New Zealand writing about history has often distinguished between ‘discovery’, which included initial surveys by sea, and ‘exploration’ – travelling on land through an area to learn about it.
For a long time discovery and exploration were regarded as distinctively European pursuits. Explorers were seen as ‘great men’ who contributed to the expansion of the British Empire, in Africa, Australia or New Zealand – and they were, indeed, all men. Later, from the mid-20th century, they were admired as much for their courage and physical endurance as for the social impact of their journeys. They came to represent one model of the heroic New Zealand male. However, this heroic view of explorers should be qualified.
Māori had explored all of New Zealand’s North Island and most of the South Island long before Europeans arrived. European explorers often used Māori accounts of routes and drew up maps from their descriptions. They used Māori guides and porters, followed Māori tracks, and were often fed, and even carried or canoed, by Māori. Only a few later explorers in the South Island’s alpine regions walked where no person had previously been. Even fewer walked alone.
The great explorers we know about are those who wrote accounts of their journeys, or compiled maps. We don’t know how many sealers, whalers, flax traders, gold prospectors or shepherds ventured far into the bush. Most of the written reports are autobiographical, and the authors sometimes inflated their achievements.
Explorers are often praised for their contribution to knowledge about the land and its features. However, most were not motivated by scientific goals, but by the promise of fresh pastures, new souls to convert, or gold. They saw the land in a number of ways – sometimes in terms of material use, sometimes for its beauty (a number were artists), and occasionally as observers of nature.
Yet the explorers are historically important. They were at the forefront of the colonisation of New Zealand. They defined new routes, mapped territory and imposed names on the landscape. They helped bring ‘Māori land’ into the European imagination, and increasingly under European authority. The explorers gave rise to new stories about the land, and entered New Zealand mythology.
Missionaries were the first group of Europeans who recorded travels in inland New Zealand. The first was the Sydney-based Anglican Samuel Marsden. Like other men of the cloth, he went into the wilderness to spread the gospel to Māori.
On his first visit in December 1814, Marsden headed westward from the Bay of Islands, as far as Lake Ōmāpere. His party carried 700 pounds of potatoes and 300 pounds of pork in baskets.
On his third voyage in 1820, aged 55, he went overland from Thames to Tauranga, visited Manukau Harbour, and walked twice from Waitematā Harbour to Kaipara and on to the Bay of Islands. On the way he explored the Hokianga, which he had visited the previous year. He used Māori guides and followed Māori tracks.
Missionaries ventured further in 1833–34, including a number of Anglicans. Henry Williams led a party up the Thames valley to Matamata in November 1833. The next year, Alfred Brown and James Hamlin explored the Waikato for five months, looking for sites for mission stations. They began at Kaipara Harbour, paddled up the Waikato River to Ngāruawāhia, and then travelled over to Raglan and down to Kāwhia. They saw Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro. Later that year, Brown returned with William Williams to establish a mission at Mangapōuri. Also in 1834, the Wesleyan William White travelled through the Waikato with Simon Peter, a Māori convert. William Puckey, another Anglican, went far north to Spirits Bay and Cape Rēinga.
By the end of 1834 missionary zeal had opened up the top half of the North Island to the newcomers.
James Buller’s long journey from Kaipara to Port Nicholson in 1839 was repeated by another Wesleyan missionary who commented, ‘To make such a journey once was a sin of ignorance, and might be forgiven. To attempt it a second time was a sin of presumption, for which there is no forgiveness.’ 1
1839 was a significant year for exploration. Henry Williams went to Port Nicholson (Wellington) and helped Octavius Hadfield establish a mission at Ōtaki. He then travelled up the Whanganui River and to the volcanic plateau, reaching the east coast at Tauranga. While Williams was camping at Lake Taupō, the Wesleyan James Buller saw his fires. Buller was on his way south, following much the same route to Port Nicholson. The next year Hadfield walked from Ōtaki to Cape Egmont and back. The south and west of the North Island had now been seen by European eyes.
