A Frenchman, a Welshman and a Newfoundlander walk into a wilderness.
Four months later, they emerge barely alive—“living skeletons”, “wrecks of humanity”, reports the local newspaper, the Lake Wakatip Mail.
One of them leaves something behind: a pouch of gold won speck by speck from the creeks of South Westland. He jettisons it as he struggles up a mountain pass. His legs are failing him. He has to lighten his swag or he won’t make it to the top. So he tips most of his possessions into the snow. He looks for a moment at the gold bag—his meagre rewards from this unproductive journey—and he leaves it where it lies.
And there it may still lie today.
And “there”—to the extent that any of us can figure out the location—is where a landscape architect, a crop scientist and a writer travelled last summer to retrace the man’s steps and retrieve the man’s gold.
In the annals of New Zealand exploration, few journeys possess the character of physical extremity and cussed bad luck as that of gold prospectors Antoine Simonin, James Farrell and Alphonse Barrington, who lit out for unexplored country from the head of Lake Wakatipu in the summer of 1864.
They dreamed of finding an El Dorado that lay beyond the reach of their less adventurous fellows. But the further north they travelled, the more difficult it became to replenish their provisions. They couldn’t carry enough to both feed themselves on the supply trip and have enough to spare for the next period of prospecting.
On one provisioning journey, it took Barrington and Farrell a month to get to Wakatipu and back, each man carrying close to 50 kilograms of oatmeal in his swag. (A standard bag of cement weighs 40 kilograms.) They buried half at an island midway between their camp and Queenstown, but by the time they reached the camp there was so little food left that they turned around and walked back to Wakatipu for more.
There was no future in being human packhorses, so the party decided to take a more carnivorous approach to nutrition, investing in guns, powder and shot and shooting whatever game they could find, from eels to kakapo. This proved easier imagined than done. Feathered game was patchy, often elusive and in some places nonexistent. It was especially hard to get in the rain.
On one occasion, Barrington reported that he “killed a robin and three wren; roasted them: the smallest joints I ever saw; then went hunting again”. Bagging four songbirds constituted a “very lucky” day, he wrote.
Three months into the trip (four for Barrington, who had set out initially with a different pair of mates who bailed on him after a month), they were prospecting around the Cascade River, close to the West Coast, finding enough gold in the river gravel to make Barrington think that it would be worth setting up a sluicing operation there.
Then the rain set in, as only South Westland rain can, and the party began to run out of food. “There is nothing at all that we can find here eatable,” wrote Barrington. “No fern root, no spear-grass, no annis, or any vegetable whatever; nothing but stones, timber and water . . . Obtained just sufficient game to keep life in us, only after great hardships and difficulties.”
They were camped near a small lake now known as Theta Tarn, in the Cascade Valley, some 15 kilometres from the coast. Barrington called it Linger and Die Lake on account of the scarcity of food. It was here that Mick Abbott, John McCallum and I started our journey, hoping to find some tangible trace of their sojourn here—a pick, a shovel, a rusty gold pan, some relic to link our passing through the land with theirs.
We had a copy of Barrington’s diary, published in three instalments in the Lake Wakatip Mail in the winter of 1864, and we had “Moir’s”—Moir’s Guide Book—the hiker’s Bible for these parts, first published in 1925 by George Moir, a Wellington scientist in the dairy industry. Anywhere you want to tramp, hunt or climb in the Southern Alps, Moir’s will describe the best way to get there, estimate how long it will take and tell you where the good campsites are. It is renowned for taciturn descriptions of gutbusting routes, along with arcane but useful advice such as “Keep on the barren side of the contact” or “The true left of Pyke Gorge is best avoided”.
We had also enlisted modern technology: a metal detector that made whooping sounds when it came near the metal eyelets of ou
r boots. If it made such a voluble deal of tiny bits of iron, I could only imagine its orchestral fanfare when it hovered above a pouch of gold.
We flew in by helicopter from Neils Beach, just shy of Jackson Bay, the end of the road in South Westland. Our flight tracked the visible rift in the land that marks the Alpine Fault, the tectonic divide that splits the South Island from top to bottom. The Red Hills rose like a carnelian cutout on the skyline ahead, while the forested Olivine Range heaved up on our left.
