TAKING UP THE BACK COUNTRY 

Saddle in background. 

Press, 17 February 1911, Page 9
Countryside Wanderings - Who wrote the column?

When the rush for the runs in South Canterbury took place, the fortunate ones took up the land from the sea back to the high hills, and the later arrivals were, perforce, driven back into the hinterland of the island, whore, in consideration of the supposed barrenness of the place, they were allowed still larger areas. There was some diffidence, however, about tackling this sort of country and utilising it as sheep runs (agriculture was not dreamed of), and Mr Samuel Butler, who owned Mesopotamia station. Upper Rangitata, in his fantastic book "Erewhon," says "It was thought that there was too much snow upon these hills for too many months in the year; that the sheep would get lost, the ground being too difficult for shepherding; that the expense of getting wool down to the ship's side would cut up the runholders' profits, and that the grass was too rough and sour for sheep to thrive on: but one after another determined to try the experiment, and it was wonderful how successful it turned out. Men pushed farther and farther back into the mountains, and found a very considerable tract inside the front range, between it and another which was loftier still, though even this was not the highest, the great snowy one which could he seen from out on the plains."

Among the men who had grit and pluck enough to risk their all in the great hills—gradually getting back and pluck—were Mr Raven, who selected Ashwick, and transferred it to Brown and Maude; Messrs Kennaway and Acton, Opawa and Clayton runs; Mr Dunnage, Albury run, afterwards transferred to Messrs Matson and Spencer; Messrs Raine Bros., Sherwood Downs run; Mr Spencer, Mount Nessing run; Dunnage Bros., Three Springs run; and Rollesby or Burkes Pass run went to Messrs Maude and Elisor. Before the end of 1859 the whole of the mountain country had been applied for, and Mr Nicholas Radone [sic], popularly known as "Big Mick" was in possession of a run known as Birch Hill, which included the moraines about the Mount Cook glaciers and the Mount Cook range itself! Mr John Hay took up Tekapo, and a part of the eastern side of the Mackenzie Country was applied for in the same year, the Grampians by Messrs J. T. and H. Ford, Gray Hills by Mr J. Hayhurst, and Haldon by Messrs Teschemaker Bros. To Mr Teschemaker, of Otaio goes the honour of having driven the first bullock team over Burkes Pass. All the above runs were taken up about 1856, and in 1857 Mr E. G. Stericker took up Sawdon for himself. He not only did this, but he climbed the crest of the range, and sketched out a tract of country to be applied for by his friends; there was the Whale's Back for Mr John Hall; Braemar for Mr George Hall; Richmond for Mr A. Purnell, and Glenmore tor Mr Jos. Beswick. In 1858 Mr H. T. Gladstone had Rhoboro Downs, and Dark Bros, had taken Glentanner. Mr T. W. Hall gave the name to Mistake Station—now owned by Mr J. S. Rutherford—by applying for a run within that taken by Mr J. Beswick. The last run to be taken up was Mt. Cook run by Mr A. Burnett, and this run is still in the possession of his son, Mr T. D. Burnett, being the only .run held by the original selector, most of the others having changed hands many times since the time when they were originally taken up. The homesteads of these runs were either secured by the squatter buying a few acres of land round about it, or by pre-emptive right, which gave the holder the first option of buying when anyone else applied for the purchase. Ten or fifteen years after the rush for the runs had ended, smaller men came into the country and tried to get at least a part of the land for themselves. During the land-buying fever of 1878, a Dunedin syndicate purchased the freehold of 20,000 acres in the Braemar run, and this led many of the squatters to acquire the freehold of a large sized block about their homesteads, the price being generally at 40s per acre.

