Derek Grzelewski

Travels with “Mr Explorer” Douglas

It was a grey evening in late December, the time of family reunions and Christmas extravagance. A lone man sheltered under a makeshift calico tent, deep in the Westland rainforest. His beard was a clump of tussock, his steel-grey eyes wrinlded from a perpetual grin. His only clothes were drying over a smoky campfire, and he sat next to it wrapped in a damp woollen blanket. With a blunt pencil he scribbled in his field book:

Written by      

“This ought to be one of the eventful epochs in my life, as this day forty years [ago] I was sailing into Port Chalmers on the road to fortune. .. . Had I remained at home or even settled down in the Colonies, I might now be the respectable father of a family, passing every day the same lamp post & at the exact time . . . I might have been a comfortably situated old fog[e]y . . . with just sufficient thinking powers to gabble on the topics of the day, but with my reasoning powers dormant. . . . But life in the Old Country was not for me. . . . As here I am, after forty years, mostly crouched under a piece of calico or a sheet of bark . . . a homeless almost friendless vagabond, with a past which has little to show . . . and a dreary future.”*

He paused to sprinkle some tea leaves into his soot-covered billy. The rain had been heavy and persistent, the hunting poor, and, as his provisions of oatmeal and flour were down to almost nothing, a thin tea was all he would have tonight. A skinny, piebald dog half-heartedly wagged its tail and edged closer to the fire. The man relit his pipe—a crude bowl carved out of a piece of neinei wood with a bird’s leg bone for the stem—and puffed diligently to discourage the sandflies. He returned to his writing:

“Still, I have never regretted the life I have been leading.. . . Fools say that knowledge can only be acquired from books & men . . . and call me a fool & even worse for wasting my life in mountain solitudes, simply because I don’t open up mines of gold & silver. I have now been wandering about the uninhabited parts of New Zealand for over five & thirty years, always finding something in nature new to me and the world . . . glimmerings of truth unknown to others.”

The year was 1902; the man Charles Edward Douglas. To the employees of the Lands and Survey Department he was “Mr Explorer” Douglas, a voluntary amateur surveyor. To others he was simply “Charlie,” the most popular man in South Westland. But although his daredevil adventures were widely known along the Coast, few people knew him personally, and fewer still could claim to be his friends.

Almost all we know of Douglas comes from official reports which he dutifully wrote to the Survey Office in Hokitika. He daubed them generously with dry humour and careless grammar, scattering contemplative images of wilderness and human nature throughout the pages of down-to-earth geological descriptions. It is only from these notes, and from the sporadic accounts of his closest companions—Arthur Harper, Gerhard Mueller and George J. Roberts—that we can try to piece together the human puzzle behind the alluring title “Mr Explorer Douglas.”

He was a “spare ‘lightweight’ man . . . about five feet ten inches in height . . . with a keen sense of humour and most friendly disposition. One took to him at once,” wrote Arthur Harper, a fellow explorer. Friendly he may have been, but Douglas was an ardent isolationist who considered himself unfit to live in the “civilised” world. Fiercely independent in his Scottish way, he loathed the rigours of society and its repetitive routines, the self-imposed materialism and false sophistication. “The impulse drove me out into the World, but the desire to settle down must have been omitted,” he wrote one rainy day in Waiatoto valley. “So constitutionally & from what some call a perverse inclination I have been doomed to be a solitary, & as some people say a failure.”

Charlie was a nomad at heart. His “Castle Douglas”—a floorless, A-shaped “batwing” tent fashioned out of two sheets of calico and, on rare, luxurious occasions, reinforced with a piece of corrugated iron—offered unrivalled and ever-changing views. Trees and birds were his neighbours, and his tiny bedroom gave out on to the largest living room of all: the forests, mountains and glaciers of South Westland. Here he thrived and felt at ease, facing the challenges of simplified everyday existence. Here, although perpetually homeless, he was at home everywhere.