We had asked for the passenger door of the helicopter to be taken off for ease of photography, and we stuck our heads out as we passed above green ponds shining in the forest like opals. They had formed when this quake-prone land slumped as the Alpine Fault ruptured, pilot Geoff Robson said.
We landed on a spongy grass flat beside the tarn, then watched as the departing aircraft shrank to the size of a green dragonfly and finally disappeared behind the mountains. In place of the whir of rotors came the peep of pipits twig-hopping in manuka scrub.
The tarn was rippling in a light breeze, and there were a few paradise ducks on it. There had been ducks when Barrington’s party was here, too. They shot three, and three flew away. That was before the rain starved them out.
We consulted Barrington’s diary entry for April 29, 1864: “Packed up a few things which we cannot do well without, leaving behind picks, shovels, tin dishes, gimlets, nails, spokeshave, chisels, and several other things, which made our swags much lighter, but they felt just as heavy, on account of our weak state.”
Theta Tarn was their ultima Thule; they would go no further. The lake had risen over a metre in a single day, and even the smallest creeks were uncrossable. The land had slammed the door on them. It was time to turn back.
Abbott assembled his metal detector.
“What’s a gimlet?” he asked.
“Some kind of drill, I think,” McCallum said. I thought of the adjective “gimlet-eyed”, said of someone with an especially penetrating stare. We cast ourselves as crime-scene detectives, asking, “If I were a gold prospector, where would I stash my tools?” Abbott was convinced it would have to be an obvious landmark—somewhere you could recognise if you returned. “Or a place someone else could recognise if you drew them a map.”
He tried around the outlet of the lake, where a small stream connected it with a tributary of the Cascade River. Then he scanned a flat area that looked like it might once have been a good place to camp. But what would it have looked like 150 years ago? We had no way of knowing—and the detector offered no clues. Its only whoops came from close passes to Abbott’s boots.
We abandoned the search for gimlets and switched our focus to something that needed no electronic detection. On the flight in, Robson had pointed out two small thermal areas on the slopes above the tarn—surface manifestations of the subterranean turmoil of this region. We climbed a forested spur to one of them, and what we found astonished us. It was like stumbling across the South Westland equivalent of Tarawera’s famous Pink and White Terraces. Mineral-laden spring water was trickling across an expanse of caramel-coloured limestone shaped into pancake stacks and meringue-like bulges. Picture a glacier made of butterscotch—a rippling, rounded river of rock.
Twigs and leaves that had fallen into pools in the travertine terraces had been encrusted with minerals—transmogrified by the alchemy of chemistry + time. At the edges of the 20-metre-wide formation, orange stalactites dripped alongside the drooping green branches of rimu. It was the kind of place that makes you hold your breath, not wanting to disturb a sacred tableau.
The next day was a baptism of pain. We followed the route of Barrington & Co. south into the steadily constricting jaws of the Cascade Gorge. Moir’s said we should sidle the gorge at the 320-metre contour to get around Durwards Falls, a cataract that plunges 50 metres down a rocky chute. Abbott’s wristwatch had an altimeter function, and this helped considerably in assessing our position.
“Sidle” is an amiable-sounding word, like “amble” or “saunter”. The reality is otherwise. Over the course of our journey, we began to use “sidle” as you might use “torture”. To sidle is to make a sideways traverse on steep terrain such as the side of a river valley or a scree slope. Like walking on the deck of a permanently listing ship, it places relentless strain on ankles, legs and back.
Try that in a trackless, dripping rainforest containing an arsenal of booby traps worthy of the most diabolical of dungeon-crawling video games.
Tramping in such country is a wrestling, wrenching, wriggling, lurching battle. Packs snag on arrow-tipped branches. Spring-loaded saplings whip back after you pass and smack you in the head. Seemingly solid logs disintegrate like pavlova under your weight.
Vegetation is brittle, spiky and harsh, and there are a hundred ways for a telescopic hiking stick to become tangled in it. If you watch where you’re putting your feet, a tendril of thorn-studded bush lawyer slashes your throat like a botanical cat o’ nine tails. Shift your focus to eye level and you disappear down a bunker—a foot trap hidden by spongy moss and fern.
