Malcolm Evans

Barrington’s lost gold

When the walnut stock of the McCarthy shotgun touched Captain Elch­old’s cheek the fate of yet another pigeon seemed inevit­able. With the precision of a gun turret he tracked the bird across the sky and was about to pull the trig­ger. Suddenly, he stopped. The pi­geon crash-landed into the mop of a miro tree, but Elchold’s attention was now elsewhere. He lowered his weapon, watching in disbelief.

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Three haggard men were crossing a branch of the Dart River, dragging their feet against the swift current. Their hair and beards were long and matted, their faces scratched and streaked with caked blood. Bedrag­gled guernsey shirts and fustian trousers cloaked their angular bod­ies like oversized potato sacks. A half-starved dog swam ahead and shook itself dry on a gravel bank. Its shaggy coat was stretched over pro­truding ribs like the bellow of a concertina.

The first man across wore a rag­ged tunic made of a crudely stitched blanket. His eyes were lost in the cavities of his skull. Approaching the captain, he muttered a feeble plea for tobacco.

Like both of his impoverished companions, Alphonse Barrington was a gold miner. Six months earlier he set out to prospect in the unmapped mountains of South-Westland. His journey, full of misadventures and unspeakable hardship, was to become one of the most heroic episodes in the history of New Zealand exploration.

The three men who staggered out of the wilderness in such emaciated state this crisp June morning were later described by Captain Elchold­skipper of a whaleboat which fer­ried supplies across Lake Wakatipu—as “living skeletons cov­ered with skin,” so weak they were barely able to speak. “Wrecks of hu­manity,” recorded another witness.

The year was 1864. Abraham Lin­coln had just been re-elected presi­dent of the United States, and the population of Australia had reached one million. In New Zealand’s North Island, racial tempers ran sour and exploded into war when the puni­tive expedition of General Duncan Cameron crossed the Mangatawhiri River and entered the King Country. Meanwhile, in the South Island,men in their thousands scarred the mountains and diverted the rivers in a frenzied search for gold.

The first great gold-rush, in Gabriel’s Gully, had been on for al­most a year when, one March Sun­day in 1862, shepherd Thomas Arthur wandered off to the Overshot Creek (later the Shotover) and with a milking dish and a knife gave it the fame of being the richest gold-bear­ing river in the world. That same month, in the Upper Shotover, where the river twists and foams through a steep gorge, Dan Ellison and Hakaria Haeroa rushed to res­cue their drowning dog and found a beach paved with nuggets. On their first day they gathered over eleven kilograms.

Five months later, on August 14, 1862, two Californian prospectors, Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly, rode into Dunedin, New Zea­land’s biggest city at the time, and tied their horses outside the office of the gold receiver. They were weary and sooted with road dust after a long ride across the arid Otago high­lands. They came from the Dunstan Mountains, near where the Upper Clutha joins the Kawarau River, and where no one ever suspected the existence of gold. The leather saddle bag they dumped on the receiver’s counter contained 40 kilograms of the precious metal.

Before long, gold-bearing reefs were being discovered throughout the entire district, and every day brought word of new strikes. The “yellow fever” took hold, and dig­gers flocked to Otago from the over­worked Australian fields of Ballarat and Bendigo, from California and the drying up Colorado rush.


The digger was a tough, resil­ient breed, and lived a hard, solitary life, follow­ing new gold-rushes the way nomads follow changing sea­sons. He carried his possessions with him, stashed in a calico swag or more often wrapped lengthways in a blanket, its ends tied together like a ring sausage and slung across his shoulder. A pick, bantam shovel, gold pan and billy, sometimes a ri­fle, all strapped around or carried by hand, gave him the appearance of a tinker.

The success of Hartley and Reilly was every digger’s dream. The fact that they had “chased the weight” so far from the existing fields proved the metal could be almost anywhere. And the established fields, parcelled into a mosaic of tiny claims, were under increasing pressure. In Gabriel’s Gully, an average claim was about 7 x 7 metres, barely enough to support a gang of miners. In not-so-long-ago unknown gorges of the Arrow and Shotover, tin dishes clattered against river gravel and the thumping of picks echoed among the rock faces. Diggers toiled from sunrise to sundown, but the returns, tapered by extremely high living costs and fickle weather, were often disappointing.

