Saturday, 4 June 2011

Reflections on the work of James McKerrow', explorer & surveyor

Left: James McKerrow, Explorer, surveyor and Surveyor General of New Zealand.

Later historians have been generous in their estimates of McKerrow’s work. Mr. R. O. Carrick for example describes him as “Mr. James McKerrow, one of the earliest and most enterprising of our Southern explorers . . . whose early explorations and considering the state of the country in those days astonishingly correct observations did far more towards settling the country and developing its resources than those of any other man”.

The Royal Astronomical Society’s tribute, paid on McKerrow’s death in 1919, indicates that his worth was
recognized by leading scientific bodies. “Years of arduous work . . . in the early days demonstrate to the full the loyalty, grit, and solid determination that he possessed and displayed in the carrying out of expert and scientific work at a time when means of communications were of the most primitive description, and when the surveying of the mountainous forest lands in the south necessitated the finest qualities that man can possess.

But, intent on doing his duty, he carried out his responsible work unappalled by dangers which rarely cross the path of a professional man”.

McKerrow’s intimate knowledge of the interior was fully utilized by those requiring information on the region. “Select Committee for Roads and their Construction” appointed by the Otago Provincial Council asked him his opinion about the possibility of running a road through to Queenstown via the Kawarau Gorge. McKerrow pointed out the inherent difficulties of making such a road, and the immense expenditure of time
and money required. In response to a series of questions he also gave his opinion on the most profitable and speedy way of getting supplies through immediately to the Wakatipu goldfield, and the measures he considered necessary to compete with Invercargill for the trade.

In a more specialized field, that of geology, McKerrow’s observations were of particular significance. In a paper read before the Otage Institute on July 19, 1870, and later printed in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, he discussed the “Physical Geography of the Lake Districts of Otago.

After referring briefly to the areas, dimensions, altitudes and positions of the lakes, he pointed out that they were long and thin, lay lengthwise in their valleys had precipitous sides, surfaces not differing greatly in altitude, and terminated at the point where the valleys broadened out into plains. On each side and at the
southern ends there invariably lay vast areas of shingle and large blocks of rock. It appeared that some great natural cause had had a uniform action in producing these lakes. McKerrow contended that the glaciers lying on the side of the mountains were puny descendants of glaciers which had formerly filled valley and lake bed, and had slid slowly but irresistibly forward, carrying with them the spoil of the mountain, gradually working
a bed deeper and deeper, and finally depositing their spoil as lateral and terminal moraines. Soundings taken of the depth of Lake Wakatipu supported certain corollaries of this theory, and McKerrow drew further support for his contentions by explaining why New Zealand was at one time cold enough to contain such large glaciers. The present condition of lake and river, he maintained, must however have been in existence for a long time if the conclusions he drew from the slow silting up at the heads of the lakes were valid. He pointed out that the rivers were gradually eroding their courses to a lower level, with the result that several small lakes had been transformed into valleys.

Rivers then ran through them and dashed over the moraine as rapids. From these observations and taking into consideration the great disintegrating power of frost, it could be readily understood to what an extent the mountains were denuded every year. “Speaking on the Lake Districts in a general manner”, he concluded “It may be observed that, considering the extent of agricultural, pastoral and forest land that abounds in them, their mineral products, their delightful climate, and extent of inland navigation, they have within their own borders all the man elements that render communities prosperous and ourishing.”

McKerrow’s paper was of great interest to geologists throughout New Zealand since by attributing the formation of Wakatipu to glacial erosion he rejected the theory of di erential subsidence propounded in 1869 by no less an authority than Sir James Hector

In 1876, F.W. Hutton, in a paper read before theWellington Philosophical Society said, “I need scarcely say that I agree with Mr. McKerrow . . . In his paper McKerrow points out, I believe for the first time, the very important fact that the constrained exure of a solid body like ice, when passing from one angle of inclination to another, would greatly increase the friction at this particular point”.

McKerrow’s theory in later years received support from such men as Sir Archibald Geikie, Professor Hein, Professor Penck and Tyndall the Physicist .

More recently the view has been than these two theories both contain elements of truth.

