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Cycling South Westland in 1929

01 January 2014

by Ray Chapman-Taylor  

In 1929 my father, Ray Chapman-Taylor, and his friend Ray Williams decided to bike home to Napier from Otago via the Haast Pass and the West Coast. They mounted basic bikes with no gears and rudimentary brakes on a route with no bridges and only a cattle track across the mountains. What follows is best said in his own words. Helen Boswell, Wellington

As the college year came toward its end I suggested to my friends that we should go home by a quite different route from the usual - via Central Otago and over the Haast Pass and up the West Coast on bicycles. Fred Stevenson and Ray Williams agreed to come with me, but at the last moment Fred was not well. He was in a different boarding house then and must have had a poor diet because he was diagnosed as having scurvy.

For this trip I bought a new pack - a frame pack of Scandinavian design, the first frame pack I had ever seen (it lasted me about 20 years). I also designed and had made a very light tent. We prepared a special box of food containing, among other things, a German sausage made especially for us, and a small cheese. We must have had a couple of billys for cooking but I forget the details. The day after college finished we set off in spite of warnings from the local people that we would never make it. "There are places up there where the bush is so thick the sun never gets through" they said. It was pretty obvious tothem that we were mad and would not survive. Among our friends at the boarding house I was then in were several medical students, one of whom spent his holidays as a porter and assistant to tourists at Mount Cook. He did not discourage us and in fact, as will appear, we had no great problems, but when we arrived at Franz Josef three weeks later we heard that our medical friend along with a party of girls had been caught in a sudden blizzard on the Tasman Glacier and none had survived.

On our first day we rode south to Milton and in towards Lawrence - I remember how impressed we were by the avenue of poplars leading into Lawrence. We slept that night in our new tent down near the Clutha River.

Our second day was a long, hard ride. We came through the gorge and looked across to Cromwell early in the evening but continued on towards Tarras. As we left Cromwell I had a sudden nose bleed and had to stop and plug up my nose. We slept out in a field near Tarras that night, and next day rode into Wanaka township in mid morning. We collected our box of provisions from the bus depot and set out again, having found that our route lay along the shore of Lake Hawea. When leaving Dunedin we had only a very general idea of the route we should take - we reckoned we would find a way when we got to the lakes. At that time the road from Wanaka, at the foot of the lake to Makarora at the head of the lake, had been constructed only about halfway up Hawea to the Neck, where it would, later, turn in over the hill to join Lake Wanaka again. From this point, the beginning of the inlet called the Neck, we had to scramble up the hill through the pig fern, carrying packs and bicycles, to the bridle track which led on to Makarora and, we hoped, to Haast Pass. We spent the night at a hut on the steep hillside above Wanaka after having had a bath in the ice-cold water of a stream and eaten a somewhat undercooked stew.

Day 4 was easier. We had to ride along the bridle track and sometimes carry our bicycles up or down steep patches but we enjoyed the scenery and were happy at making good progress. At the head of the lake we came to a wharf with a large hut nearby. We left our gear at the hut and went for a walk around the area for an hour or so. On the way back we met two men who were staying at the hut. They were photographic journalists, much older than us and much more experienced. They invited us to share the evening meal with them which, of course, we were very pleased to do.

Day 5. There was a road for a mile or two and then we found ourselves walking over a stony forest floor with big black beech trees overhead. After a few miles we waded across the Makarora River to more open country on the west side. We slept beside the stream before we came to the narrowest part of the approach to the Haast. Day 6 was a bit of a scramble at times but as the gorge narrowed we came to a good well-kept track that took us over the summit. There was a stream to be crossed almost at the top, on the north west side and I went back, in spite of the cold water, to allow Ray Williams to take a photograph - long lost, I regret to say.

Day 7 was a scramble again, in some parts - climbing over big rocks in the river, looking up at the glacier on Mount Brewster (we could see the green ice then. Twenty years later it had retreated and even in 1990, when the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers had stopped their retreat and were coming back, I still could see nothing but rock on Brewster). We crossed the only bridge on the track and towards evening came to a small party of men working on the track near the Burke Flats. At this point the river was deep so one of the men very kindly took us across on horseback and we were able to stay the night at the Burke Hut. It was only in 1990, when going through on a bus that I learned that the Burke River and Hut were named after the Australian explorer, and that the Landsborough River which flows into the Haast a little further down is named after an Australian policeman who was on the search for Burke and Wills, and found them, alas, too late.

From the Burke Hut we found there was a track along the south side of the Haast but so little used that saplings had grown up in the middle of it. It was easier to ride a course on the wide stony river bed, or to push a bike. There was, of course, no possibility of riding on the shingle. Wewalked down the river, pushing our bicycles until we could see something shining in the distance. This was piece of board nailed to a post. It was the mark for which we made - then on down the river till we saw another mark, and so, by evening to cultivated flat land. Here we found an old hut and spent the night.

On Day 7 we had an easy ride on a farm track to the mouth of the Haast where the Cron family had a farm raising, mainly, beef cattle. Mrs Cron ran a small accommodation house for infrequent travellers such as the postman or occasional sightseer. We had dinner withMrs Cron and were able to buy a dozen eggs which she hardboiled for us. From the Crons we got information about where to stay and what to look out for on our way north. They also told us that a year or so before a clergyman and his daughter had come down the West Coast and gone out over the Haast, so we were not the first cyclists to go that way. [FMC Editor's note: Arthur P Harper made a west-east trip across the Haast Pass with a bicycle in 1900, probably the first.]