“He . . . was very modest and spoke his few words in slow, quiet voice,” G. T Murrey, his companion on an 1886 survey trip into the Northern Olivines remembered. “He was fond of solitude—even a quiet camp . . . of 6 men irritated him. . . . When at the main camp he never shared a tent. Once he set out on a short trip to an observation point and was gone so long that the party became alarmed and went out to look for him. He was found sitting on a stump musing, and was most annoyed at the suggestion that he might be thought lost. . . .”

A lifelong bachelor, Douglas was extremely shy with women. When invited by Harper to meet his wife over Christmas at Lake Kaniere, he repeatedly refused, saying that he’d been away in the wilds too long to speak to a lady. Harper cunningly arranged a surprise meeting, and, after a day of initial timidity, Charlie stayed with the family for the rest of their holidays and never tired of talking.

“Mistress Harper,” he said at the farewell, “you will never know what a treat it has been to me to talk as I have to you.”

Apart from exploration, his only true love was reading. His family in Scotland sent him boxes of books: Greek and Roman classics, novels by Thackeray, Rabelais and Hugo, issues of Punch, poetry by Milton and Byron. He read voraciously, then scattered the volumes around—free to a good home—among friends and strangers hungry for the written word

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Often have I tried to put myself in the waterlogged boots of Mr Explorer Douglas, eager to learn from his experiences of a lifetime spent in the wilderness. With his diaries for a guidebook, I have crisscrossed Westland, from Hokitika to Jackson Bay, paying my way in blood extracted by the vampire sandflies.

Sometimes I hitched a ride with a bush plane, more often I paddled a canoe, grateful for an easy passage in the tangled forest, but mostly I travelled on foot. Looking and listening and staying quiet, I hoped to get a glimpse of Charlie’s world: to see what was out there to fill such a restless lifetime, what riches he had found. Born on the first ofJuly, 1840, into an Edinburgh family of painters and bankers, and introduced early to the works of Homer, Plato and Virgil in the reputable Royal High School, Charles Edward looked to be a young lad of promise when he entered his apprenticeship at the Commercial Bank of Scotland. Of his three older brothers, James was to become a timber merchant in Surinam (then Dutch Guiana), Archibald Sholto a banker and William Fettes a knighted painter and a president of the Royal Scottish Academy. No doubt Charles was expected to match their successes, but after a five-year spell as a bank clerk he had had enough of Victorian life in fog-ridden Edinburgh. He left Scotland and her Bank and followed the much publicised exodus to the antipodes.

He arrived in Otago in December 1862, and bounced from one odd job to another, getting to know his new homeland. He worked on a sheep run, dug for gold, cut tracks, established a ferry service across the Paringa River, north of Haast, and even tried his hand at running a 700-acre cattle farm, but none of these would tie him down for long.

The West Coast into which he drifted around 1867 was firmly in grips of a gold rush, but Douglas remained oddly resistant to the raging fever. To secure a minimum income, he carried supplies to remote miners’ camps, splitting the 50 kg loads between his swag and a backpack he made for his sheepdog.

A disregard for money and material possessions was to become one of Douglas’s hallmarks. “Making money I never could do or ever felt any inclination that way . .. the article is really of very little use to me,” he would later write.

Although the chief Westland surveyors Gerhard Mueller and G. J. Roberts made repeated attempts to enlist him into the service of the survey department, he doggedly refused to accept any permanent jobs. During his first 20 years in Westland he was not even officially employed as an explorer, but voluntarily sent reports and maps of unexplored country which he just happened to visit. To Douglas, prospecting for minerals and triangulating unknown mountains were merely an excuse for being in the wilderness.

Sometime around 1888 a compromise was struck. Douglas received a prismatic compass, a surveyor’s chain and map-drawing tools, and for a wage of some eight shillings a day—”wet or fine”—he set out to explore and map valleys of his choice.

