When I asked my friend Mick Hutchins, a one-time Oxford University scholar in Icelandic mythology and then a Mt Aspiring National Park ranger, to join me on a two weeks’ adventure following the footsteps of Alphonse Barrington, I envisaged a romantic journey amid splendid scenery and campfire stories thickened with pipe smoke.
Three days later, clinging for dear life to a handful of roots overhanging a mossy and near-vertical river bank, I was beginning to think, perhaps we were in for much more adventure than we had ever wished for. It also occurred to me that Barrington’s diary, unduly spare as it seemed, was in fact a quiet masterpiece of understatement.
The Odyssey of Alphonse Barrington
Three haggard men were crossing a branch of the Dart River, dragging their feet against the swift current. Their hair and beards were long and matted, their faces scratched and streaked with caked blood. Bedraggled guernsey shirts and fustian trousers cloaked their angular bodies like oversized potato sacks. A half-starved dog swam ahead and shook itself dry on a gravel bank. Its shaggy coat was stretched over protruding ribs like the bellow of a concertina.
The first man across wore a ragged tunic made of a crudely stitched blanket. His eyes were lost in the cavities of his skull. Approaching the captain, he muttered a feeble plea for tobacco.
Like both of his impoverished companions, Alphonse Barrington was a gold miner. Six months earlier he set out to prospect in the unmapped mountains of South-Westland. His journey, full of misadventures and unspeakable hardship, was to become one of the most heroic episodes in the history of New Zealand exploration.
The three men who staggered out of the wilderness in such emaciated state this crisp June morning were later described by Captain Elchold-skipper of a whaleboat which ferried supplies across Lake Wakatipu-as “living skeletons covered with skin.” so weak they were barely able to speak. “Wrecks of humanity,” recorded another witness.
The year was 1864. Abraham Lincoln had just been re-elected president of the United States, and the population of Australia had reached one million. In New Zealand’s North Island, racial tempers ran sour and exploded into war when the punitive expedition of General Duncan Cameron crossed the Mangatawhiri River and entered the King Country. Meanwhile, in the South Island, men in their thousands scarred the mountains and diverted the rivers in a frenzied search for gold.
The first great gold-rush, in Gabriel’s Gully, had been on for almost a year when, one March Sunday in 1862, shepherd Thomas Arthur wandered off to the Overshot Creek (later the Shotover) and with a milking dish and a knife gave it the fame of being the richest gold-bearing river in the world. That same month, in the Upper Shotover, where the river twists and foams through a steep gorge, Dan Ellison and Hakaria Haeroa rushed to rescue their drowning dog and found a beach paved with nuggets. On their first day they gathered over eleven kilograms. Continue reading …
You will also find this story in my upcoming book “GOING TO EXTREMES” which will be published in 2014 and launched at NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka and Queenstown 4-11 July 2014