Much of the East Coast of the North Island was explored by William Colenso. A Cornish layman, he arrived at the Paihia mission in 1834 as the country’s first printer. Driven by a desire to convert Māori to Christianity, and by a love of nature as ‘the living garment in which the Invisible has robed His mysterious loveliness’, he found his true home ‘in the wild’. 1
In 1841 he set off from Poverty Bay into the mountainous Urewera region with a party of Māori as guides and porters. At Waikaremoana on Christmas Eve he met a Catholic missionary, Father Claude-André Baty, en route from Māhia. Colenso launched a verbal attack on this competitor for Māori souls. Later, after passing through Ruatāhuna and Rotorua, he reached the Bay of Islands. Along the way he collected 1,000 botanical specimens and some moa bones.
In 1842 Colenso’s boss, Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, went with Chief Justice William Martin through the Manawatū Gorge into the Wairarapa and then north to Ahuriri (Napier), Wairoa, and Tokomaru Bay. At the Waiapu valley they turned west and crossed the challenging Raukūmara Range.
In 1845 Bishop Selwyn sent Colenso, now an ordained deacon, to establish a mission at Ahuriri. Within a month Colenso had set off with Māori porters across the Ruahine Range to visit a Māori congregation at inland Pātea, in the Rangitīkei valley. He failed to cross the ridges, but did discover an ‘enchanting scene’ of mountain flowers. An enthusiastic botanist, Colenso turned his jacket and shirt into bags and stuffed them with plants.
After an afternoon collecting flowers on the Ruahine mountain tops in 1845, William Colenso spent a restless night: ‘Often, indeed, did the words of the great Teacher come to memory. “Consider the lilies!” … That night I was wholly occupied with my darling specimens … only getting about 2 hours sleep towards morning.’ 2
Two years later Colenso finally reached the Māori of inland Pātea, going via Lake Taupō then heading south. He returned over the Ruahine Range, a trip he repeated five times over the next five years. Colenso made an important contribution to the botanical and geographical exploration of New Zealand.
While missionaries explored the North Island for souls, others were looking for wealth. In 1830 the trader Charles Marshall travelled up the Waikato River. The next year Phillip Tapsell, a whaler turned trader, went inland from Maketū in the Bay of Plenty to Rotorua. The Australian merchant John Carne Bidwill also headed inland from the Bay of Plenty to Rotorua in 1839, ignoring the Māori tapu (spiritual restriction) and climbing Mt Ngāuruhoe.
The New Zealand Company was formed to develop settlements in New Zealand for British migrants. William Wakefield led an advance expedition in the Tory to Port Nicholson (Wellington) in 1839. On board was German scientist Ernst Dieffenbach, who was to report on the plants, animals and resources of the new land. When the Tory reached New Plymouth, Dieffenbach stayed ashore to explore. He decided that the best view would be from the top of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). There were warnings that the mountain was tapu (under spiritual restriction), but Dieffenbach set off to climb it with the black American cook of the company’s land agent Dicky Barrett. They took a tohunga (Māori priest) as guide. The first attempt failed, but in the company of the whaler ‘Worser’ Heberley, Dieffenbach succeeded, while his Māori companions remained below praying.
Over the next two years Dieffenbach explored Northland and the centre of the North Island, and visited the Chatham Islands.
The New Zealand Company urgently needed flat, fertile, habitable land for the Port Nicholson settlement, and the country west towards Taranaki was examined. Edward Jerningham Wakefield went from Whanganui to Pātea in March 1840. In August, Robert Park, Robert Stokes and Charles Heaphy surveyed the land from Porirua to Taranaki.
