European History

European History – Lake Brunner region

The first European to “discover” New Zealand was Abel Janzoon Tasman, who sighted the West Coast on December 13th, 1642. His description “A great land, uplifted high…. ” is appropriate to this day! He, and those who followed, have given their names to many West Coast landmarks. 

Captain James Cook, some 128 yrs later, had a less charitable view of the West Coast – “An inhospitable shore, unworthy of observation, except for its ridge of naked and barren rocks covered with snow.” Cook’s second voyage saw him enter Dusky Sound on March 26 1773, in the far south of the West Coast. His survey and subsequent observations resulted in reports to the world that here could be found the best of timber, seals beyond counting, and the safest of anchorages.  This brought about the establishment of a sealing industry, the first gangs landed there in 1793, taking a tally of 4500 seal skins. Thus commenced the ruthless extraction of the region’s natural resources which continued unabated for over 200 hundred years. First the seals… then the gold, coal and timber, a rape and pillage, with most of the profits going outside the region. 

1827 saw the French navigator D’Urville cruising along West Coast shores in the warship “Astrolabe,” making records of the coastline. Not until March 1846 did any land-based exploration of the West Coast take place, when the remarkable Thomas Brunner set out from Nelson, on the 17th, with Charles Heaphy. The Arahura River was their objective, in company of a Maori guide, Ekehu. Some 65 days after leaving Nelson, and after enduring numerous dangers and difficulties, they reached the Mawhera River, now known as the Grey in honour of Sir George Grey, then Governor of the colony.  They are thus the first known Europeans to set foot in Mawhera Pa, situated near the town of Greymouth. This journey took 6 months to complete, with their arrival back in Nelson on 18th August 1846. In their report to the authorities & the New Zealand Land Company, they reported that “It was unfavourable for settlement, and that for most part its rivers were unfit for vessels to enter.”

Thomas Brunner

Thomas Brunner was the first of the European explorers to set foot on the West Coast. On March 17th, 1846, in the company of Charles Heaphy and the Maori guide Ekehu, he set off on the first of his two epic journeys through the wilderness to “report on its resources and potentialities as a field for further settlement.” Their objective the Arahura River. Some 65 days later they had reached the Mawhera River, known now as the Grey River. They reached the Arahura within the next day, only to find the pa  deserted. Returning to Mawhera Pa, they rested until June 8th before setting out on the long and arduous return journey to Nelson. On August 18th 1846, after nearly 6 months of exploration, they reached journey’s end. Their report concluded, somewhat harshly, that “It was unfavourable for settlement, and that for the most part its rivers were unfit for vessels to enter.”

european history te kinga lake brunner west coast new zealandThe name of Thomas Brunner lives on in several places; given to Lake Brunner, it was also awarded to the tiny town of Brunner, a few miles away on the Grey River banks between Stillwater and Dobson.

Bear in mind that this region was a trackless wilderness, unexplored, unmapped. The only provisions were those that a man could carry, and no one can carry 6 months groceries! The camping equipment of those days was at best rudimentary, pathetically inadequate by today’s standards.


All of this, in a province renowned for its ferocious rainfalls! At Lake Brunner, the average rainfall is in the order of 150 inches, or 3.8 metres! I have spent a good part of my recreational life outdoors in the mountains, in the best and worst of West Coast and Canterbury weather. I am truly in awe of the exploits of men like Thomas Brunner, their courage, tenacity, and unbelievable curiosity! More so of Brunner because, as if this first journey was not enough, he did it again!


The objectives of the second trip were to explore the Buller River to the sea, and to seek an opening to the eastwards from Rotoiti/Rotoroa lakes country, or the west coast. Whilst no doubt anticipating a lengthy absence from civilisation, Brunner could not have predicted the eighty weeks of privation and hardship that lay ahead as he set off with two Maori guides, plus their wives, on December 3rd 1846….


By 18th Dec they were at Lake Rotoroa, where they spent some time gathering fern root, the only locally available food, destined to form the major part of their diet for the next few months. On Dec 31 they set off for the Matukituki, reaching the end of the valley, and the awesome Buller river, on Jan 16th 1847. The weather deteriorated, the endless rain ruined their food, and they were left with no option but to return to Matukituki to gather more fern root. The country within the Buller valley was harsh, inhospitable… the beech forest offering no sustenance of any kind. By Feb 3rd they were back at their previous shelter where they spent another 2 weeks gathering food. Departure on Feb 18th, back into the Buller gorge. Carrying their heavy swags, battling thick forest, vines and bluffs, their progress was a miserable 2 miles a day.


Illness hit them and Brunner suffered from severe pain seizures, attributed to the diet of fern root. It was not until June 4th that they reached the coastline, enduring intense suffering and discomfort throughout. During the ordeal, Brunner was forced to shoot and eat his favourite dog, being known to the Maori as Kai Kuri (dog eater) thereafter. At one stage, they were without food for 3 days, and the incessant rain took its toll on their spirits, as well as adding to the ever-present danger of drowning in flooded river or streams.


To the traveler of today, driving through the Buller gorge, the journey is only a few short hours from Nelson to Westport. Few people are aware of the pioneer who first fought his way through this region, few people think for a moment of what it must have been like… the journey from Nelson to Westport today takes 3.5 hours…. Brunner’s epic trip took 6 months!


