Tracey Elliot-Reep

Harper Pass by horseback

In 1857, explorer Leonard Harper became the first European to cross the Southern Alps. Retracing his route on horseback, three adventurers relived his pioneering journey— in ways they could not have foreseen!

Written by       Photographed by Tracey Elliot-Reep

During the summer  and autumn of 1865, some 4000 fortune-seekers struggled across the Southern Alps to stake their claim in the world’s newest bonanza: the West Coast goldfields.

They followed a trail which had been used for centuries by Maori carrying cargoes of greenstone east­ward across the Alps, but which was unknown to Europeans until only a few years before. Leonard Harper, son of the first Bishop of Canterbury, had crossed the Hurunui Saddle with a friend in 1857, summed up the Coast as “uninhabitable” and re­turned to Christchurch with a hand­ful of gold nuggets for his trouble.

When gold fever hit a few years later, Harper’s pass across the Alps became a ticket to eldorado for itin­erant prospectors who had picked up the scent of fresh gold. Yet, by the winter of 1865 the tortuous route had been abandoned by all except hard­ened stock drovers.

It was March when we picked up Harper’s trail at Lake Sumner. He had approached from the flats of the Waitohi Gorge, whereas our journey began at The Poplars station 30km to the north. The leaves at the station were just turning golden, and owner John Shearer had waved us off with directions and helpful advice on fording rivers.

There were three humans and three horses in our party. Alison Gough and I were on holiday from England, horse-trekking through the country and trying to raise money for flood victims in Bangladesh. We had roped in a friend from Auckland, Wayne Strawbridge, to accompany us on our attempt to cross the Alps on horseback. Carrying the load were Nelson (so named because he had only one good eye) and Honey, our two riding horses, and Monty, our audacious favourite, as pack horse.

Wrapped up and leaning into a lashing nor’westerly, we alternated walking and riding, with Monty fol­lowing in his own time, hanging back for mouthfuls of grass and trotting to catch up. As we made our way up the Hope River gully we could hear the delicate melodies of bell birds, punc­tuated by the shrieks of paradise ducks and the sonorous honks of Canada geese. Rabbits darted across the path into the lichen-covered matagouri and manuka scrub.

That night we sheltered in a mus­terers’ but which we made cosy by lighting a fire. After shaking the rats’ droppings off the mattresses, we curled up in our sleeping bags to listen to the howling wind and the occasional neighing of the horses.

Daylight came, and with it a shock: the horses had gone. We groaned at the thought of searching trackless, fenceless hill country through dense rosebriar and matagouri, but there was no option. We split up and started calling our wayward mounts. It was Ali who eventually found them: Nelson had broken his hobbles and Honey was still dragging a five-metre rope with a tethering spike at the end.

Back at the hut, wet and numb with cold, we discovered that sev­eral of the horses’ shoes had been ripped off on the rough terrain — a problem which was to dog us through the days to come. It took two hours to fit new shoes and tighten the remain­ing clenches. Not being experienced smithies, we found it a heavy, labori­ous job, and the horses became un­derstandably impatient, wrenching their hooves out of our grasp and leaning hard on us.

We spent the remaining hours of daylight leading the horses through deceptive swampland. “Be sure to stay up close to the tree-line,” John Shearer had said. “More than a hundred horses have been lost in those swamps.”

Even among the trees the horses sank up to their stomachs, plunging through the softer spots and splash­ing mud in all directions. In gold rush days the mud had been so bad in one place called the ‘Glue Pot’ that several men hauling on ropes hadn’t been able to save a horse bogged down on the track. The route had become, in the words of one observer, a “half-liquid marsh strewn with the skeletons of pack-horses, their bones picked clean by bush rats.”

With such thoughts dancing in our minds, the sight of a but offering shelter from the freezing rain was ir­resistible, even though we felt guilty about having made such poor prog­ress. The discovery of a secure fence enclosing good grass clinched the matter and we gratefully turned in, promising each other that we would make an early start in the morning.