Nine months of back-breaking work at Arthur’s Point, near Queenstown, had yielded little re­ward for Alphonse Barrington, a vet‑eran of New South Wales gold-rushes. The Shotover River flooded frequently, damaging cradles and sluiceboxes, and the little gold that he dished out was spent on repairs. By November 1863, Barrington was finally forced to leave in search for a better-paying claim. A month later, in the company of Edward Dunmore and William Baylis, he landed at the head of Lake Wakatipu, where the braiding Dart River stains its limpid waters with a milky-grey cloud of glacial silt. They walked some three kilometres and camped by the river. An epic journey had begun.

The Dart River is born among gla­ciers on the south side of the Barrier Range and arches southward through a wide, grassland valley scooped out during the last ice age. Over the years it has built extensive alluvial plains where pied oyster­catchers and banded dotterels daw­dle in the shallows, and the ever-shifting gravel islands have been streamlined by the swift current. It was here that Barrington and his mates had a foretaste of things to come.

After a pre-dawn start they walked up the valley, heavily laden with mining tools and provisions. They were crossing one of the branching river channels when Baylis, straying from the ford, was swept off his feet and carried downstream. He fought desperately to struggle free of the heavy swag, but the leather straps held tight and the weight dragged him under.

Barrington dumped his load in the river, shouted to Dunmore to look after to it, and swam to the res­cue. They made it to shore after Baylis finally managed to ditch the swag, which bobbed away down the river.

Barrington ran a quarter of a mile along the bank and waited waist-deep in the water until the swag came whirling by. They lost two of their tin dishes, a long-handled shovel and most of the tea, sugar and baking soda. Oatmeal, flour and blankets were drenched. It was only the second day of their journey.

Leaving Baylis to mind the gear, Dunmore and Barrington retraced their steps to the head of Lake Wakatipu to replace lost equipment and food. On the spur of the mo­ment, they borrowed a dog from the storekeeper.

Christmas Day found the trio camped at the junction of Stony and Wild Dog Creeks (today the main and north branches of Route Burn). They cooked four Maori hens (weka) which the dog had caught, and boiled a pot of plum duff. The tea they sipped by the fire tasted of woodsmoke, and a cherished bottle of brandy completed the atmosphere of celebration and a new beginning.

From here on, their route became progressively rougher. The valley of the Wild Dog Creek, chiselled deeply between the broken wall of the Humboldt Mountains and the tussocked slopes of the Serpentine Range, was overgrown with thick scrub which camouflaged the treacherous jumble of loosely stacked boulders. Swags and pro­truding tools snagged in the tangle of tree daisies, coprosmas and al­pine veronicas, and feet punched deep holes through the densely-woven undergrowth. It was on days like this, wrote another explorer of the time, that the choicest additions were made to Shakespeare’s tongue.

The country ahead was by no means unknown. Scores of secretive prospectors constantly combed the ranges, and Barrington’s party would often come across abandoned tools, the remains of campfires and makeshift shelters.

One of the more mysterious char­acters in this area was a man named McGuirk, better known as “Maori Hen.” Every few months he would appear in town to sell a bagful of gold of a kind unknown in the dis­trict. Then he would buy his provi­sions, some gunpowder and lead shot and disappear into the moun­tains where he lived the life of a hermit.

His gold puzzled the diggers, and they would secretly try to follow him. But, like the sly bird after which he was nicknamed, he always managed to give them the slip. So when Barrington’s party came across Maori Hen at the head of the Wild Dog Creek, they took it for a good omen. Perhaps they were ap­proaching his secret lode.

Since they were heading in the same direction, McGuirk joined them, and together they travelled up the creek and over the North Col, a wide U- shaped dent in the skyline, which even in the height of summer remains under snow. A violent storm delayed them for a day, and the fresh snow-drift was so deep that at times their trail resembled a trench.