One aspires to travel deftly and smoothly, in a Zen-like state of balance, aligned with the disposition of the land—like moccasin-clad Indians tracking noiselessly through the woods. But that vision is laughable. Perpetually off-balance, constantly grabbed, jabbed and stabbed, walking becomes a succession of bruised shins, lacerated hands and barely avoided sprains.
Or perhaps I should accept that the aspiration of effortless effort is a skill learned through long apprenticeship. Mountain writer Aat Vervoorn, whose books on solitary journeys in the Southern Alps are classics, says that travelling lightly in the mountains involves more than agility, more than technique—“it requires knowledge that can only be acquired gradually by being in the mountain setting and learning to read and respond to its signs”.
Abbott and McCallum spent a lot of time looking for these signs, alternately reading the map and reading the land, shuttling between two and three dimensions. McCallum spoke of making a conscious shift from mental analysis to a more intuitive way of seeing. “You navigate on a different level of cognition,” he said.
Deer trails are godsends in these circumstances. Deer may be a menace to native flora, but their trails are like miniature highways through an otherwise barely penetrable thicket. Finding one that heads in the direction you want can cut your travelling time in half. You gain an eye for them after a while, divining their presence by a faint thinning of the vegetation, having it confirmed by the evidence of hoof-chapped roots and scattered clumps of faecal pellets the size of coffee beans.
Barrington and his mates did not have the benefit of such trails (or of coffee beans, of which we carried a plentiful supply). Deer were not introduced to the region until the 1870s. The forest would have been even denser than it is today—difficult as this was to imagine after four hours of sidling Cascade Gorge.
We were now officially in the Olivine Wilderness Area. If there is such a thing as a quintessence of the New Zealand environment, wilderness areas are it. To qualify, an area has to be large enough that it takes two days to cross it on foot, and remote enough to be buffered from human influence. There are 11 of them scattered throughout our conservation lands. According to its management plan, the 830-square-kilometre Olivine Wilderness Area, which was designated in 1997 and is one of the largest, is intended for “contemplation, self-reliance, exploration and challenge”.
There was a certain amount of joking among us that by crossing a line on a map you move from one dispensation to another: from merely isolated to truly remote; trammelled to untrammelled; tame to wild. But the joking was the flipside of serious intent. Part of the purpose of our journey was to ask: “What is the relevance of wilderness in 21st-century New Zealand?”—a question that has occupied Abbott in one way or another for more than two decades.
I first met Mick Abbott in 1989, during the first year of New Zealand Geographic’s existence. He had just made a full-length traverse of the South Island, stepping into the forest near Tuatapere and stepping out of it at Farewell Spit 130 days later. He had walked 1600 kilometres, crossed the Main Divide 32 times and climbed 58,000 vertical metres—equivalent to seven ascents of Mt Everest. We promptly published his account.
Years later, he became a lecturer in landscape architecture, first in Otago and then at Lincoln. I saw his name on the cover of two books on landscape and identity in New Zealand: Beyond the Scene and Making Our Place—books that had a deep impact on my thinking about the importance of place—and I sought him out. We found that we had been walking similar thought paths, particularly concerning what it means to belong to a landscape, to become indigenous to a place.
This Barrington journey was Abbott’s idea. He had tramped in the Olivines twice before, both times on his own. He can’t seem to leave Barrington alone—something about the man’s will to survive, the power of that determination. Abbott understands survival. Many of his fingers are twisted and misshapen from frostbite. He nearly lost them. A blizzard caught him and a climbing mate underprepared on Douglas Peak, at the head of Fox Glacier. The snow was falling so fast they couldn’t claw out a snowcave with their hands, and they didn’t have a shovel.
“I thought we were dead men,” he told me. His friend slipped and fell into a crevasse, but it proved their salvation. There was a shelf halfway down the crevasse where they could escape the death-dealing wind.
On our late-night car journey down the West Coast to Haast, I had chanced to notice as we drove past Fox Glacier that Abbott lifted his hand off the steering wheel and raised it to the hills. I said nothing at the time, but later he told me he was addressing Douglas Peak, saying, “I’m still here.”