When Douglas first set foot on the Coast—at a time when black Africa was being subdivided in a feeding frenzy of European powers and Russia was selling (at two cents an acre) a chunk of “utterly useless land of perpetual snow” that we now call Alaska—the maps of the Westland interior were still inspirationally blank. A journey from Christchurch to Hokitika over Arthur’s Pass took five days of hard travelling, and south of Ross there was only a rough coastal track cleaved by wild, unbridged rivers. The latter claimed so many lives that drowning was considered a “natural” death.

Charlie’s Westland was, as it still is today, a geographical phenomenon. Here, colliding tectonic plates have uplifted a chain of 3000-metre-high mountains within 20 kilometres of the Tasman Sea, and two of New Zealand’s largest glaciers advance and retreat along their bottleneck valleys like geological yo-yos. Ice and rainforest exist side by side, and rain falls with monsoon intensity.

In this dynamic and constantly changing landscape, a handful of hardy settlers—mainly gold prospectors and farmers—eked out a permanently temporary existence, unhurriedly waiting (as Douglas noted) for “that glorious future to which Westcoasters are always looking forward to, when the ‘Something is bound to turn up’ does turn up.”

Evidently, an easygoing fatalism was already a feature of the Coast in Douglas’s day. “If taking the World easy makes genius, Westland ought to turn out Homers and Shakespeares by the score,” he quipped.

Douglas never received any formal training in geology or surveying, and this forever handi­capped his career as an explorer. His early work found little public recognition, and, if we can believe the office gossip, James Hector, director of the Geological Survey, branded him “an amateur meddling with geology.” However, with his sense of a higher mission to “search for knowledge in the unknown,” Douglas showed little interest in securing credit for his work. Noted Arthur Harper: “It is remarkable that a man like Douglas could have done so much valuable exploration and sent in such outstanding reports for seventeen years before anyone, outside official circles, realised his very existence.”

Although Douglas occasionally voiced a concern that “. . . some fraud will get hold of my map & notes & get any credit that is to be got out of them,” his usual response was to load up his swag, light a pipe and head into the hills, where in idle moments—and there were plenty of them—he scribbled in his diary, musing on the idiosyncrasies of human nature: “. . . some people are so eager to get their name in print as the discoverer of something new, that if those beings found a cock-a-bulla [kokopu] with its tail bit off, they would put it down as a new fish and murder the Latin language and their own name in fixing that fish’s position in the world of waters.”

And so, while other explorers of his time basked in the public limelight, Douglas went on living in his solitary and eccentric way, exploring, mapping, painting watercolour sketches and writing detailed reports. He asked for nothing in return but his provisions and an occasional new set of pencils “if there was any money left.” He bought a new shirt when the old one revealed more than it covered, and, as he once confessed to a friend, lived for so long without any money in his pocket that he found carrying it a curious sensation. An infrequent allowance received from family in Scotland supplemented his meagre income, but it was the outdoors which supplied most of his needs.

[Chapter Break]

Douglas Was A Born survivor and a self-taught expert in acquiring food in the wild. “I can combine the Swagging abilities of a Mule, the stowage capacity of the Pelican with the digestive powers of an Ostrich so can go into places where few dare venture through fear of starvation,” he wrote. Kakapo and weka caught by his dogs (Topsy, then Betsey Jane) sustained him on his two- or three-month escapades, but at times he was forced to hunt even the least palatable of birds.

Once, crossing a large swamp, jumping from one grassy hummock to another, he sprained his ankle and had to crawl for several days. In a thicket of “black scrub” he found a nest of kiwis. “They have an earthy flavour . . . [like] a piece of pork boiled in an old coffin,” he declared. “Being pushed with hunger, I ate the pair of them. Under the circumstances I would have eaten the last of the Dodos.”