They descended towards the Hid­den Falls Creek through tussock fields banded with crumbling bluffs which sent the meltwater stream bouncing down in a series of water­falls. After a few hair-raising mo­ments, grasping for hand-holds on bunches of slippery snowgrass, Barrington promised to himself never to go this way again. Little did he suspect that in the following months he would cross the North Col seven times, often alone and in much more trying circumstances.

They followed the Hidden Falls Creek and crossed the meadowy Cow Saddle into the headwaters of the Olivine River. It was raining heavily on New Year’s Day as they sidled along the Bryneira Range and began a steep descent from the Ala­baster Pass. The next day they reached Lake Alabaster.

The lake, five kilometres long and a kilometre wide, is formed where the meandering Pyke River spills into an elongated depression be­tween Skippers and Bryneira Ranges, before joining the mighty Hollyford River.

When Christopher Columbus was still a scampish corsair roaming the Mediterranean Sea, Lake Alabaster was a well-established stop-over point along the old greenstone trail from Te Wahi Pounamu to Wakatipua and Murihiku (South­land.) The Maori inhabitants of coastal settlements of Kotuku (to­day’s Martin’s Bay) and Awarua named it Wawahi-waka (to split wood for canoes), for to avoid an arduous traverse along the bluffed and densely-forested shores they built their single-hulled waka here and paddled the length of the lake in leisurely fashion.

After several days of rain the Pyke River was running high. Unable to cross it on foot, Barrington’s party also resolved to build a canoe. With nothing more than a tomahawk, they felled a large kahikatea tree and shaped it into a crude dug-out.

To reach the smoother stretch of the river one-and-a-half kilometres upstream, they towed the unwieldy craft through waist-deep rapids. At night lightning split the thickening sky and thunderstorms rolled across the lake.

Three times Barrington returned to Queenstown to replenish provi­sions while his mates prospected the country around Lake Alabaster. The first time he was delayed for a month by snow storms (even though it was the height of summer), hurri­cane-force winds and an attack of dysentery. When he finally reached the camp, he found Edward Dunmore near death from starva­tion. He hadn’t eaten for 12 days, and for the previous seven he had rationed the last half kilogram of oatmeal. When all food was gone his fellow sufferer “Maori Hen” tried to reach Arrowtown, but was said to have perished on the way.

Baylis made the journey to civili­sation with Barrington, but, once in town, immediately went “on the spree,” drinking and bragging about where they were prospecting and how much they were getting. The two men parted company, and Barrington returned to the lake camp with a new partner: Welsh­man James Farrell.

On the next trip out, Dunmore decided he had had enough of this unforgiving country, and dropped out of the partnership. His place was taken by a French vagabond, Antoine Simonin.

It was now mid-March, 1864. For several days the party camped by the lake, resting, hunting and mend­ing their clothes. Then, on the morn­ing of the 15th, they shouldered their 50 kg swags and struck north along the Pyke River, weaving their way through a thicket of beech sap­lings. Over the next three months the newly-formed coterie was to be severely tested.


Before Entering Lake Ala­, baster, the Pyke River winds through a wide, steep-sided valley covered with a patchwork of dense bush, grassy clearings and black, oily swamps. Cabbage trees like feather dusters dot the river flats, and three­metre-tall flax plants sprout woody stalks of scarlet flowers. No longer did Barrington’s party come across the evidence of earlier visitors. Every day the country grew wilder and more remote.

It was a hard land to live off, and the supplies of flour and oatmeal dwindled fast. To stretch out the time between reprovisioning trips, they ate almost anything they could catch, shoot or gather. Weka, a ro‑bust, flightless rail the size of a chicken, was their staple diet. They also shot eels, kaka, robins, wrens, an occasional white heron—even a hawk, which Barrington described as “fearful tough eating.” Kakapo were an easy prey for the dog.