Breaking camp in dim candle light the following dawn began what was to become a habitual morning exer­cise: timing each other as we loaded  and secured the packs on Monty. This was a difficult chore at the best of times. If we didn’t take painstak­ing care to get the weights balanced at the beginning of the day we would be constantly making adjustments, and often have to do a complete re­pack. Sometimes, just as we were finishing, Monty would roll and dislodge everything.

All up, the saddle and packs weighed some 400kg. Originally, we had wooden pack boxes, but these were heavy and dangerous. Monty constantly injured both us and our mounts by ramming the edge of a box into the horses’ hind-quarters and crushing our calves, so we replaced the boxes with less painful vinyl bags.

We left as the sun was beginning to light the snowy mountain peaks. Geese, silhouetted against the mist, flew across our path. But the tran­quillity ended abruptly: while cross­ing a narrow footbridge, Honey slipped and skidded on the greasy wood, plunging her and Ali two metres into a ditch. I watched horri­fied as Honey thrashed around on top of Ali, trying to get up. Miracu­lously, they both scrambled out unharmed. We wrung the ditch wa­ter out of Ali’s clothes while stroking and soothing the trembling chestnut mare.

We had bought Honey in Hawke’s Bay — a mere $70 standing between her and the dog tucker factory. At 14.2 hands she was the smallest of our horses, but she proved to be the toughest and most suitable for our journey. I can still see her startled expression as we rode down Wellington’s Lambton Quay: head erect, ears pricked forward, eyes flashing glances in all directions. She hadn’t been ridden for five years and had never been off a station, let alone encountered throbbing city life!

The old drovers’ track we followed up the Kiwi River was the best formed section of the whole route through to the West Coast. In dappled sunlight and under the canopy of tall red beech we led our horses across roots and over slopes slippery with decay­ing leaves.

Eventually we broke free of dark forest and into dazzling light on the edge of Lake Sumner, a deep blue lake surrounded by mountains and bush-clad to the water’s edge. Before us stretched the river flats of the Hurunui River, its tussock gently swaying. It was here that Harper made his decision to cross the saddle on foot. “Finding it impracticable for horses, we turned them out and stowed the gear under some rocks,” he wrote, “and distributed the swag amongst ourselves.”

Our main concern was that we, too, would find the country too rug­ged for horses, but we had been assured by locals that the route was passable (though no one we met had taken horses across). Probably the last horses to come this way had been ridden by prospectors and drov­ers 100 years ago.

Progress beyond the lake was slow and we were forced to follow the river bed. Occasional grassy flats made the going easier, though they were extensively covered in mat­agouri — described by pioneer ex­plorers as “a prickly and most un­pleasant scrub” and used by Maori for tattooing. Our legs received some­thing of an impromptu tattooing as we travelled.

A thermal pool a few kilometres upriver gave delicious relief for scratched and aching limbs. Harper had probably not allowed himself this pleasure, as bad weather had already delayed him for two days when he reached this point.

We pressed on up the Hurunui, with occasional deviations through the bush, endlessly crossing and recrossing the river. The stretch from Cameron’s Hut to the Harper Pass bivouac — a distance of only five kilometres — took five hours!

The valley grew progressively narrower until it was confined to riverbed boulders and rushing water. As it was now impossible to travel in the river. we had to follow a con­stricted path through the moss-hung forest, manoeuvring the horses over  rotting logs and roots. At one place a landslide had obliterated the track and all that remained was a narrow ledge of scree falling 15 metres to the river below. A large rock projecting on to the scree made the prospect of crossing the ledge even more daunt­ing.

Unloading the packs off Monty, we slid them across the gap, then, praying hard, ran across to safety.

We arrived at Harper Pass bivouac just before dark, and, as we tried unsuccessfully to light a fire with damp wood, pondered how drought-stricken Cantabrians would love a piece of this waterlogged landscape.

This was our fifth day. Before set­ting out we estimated that it would take five days to reach the West Coast, but we hadn’t even made it to the Main Divide. With our food supply dwindling, we had put ourselves on rations, and now felt exhausted cov­ering such rough terrain.