Sometimes the birds engaged Douglas in a regular war of wits. In his account of “red bills” (black oystercatchers) he wrote: “When shot at once or twice, the red bill is able to tell the exact range of every gun in the district, keeping just out of range with perhaps a slight margin for contingencies . . . Often the only way to get a shot is to walk along using a gun as a walking stick, and making believe to be admiring the scenery or looking for shells—never looking at them. . . . a good flying shot may be got, but no one will do this dodge twice with the same birds. The best shot I ever got … was on a lagoon. There was a large log on the bank, where the birds would stand in rows sunning themselves. So I got a canoe and covered it with boughs, then lying down with musket ready, I let the dugout drift towards them. When close enough, I started up and fired, going overboard at the same time with the recoil . . . This dodge did not clear them out, but [afterwards] if a tree or a bush was seen floating towards them they were off.”

Eels, both the “bull headed, black backed whiskered Vagabond that tastes like subextract of bog water” and “the long elegant . . . Silver Eel . . . [which] eats like Salmon . . . fat and intelligent, coming out on the logs to get a sunbath,” featured strongly on Charlie’s menu, but catching them was never an easy task.

Writing to his son Freddie in February 1884, Gerhard Mueller reported their eeling adventures in the Cascade River. “Douglas had a large hook with the barb filed off, which he had fastened to the end of a long stick . . . we saw a hummer of an Eel and fastened on and got him safely into the Canoe and tomahawked him. The 2nd one we spied was nearly four foot long and Douglas was frightened to gaff him—however we thought we [would] risk it . . . as we had an outrigger at one side of the Canoe.

“Well he hooked him and the fellow gave a horrible pull, nearly sending Douglas headlong into the River. . . . He naturally leant to the other side to save himself, which brought the outrigger 3 ft out of the water and the Canoe half filled.” Douglas held on like grim death, and eventually dragged the eel into the canoe.

They caught two more eels that day, totalling nearly 35 kg. “That big Eel was splendid eating,” Mueller continued, “we took the backbone out, salted him, rolled him up for a night to let the salt get properly through the meat and then hung him over the smoke for two days, and so he lasted us for a week.”

In terms of environmental awareness, the nineteenth century was still the Dark Ages. Crews of Northern Hemisphere whaling ships shot polar bears for target practice; Asian colonial dignitaries routinely executed tigers rounded up by their native servants; a West Coast man praised himself for shooting 2500 kiwis. Nature was a bottomless bag of goodies, infinitely abundant, self-replenishing and indestructible, free to everyone, forever.

Yet although Westland was still wild and only partially explored, the changes brought by the careless and often ignorant colonist were already showing. Douglas noted: “Years ago the Karangar[u]a and other rivers in Southern Westland were celebrated for their ground birds. No prospector needed to carry meat with him, [and] even a gun was unnecessary. Nothing was required but a dog—almost any mongrel would do . . . but now all this is altered. The Digger with his Dogs, Cats, Rats, Ferrets and Guns have nearly exterminated the Birds in the lower reaches of the southern rivers. The cry of the kiwi is never heard and a Weka is a rarity.”

Douglas believed that necessity was the only justification for taking life—an attitude that had his contemporaries frowning with disbelief. “I never kill a bird or beast for sport, and hate to see any one doing so,” he wrote in 1899. “If I want a bird for food, I take the surest method of doing it. I have lived for weeks on dry bread, rather than kill birds knowing they had young, and cannot see why any living thing should be destroyed simply to afford amusement to a lot of cockneyfied sportsmen who don’t require them for food and who, for every one they get, leave three wounded to die miserably.”

His attitude, however, was not always consistent. Even a deeply rooted respect for Nature was sometimes overcome by scientific eagerness. “The large hawk has hard times no doubt, as his flight is slow and clumsy for a bird of prey,” he noted in his comments on the birds of Westland. “Hawks generally build their nests on the top of a very high crag or terrace . . . The expanse of wing of this bird will scarcely be believed. I shot two on the Haast, one was eight feet four inches from tip to tip, the other was six foot nine inches . . .”