In the mid-1800s, shooting was still something of a ritual requiring a great deal of patience on the part of the hunter and a degree of coopera­tion in the hunted. Into the muzzle of a shotgun, black powder was measured out from a powder flask and wadded with a rammer. An ounce of lead shot was then poured in and followed by another greased wad to prevent the lead from spill­ing. The hammer was pulled back and a percussion cap placed on a nipple. The shotgun was now ready to fire—assuming the powder and the percussion cap were sufficiently dry, and this, in the soused West Coast rainforest, was indeed a chal­lenge.

To keep away the moisture, the caps were carried in a waterproof tin and mixed with sawdust, which also cushioned them against excessive shocks and accidental detonation. Only after spotting potential prey would a hunter arm the shotgun with a dry percussion cap fished out of the tin (where he would also carry a small feather for cleaning the nip­ple). With such an elaborate proce­dure it is a mystery that they man­aged to shoot anything at all.

To supplement their erratic meat diet, the men gathered anise (a plant of the carrot family), speargrass, fern roots and wineberry (makomako), but their knowledge of edible plants was poor.

On one occasion, Simonin picked a handkerchief-full of purple tutu berries, mashed them and squeezed out a pint of sweet, ribena-coloured wine which they all enjoyed im­mensely. The leftover pulp was thrown away, where it was pounced on and eaten by the ever-hungry dog. An hour later the piteous beast, toughened to eat almost anything digestible, collapsed in a paroxysm of violent convulsions, and to save his life the men poured billyfuls of salted water down his throat.

The dog was something of a mixed blessing. His primary role was to hunt and fetch flightless birds, but during a food crisis he would turn traitor, devour a bird in the bush and return to the camp with splotches of fresh blood and a few telltale feathers around his muz­zle. He would then refuse to hunt, and for the lack of anything to shoot the party would go hungry for days.

After a week of rough, wet travel­ling and cutting their way through forest barbed with thorny bush-law­yers and black, wiry vines of supplejack, they reached the shore of Lake Wilmot, where a flock of white herons fed at the mouth of the river.

They continued north, prospect­ing as they went and crossing the Pyke where it veers off eastwards towards the Main Divide. They trav­elled north-east, following the Gorge River to its headwaters, then climbed over a high saddle and dropped sharply into the Cascade. Here at last, on fine gravel beaches littered with quartz boulders and se­quined with mica crystals, there was enough gold to justify a week-long trial. They set up a camp and planned a roster of hunting and prospecting chores.

The weather was getting progres­sively worse, and the rivers, rising rapidly after days of persistent rain, made prospecting difficult. After one forced evacuation of the tent, Barrington wrote: “A creek, where last night there was only a few inches of water trickling through the boulders, this morning was a large foaming river running at twenty knots and with enough water to launch a good sized schooner.”

The calendar was well into April now, and when it didn’t rain, morn­ings saw the riverflats whitened with hoarfrost. Clothes and blankets be­gan to rot from the perpetual damp­ness. Daylight waned, and the snow which fell on the mountains did not melt any more.

The air smelled of winter, and it brought back memories of the previ­ous year—one of the harshest win­ters in recorded history. Many of the diggers living in makeshift shelters and tents had died of cold and hun­ger or perished in blizzards. One sur­vivor related: “Boots and clothes were frozen like boards in the night­time, and in the morning they had to be taken under the blankets and thawed.” Firewood was so scarce that after a billy was boiled the charred sticks were saved.

Spending a similar winter in the remote mountains was a frightening prospect. Almost all the provisions were exhausted, game was sparser than ever and floods soon rendered any gold-mining impossible. Hud­dled under the sopping tent, they made a decision to turn back, but the choice of the route almost split the party. Barrington suggested going east towards Lake Hawea—a dis­tance, he thought, of only 50 kilome­tres. The others opted for a bee-line route to Wakatipu.

“I should go alone then,” said Barrington, and later regretted that he hadn’t. Confining his sullenness to the pages of his diary he wrote: “If I had a dog, nothing should have prevented me from going alone, as I know it cannot be a worse road than we have had coming here.”

