In the Footprints of Brunner

Posted by Roy Sinclair in Central South Island Travel Stories
Sunday, 13 August 2006
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Arnold Valley Road is the route I prefer to follow whenever travelling between Greymouth and Christchurch. A gem, the rural road runs from SH 7 at Stillwater and  joins SH 73 at Jacksons.

Mostly, it follows the trans-alpine railway.

A highlight is the beautiful Lake Brunner, filling a deep glacial hollow and renowned for its cunning oversized trout and giant eels. Elevated on one side of the lake is the expanding town of Moana where the TranzAlpine train makes a brief stop.

Looking across the lake, any evidence of human habitation is difficult to detect. Regenerating rain forests boarder lake shores. Dominating the skyline is the impressive 1958 metre Mount Alexander.

As much as I love this place I had typically seen it, briefly, as a traveller – until recently when journeying the Arnold Valley by bicycle. I had planned an overnight stop at Moana after the 40-kilometre ride up from Greymouth.

The early summer afternoon had been hot and wearying for an unfit 62-year-old. A cold Monteith’s and some not-so-expert cooking in my tiny motel kitchen were successful revivers.

The sky dotted with dark clouds was turning crimson in the lowering sunlight as I set out to explore on foot. A narrow footbridge, suspended on wire ropes, lead across the Arnold River flowing swiftly from the lake.

In the quietness I could hear the occasional "plop" of a brown trout that had risen to catch a hovering insect morsel. Across the river natural sphagnum moss is gathered for export to Japan’s orchid growers. The moss is carried across the lake by helicopter.

A Department of Conservation sign gives the lake’s poetic Maori name, Kotuka Whakaoho. It means "Flapping of white heron wings."

I stopped to photograph a classic yacht. The sky promised a dramatic sunset. Glancing inland towards the mountains hiding Arthur’s Pass I watched a rain shower, the aftermath of an alpine thunder storm, move towards Moana.

Spots of rain sent me scurrying to shelter on the railway station. Waiting for the shower to pass I pondered the lake’s better known European name.

Brunner was arguably New Zealand’s greatest early European explorer. His epic 550-day journey from Nelson to Paringa in 1847 and 1848 captures one’s imagination more so than any other pioneer New Zealand expedition.

He travelled with four Maori companions – two were women – who taught him how to walk barefoot, and how to survive from eating native plants and catching wildlife. His guide was Kahu to whom there is a memorial in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Incessant rain, and unmapped and untracked forest terrain, robbed the journey of the same pleasures I could enjoy following in the footprints of the historic 25-year-old Brunner.

He ventured as far as Paringa in south Westland. Having injured his ankle he decided to give up. He wrote of his decision to, "turn my face homewards; first to rejoin my own natives, and to see the face of a white man, and hear my native tongue."

During their return journey to Nelson, Brunner and his Maori friends camped beside the lake that now has Brunner’s name. I thought about their torturous journey during which the first European eyes must have seen the splendour of south Westland’s glaciers – later named by Julius Haast……   

A train of West Coast coal, en route to Port Lyttelton, thundered through the station. The rain had stopped. Weakening sunlight spread, golden, across the lake.

Did Brunner enjoy such a beautiful sunset?

He is best remembered for having killed and eaten his faithful dog, Rover. He did so to survive hunger.

Brunner commented, wryly, it tasted "like a combination of mutton and pork."

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