They took longer to discover the country east of Wellington. In 1841 the company’s chief surveyor, William Mein Smith, sent Stokes over the Remutaka Range to Lake Wairarapa. The following year the company sent Charles Kettle and Alfred Wills with seven Māori through the Manawatū Gorge. Led by the Māori guide Eahu, they sidled southwards along the Tararua Range before finding a good route back over the Remutakas. They reported that the Wairarapa was like an English park, which helped encourage settlement of the area over the next few years.
By the mid-1840s, through the efforts of missionaries and the New Zealand Company, European exploration of the North Island was largely complete (except for remote areas of the Tararua, Ruahine and Urewera ranges).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As in Canterbury, the first Pākehā explorers in Otago and Southland were sealers who kept to the coast, and whalers who took up farming and went inland. Sub-protector of aborigines (Māori) Edward Shortland obtained detailed descriptions and drawings of the inland lakes from Te Huruhuru, chief of a settlement on the lower Waitaki River.
In 1844 a New Zealand Company surveyor, Frederick Tuckett, came south in search of new land for settlement. He crossed the Taieri and Tokomairiro plains, which convinced him that Otago was suitable. Within months, the company had purchased the Otago block. Two years later, Charles Kettle arrived to survey the new land. In 1847 he became the first white man to see Central Otago. He made two forays west in 1851 to begin exploring the area.
Further south, land commissioner Walter Mantell made several journeys along the coast. In 1851 he went inland to the Māori village of Tuturau (between present-day Mataura and Wyndham).
A settlement was established at Dunedin in 1848, and the newcomers mostly stayed close to the coasts. However, as sheep farming became a possibility, they began to hunt for new pasture lands. In 1852 C. J. Nairn followed a Māori guide from the Southland coast as far inland as Lake Te Anau.
A Clutha farmer, Nathanael Chalmers, persuaded the Tūtūrau chief Reko to guide him inland in return for a three-legged iron pot. In September 1853, with a second Māori whom they called Kaikōura, they set out up the Mataura River, further up the Nokomai, and over the hills to the Kawarau River. They crossed the river over a ‘rock bridge’ – actually a stretch narrow enough to jump over. On the way they dined on ducks and eels, and Chalmers saw Lake Wakatipu. Going downstream to the Cromwell flats, they followed the upper Clutha River, and Chalmers became the first white man to see Lakes Wānaka and Hāwea. But when Reko offered to take him further north to the Waitaki River, Chalmers, wracked by chronic diarrhoea, declined. The quickest way back was by water. Building a raft of flax stems, the three men sped all the way back through the Cromwell Gorge and almost to the sea.
In 1910, 57 years after the event, Nathanael Chalmers remembered his raft trip through the Cromwell Gorge: ‘I shall never forget the “race” through the gorge … my heart was literally in my mouth, but those two old men seemed to care nothing for the current.’ 1
Other sheep men explored Central Otago and the lake district from 1854 to 1856, and the provincial government realised that the region had a future. The price of land, kept high to ensure settlers remained close to Dunedin, was lowered. In 1856 the province appointed a chief surveyor, John Turnbull Thomson, to explore the area. First he went south, surveying Invercargill and reporting on Southland. This quickly triggered a rush of aspiring farmers. He also visited chief Reko and learned about the interior. In 1857 he investigated the Maniototo, then went up the Waitaki River, saw Lakes Hāwea and Wānaka, and named Mt Aspiring. Finally, he visited Lakes Ōhau and Pūkaki. Thomson had described 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometres) of land, and within 18 months of his newspaper reports, sheep farmers had taken up the land.
Some farmers explored uncharted territory as they searched for new pastures east of the Alps. In 1861–63 the surveyor James McKerrow systematically recorded the area from Manapōuri and Te Anau in the south to Wānaka and Hāwea in the north.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
McClymont, W. G. The exploration of New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1940.
Pascoe, John. Exploration New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1971.
Taylor, Nancy M., ed. Early travellers in New Zealand. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
Temple, Philip. New Zealand explorers: great journeys of discovery. Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1985.
Television New Zealand. Explorers. 2005.