On April 29 they dumped their mining tools and headed south.

Since leaving Lake Alabaster over a month earlier and following the Pyke and Gorge Rivers, they had travelled along the arch of an imagi­nary longbow. Now, out of hunger and despair, they cut along its string. From every saddle and mountaintop they longed to see an easy passage to Lake Wakatipu, but all they found were more mountains and glaciers barring their way. Their shortcut route would take them through some of the toughest al-pine terrain in New Zealand.

On the third day of hard travel­ling through the gorged terraces of the Cascade River they climbed the 50-metre-high Durwards Falls and reached the slopes of Red Hills, a 60-kilometre range of barren rock which, in the delicate evening light, often wears the fleeting blush of an Australian desert. Dominated by the bulk of Red Mountain (1704 m) the Red Hills are almost devoid of veg­etation, for the ultramafic soils con­tain so much iron and magnesium that they are poisonous to most plants. Only a few species of Draco­phyllum, stunted rata and kamahi have adapted to living in this almost sterile environment, their branches forming an intertwined thicket known as serpentine scrub.

Here, in heavy rain, Barrington was separated from his companions. Thinking they had got ahead, he hurried up the river cooeeing and firing his gun, but there was no re­ply. He spent a cold and hungry night, walked all the following day and set up a lonely camp just below the bushline at the head of the Pyke River. Rainclouds crept in from the west and the sky burst open, dump­ing torrents of rain which froze as it fell, turning into wet snow. It rained and snowed continuously for nine days.

Wrapped in a meagre blanket, his teeth chattering and his limbs stiff­ened by cramps, Barrington thought of starving Edward Dunmore, “Maori Hen” and of his own strength waning from inactivity and lack of food. Leaden days and freez­ing, sleepless nights blurred as the rain and snow persisted. Rats had stolen a little duck he shot on the way up. He had not eaten for six days now, but he did not feel hun­ger. The pall of snow which silenced his tent was three-quarters of a me­tre thick.

At last the sun burned through the clouds, and in the early morning of May 14, ten days after he had lost Farrell and Simonin, Barrington set off towards Stag Pass, a broad, high-alpine saddle leading into the water­shed of the Barrier River. He stag­gered through the deepening snow, collapsing every 20 steps, crawling, resting then getting up again. By noon he was only two kilometres above his camp. Through the over­whelming weakness he felt death approaching.

In desperation, he threw away all his waterlogged belongings, keeping only a blanket, gun, some powder and lead shot. A small chamois leather pouch, where he kept a few specks of gold, fell at his feet, but he did not pick it up. After several hours of wading through the soft, blinding snow he finally reached the pass and looked down into the Bar­rier valley. There he saw a grassy flat and a wispy ribbon of smoke: his mates’ camp.

Barrington stayed by the fire while Farrell and Simonin, who also hadn’t eaten for two days, went hunting and shot a pair of weka. Two wet and hungry days later, walking up the South Branch of the Barrier River, they shot two magpies and ate them raw.

They were approaching Interven­tion Saddle, at the fringe of the Olivine Ice Plateau, a large and iso‑lated pocket of ice from which nu­merous glaciers ooze through the palisade of jagged mountains. Today it is unthinkable to venture there without a full array of mountaineer­ing equipment: ropes, crampons, ice-axes and the like. Barrington and his mates had nothing but their guns, knives and a tomahawk.

That night, camped on the flats of Forgotten River, Barrington recalled the events of the day on the glacier: “What a sight then met our eyes! Nothing but mountains of snow as far as we could see, in every direc­tion but west . . . At one time Simonin was behind me; I heard him sing out ‘Look out’; I turned round and he was coming down the snow at a fearful rate, head first, on his back. He held the gun in one hand, but had to let it go, when both he and the gun passed me at the rate of a swallow, and did not stop till they reached a little flat about two miles down, with a fall of 1000 feet. I thought he was killed, but he was all right, with the exception of being a little frightened . . . Such a day I hope never to see again.”

