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The pioneers explore Otago, by Herries Beattie

29 August 2010

A Record of Explorers, Travellers, Surveyors, Bushmen, Seekers of Pastoral Country, Inland Voyagers, and Wayfaring Men

In this interesting and well researched volume, Beattie narrates the history of the exploration of Otago pre-1890. At the time when the book was written, the region included all of Fiordland and Southland, but not Haast Pass or Lake Hawea.

The tale starts with the first sighting of Otago’s (west) coast by Captain Cook in March 1770, followed by the establishment of whaling stations, some of which eventually turned into agricultural settlements. Frederick Tuckett, a surveyor, was selected to find a site for a proposed new settlement, New Edinburgh, and after inspecting the coastline between Akaroa Peninsula and Fiordland in 1844, he chose the head of the Otago Harbor. Four years later, the arrival of the settlers aboard the John Wickliff and the Philip Laing marked the foundation of Dunedin. This is where the story really begins.

In the second chapter the author tells of how the settlers spread out, mainly along the coastline; then he deals with Mantell’s exploration of Southland (1851-52, Chapter 3), Nairn’s and Stevens’ journey to Te Anau (1852, Chapter 4), and the penetration of the interior by the first runholders (Chapters 5 and 6). More stories follow about Donald Hay’s intrepid exploration of Lake Wakatipu on a mohiki (raft) built from Māori vines, the travels in the same area by William Rees, the exploration of Central Otago, and the trip by McKellar and Gunn into the Greenstone and onto the Livingstone Range.

Chapters 12 to 14 are dedicated to the surveying of the region’s interior, started by J.T. Thomson in 1857, and largely completed by James McKerrow and his field assistant Goldie, over three epic journeys between 1861 and 1863. The book ends with a chapter on overland journeys to the west coast (James Hector’s crossing of Hector Col, Caples’ and Hector’s trips to and from Martins Bay), and the exploration of the country west of Lake Te Anau, including the discovery of McKinnon Pass, the Sutherland Falls and Lake Quill.

There is a lot more to this book than the above summary would suggest, with many accounts of lesser trips, tales about seconds to the finish line who didn’t know they had been beaten to it, numerous anecdotes, and the publication of five original diaries in their entirety (Mantell’s and Nairn’s journals, and all three of Goldie’s diaries). At a time when google and wikipedia didn’t exist, the author had to rely on old newspaper articles, interviews, correspondence and original accounts by the early explorers – an incredible wealth of material that would have been very difficult to obtain. We are indebted to Beattie for documenting a slice of history that would have otherwise been lost.


Beattie, H. (1947) The pioneers explore Otago. Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co Ltd, Dunedin, 160 pages

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