The many occupiers of the great hill runs have had a great deal to contend against. They have had ups and downs, good luck and bad luck, fat times and lean times. Some have been ruined, some have given up the struggle before losing their all, some have manfully hung on through had seasons and minute wool prices, and although the selectors of the runs may have pitied themselves for being too late to get a share of the more convenient level country, yet Time has brought consolation in the fact that to them or their successors the hills remain, while the lower levels have been annexed by a superior industrial force, bearing the plough as their standard. The keeper of sheep has withstood the tiller of the earth only where his feet have been planted on the everlasting hills.

Mt. Cook NP. 

DESCRIPTION OF THE DISTRICT

The County of Mackenzie, whose position has already been roughly defined, is an irregularly-shaped tract, not unlike a man of Africa turned upside down. On its south-western corner Lake Ohau is situated, and the boundary there is the Hopkins River, which, rising in the great snowy range of the Southern Alps—the backbone of the South Island—runs into the northern end of Ohau. The Alps themselves are the stupendous fence of the country on its western side, the line running along the summits of the mountains, taking in the jagged peaks of Mounts Sefton, Cook and Tasman, De La Beche, and Elie de Beaumont, right to the Sealey Pass near the source of the Forbes River. This is the northern apex of the county and its eastern boundary wavers down along the ridge of the Two Thumb range until the Opuha River is reached. This river's course is followed for twenty odd miles, when the line strikes sharply off in a direction slightly west of south straight for the town of Fairlie. The boundary then bears again to the south-east, running almost parallel with the railway line, until the township of Cave is reached. Here the railway is crossed, the line still bearing sou'-east to the Pareora River Westward it goes again, to form tie southern boundary, taking an abrupt lop to Mount Nimrod and from there to Mount Dalgety, from where it goes south-west until. the Ohau river that runs out of Lake Ohau, is reached, about thirty miles from where it leaves the southern So the lake. The County has an intricate and colossal system ot rivers and lakes, and it a line is drawn from the Ohau Peak, just over the south western boundary of the county, to Mt. Musgrave in the Two Thumb range, it will pass through three large sheets of water -lakes Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo. The Tasman river, which rises in the great glacier of the same name, as well as several lesser streams, feed Pukaki, and the Godley river, running from the Godley glacier, does a like duty for Tekapo. The rivers Hopkins, Dobson Huxley, and several smaller streams drain into Lake Ohau. From each of the southern ends of these lakes a broad, swift river flows, all eventually joining within the county to form the Waitaki or Waitangi river, which forms the southern boundary of the county, of Waimate.

The classification of the Mackenzie County is a comparatively straightforward matter. It may be called almost purely pastoral, for with the exception of the south-eastern corner where there are about 80,000 to 100,000 acres of land (a large proportion of which is suitable for agriculture) and a block of about 20,000 acres, lying on the north-eastern shore oft Lake Pukaki, practically all the county is of a high and rugged character, varied with a vast expense of stony plain, the latter being hummocky and of a moraine formation. On this country roam the flocks of merinos and halfbreds whose hardy constitutions and foraging abilities make them the ideal occupants of such a hard land. In the 80's the country was threatened with an invasion of rabbits from the south, and the squatters got a great scare. The Government was ceaselessly petitioned, and at last the persistent clamour had its effect, and a great rabbit proof fence was run along the danger line. The terrible snowstorm of 1895, however, caused enormous destruction among the advancing hordes of rabbits—and sheep as well—and since that time the country has been free from the nest in any serious degree.


