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Maori guide showed ‘explorer’ the way

Brunner chose to travel alongside the Buller River - a dangerous and miserable path. Photo: Pete Lusk

Was Thomas Brunner a great explorer or a greater adventurer – or maybe neither? By Pete Lusk

I really enjoyed the recent TV series First Crossings. We got to see some wonderful country and appreciate those brave pakeha explorers, pioneering the trackless wilderness, going where no man had gone before.

But wait a moment. Was it really like that?

When Thomas Brunner came down the Kawatiri (Buller) River to the West Coast with his Maori guides they travelled a well-established route for the first half of the journey.

Starting from Nelson in 1846, the expedition paddled up Lake Rotoroa, (now part of Nelson Lakes National Park) walked through an easy saddle at Tiraumea and emerged a short time later at present day Murchison.

Brunner may have thought he was an explorer, but for a large part of the way he was on a track that Maori had been using for centuries. And he was well provided for by his guides Kehu and Pikiwati and their wives.

Kehu had an interesting history. He was originally from the West Coast but had been captured in inter-tribal warfare at age 12 and taken north as a slave. However, his captors recognised his talents and hired him out to The New Zealand Company as a guide. He led Charles Heaphy and Brunner on a very successful trip down the shoreline of the West Coast a year before the Kawatiri expedition. They’d reached the pounamu-rich Arahura River just north of present day Hokitika.

Heaphy wrote of Kehu: ‘A good shot, one who takes care never to miss his bird, a capital manager of a canoe, a superb snarer of wildfowl and a superb fellow at a ford, is that same E Kehu; and he is worth his weight in tobacco!’

After Murchison, things got tough for Brunner’s expedition. It rained a lot and the river was up. They struggled along beside the river even though there is a broad terrace 100m above which would have made for easier travel.

Why didn’t Brunner take the terrace? Perhaps he suffered from gold fever. Most pakeha of the time did and he knew that nothing developed a district more than gold. There could be nuggets in any of the side streams and if he sidled the river too high he might miss it.

One way or another Brunner did miss the gold. There was an Eldorado of nuggets shining in the bed of the Lyell Creek and he walked right by. The diggers who descended on the place a few years later made fortunes overnight.

By this time things were getting really difficult. The little party was still struggling amongst the rain-drenched boulders of the swollen Kawatiri. It was too risky to cross and find an easier path. And with the days shortening, everyone was getting cold and hungry. Things got so desperate Brunner’s dog was killed and eaten.

The last big hurdle to reaching the coast was the Lower Buller Gorge. It was still raining on and off and the river remained high.

As luck would have it there’s an easy way around the gorge and it’s an established Maori route. This is up the Mackley River where food and dry wood would be far easier to find, then over the Buller Coal Plateau and down an easy creek to the Coast.

But horror of horrors, Brunner didn’t take it. They plunged on down river, held up time and again by high bluffs. You either climb hundreds of feet to get over them, or drop into the river and take your life in your hands swimming around the bottom.

By now it was early winter when even on a good day the sun doesn’t reach into the bowels of the gorge. The party were trapped on the shady side and to make matters worse, every tree grabbed released a shower of cold water down their back.

Eventually the party staggered half-starved from the rainforest and onto the beach at present-day Westport. Brunner certainly recognised the ability of his foremost guide: ‘To Kehu I owe my life,’ he later wrote. ‘He is a faithful and attached servant.’

In comparison to Kehu’s obvious ability, it appears Brunner made decisions that could have killed them all.

Was Thomas Brunner a great explorer? By my estimate only in the sense of revealing the secrets of ‘the interior’ to a pakeha audience. Was he great adventurer? Yes, only because that’s more in keeping with what he did.

Kehu clearly gained the respect of his chiefs who granted the one-time slave a life interest in 4.8ha of their land in Motueka. Brunner’s health never quite recovered from the trip and he died aged 53.

History records: ‘A large Maori party attended his funeral at Nelson Cathedral including his long time friend Kehu.’

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