A hawk with pterodactyl-sized wings? “No hawk has a wingspan of eight feet four inches and nests on a crag,” says palaeontologist Trevor Worthy. “Douglas was a thorough surveyor, and I think we can trust his measurements. It is likely that he shot a pair of Haast’s eagles. And as no one has ever seen them since, it is possible they were the last of their kind.”

Charlie’s all-time favourite bird was the Maori hen or weka. “In a new country that has hopes of someday becoming a nation, people should be careful how they select a national bird or beast,” he mused, watching the inquisitive birds around his camp. “Why did New Zealand not select the Weka? Here is a bird full of good qualities and whose vices lean to virtue’s side. Personal valour of a high order. An undying thirst for knowledge—unthinking people give it another name—which causes it to annex everything portable about a but and carry it into the bush to study at leisure. An affection for its young, that would face the Prince of Darkness in their defence. And above all an intelligence apart from what we call instinct, far higher than I ever saw in a bird.”

On another occasion, Douglas wrote: “. . . no one I think will deny the Maorie hen a sense of humour, who has once seen the backward glance of that Audacious bird when disappearing in thick scrub with an Ivory-handled pocket knife, or a long cherished Merscham [Meerschaum—a type of pipe] . . . . I have an interesting family of them round the Camp at present, a father, mother & three cheeky youngsters, & really how wonderful they are in their ways. I can tell as well what they are saying as if I had the Magic ring of King Solomon. The other day there was an unopened Jam pot lying outside the Tent. She came along, turned it over, looked wise, pecked round the rim but could make nothing out of it. He came up & shoved her to one side, with a ‘clear out old Woman, what do you know about opening Jam Pots?’ He propped the Jar of Ambrosia on its side & struck an attitude, while the Wife and family gazed in admiration as the Old man raised his shoulders above his head, then came down with a bang on the Tin. Julius Caesar! What a discomfiture, his beak glanced off & buried itself up to his eyes in the Mud. The Youngsters sniggered, the Old Woman trying to put on a hypocritical look of sympathy rushed forward & said ‘Are you hurt, dear, do let me straighten your proboscis & wash the mud out of your eyes & then try again—I know you can open Jam Pot.’ Try it yourself,’ he yelled, ‘you know I don’t care for Jam’ & he sneaked away to repair & wash his beak.”

“Once I laid a pan of boiling fat down on the ground, never thinking the hen would touch it,” reads another entry, “but he did. Down came his beak into the pan, he jumped with a squeal of agony, then rushed outside and buried his beak up to the eyes in the cool wet mud. If that was instinct, from what ancestor did he get it? I must have been the first man he had ever seen, and that pan and fire he could have had no acquaintance with.”

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One crisp July evening, just as the sun was plunging into the Tasman Sea, I paddled a canoe across the Okarito Lagoon, just north of Franz Josef. In pendulum strides, a white heron stalked the shallows, repeatedly jabbing the water, sometimes getting a silver fish, sometimes a beakful of sludge. The surface was so still that paddling seemed an intrusion, so I stopped and drifted, light-headed from the brilliance of the sunset. This lagoon is a curious place, not yet the land, but no longer the sea; a tidal shoal once flooded with gold-fevered miners, now a sanctuary for birds and solitude-seekers. In the golden half-light, watching the mountains blush above the bristled Kahikatea forest, watching the heron contemplating its corrugated reflection, I felt oddly uninhibited by logic and reason. Here, it seemed possible to slip on the “magic ring of King Solomon” and talk and listen to the animals the way Charlie Douglas did.

Surprised at the sound of my own voice, I greeted the heron. It trumpeted back, taking off in graceless motion. “Legs, wings and head look as if they were in each other’s way, and that the bird was going to tumble to pieces in its efforts to escape,” Douglas once observed.

I had made a significant, if brief, start into animal linguistics, I thought, paddling back to my island camp. An animated conversation, however, did not seem imminent.

