- In October 1862, Charles Cameron led a party up the Dart River at the head of Lake Wakatipu, and then up the north branch of the Route Burn stream.
- For three months in early 1863, Patrick Caples explored north and west of Wakatipu. He went up the south branch of the Route Burn into the Hollyford valley, examined the Caples and Greenstone rivers, and eventually followed the Hollyford River to Martins Bay on the West Coast.
- Four 1863 expeditions tried to find a route by approaching from the sea on the West Coast. One was led by the provincial geologist James Hector. He stopped at Martins Bay, went up the Hollyford and to the Greenstone River. Hector claimed he had found a viable route west, only to learn that Caples had already taken it.
Further north, men were searching for a route west from Wānaka. In February 1863 Charles Cameron wrote to an Otago newspaper that he had crossed to the coast in the previous month. Julius Haast was also exploring the area, and reached the coast nine days after the newspaper report. Dispute soon raged as to who really discovered the pass. It was named in Haast’s honour. Later research suggests that Cameron got there first.
With routes west discovered, even if they were unfit for roads, further exploration was left to the lonely gold prospector. The most remarkable was Alphonse (George) J. Barrington, who had prospected for 10 years. Between November 1863 and June 1864 he searched for gold in the mountains and valleys north-west of Wakatipu. Three times he returned to pick up stores, with varied companions.
Despite the hardships he endured in the bush, gold prospector Alphonse Barrington celebrated Christmas in style in 1863: ‘[G]ot back to the tent by 5 p.m., where we had a plum duff boiling; tapped a brandy bottle which we brought up for the occasion, made tea, cooked four Maori hens and had a jolly afternoon; that ended Christmas day.’ 1
The most adventurous part of the journey, made with Edward Dunmore and Antoine Simonin, took him from Lake Alabaster in the Hollyford valley up the Pyke River (where they competed with wild dogs for game) to the Cascade River, then through the rugged Red Hills area and onto the treacherous Olivine Ice Plateau.
Along the way Barrington became separated from his companions, and endured 10 days of rain, snow, cold and hunger. He threw away most of his possessions and chewed on raw speargrass roots. Once he had found his mates, they travelled down the Barrier River to Lake Alabaster again. They roasted a rat that Barrington declared ‘the sweetest meat’ he had ever eaten. After another week of rain and snow, they arrived back at Wakatipu, undernourished and exhausted. For sheer physical courage and stamina, Barrington’s exploration, made without maps or Māori guides, was outstanding. But his journey did not prove useful either in terms of new goldfields or areas of settlement.