By the mid-1860s, Europeans had penetrated all of New Zealand’s habitable land. All that remained were the least accessible valleys and mountains of the Southern Alps.
More than anyone else, Charlie Douglas, one of the real characters in New Zealand exploration, was responsible for putting alpine South Westland onto the country’s maps.
Charles Edward Douglas was born to a good family in Edinburgh and had a classical education. Arriving in Otago in 1862, he worked as a cadet, odd-job man and gold fossicker. He moved to Westland in 1867. A natural bushman, he developed a friendship with the surveyors G. J. Roberts and Gerhard Mueller. He helped Roberts with triangulation and surveys, which took him into the gorges, rivers and glaciers of South Westland. He became an amateur geologist and an acute observer of wildlife, especially birds. Skilled in preparing large, accurate topographic and geological maps, he was also an accomplished sketcher.
‘Mr Explorer Douglas’
In the 1880s, Douglas built up an exploring companionship with Mueller, now chief surveyor. On a trip up the Arawata River, the two climbed Mt Ionia. They also walked through many of South Westland’s river valleys, such as the Clarke and Landsborough. The reports of ‘Mr Explorer Douglas’ in the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives became important contributions to the knowledge of Westland’s geography.
Carrying his batwing tent, puffing on his pipe, and accompanied only by his precious dogs, first Topsy and then Betsey Jane, Douglas also climbed alone. He made an epic traverse of the northern Olivine Range, and travelled up the Waiatoto River in 1891. Between feats of courage and endurance in the mountains, Douglas drank heavily.
Showing his early education, Charlie Douglas liked classical names for mountains, such as Castor and Pollux. He also coined names for creeks on the west side of the Waiatoto: Lucky Rill, Tingling Brook, Ferny Rivulet, Whizzing Water, Thrill Creek and Madcap Torrent.
In 1893 Douglas developed an important partnership with another climber, Arthur P. Harper, son of the earlier explorer Leonard Harper. The two explored especially in the Franz Josef, Fox Glacier and Cook River regions. In 1897 he was awarded the Gill Memorial Prize by the Royal Geographical Society ‘for his persistent explorations during twenty-one years of the difficult region of forests and gorges on the western slopes of the New Zealand Alps’. 1 He retired in 1906 after a stroke.
By the end of the 19th century the work of men like Charlie Douglas and Alphonse Barrington had revealed most of the untrodden areas. Only pockets now remained. The desire to attract tourists to Milford Sound in the far south-west led Quinton McKinnon to find the Mackinnon Pass in 1888. This eventually formed part of the Milford Track, often described as the finest walk in the world. The same year, Henry Homer discovered a low saddle that led from the Hollyford River to the Cleddau River, and Milford Sound. The Homer Tunnel was later developed there and became a transport route to the sound.
The last areas
Elsewhere, mountaineers climbed parts of the Southern Alps. Most notably, Canterbury climbers explored the river valleys and peaks between the Waimakiriri and Rangitātā rivers in the 1930s. Parts of the Mt Aspiring country were not walked over until the 1950s, and as late as the 1970s remote parts of Fiordland were known from the air but not from the ground.
These were very isolated spots. By the mid-20th century exploration was largely a thing of the past. New Zealanders were reminded of the explorers’ endeavours only by the peaks which carried their names and the books which told their extraordinary stories.