Two Thumb Range in the background - Fox Peak Ski field to the right. 1950

THE SNOWFALLS

Mention of the snowstorms calls to mind this fearful source of loss to the squatters. Of course, in such high country, more or less snow is looked for as a matter of course, and then most of the hills are impossible or highly dangerous for sheep. The high altitude of the Mackenzie plain also makes it very dangerous, but in average winters the pastoralists manage sufficiently well. But occasionally the most disastrous falls of snow occur, and then the miserable sheep die in tens of thousands. The whole country is one vast white sheet, with all the fence lines buried, and it is not until the thaw, that the damage done can be really realised. With the disappearance of the treacherous covering there lie revealed, in all the gullies and places that promised shelter, the carcases of the killed, some singly, but more often mobs, and the owner may, if he be lucky, get back a fraction of his loss by skinning the dead. The most damaging falls of snow occurred in the years 1868, 1879, 1888, 1895, 1904, and it is curious to notice; that the bad years occur in a regular cycle of about seven or nine years. The old residents can tell stirring tales of the snowstorms; of how they had to dig themselves out of their houses, the snow being level with the roofs; of nightmare-like rides with the mails; of journeys undertaken when twenty horses, hitched to a light waggon, only covered ten or twelve miles in as many hours; of ghastly weeks of track-making to get sheep out, and the still more ghastly skinning of the bodies. Many a station-holder saw a life's work blotted out by that white pall, and had to start his life afresh. As a rule, however, life is cheerful enough, and it takes more than a snowstorm or two or damp the pluck of these high-country men.

What father's do for their daughter's even though they have thousands of sheep to attend to. The same thing happened to me, but on Sherwood, in the 1973 snow. Drove the car to the school bus corner, parked the car under the tree, the snow plough came along, banked up the snow and Dad realised that this would happen and came down and shovelled the snow and reparked the car so I could drive the 2 miles home.
1950 - Looks like the Trentham Rd, Allandale. A gorse hedge to the left. Snowploughs reduced the number of sheep losses.
Other bad snows occurred in 1903, July 1918, July 1943, July 1945, Nov. 1967, Aug. 1973,  Aug. 1992 and June 2006.

FARMING

Until 1870 the whole of the county was used for pastoral purposes only, but about that time a New South Wales squatter came over and purchased a 10,000 acres block, since known as Allandale. Then Mr Donald McLean acquired a large block west of Fairlie, and he was closely followed by Mr S. Gillingham, who took up the block known as Lambrook. Mr F. J. Kimbell bought a block of freehold on his "Three Springs" run, and this 5000 acres is now the site of the Government settlement of Punaroa. The devotees of the plough have flourished exceedingly in the south-eastern part of the country. Where the merino grazed the halfbred .and crossbred rear their lambs, and the song of the reaper and binder is heard in the land. The down land grows the most excellent crops of oats' and roots, and in the specially favoured spots crops of wheat can be grown that would put to shame the wheat lands about Timaru. Besides the Punaroa settlement mentioned; the Government have acquired and cut up blocks of land that are now known as the Albury and Chamberlain settlements, and. many a small struggling man has to owe his present prosperity to the day when he drew the right marble in a land ballot.

Two Thumb Range with Fox Peak, Butler's Saddle and the High Claytons to the right. 
A snow plough has made tracks in the paddock for the stock.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT

In the old days the area now known as the Mackenzie county was designated the Mount Cook road district, and according to Mr F. E. Gillingham, Mr G. J. Denniston, then owner of Haldon Station, was the first chairman. This would be in the early 'sixties, for the first minute-book of the Board that can be found in the present Council's office is a little leather-covered pocketbook dated 1864. The first meeting recorded there was held at Sawdon station, and Mr F. W. Teschemaker was chairman. Afterwards meetings were held at Stansell's accommodation house at Burkes Pass as being central for all the members of the Board, but that body also met at Rollesby station and in Timaru. Fairlie, at this time, it may be mentioned, consisted of merely one very small accommodation house, kept for many years by Mrs Hamilton. Besides the gentlemen mentioned, Messrs A.R. Matson. T. A. Clowes. C. Ensor, W. Cunningham Smith, F. J. Kimbell, M. Gray, A. B. Smith, J. H. Raine, and J. McGregor, all occupied, at different times, the position of chairmen. At the time of the abolition of the provinces and the formation of the counties, the Mount Cook road district was included in the Geraldine County, but a petition was made, and eventually in 1883 the district was made into a separate county, with Mr John McGregor (who still is residing just out of Fairlie) as the first chairman of the Council, a position he held with conspicuous success from 1883 to 1891 and from 1893 to 1894. Mr J. Milne was chairman from 1891 to 1893; Mr E. Richardson from 1894 to 1896, and Mr F. R. Gillingham—the son of a pioneer and himself an old resident of the district— has for the past fifteen years been at the head of the Council table. This body has done good work in the district under its jurisdiction, and, according to a calculation made by Mr R. L. Banks, the county engineer, there are 700 miles of roads in the district, about half of which are formed and shingled. This may seem a large proportion of unformed to formed roads, but when the character of the back country is considered, and the small population of the county (only 1937, according to the census of 1906, in the 2537 square miles) it is not so unprogressive as it looks. The Council has another important work in hand in the extensive planting of trees; already there are between three and four hundred acres planted—chiefly larch and spruce and some pinus ponderosa—and the work is being steadily advanced. The original headquarters of the Council were at Burkes Pass, and in its palmy and immature days it was decided to build a palatial office at a cost of £2000. Now Burkes Pass is no longer the central point, and the said office is very much of a white elephant.