Setting out from the mouth of the Buller on June 15th, Brunner’s next objective was the Arahura Pa, some 100 miles to the south. This portion of the journey was relatively uneventful, and Brunner rested here, and at Taramakau, until spring, resuming his exploration south on Oct 12th 1847. On that day, his diary states that” With a right good will I mounted my load on my back and after many shakes of the hand, and much rubbing noses, I left the Taramakau natives, and once more felt myself moving with my inclinations.” A later diary entry, on Oct 21st, he makes an interesting observation.. “I believe that I may assert that I have overcome the two greatest difficulties to be met with by bushmen in New Zealand, viz., the capability of walking barefoot, and subsisting on fern root.”  This is one tough guy! 


By Nov 19th he had reached the Waiho, the southernmost point of his journey. An accident in which he was washed from a rock by a large wave resulted in injuries to both feet and an ankle, and forced a return to Parika until Dec 10th. Seriously ill, he states in the diary entry for Dec 11th that “Yesterday I resolved to return to Mawhera, and rejoin my own Maoris, and endeavour once more to see a white face and hear my native tongue…..  …I induced to make Parika (Paringa) the terminus of my southing for several reasons: My lameness… ….the summer season was fast approaching to a close and I dreaded the idea of of another long winter…” 


With good weather on the return, he made Arahura on Dec 22nd, commenting “I feasted on new potatos, a treat – having lived lately on fish.” The next day he walked to Taramakau, and finally reached Mawhera Pa on Christmas Eve 1847. On Jan 25th 1848, he set out on the return leg towards Nelson, this time traveling up the Mawhera (Grey) River by canoe. Four canoes in fact, the names of which were Te Wairakou, Te Maikai, Te Paiekau, and Te Matamata – Brunner traveled in Te Wairakou, camping at Moutapu, an island fishing station in the middle of the river (at the northern end of the town of Dobson). The next day, diary tells us “About a mile above Moutapu is a seam of coal, apparently of very fine quality, which presents itself under a stratum of mica slate. The coal is very hard and brittle, very bright and sparkling, burns freely, and is free from smell. the seam is some feet deep and level with the river’s edge, but at least 100 feet below the surface of the earth.”  

This area eventually became the busy coal mining town of Brunner. It was the site of one of the country’s worst mining disasters. On 26th March 1896 the mine blew up, killing all 65 miners below ground at the time.


On the 27th the canoes and their occupants traveled up the Grey to its junction with the Arnold River where they rested for 2 days. Then, on the 29th of January 1848, they proceeded up the Arnold and reached the lake in the evening, Brunner becoming the first white man to set eyes on this beautiful body of water which now bears his name. He describes it thus “A fine sheet of water, about 6 or 7 miles square, near the middle of which is an island where we camped.” 


On Jan 31st the group returned down the Arnold to the junction with the Grey. Next day, Brunner farewelled the West Coast Maori, setting out upstream on the Mawhera with his own guides on the return to Nelson. Traveling up the Little Grey, crossing the Waimunga Saddle, down into the Inangahua Valley and on to its junction with the mighty Buller  River some 4 weeks later. 


The start of April was heralded by atrocious weather, between April 23rd an 10th they were stuck on a ledge above the raging river. Food supplies exhausted, they were compelled to proceed or starve… fortunately by the 14th the weather, and progess, improved.  On the 15th, Brunner became very ill, his diary states “This morning I could not stir, having lost the use of my side, and although I had never been a hindrance to the natives, always carrying my full share of the loads and helping to get firewood, etc., yet I had the mortification of hearing Epiki propose to Ekehu that they should proceed and leave me, saying that I looked too ill to recover soon, if ever, and that the place where they were was devoid of food, but Ekehu refused to leave me; Epiki and his wife then moving onwards. I received great kindness from Ekehu and his wife for the week I was compelled to remain here, the woman attending me kindly and Ekehu working hrd to obtain food for us, always pressing on me the best. He frequently told me he would never return to Nelson without me.” 


On the 20th April, he regained some mobility, resolving to set forth again within two more days. For the next three days, weak and ill, and without any food, this indomitable man stumbled through the driving rain, eventually finding some fern roots, and reuniting with Epiki and his wife.  Swollen streams forced detours on them, but finally, on Sunday 28th they reached the Buller again, and on the 30th arrived back at their old camp on the Matukutuki. Fern root in abundance, they remained for three weeks, Brunner sick near to death again and “unable to proceed through inability.” March 20th saw them on the move again, and through snowstorms, rain and sundry bad weather forced their way back through Rotoroa,  and on to Rotoiti by the 12th June. On the evening of the 15th, Brunner finally reached civilisation, Fraser’s farm, at 10pm at night, some 560 days after wishing Fraser farewell on the banks of the Rotoiti River. In all that time, he had not heard a word of English save the broken gibberish of Ekehu, and the echo of his own voice.


Brunner’s efforts were acknowledged by the award of the Royal Geographic Society’s medal. He later became Chief Surveyor for the province on Nelson, but died in 1874, aged 50 years – his early demise due no doubt to the desperate hardships encountered in those journeys of exploration.

2016 : Courageous Colonials |

Courageous Colonials