                       James McKerrow in his final years

It says much for McKerrow’s keen and analytical powers of observation and for his wide scientific knowledge that he, an amateur geologist, was able to contest points of geological theory with the geological authorities of the day. Such was the high regard in which McKerrow was held in geographical and geological circles that Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, the President of the Royal Geographical Society and a geologist
of world wide reputation, saw fit to link the young surveyor’s name with those of Hector and Haast. These three men had all had papers read in 1864 before the Society, McKerrow’s being his report to Mr. Thomson on the lake district previously published in the Otago Provincial Gazette. In his address to  the society at an anniversary meeting on the 23 May, 1864, the President said: “Three papers of great interest have been communicated to the Society, which throw additional light upon the physical geography of the hitherto unsur veyed districts of the great middle island of New Zealand, and certain new facts illustrative of glacial action. I consider it, indeed, to be a fortunate circumstance for our science, that these regions should
have been visited by such men as Dr. Hector, McKerrow and Dr. Haast”. McKerrow’s subsequent election as an F.R.G.S. can perhaps be attributed to Sir Roderick’s remarks.

Practically and scientifically McKerrow’s journeys were of value to his fellow men, but they also a ected him personally in such a way that for the rest of his life he had a nostalgia for the wide open spaces, the lakes and the bush-clad hills.

Professor James Park, an explorer of a later day describes some of the difficulties of such journeys, and then goes on “But the gains were great. The man has not yet been born who will ever forget the blazing campfire and itting shadows that chase one another from tree to tree, the blue sky overhead, the vitalizingwhiff of the mountain air, the scents of the forest, the murmur of the nearby stream, the boom of the bittern, the shrill cry
of the kakapo r the clear call of the kiwi. When to these we ad the quest of adventure and the joy of discovery we have a ombination of in uence that make a powerful appeal to the pimitive instincts of man”.

“For the time being the party forms a little self-governing, elf-contained community. For the common weal every man ust exercise patience and self-restraint, and in none are these qualities more required than in the leader. It is his duty to allot each man his particular task, to call the time of starting and of camping. The daily round, the close association, and perhaps more than all, the community of ideals which brings together
kindred souls for a common and tends to foster a spirit of comradeship that often ripens into lifelong friendship.”

James McKerrow was an ideal leader for such a small self- contained community. Daring without being foolhardy, never expecting more of his companions than of himself, quick to take a lead in apparently trivial matters such as changing wet clothes promptly or drinking sparingly of cold water on a hot  day, he contributed an impressive quality of leadership towards the success of the expedition. One incident typifies McKerrow the man. On one part of a return journey something went wrong with the compass, and McKerrow was forced to take bearings from the stars. Goldie was not satisfied with the results, and declared they were heading in the wrong direction.

He refused to proceed further, and after signing a paper to the effect that he was taking such a course of his own free will, he struck out by himself. Three days later he returned and to his astonishment found McKerrow still at the same place.

Goldie expressed his surprise. McKerrow replied “I know you would come back, John, so I waited.” No reference to Goldie’s obstinacy ever escaped McKerrow’s lips, but in John Goldie he had made a lifelong friend.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Mount Pisgah first climbed by James McKerrow

Mount Pisgah, Southwest Arm, Middle Fiord, Lake Te Anau

This is the law of Fiordland and ever she makes it plain : ( Apologies to Robert Service )

" Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane;

Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore;

Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core;

Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as a bear in defeat,

Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat.

Send me the best of your breeding, send me your chosen ones."

James McKerrow was the first person to climb Mount Pisgah in Fiordland in 1863. McKerrow noted that 'from its summit, the mouth of Caswell Sound and the ocean beyond, were seen on 3 January 1863. At that time there was a strong desire to find an overland route to the West Coast. 'The sighting of the West Coast from the interior for the first time, so far as I know, brought to my mind the sighting of "The promised land" by Moses from Pisgah, hence the adoption of the name."

In 1995, Julian Royals and Stan Mulvany repeated this climb. Here is an account of their ascent.

Pisgah is a mountain lying deep in middle Fiordland.

Party : Julian Royals and Stan Mulvany

Statistics : 54 kms paddled and 900 feet af ascent and descent

Date : 2/3 September 1995

In June 1994 Jon Taylor and I travelled to Pisgah. It is a 27 km paddle from Te Anau Downs up the Middle Fiord and South West arm of Lake Te Anau. We arrived near its base at 4pm and with short hours of daylight we never had a chance to climb it. This winter I went on a voyage to the Yukon and Alaska and although my arms felt strong I felt the need to work out on a mountain closer to home. Julian was conned into this venture.