Barrington’s trail led up to the tops of the Red Hills, the range we had seen as we flew in to Theta Tarn. The hills are named for the brick-red colour of the rock, which are rich in iron and magnesium but poor in most other minerals. Because of that deficiency, the hills have no forest cover, only sparse tussock and scrub. The bare hillsides glow many shades of red and orange as the light changes through the day. But the mind-bending thing about this range is that its Siamese twin, the Red Hills Ridge, lies 480 kilometres to the north, near Nelson. Tectonic forces slid that sibling along the Alpine Fault, depositing it in what is now Mt Richmond Forest Park.
Lesser forces had tumbled rivers of rock down the hillsides, and we needed to negotiate these rockfalls to reach the top. Sometimes the sharp-edged slabs seesawed dangerously underneath us, or shifted with an ominous thud and a puff of dust—several tonnes of boot-trapping rock. I thought of the US climber Aran Ralston, who became pinned by a dislodged boulder during a hike in Utah. To save himself, he had to saw off his forearm with the blade of a multi-tool.
We said little as we made our way up the boulder fields. It was difficult to feel at ease among such instability. One blessing was that the nutmeg-grater surface of the rock offered wonderful grip for boot soles. It was gritty and granular, like walking on tiny barnacles. But even this blessing was mixed: the rock was a highly effective skin remover if stumbled on.
Low cloud on the summit ridge swirled and parted, giving brief glimpses of three small lakes Barrington recorded in his journal, confirming we were in the right place. We tracked south-west, seeming to travel through different geological zones, sometimes passing rock streaked with veins of sapphire blue, other times rock like the inside of a paua shell, shimmery with nacreous blues and pinks. Some rocks were the colour of a cooked crayfish. Occasionally, standing out like a track marker—except tracks are banned in wilderness areas—a gleaming white rock flecked with a peppering of black.
Somewhere on these hills Barrington became separated from his mates. Thinking they were ahead, he hurried forward, but in fact they were behind him. He fired his gun twice, but received no answer. He had no option but to press on alone. He had the only tent, but they had the bird-catching dog, giving each a roughly equal chance of survival. Apart from what he could shoot, Barrington had less than half a kilogram of oatmeal to last him on a journey of more than 70 kilometres as the crow flies.
We followed his route down a stream called Peridot, the French word for gem-quality olivine. Olivine, the signature mineral hereabouts, is said to be the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s mantle—and also beyond the Earth, having been detected on the moon, Mars and at least one asteroid.
Olivine’s green colour is thought to result from traces of nickel, and in its translucent form it is can be mistaken for emerald. But its future value may come from its ability to react with atmospheric carbon dioxide. A kilogram of olivine can sequester all the carbon dioxide produced from burning a kilogram of oil. Imagine: one of the commonest minerals on Earth mopping up the most problematic gas in the atmosphere.
No one has tried to mine olivine here, but they had a go at asbestos in the 1970s, and the threat of widespread asbestos mining was one of the reasons for a push to protect the Olivine Range as a wilderness area. In such a mineralised part of the country, the prospect of mining seems unlikely ever to disappear entirely.
We were making for a mining hut that stood on an island in the Pyke River. Abbott had stayed in it on a previous trip. To get there, we had to face hours of sidling a succession of rockfalls, but night overtook us. By a stroke of luck we found a couple of handkerchief-sized spots of flat land between two gullies and set up camp. McCallum managed to siphon water from a rocky trickle using the drinking tube of his water bladder.
The following morning, that trickle had become a torrent. Sometimes there is a moment when you shift from being an observer of history to a participant in it. A hundred and fifty years can be folded into the present. That moment arrived as the rain set in. We were in Barrington’s reality.
I stood on the side of a rubble face, gazing at dense green primeval beech forest across the Pyke River gorge as grey curtains of wind-driven rain drifted across it. Inside the forest, every tree was a shower-in-waiting, every trunk slick and cold.
My field of view was reduced to a porthole through the cowl of my raincoat, often just enough to see longjohn-clad legs of my companions marching ahead. The steady monotony of the walking, the steady monotony of the rain. “Tramp” is such a good word. Nothing flashy or fancy. Just simple, patient, primitive work, this work of covering ground.