Stinging sleet whipped them in the days that followed, and on long fireless nights the snow around the camp lay half a metre deep. On May 21 they entered the Olivine River Gorge.

Descent through the gorge was slow and perilous. At one point Farrell volunteered to be lowered down on a rocky ledge to pass the swags across. He was about half way down when the flax rope broke and he plummeted into a whirlpool of white water, narrowly missing a 60-metre drop. The rapids engulfed him for over a minute before, gasp­ing for air, Farrell found a handhold and hauled himself on to a boulder. Four days later they reached the old camp at Lake Alabaster.

Torrential rain set in, and once again they were trapped in the tent. The lake level began to rise, and they found themselves camped on a rap­idly shrinking island. Barrington wrote: “This is the most miserable day of my existence. We had to turn out last night at 10 o’clock, and the water rose so fast that we could not get anything away but our blankets . . . The night was very dark and before we reached the hill I got up to my arms in water. Had to walk up and down all night, the rain still pouring down. If this night does not kill us we shall never die.”

When the rain finally stopped they managed to light a fire. Farrell shot a duck and a kaka and they boiled them with some fern roots: it was the first meal they had had for four days. The following morning, Barrington found a dead rat and cooked it whole. After a breakfast of “the sweetest meat we ever ate” they set out for the final push over the North Col.

On June 7, they were crossing the Main Divide, plodding in deep, soft snow, changing the lead every ten metres. A day later, in a swirling blizzard, they reached the bushline on the eastern side, where Farrell shot seven kaka, and thereby spared the dog, who had featured strongly on that night’s menu. Two days later, they heard the pumping swish of a pigeon’s wings and the echoing gaboong! of a shotgun.


Captain elchold reached for his tobacco pouch and the men lit their pipes, but the smoke they longed for made them sick. Neither would their stom­achs accept food. “No one would believe the human frame could be so reduced,” marvelled a witness at William Rees’s station at the head of the lake. “Their cheek bones and noses, besides the elbows, hips and other bony parts of the body, were protruding through the skin.” Their feet were chafed and frostbitten, covered with running sores and “all the flesh was eaten from the tops of Barrington’s toes.”

Lake Wakatipu was a sheet of glass when the steamer Alexandra reached Queenstown after a four-hour journey. Barrington and his companions were led ashore and taken to the newly-built Frankton Public Hospital, where during the ensuing weeks they were nursed back to health. From the hospital windows they could see the bustling town, which only two years before had not existed.

Originally known as simply “The Camp,” Queenstown had sprung into being after the discovery of gold on the Shotover as a motley collec­tion of a few dozen wooden and calico buildings. In June 1863 a gale flattened every canvas structure in town, and a month later, when flooding caused the Shotover to rise some 10 metres through the gorge, an unknown number of miners were drowned and hundreds of tents floated downstream. But although lives were easily lost here, promises of quick fortunes outweighed the dangers. By 1865 the district had a population of 20,000.

At 8 P.M. on July 20, 1864, a large crowd gathered at Bracken’s Com­mercial Hall on Ballarat Street. The hall was lit with kerosene lanterns and the air was thick with pipe smoke. Outside, a winter breeze cor­rugated the lake, and beyond it the stark wall of the Remarkables nes­tled under snow.

A year earlier, Barrington would have been in a similar crowd cheer­ing James Hector and his idea of the Hollyford valley road to the West Coast. Now the limelight was on him, and the rowdy audience was eager to hear the firsthand account of his journey. The rumours of gold in the Cascade River had spread like bushfire.

Barrington wore a digger’s Sun­day’s best: a grey Crimean shirt, white or cream moleskin trousers, knee-high wellington boots and per­haps a crimson sash tied at the side. His diary, which miraculously sur­vived in the folds of a blanket, had just been printed in the Lake Wakatip Mail, and he enjoyed a moderate popularity. There were. however, many questions surround­ing the discovery of the new gold­fields. There were also allegations that the entire story had been fabri­cated in a drinking establishment at the head of the lake.