For nearly four decades Charlie Douglas roamed the Westland ranges. He explored and surveyed all the major valleys: Arawata and Waiatoto, Okuru, Turnbull and Paringa, Copland and Karangarua. He mapped Franz Josef Glacier and Cook River with Arthur Harper, and Fox Glacier with William Wilson. He visited Wanganui River, went as far north as Otira River, near Arthur’s Pass, and, in his spare time, mapped and depth-sounded the Okarito Lagoon. Although his depth measurements are no longer accurate—the result of continuing sediment build-up—the precision of Charlie’s maps remains unmatched. “I use a copy of his map all the time,” Ian James, an Okarito-based nature tour guide told me. “They are the next best thing to an aerial photograph.”

Around the turn of the century, the once-blank maps of Westland were filling with painstakingly gathered data, and the pockets of the “unexplored,” which drew Douglas like a magnet, were shrinking. By the early 1900s he had been virtually everywhere on the Coast, and was running out of new country to explore.

He was getting old and growing tired, and realising that his life work was coming to an end. The lack of new challenges created a mental vacuum which he was unable to fill. As his enthusiasm withered, he sank deeper and deeper into idleness—the “demon of tomorrow” as he called it; the West Coast equivalent of manna. He took to drowning his sorrows in a bottle, a lonely man with an uncertain future and a present which was losing its purpose.

“What I am going to do now that my employment on the Survey will soon cease, I neither know nor care,” he wrote in 1903. “My work done, I will soon lose all interest in life. It is too late to commence anything new.”

He even started to tire of his beloved wilderness. “In New Zealand there is a sameness in the scenery . . . . One valley is very much like another, so with everything else, lakes, mountains, trees, plains & spurs; if you see one you can have a good idea what all the others are [like]. At first I expanded in descriptions of the magnificent scenery . . . . All was new to Public & comparatively new to me, but after a while things became stale . . . . Enthusiasm is dead in me, and interest in most things has ceased to inspire.”

Maybe this surge of melancholy sprang from the fact that Douglas never left Westland. Travel to unknown places refreshes the senses—”sharpens the pencil,” as Hemingway put it. Douglas seemed vaguely aware of this need. “I would sooner look on a field of wheat or turnips than the finest glacier in the World,” he confessed. “The first two I haven’t gazed on for over thirty years; glaciers & mountain peaks are always before my eyes, & familiarity breeds contempt.”

Though he had travelled all his life, Douglas never made it past the hermetic boundary of the Southern Alps. In Westland, he became a prisoner of choice and a victim of his own isolation. His world was a strip of land between the mountains and the sea—beautiful in the extreme, but also extremely narrow.

Moods and motivation aside, it was Charlie’s deteriorating health which was the deciding factor in changing his way of life. At first, true to himself, he took it with a touch of irony: “My memory retains almost every incident worth remembering ever since I landed in the country. But . . . for the last five or six years, memory has completely failed me in small things. . . . Once or twice I have even put my spectacles on my nose, to look for them on the floor . . . This I suppose is . . . the beginning of the end.”

Four decades of accumulated hardships, crude food, rough sleeping arrangements and perpetual wetness began to exact their toll on Charlie’s “cast-iron constitution.” He had long suffered from arthritis, which at times immobilised him completely. He tried to ignore his failing strength, but during a midwinter trip to Paringa in 1906 he had a stroke, and his slight body finally collapsed.

His companion Jim Gunn remembered: “When I arrived at the camp Douglas had been ill for about five days, could not walk and his speech was affected. . . . He was placed in a small flat-bottomed boat which was towed up the Paringa River by men on horses to where the main south track crosses the river. From there he was carried to Condon’s Homestead at the Maitahi River, twelve men taking turns to carry him. . . . He was taken from Condon’s to Bruce Bay in a light dray, where Roberts had arranged for the steamer to call . . . and take us to Hokitika.”