The chutes we crossed were now wild sluices of brown water. Traversing these gouges in the hillside was as much a mental test as it was physical, as we gingerly waded each cataract, balancing like tightrope walkers, feeling for invisible footholds in the swift current.
Wilderness can have an implacable face. Barrington must have felt it. “Precipices fearful to contemplate; life in jeopardy every five minutes,” he wrote. But in the midst of danger there are gifts of beauty: a perfect sky-blue fungus in the leaf mould, the flamboyant blooms of a young rata with floodwaters rampaging around it. Valentines from the Olivines.
We plunged back into the forest and my thoughts drifted towards the hut in the Pyke. Did it have a woodburner? Would there be a supply of dry firewood? Wilderness areas are not supposed to have such appurtenances—no huts, bridges, tracks or signs, no flights in or out, no food drops, and certainly no road access—but this exception to the rule had a distinct allure.
I had fallen behind the others, shin muscles protesting every downward step on the rock staircase, every sliding descent through tangled forest. When I caught up, they were standing in a clearing on the river flats.
“So where’s this hut then?” I asked, thinking it must be just around the corner, and that they were waiting for me before the grand arrival.
“You’re standing in it,” Abbott replied, pointing to the ground. Broken glass, bits of rusting iron, a few aluminium tags and a pile of geological drill cores were all that remained. In accordance with wilderness policy, it had been removed. I stood there, bemused, a little disappointed. If the thought of a modicum of comfort was an ignoble desire unworthy of a true adventurer, then I’ll be the first to admit to ignobility.
We stretched out 40 metres of radio aerial and listened to the weather forecast: two more days of solid rain. We needed to cross the Pyke while it was still crossable. A few hours’ walking along the river flats, splashing through rivulets whose beds were bright with coloured stones, brought us to the confluence of Pyke River and Peanut Stream. Just upstream we found a place where we could cross in only knee-deep water.
The Pyke was running jade-green towards the north, from where it turns west, then south again, making a complete U-turn around the Little Red Hill Range. The Peanut, belying its innocuous name, tumbled swift and powerful over serpentine boulders. Where the two rivers met was a triangular delta strewn with slabs of rock. I imagined the rivers in flood, roaring across this boulder field, rumbling the slabs, prising some away, adding new ones.
A few charred embers showed that another party had camped here not long before us. I lit a new fire on top of the old embers and watched the blue woodsmoke drift into the forest where we had pitched the tent and fly on a soggy sphagnum bog.
In a crevice between two rocks I found an intact bird skeleton. Later, I emailed a photograph to ornithologist Richard Holdaway, who identified it as a sooty shearwater.
“Really? This far from the sea?” I asked.
Holdaway said that remnant shearwater colonies have been found in the hills around Milford Sound, and he has tracking data of shearwaters that appear to cross the South Island. What a land this must have been before predatory mammals got here. Early explorers and prospectors relied on native birds for tucker—as Māori, of course, had done for centuries. Barrington was still seeing—and eating—kakapo (he called it “our chief food”). Blue ducks were still common, along with weka, kaka, white herons and birds he called magpies—probably tui, because Australian magpies were only starting to be released in New Zealand at the time of his journey.
A good bird dog was an essential member of a party, enabling ground birds to be caught in the rain or when the forest was too dense for shooting. But dogs could be fickle. Barrington’s dog “turned traitor to our cause”, he wrote. “When we took him in the bush to hunt for kakapo he would go and catch one, stop and eat it, and then he would not hunt any more for us.”
Given the number of prospectors with dogs roaming the hills, it isn’t surprising that some of those canines went feral. An 1864 newspaper article reported that Barrington’s party was shadowed by wild dogs around the Pyke, which Barrington christened Wild Dog River on account of “the quantity of those animals”. According to the article, the dogs followed their course day by day, but always kept out of range of their guns. “It seemed as if they were waiting for [the men] to die, before they could muster courage to prey upon them.” Barrington may not have had the benefit of deer trails, but we didn’t have to contend with ravening dogs.