I spent another restless night dreaming of escaped horses and slip­pery river boulders. Prophetic. per­haps. for in the morning I discovered Monty had again snapped his tether­ing rope and had disappeared with Nelson, leaving Honey still tied up and distraught at being abandoned. Recalling earlier warnings of deer stalkers in the area, we hurriedly set out to track them, following hoof-prints that led back the way we had come. Wading through thigh-deep water, we criss-crossed the Hurunui before finally sighting them trotting down some grassy flats.

By the time we had caught the horses, returned to camp and saddled up, the rain had increased to a down­pour. From now on it was a fight to the pass over the rocky headwaters of the Hurunui and up a gradient too steep for horses to manage comforta­bly. Monty fell twice and found it hard with his packs to regain his footing. On a narrow ledge he fell again, this time onto his stomach, with his hind legs hanging over a precipitous drop. Ali pulled for all she was worth while I whacked him on his hindquarters and screamed through my tears for him to get up. With a supreme effort he heaved himself back on to the track.

I felt numb at the thought of what could have happened — we had no gun to end the agony of a broken leg. The extra rucksack was obviously unbalancing him, so we took turns carrying it on our backs. The going got easier as we neared the crest of the divide, but clinging cloud and fog denied us the awesome view Harper himself had experienced.

For us the worst was yet to come.To the west lay the turbulent Taramakau River — known in the 1860s as ‘Digger’s Grave’ because its raging waters had claimed so many lives.

We were heading into harsh ter­rain and atrocious weather. Against our fervent hopes, the western de­scent proved much steeper than the ascent. The track dropped 400 metres in the first three kilometres, winding through sub-alpine vegetation and beech forest to be swallowed in dark. wet bush. In many places it had been completely washed away, leaving steep drops ringed by tangled branches and roots. Down these we had to coax and manoeuvre our horses, continually jostled and knocked over as they slid in the mud. One moment, they would refuse to move: the next, follow so closely behind that they trod on our heels. Monty, wearing his cumbersome packs, got himself into the most in­extricable positions. wedged between and under tree trunks.

Fallen trees blocked our path, and when we couldn’t squeeze past or move them we were forced to leave the path and fight through dense, dripping undergrowth. At each ford­ing, the Taramakau became more powerful as a result of the torrential rain, and by now all three horses had cuts on their swollen legs and were foot-sore from having their shoes ripped off.

We called a halt at three o’clock to share a six-ounce pack of nut mix ­our last substantial meal. The horses stood hunched up and shivering nearby. No one spoke. It had taken two hours to cover the last kilometre.

We found a but and debated whether to press on. The river was rising rapidly — it was now up to our waists — and would soon be joined by the Locke tributary, so we decided the risk of logging a few miles more was too great. We opted for the hut.

After struggling to light a fire with damp wood, we draped our wet clothes over the rafters and around the fire place. Through the stinging smoke the place looked like a Chi­nese laundry! Sparsely dressed, cold and hungry, we tried to get warm in our wet sleeping bags. Too exhausted to eat, the horses sheltered by the hut. Once, when I opened the door. I found Monty’s downcast face inches from my own, as though pleading to be let inside. I didn’t even have a piece of bread for him.

Next morning the river was up another foot. Streams gushed in from all directions, dragging logs and scrub in their wake. I stared at what we had to cross: a grey, furious mass of water drumming in my ears. Apprehen­sive, I thought of all the prospectors whose lives had ended abruptly in this river. Harper’s party had been compelled to camp for several days

when the Taramakau grew too deep to be forded on foot. Heavy overnight rain had left them stranded, but the Maori in the party had ingeniously constructed a mokihi (reed raft), and after a boisterous voyage downstream they landed safely near the coast.

“We could do with some Maori skill right now,” remarked Ali as we shared our last Cuppa Soup. We felt too weak and lethargic to venture out in the rain to grovel for berries among the ferns. If we had stuck to our early goal of” living off the land” we would have starved to death long ago.