Friday night was wet in Invercargill so we got everything ready for an early start next day. By 6am we were on the road with my Feathercraft K2 Double lashed on the roof rack and the boot full of climbing gear. Two and a half hours later we pulled into Te Anau Downs Motor Inn where Pam Hicks agreed to look after the car for the weekend. The weather was fine and sunny with a moderate westerly breeze. We launched from the beach below the hotel, Julien in the front cockpit and I in the rear cockpit.

Once out of Boat Harbour the waves built up and we paddled into a headwind in a direct line for Rocky Point. There were whitecaps out in the sound and once across we tended to hug the shoreline where headlands offered us some shelter from the westerly. The K2 handled well in the blusterly conditions and we slowly passed the islands on the south side of the middle Fiord. On a headland before Arran Island we stopped for lunch. Then it was into some rough water around the big bluff separating the main fiord from the South West Arm. It was with some disappointment we entered this Arm to find a strong headwind blowing down it. At 4 pm we beached just north of the Doon River at the base of Pisah. The mountains here were covered in SW cloud and it was gloomy and unfriendly. We resisted a strong temptation to stay in the hut at the Junction Burn.

After hiding the kayak in the forest we loaded up our packs and headed up. After a few hundred feet I found a deer trail in the dense forest and followinf this we climbed about 800 ' before nightfall. On the crest of the ridge we found a mossy and rocky clearing with just enough room to pitch the tent. Down below the sound stretched away between dark mountain walls. We cooked a hot meal and settled down for a good nights sleep.

At 6 am the alarm went off amd by 7 we were away. The plan was to leave most of the camping gear at this spot and go light weight to the summit. It looked like our ridge went up a way then turned to the right for about a kilometer keeping fairly level before rising again to the summit. The bush on it however proved to be exceedingly dense. Soon after starting our deer trail vanished so we had no option but to retrace our route and decided to take all our gear to the bushline. We battled our way up and Julian on his first trip to Fiordland found it hard going. So hard was it that one of his Koflack climbing boots fell apart with the sole coming off entirely. I suggested he bind it back on with his crampons which he did.

On the level ridge we found another deer train which took us along fairly easily for a while. In places it ran over rocky out drops which afforded us good views of the surrounding country. The snow was down into the bush. at the end of the level ridge we headed strainght up on vague deer trails and higher up we hit the snow. This was soft and we went down to our knees in it. The country was also very steep so it was a merciless slog upwards. It was noon before we pulled clear of the bush. The snow from here on was hard and easy going.

Julian looked exhausted at this point but after quoting the above poetry he seemed to find some deep reserve of hidden energy for the final push. We left our packs under some alpine scrub as I had espied some circling Keas lower down. Then we cramponned quickly upwards to the corniced summit ridge. Here we entered cloud and so to the summit. We had only a minute on top as I was in a panic now that the time was 1.30 pm. I practically ran all the was down to the packs leaving poor Julian struggling in thhe rear. In the bush I tried to take a more direct line down but alas this did not work out. After years of climbing in Fiordland I can tarzan through the bush quite easily but for Julian it was a nightmare. I had to badger and exhort him to keep going all the time. I was silently cursing myself for not returning on our ascent route as it was hard to know exactly where we were. Eventually after climbing several trees I picked up the vital level ridge and was able to guide ourselves onto it. Here we picked up the good deer trail and this time I followed it like a blood-hound. This eventually took us back to the sound which we reached at 5.30 pm.

We launched and started power stroking down the sound. An hour later it was dark. Julian was cold. wet and tired and I promised him a short respite and dry clothes when we reached our Saturday lunch stop in the middle Fiord. There was a half moon shining through a thin viel of cloud and enough light to travel . The wind picked up a bit and we could surf on small waves in the dark. After a few hours we landed on a headland where Julian got on dry clothes and then we were off. Once in the main lake I headed too far north till I saw the looghts of Te Anau Downs Hotel. We arrived there at 11.15 pm. Needless to say everyone had gone to sleep so I had no option but to tap on Pam Hick's bedroom window. She very graciously got up to get our keys and also hot drinks before we hit the road.

"This is the law of Fiordland, that only the strong shall thrive;

That surely the weak shall perish, and only the fit survive.

Dissolute, damned and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain,

This is the will of Fiordland, - Lo, how she makes it plain.