Following Charlie’s footsteps

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“Charlie who?”

This was the typical response from people when I mentioned what the lead story in this issue would be. For although Charles “Mr Explorer” Douglas filled in many blanks on the map of South Westland, his own name remains a blank in the minds of most New Zealanders.

I, too, had been only dimly aware of Douglas until a few years ago, when a friend told me about the Hillary Commission’s Explorer Douglas Fund, which gave monetary assistance to young people tackling wilderness expeditions. (The fund is now in abeyance for lack of a sponsor.)

As I became familiar with the details of his life through the preparation of the article, Douglas became a more and more compelling figure. There was something mythical about this puckish, pipe-smoking pioneer who measured the land by day and scribbled down his thoughts by night.

He wrote about everything from sandflies (“As an encour­ager of early rising, and an enemy to sedentary habits, the Sandfly is more effective than all the homilies ever written.”) to wilderness preservation. His comments about nationhood bear repeating: “My advice is keep our Coal & Iron for the future even though the present generation has to live out at the Elbows, but I suppose it is no use talking. New Zealand is in the position at present of a boy shaving for a beard, they want to be big before [their] time, forgetting that Nations like men must creep before they walk, and from their out of the way position on the Globe, they must husband their resources and develop a mental energy with self sacrifice as a leading National feature . .”

But it was the physical details of his explorations that left the greatest impression. He seemed to stride like an antipodean Paul Bunyan across the maze of mountains and rivers that was his territory and his home.

When Derek Grzelewski suggested we have a look at some “Douglas country” prior to completing the story, I packed a volume of Robert Service (“The Call of the Wild”), dusted off my old Mountain Mule pack and headed south.

For orientation, Derek opened the biography of Douglas at a chapter that begins with the words, “I have just returned from a seven weeks starve up the Okura [Okuru], and in rather a delapidated condition .. .”

“That’s where we’re going,” he announced.Our three day trip would be just a hike compared with Douglas’s mara­thon missions. Where he relied on catching birds for his supper, we would snack on more flavoursome South Island offerings: Blackball salami and Whitestone cheese.

We headed into the bush from the Makarora Valley in Mt Aspiring National Park, following the Blue River. If we were lucky with weather, we could maybe climb Maori Saddle and look down into the Okuru.

Let us be candid.

The track which runs beside the Blue hasn’t seen a DoC machete in years. Many of the route markers have disappeared. What with a tangle of fallen trees and thickets of young saplings, the path is as evanescent as the Cheshire cat’s smile.

Eleven hours, it took us, to reach the head of the valley. With fading light, the prospect of crashing through a trackless, waist-deep carpet of scrub up towards the saddle was unappealing.

We returned to the grassy flats, built a fire, ate pasta, brewed coffee and

wondered what Douglas would have been thinking. He was in this valley and its neighbours to scope out a route for a road or railway; to fulfil the great obsession of 19th century colonists: a passage from the Coast to Otago.

His conclusion? “. . the four saddles mentioned are utterly useless for road or Railway, and will never be used unless by an Alpine Explorer or other Lunatic.”

And here we are. Raindrops on tent nylon the following dawn highlighted another difference between Douglas’s world and ours: time has become a tyrant. He would have called it a “reading day” and waited out the storm; we fled before it, concerned that a swollen river would deny us a crossing (and me a flight).

The bush seemed to yield an easier passage on the return journey. Marker cairns popped into view with heartening regularity. We passed several rock bivvies, and quoted to each other their accommoda­tion ratings as given in Moir’s guide “indifferent shelter for two,” “well kept bivvy for three” and made it to the main crossing before the water level had had a chance to rise.

What is three days in country where many trampers have toiled for weeks and months? Where Douglas spent the best part of four decades? Nothing. But enough to give a person respect for a remarkable life. And enough to make me want to echo the words of John Pascoe, Douglas’s biographer: “I aimed to let his career emerge with all its achievements, its bewilderments and its sorrows into the dimension of New Zealand history.. . . [and to convey] a feeling for the great ranges and gorges where Douglas and his fellow explorers had lived their days of inner struggle and physical endurance.”

My hope is that in these pages readers will find both an admiration for Mr Explorer Douglas and a renewed feeling for the wild country he made his own.

And perhaps in the future, fewer people will ask, “Charlie who?”

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