Our hunger was nothing new in the Taramakau. Although at the height of the gold rush the route had been littered with stores, tents and grog shanties, supplies were often hard to come by and shopkeepers complained of raids by penniless, half-starved diggers returning to Christchurch. Reporters on the West Coast spoke of new arrivals who “resembled maniacs more than ra­tional men”, such was their state of exhaustion and starvation. By 1865, when the fever was subsiding, the route was so difficult that Julius von Haast observed, “only those diggers went back overland who had not the means to take a passage in a steamer or sailing boat”.

That night I dozed to the ever-present roar of water, and woke next morning to the sound of Wayne vomiting outside. Ali, who was fe­verish and breaking out in hot and cold sweats, worried with me at the wooden table in the rainy gloom of another day. Wayne had an air ticket booked out of Christchurch the fol­lowing day, the horses had eaten all the available grass, our food was all gone and we were becoming weaker.

Around noon Ali announced: “It’s stopped raining. Let’s go for it!” Quickly, we scrambled into the wet clothes we had been wearing for the past five days — and which were now impregnated with smoke — and saddled up the horses. The uncured sheepskins we used for saddle blan­kets were by now smelly and slimy.

The river had dropped, but we still had to edge carefully along the bank in deep water amid tree branches. After fording Locke Stream. we nervously searched for the best place to cross the Taramakau. In the first attempt we led our horses, but the current was too strong, so we backed off, mounted up and tried again — Ali and I riding and Wayne hanging on to Monty’s tail.

John Shearer had told us always to ride with our feet free of the stir­rups when crossing rivers, so that if our horses fell we wouldn’t be trapped beneath them. He also ad­vised us to cross at a 45-degree angle to enable the horses to travel with the current.

We successfully forded the Taramakau and Otehake, and felt it was important to get through the Otira River to Aickens before the threatening rainclouds opened up and we became stranded yet again. But progress was slow: Monty had lost another front and hind shoe and was lagging further and further be­hind. We ripped up a pikau (a sack­  cloth bag draped over the front of the saddle) and tied it around his front hoof. The makeshift sandal didn’t last long: when it became sodden, it sagged, and he ripped it off with his other hoof.

Nightfall came, but we plodded on, guided by the feeble beam of a pocket torch. When the batteries died, we followed vague impressions of light and dark on the river bank. Occasionally the moon broke through, and at one point we found ourselves on swampy ground sur­rounded by ghost-like tree stumps. The ground felt dangerous, so we backtracked to follow the familiar Taramakau bed.

Near midnight, we came across disused cattleyards and a faint four‑ wheel drive track. With hopes rising, we followed it through matagouri, only to lose it on the rocky bed of the Otira. Then, across the river we spot­ted a glimmer of light. Civilisation at last!

We were desperate to get there. I mounted Nelson and nervously guided him into the dark water to find a crossing. All I could see and feel were whitecaps of broken water and the strong current flowing be­tween Nelson’s legs. He stopped dead. and though I urged him on he refused to go any further. Swivelling slowly around, he took me back to the bank. Clearly, the crossing was too dangerous — we trusted our horses’ judgement in such things. Disappointed, we made camp near the cattle yards.

Next clay. Easter morning, the Otira was less rampant. We forded the river in stages, then headed through the forest in what we guessed to be the right direction. When we finally sighted a railway line. a road and a house, they were the first signs of human habitation we had seen for eight clays.

Emerging from the hush to knock on Ernie Power’s door, we must have looked a bedraggled crew. First, the horses were given a paddock in which they rolled with delight, then we helped ourselves to white tomato sandwiches — and nothing had ever tasted so good!

Wayne made it to Christchurch and his flight north, while Ali and I rested up, watching storm clouds roll by.

“Are you sorry to be leaving?” asked Ali a few clays later, as we rode along the more hospitable Arthur’s Pass.

“Nope!” I replied. “And I’ll never complain about being on a boring road again.” We both laughed as we led our horses up to the summit. There, enticing as ever, were the snow-capped mountains stretching as far as the eve could see.