Barrington was hemmed in by bad weather halfway up Peanut Stream for five days. “Rain coming down in torrents; cannot light a fire,” he wrote on the first day. “Could not sleep last night, my teeth cracking together all night with cold, and cramp in my legs,” he wrote on the second. Day three: “Turned out and had a look; any amount of snow on the surrounding hills, and still snowing fast and freezing. Turned in again.” Day four: “Still snowing and no sign of a change; no food.” Day five: “I am completely jammed in. I cannot move; snow falling thick and fast.”
We were hunkered down for two days of rain, but this hiatus could not be compared with Barrington’s ordeal.
We had warm sleeping bags, not to mention air mattresses; Barrington had only sodden blankets. We ate Thai curry; he went to bed hungry. “Night coming on; nothing to eat, and fearfully cold,” he wrote from his lonely perch on the mountainside.
He would dismiss us as dilettantes. We were packing everything from eggplants to avocados. We had demolished a couple of litres of red wine. We were eating high on the backcountry hog, and while our gourmet supplies weighed us down, they served as a powerful motivator during the long days we were putting in.
Sleepless nights bedevilled Barrington, and in this I could claim solidarity with him. I envy people who can sleep anywhere, anytime. On this trip, I also envied the spongy inflatable sleeping pads of my companions. My skinny airbed was a plank. I developed a rotisserie approach to rest. Five minutes on my back; a quarter turn clockwise. Five minutes on that side; another quarter turn. Five minutes on my stomach; rotate. It was the only way I could get through the night.
You can cover a lot of conversational ground when you’re stuck in a tent between two flooded rivers, thunder is crackling around the hills and sleep seems as elusive as a Lotto win. The discussion with tentmate Abbott started with a question: Is wilderness a place or an experience? Abbott’s view is that if wilderness is seen primarily as a place—a certain quantity of land, holding a certain quantum of biodiversity, delivering a certain quota of ecosystem services—then we’ll always be arguing about how much land should be set aside for that purpose, and worrying that its conservation values are being diminished and degraded by human agendas.
For Abbott, a key problem with the European idea of wilderness is that it doesn’t foster a sense of belonging. It implies something that has to be kept separate from humans. Like a museum exhibit: visit, look, but don’t interfere. Because we think of wilderness in terms of protection from human influence, we have a defensive mindset, he says. Wilderness is seen as a permanently shrinking resource, whittled away by the thousand cuts of commerce.
But if wilderness is primarily an experience—an ongoing relationship between people and place—then the questions become: How can that experience be sustained, enriched and intensified for the benefit of both parties, nature and people, and how can it be made more available to New Zealanders, and become more relevant to their daily lives?
And the bigger question: Can we imagine this country’s prosperity coming out of a sustainable and sustaining relationship with this land and its native ecosystems, rather than our present duality of quarantining the bits we call conservation land and allowing runaway exploitation in the rest?
What stands in the way of such a vision, says Abbott, is that New Zealand’s conservation land—roughly a third of our land area—is perceived as something we pay to preserve out of our taxes, not something that produces exports and generates national wealth.
“We don’t see conservation as an investment that adds economic value to this country,” he said. “That’s the real loss here.”
This blinkered thinking is depriving the country of an intellectual-property pot of gold, Abbott believes. He pointed out that the international Convention on Biological Diversity, to which most countries have signed up, has as one of its major goals the conservation of 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.
“Given that the planet is trying to put aside this land for biodiversity, a country like New Zealand that’s already doing a whole lot of conservation work should be ideally positioned to show the rest of the world how it’s done and that it’s worthwhile to do,” he said.
“Yet we have restricted our sense of prosperity from our conservation lands to the ecosystem services and clean water they provide. That and the tourism industry. And some blockbuster movies. That’s where it’s parked. We need to see that there is huge value in an export sense from our relationship with our protected areas. And that’s got nothing to do with tourism and nothing to do with mining and nothing to do with extracting or diminishing the wilderness values of the conservation estate. Our conservation lands are our Silicon Valley. It’s not minerals we should be mining, but New Zealanders’ relationships with nature.”
On the third day, the rain stopped. We carried our gear down to the river delta. Cloud wreathed the forest, but through gaps we could see snow on all the tops. The Red Hills were now the white hills. Away to the east lay the peaks of the Olivine Range.