Charlie never fully recovered from this stroke. He lived in Hokitika in a two-roomed shack owned by Mrs Ward, the widow of his former cattle farming partner. Her children loved to play

with the old man they called “Duggal.” Unable to travel and explore, he plunged into drawing maps of the country he was the first to see, reliving his old adventures, enclosed in a capsule of memories.

The old longing for solitude still gnawed at him. In one of his last letters he wrote: “People here are too sociable for me. If I am by myself, some fool thinks I must feel lonely, comes in & spins away about bullocks, sheep, horses or [the] latest football match. I have almost given up reading, not that I can’t get books but I never get peace to read them. I think my next move will be either to a small uninhabited island, or put a but up in the most inaccessible part of the country & lay in a stock of books & papers. I believe I could write something worth reading, if I could only be sure of twelve months . . . of quietness, undisturbed by football or horsey maniacs. I would at last be able to brush up my grammar & spelling if nothing else.”

A few months later he wrote: “I think I’ll clear away South with a Batwing and turn Hermit.” But he never did. In early 1909, he was found unconscious on the floor of his little cabin, next to a pile of charred papers—whether his manuscripts or just family correspondence, we’ll never know.

For seven years after this second stroke—partially paralysed, unable to speak or recognise even his closest friends—Douglas was nursed by Mrs Ward and Arthur Woodham, and, as his state worsened, began spending increasing periods of time in the austere comfort of Westland Public Hospital in Hokitika. His chief consolation there was the caring presence of Dr Ebenezer Teichelmann, an active and enthusiastic mountaineer who whispered accounts of pioneering adven­tures into his ear.

Charlie listened, but could no longer reply. He died of hemiplegia (cerebral haemorrhage) on May 23, 1916.

[Chapter Break]

No one can know the pleasures of loneliness who has not tasted it himself in the woods; having given up everything, he had nothing to lose and the whole world to gain,” I read from Henry David Thoreau one autumn afternoon, sitting among clumps of tussock near the head of the Waiatoto River. This northern approach to Mount Aspiring, thoroughly explored by Douglas, is perhaps as remote and lonely a place as you could find in mainland New Zealand. I felt exhilarated by the isolation, the rawness of the land, the solitude.

In this “far pavilion,” I think I finally understood that, for all our efforts to get to know him, Charlie Douglas is destined to remain a mystery. His literary legacy has inspired many wilderness-bound New Zealanders, but these writings are only the tip of the philosophical iceberg which surfaced out of his rich internal monologue, nourished by classical literature and decades of solitary adventures. Choosing a life of a social exile, he built around himself a protective wall of isolation some 40 years thick, and so impenetrable that even his contemporaries began extrapolating the facts and rumours and shaping them into a legend. The legend seemed easier to comprehend than the man himself.

In my travels through Westland I’ve grown affectionate of Charlie Douglas; I’ve begun to treat him as an absent friend, an old forest pundit always willing to share his knowledge.

Free from preconceived or imposed ideas, he was an original and lateral thinker with acute powers of observation. For him the Westland wilderness was small in size but vast in detail; his New Zealand a kind of “New Seen-land,” fresh and inspiring every day. He discovered it with intense passion, not for credit or glory or material reward, but born out of a relentless curiosity and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

He was a connoisseur of those rare moments when the senses sharpen and we look at the world with the eyes of a poet. Although his writings will never become classics, like those of Thoreau, John Muir or Aldo Leopold, they make for an intense journey of discovery; a journey, like Charlie himself, that is private and personal.

So, should you find yourself sauntering among the foothills of the Southern Alps, spare a thought for Mr Explorer Douglas. If you look hard enough, you might catch sight of an old man sitting atop a glacial boulder, swathed in wisps of pipe smoke, unhurriedly sketching something in his battered field book. A raggedy sheepdog, sprawled out on a cushion of alpine herbs, is watching his every move. They are so still that birds mistake them for rocks, and wind-blown spiders anchor their webs around them.

Look hard, or you might walk by and never see them at all. They blend well into the landscape.