The main problem was that Barrington had no way of proving the existence of gold. He recalled his struggle for life on the snowy slopes of Stag Pass: how the pouch contain­ing all the gold specimen slipped out when he was emptying his swag, and how he was too exhausted to pick it up. In the grogged cosiness of the hall, such a scenario stirred up a wave of sarcastic smiles and mali­cious comments.

Then, to everybody’s surprise, Antoine Simonin produced a coarse speck of gold, which, he explained, he had only recently found in his shotbelt. The specimen came from the Cascade River.

“Hear, hear!” cheered the miners. A piece of “real” dispersed all the doubt. With myopic fervour of men overwhelmed by gold fever they were ready to follow Barrington into the Cascade. He was only too pleased to lead them.

Yet for all the gold in New Zea­land he would not go back overland. His plan was to charter a seagoing vessel, and with 12 months’ provi­sions sail to the mouth of the Arawata River. From there they would travel on foot to the aurifer­ous river where their mining tools had been cached.

Miners applauded with cheers and the preparations began at once. A month later, a flotilla of two cut­ters, a brig and a schooner left Port Chalmers and sailed south.

The sea was kind and the weather fair, and hopes were high for the El Dorado ahead. The little fleet crossed Foveaux Strait, rounded Puysegur Point. skimmed past the narrow openings of the fiords and landed at the mouth of Arawata River. Bending under heavy loads of provisions and tools, a snaking pro‑cession of prospectors headed south-west towards the point where the Cascade River cuts between the Red Hills and the northern Olivine Range. There, Barrington assured them, was the finest gold-bearing country he had seen in New Zea­land.

The bonanza was not to be. Three days before Christmas 1864, Barrington’s two cutters groped their way through the shifting sandbar of the Hokitika harbour and landed a party of 38 embittered miners. The Cascade gold was a myth, “a duffer rush,” they said. For three months they had prospected up to 40 miles inland from Jacksons Bay, and had not even seen the colour of gold. They accused Barrington of leading them astray, and branded him a liar.

The man who had caused all this hubbub said little. A few months earlier a famed prospector and ex‑plorer, now a hoaxer and outcast, he stepped ashore from the cutter (ironically named Nugget) and van­ished. This is the last we hear of Alphonse Barrington.


Did Barrington and his companions really find payable deposits of gold, or was their story just an elaborate bluff to attract attention? We will never know with certainty. Towards the turning point of the journey, when they claimed to have found gold, Barrington seemed se­verely disorientated, and his topo­graphical references are not reliable.

No one has ever found enough gold in the Cascade to justify a full-scale mining operation in such re­mote and austere country. Many came looking, clawing the land with picks and shovels, upturning river boulders, sifting and panning through the mountains of glacial gravel. Among them were Andy Williamson, a Martins Bay pioneer, and the legendary Arawata Bill (William O’Leary). However, the sto­ries of the Shotover and Dunstan rushes were not to be repeated here. So far, Barrington’s gold has re­mained illusive.

The Olivines and the neighbour­ing ranges of “Barrington country” have resisted any form of human conquest and development. No road cuts through it and no settlement has ever been permanent. It has be­come the epitome of New Zealand wilderness: inaccessible, desolate, self-contained and beautiful.

More than just a record of another failed prospecting venture, the od­yssey of Alphonse Barrington is an extraordinary account of human de­termination and survival against all odds. His journey, reckless and ill-prepared as it was, has inspired gen­erations of mountain explorers and evoked a lasting respect for South-Westland.

“I do not like to set any bounds to the limit of human endurance,” wrote Ernest Shackleton, whose epic open boat journey across 1500 miles of the Southern Ocean and traverse of the unknown, glaciated interior of South Georgia has earned him the status of the most heroic explorer of our times.

Barrington and his mates were neither die-hard explorers nor expe­rienced bushmen, but rather ordi­nary diggers, who unexpectedly found themselves in country which stretched them beyond their physi­cal and mental limits. That they lived through to tell their story is mostly due to the remarkable pow­ers of survival we all have within us. Sometimes dormant, sometimes subdued, they are always ours in need.