Mountain names tend to come in clusters. In the Olivines there’s a bullfighter trio of peaks—Matador, Toreador and Picador. There’s a storm quartet—Typhoon and Tempest Peaks, Tornado Glacier and Hurricane Col. Some of the names give glimpses of the explorers behind the names, their very thoughts and emotions: Dilemma Glacier, Desperation Pass, Possibility Col.
Barrington & Co. have their place in the cartographic pantheon. Simonin has a stream and a pass named after him, Barrington a creek, a saddle and a peak. Farrell draws the short straw: he is remembered only by a peak. But both Simonin and Farrell get a second bite of the snowberry with peaks named for their nationalities: Frenchman and Welshman. (Barrington, the Newfoundlander, is not so honoured; there’s no Newfie Peak.)
After two days of staring at tent walls, I met the forest with hungry senses. I listened with pleasure to the conversation my boots were having with the terrain: scuffing on gravel, squeaking in snow, giving a satisfying thump on rock, with the added metallic tapping of the tip of my hiking pole. I had never walked with a pole before, but took one on this trip and was thankful I did. For a third point of contact when crossing boulder fields, for taking some of the load when sidling, my telescopic stick was my saviour.
Our boots talked, we ourselves were silent, cowed by the immensity around us. Out of the forest now, we were climbing towards a 1300-metre snow-covered pass. A flock of kea suddenly appeared, swooping over a ridge, shrieking as they came. They wheeled, landed, inspected and departed, screeching into the mountains. We counted 15 of them, and were thrilled. None of us had seen such a large flock in years. This rambunctious parrot, once branded a sheep killer and slain in thousands, still feels the indirect impact of humans in the form of lead-head nails in hut roofs—irresistible playthings to a clever bird with a beak just made for prying up a lump of soft metal; soft, toxic metal that poisons the blood.
We came into a snow-covered basin. By Abbott’s reckoning, here, among a scattering of rocks the size of bus shelters, Barrington emptied his swag. Barrington’s diary entry for May 14, 1864, reads: “Toiled away till I saw by the sun it was nearly noon, and I had not got one mile away from the timber where I was camped, and was completely done, so there was nothing for it but desert my swag or die here.”
Abbott assembled his metal detector and began trudging back and forth, as if in a grid search for an avalanche victim. Perhaps under the several inches of snow that had fallen lay the precious pouch. We had planned to spend several hours here—it was to be the capstone of the trip—but the icy conditions weakened our resolve. Our boots, soaked from river walking, had become fridges. And the snow had drawn a veil over everything. Only the man with the electronics could penetrate it.
Abbott made a final sweep around the bases of the rocks, reasoning that if you were going to cache gear and gold you’d do so near a prominent landmark (and not quite trusting Barrington’s account of “throwing away” his swag). But the detector was silent, so we shouldered our packs and bid farewell to fortune.
I could romanticise the moment, quoting Denis Glover’s classic poem “Arawata Bill”: “You should have been told / Only in you was the gold.” The true gold, according to Glover, lies in “your own questing soul”. So was this a fool’s errand, this search for something dropped 150 years ago and subject to one-and-a-half centuries’ worth of storm, flood, quake and more?
I don’t think so. Imagination needs its triggers. Adventure needs its spark. Glover called it “a wild surmise”—the thing that motivates and propels. It was gold that pulled Barrington into this country, and gold that beckoned us to follow. Yet Barrington is remembered for his journey, not for his loot. Journeying was the currency here, and it rewarded us well.
We kicked steps in the snow up to the pass, and from there it was a long easy saunter down to Barrier Flats, an oasis of grass encircled by mountains. Here, as Barrington crossed the Barrier River at sundown, he was astonished to see smoke. It was Farrell and Simonin. The odds that they should ever have met up again were minuscule. Barrington ate two weka and wrote that “with the heat of the fire I was much refreshed”.
Barrington and his mates turned east, into horrendously steep country on the edge of the Olivine Ice Plateau, before descending to the Pyke, crossing to the Dart and then back to Lake Wakatipu—a route that would take them another month. At one point, all they had to eat was a rat, which Barrington roasted and divided into three. They pronounced it “the sweetest bit of meat we ever ate”. In a rare flash of dark humour, Barrington wrote, “If fasting and praying is of any value to sinners, we ought soon to become saints.”