Winter on Sherwood Downs, 1950 

THE CAPITAL OF THE COUNTY

Fairlie township is situated on a small plain or rather, in the valley of the Upper Opihi. It is encircled with hills, low to the eastwards, while to the west tower the long line of the Two Thumb range. Due west of the town, Burkes Pass out through the mountains, and, looking towards the setting sun from the ridge, the vast plain. 24' miles by 30 miles, between that and the Alps is laid out before one. Fairlie compares more than favourably with towns of a like size and similarly situated, and, like most colonial townships, it has had a rapid growth. The population is about six hundred at present, but it is steadily on the increase, and it should not he long before it could be constituted a borough—not that the townsfolk seem to want to get away from the beneficent rule of the Council, which looks after their interests paternally. The place has well-kept roads and streets, three churches, with resident clergymen, representing the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian denominations, two well appointed hotels, a public hall, and halls for the Oddfellows and Masonic fraternities; it has a good domain and athletic grounds, nourishing golf, tennis, and football clubs, and up-to-date business premises, some of which would be a credit to a town ten times the size. The township is illuminated with an acetylene gas plant, it has a good fire brigade, and besides being the capital, so to speak, of the county, it is the distributing centre for numerous backcountry mail services, and the headquarters of the fine motor service to the Hermitage, and all this is recounted of a place that a few years ago contained only one small accommodation house! The district well support the local A. and P. Society, which has been in existence a dozen years, and which holds a really good show of all kinds of stock on Easter Mondays. As regards the other township of the county. Albury, this place has shown a marked improvement since the establishment of the Chamberlain and Rosewill settlements. It has a population of about a couple of hundred, three churches, an hotel, and all the business places necessary for the settlers' needs, and being the centre of a large and fertile farming area has a promising future before it. At the present time there are 304 separate holdings in the county; the total area of land under cultivation is about 105,823 acres, while the number of sheep run is close on half a million, and there 39 miles of water races.

The unimproved value of the land in the county has risen from £589,528 in 1891 to £796,441 in 1909; the capital value for the same periods is £736,021 and £1,017,463. The County Council's revenue in 1891 was £3,069, and in 1910 it was £7864, and these few figures give an idea of the gradual but steady progress of the district as a whole. The well-being of the front country is assured, but of the potentialities of the back country it is not easy to speak; the well-meant experiments of the Government in regrassing worn-out areas, will need much time and care to be of use, but the general consensus of opinion among those best qualified to speak on the subject, seems to be that the hope of the hinterland lies in the rapid and generous planting of trees, which will protect both the stock and the land, and will break the force of the drying winds of summer and the bitter blasts of winter.

Two Thumb Range in the background. The family is still there in 2012, 100 years later and though numerous snow falls.  
1912. Two Thumb Range in the background.

Waimate County - covered in The Press Feb. 3rd 1911
Temuka covered in The Press 17th March 1911

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