There was no bridge over the Haast then or for another thirty years but Mr Cron took us across in his flat bottomed rowing boat and we walked on across the swampy country where, for the first time, we began to find the mosquitoes a nuisance. Our stop that night was in a hut at Coppermine Creek. We had to cover ourselves completely with clothes, towel and packs to escape the attentions of the mosquitoes but in spite of all precautions a few got through and we were glad to get away early in the morning. The route, on Day 8, did not lead up to the shoreline as it does today but went inland towards Mt Smith and along the foot of the Mataketake Range [on what is now known as the Haast-Paringa Cattle Track]. Not long after we had begun to climb we came to a bare slope known as, if I remember right, the Blue Slip, and beyond that, at the top of the ascent [probably Maori Saddle] was a huge gate made of tree trunks and a stoutly built hut surrounded by neatly packed stacks of fire wood. This was the home of a West Coast character of whom the Crons had spoken with considerable respect, Mr Sweeny.

It was wet and Sweeny invited us in. He said he didn't like visitors much but we noticed he had a good lot of dry fern for mattresses for any who did come. He was in charge of the track on which he lived. His job was to keep it clear and also to look after the telephone line that ran through the bush. Occasionally a drover brought a herd of cattle down the track or up the track. The huge gates he had built to control the cattle, which had smashed through previous lesser gates. He had a reputation as the best bread-maker (camp oven bread) on the coast and we asked him how he did better than the housewives of the district. "Ah" said Sweeny, "they punch it too much." He made a soda loaf for us that night - very good too.

He told us his idea of a holiday was to take two small tents and a sack of flour and go up the Landsborough prospecting. He left some food in one tent at the end of the first or second day and then went on until his food ran out and he had to return to his cache, where there was enough food to get him home.

We found he had a wife and daughter running a boarding house at the Fox Glacier village. He said he got up every morning at four in fine weather and cut firewood for a few hours for the winter. When we asked if he would go home for Christmas he grunted "No. They'd want me to cut firewood all day."

Because there was a risk of damage to the telephones from a lightning strike if they were left connected, the settlers from the Fox Glacier down to the Haast left their phones unconnected all day. Everyone connected up at five in the evening and passed along messages about people on the track and requests for help for people like ourselves if the rivers were high.

Next morning there was only light rain and we prepared to set off. In spite of his not liking visitors, Sweeney did his best to get us to stay another night, telling us we would never get across a creek further up the track. He was obviously wanting and enjoying company. However, we said we would come back if the water was too high. We had to get on if we could. In fact the rain was not heavy and the stream was not a danger.

We spent that night at an unoccupied farm house which was used by the postman, who came down the coast each week with a pack horse loaded with mail etc, and any other travellers like ourselves. Along this coast we were wet through in quite a short time everyday but had dry clothes in our packs. We changed as soon as we arrived, hung our wet things up to dry before the fire, and got on the telephone to make sure we would be met with horses to get across the next river.

Next day we rode up the track most of the day, wading through creeks, wet through but quite happy. We were met right on time by a man with two horses and forded the river safely. That night we were at an accommodation house, had a very good dinner and slept in beds for the first time since leaving Dunedin. Next day we were off again and that night arrived at the Fox River and spent the night with a bachelor sheep farmer. Like Sweeney he was a bit lonely and wanted us to stay another night or two but we had to push on. That morning we were met again by a man with horses who took us across the river and up to the Fox village. This crossing cost us a few shillings. We rode on to the Franz Joseph, where our footwear having worn out, we were able to get some discarded mountaineer's boots that were good enough for road walking and cycling.

Cyclists were not numerous at that end of the coast and we were several times asked what we would do when we came to Mount Hercules. We wondered just what we would find but in the event when we were riding up quite a mild slope and stopped to ask a roadman when we would come to Mount Hercules he just grinned and said, "You are on it now."

From the end of the road at the Neck on Lake Hawea to the first road at Fox Glacier on the West Coast was about 180 miles and took us ten days.

We rode up the coast, stayed a night in a railway station north of Hokitika and then, being tired of riding, sent our bicycles on to Picton by rail. During the next few weeks we walked up to Reefton, found that the Buller Gorge was still blocked by the great earthquake [the 1929 Murchison Earthquake] and went on up the road to Maruia Springs. We slept in a roadman's hut by the river and early next morning hitched a ride in a truck that was going to Nelson. On the top of the saddle the truck broke an axle. The driver, Mr Kingsland, got a ride with a car that overtook us while ray Williams and I walked on down the Matakitaki Valley to Murchison and up the Buller River to Gowan Bridge, up the Gowan River to Lake Rotoroa and over the Howard Track - there were gold prospectors working on the Howard but we did not stop. We came to a farm at the end of the track. The farmer's young wife had come from Dunedin. We were invited to stay for lunch and then went back to Lake Rotoiti. After a short stay, just one night, we walked down the Buller and, with a lift (or two) finally arrived at Sherry River where we worked in a hop garden for a week or so before going on by train to Nelson and bus to Picton.

Did we ride from Wellington to Hawke's Bay? I forget. My last memory of this trip was taking out bicycles from the boat and having to pay wharfage - something we had never heard of.

This story was first published in the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ 'FMC Bulletin' in 2011.