We three turned west to a rendezvous with the green dragonfly. As we flew back along our route, I was surprised to see how far we’d come. Yet we had covered only a fraction of Barrington’s wanderings. His journey, wrote Nancy Taylor in her book Early Travellers in New Zealand, “cannot be matched in the history of New Zealand”.
Yet exploratory travel was grist to the mill for gold prospectors. Men of Barrington’s ilk crossed oceans in hopes of striking it rich. Rivers and mountain passes were just additional obstacles in their quest for bright metal. Barrington was more adventurous than most, but his is the only story that we have, because his was the only account ever published. Who knows what other prospecting journeys were made, unknown because unrecorded?
On the flight back to Jackson Bay, talk turned to the proposed Haast-to-Hollyford road. We were tracking above the Cascade River, the thermal terraces and the plunging Durwards Falls. “This is where they want to put the road,” said pilot Geoff Robson. He’s not impressed by the idea. “People seem to think it will be a goldmine for the Coast, but we’ve been hearing this for decades. Tourism, tourism, tourism. For much of the Coast it hasn’t worked out. People do OK for four months over summer, but what about the other eight?”
But there could be a darker subsidiary agenda: mining. Those Red Hills—some tempting minerals in there. How convenient for a road to pass right by them. Goodbye wilderness area.
I thought back to my tent conversations with Abbott about what it means to belong to a place.
The way you become part of a place is to derive your life from that place, he had said. “It’s the difference between being colonial and being indigenous.”
Māori became tangata whenua through building a relationship with place—through becoming intimate with its ecosystems and landscapes. That experience didn’t happen overnight. It deepened with time—undoubtedly given a jolt by the extinction of moa and the many lessons that grievous extirpation must have taught.
Do Pākehā want to make that journey to indigeneity? Or are they stuck in extractive mode, content to let the colonial encounter—with its egregious resource-destroying mistakes—define the long path?
We passed the Cascade Plateau, stretching away to the Tasman Sea, and Robson said that huge pounamu boulders had been discovered there in recent years. He flies people out there regularly to see these massive treasures. It struck me that Māori use of pounamu offers an example of how to exploit a resource while at the same time preserving and honouring it, and maintaining a relationship with it. Transforming it, in short, from a resource to a taonga.
Extraction of the stone is tightly controlled. Access is limited. The value of each piece is maximised—the stone is not pulverised and shipped in bulk to China. But most importantly, pounamu is festooned with rituals and stories, so that its value increases a hundredfold beyond its price as a piece of carved stone. Passed down from one generation to the next, its richness becomes incalculable—the triple richness of social wellbeing, economic wealth and environmental respect that is often touted but rarely achieved.
What would this country look like if all natural capital were treated in this way? Can we conceive a future in which prosperity comes from a nurturing relationship with the land, rather than its relentless consumption?
“To preserve our places and be at home in them, it is necessary to fill them with imagination,” says Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry. In a way, this is what we were doing by following Barrington through the wilderness. Walking where he walked, lighting a fire where others had warmed themselves before, being soaked and frozen and jammed up by flooded rivers, we became part of the history of that place.
What became of Barrington? A few months after he returned to Queenstown, he was off prospecting again—this time travelling by sea. His talk of a potentially lucrative goldfield near the Cascade River persuaded 38 diggers to accompany him. They chartered two cutters for the voyage and landed at Jackson Bay—but this was a geographical bungle on Barrington’s part; he mistook the Jackson River for the Cascade.
The venture ended in disappointment and acrimony. The diggers found nothing, and gradually dispersed to other goldfields, claiming that Barrington had led them astray, and that his El Dorado was a pig in a poke. To this day, gold has never been found in payable quantities in the Cascade—apart from ‘white gold’, the whitebait that surges into that river every spring. And the green gold of jade.
Barrington stayed on the Coast for another year, drifting north to goldfields around Greymouth. On December 5, 1865, he boarded the Gothenburg for Melbourne, and never returned to New Zealand. He was 33.