Brunner on the Buller - roadside stories

In late 1846, with his Māori guides Kehu and Pikewate, surveyor Thomas Brunner set off on an epic journey down the Buller River and to the West Coast. The group battled hunger, illness, injury and terrible weather, and it was 18 months before Brunner encountered another European.


Archival audio: Today in History June 15. Brunner – The Greatest Explorer of All.

Thomas Brunner (actor's voice): This is without exception the very worst country I have seen in New Zealand; not a bird to be heard or seen; and the few fish there are in the river will not bite during rain.

Narrator: The Buller River, named Kawatiri by Māori, which means deep and swift, is the largest river on the West Coast. From its source at Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson region, it flows over 170 kilometres to the Tasman Sea near Westport. On the way it crosses two major mountain ranges, forming the upper and lower Buller gorges.

In 1847 surveyor Thomas Brunner explored this river. On an earlier trip he had renamed it the Buller River, after an English politician who was a director of the New Zealand Company.

The company had established a settlement at Nelson, but it was running out of arable flat land. Brunner had heard Māori reports about a huge inland plain south of Nelson, so explored the mountainous area to the south and west. But he found little land for settlement.

In December 1846, though confident that a large inland plain did not exist, Brunner set off. He was accompanied by two Māori guides, Kehu and Pikewate, and their wives. The journey began badly.

Brunner (actor's voice): The women are fighting, with their husbands taking part in the combat. I had much difficulty reconciling them, and persuading them to continue their journey.

Narrator: As they came to the Buller gorges food was scarce and it rained constantly. A diet of fern root caused Brunner ‘excruciating pain’ and his Māori companions fell ill. 

Brunner (actor's voice): I am getting so sick of this exploring, the walking and the dietary both being so bad, that were it not for the shame of the thing, I would return.

Narrator: For three months they journeyed down the Buller River; existing on birds and eels. Then, with starvation looming...

Brunner (actor's voice): I was compelled, though very reluctantly, to give my consent to killing my dog, Rover. The flesh of a dog is very palatable, tasting something between mutton and pork.

Narrator: When Brunner’s party finally reached the West Coast they found no sign of Māori who they hoped might supply them with food. So they ate seaweed instead.

They then journeyed south where they finally obtained food from a Māori settlement.  Brunner spent the winter with its inhabitants before venturing further south in spring. However, near the Paringa River he injured an ankle.

Brunner (actor's voice): I turned my face homewards, first to rejoin my own natives, and then to endeavour once more to see the face of a white man and to hear my native tongue.

Narrator: A new route up the Grey River valley saw him discover coal, and he enjoyed the scenery.

Brunner (actor's voice): Some of the bends of this river are as beautiful, in my opinion, as nature can possibly make them. I was so pleased with the Grey River that I should not object to visit it again.

Narrator: Further on, Brunner came to the large lake that now bears his name. Then he eventually reached the Buller River. The journey up it once again became a struggle for survival. Then Brunner suffered a stroke. 

Brunner (actor's voice): I lost the entire use of my side, and in the morning I could not move.

Narrator: For a week, the faithful Kehu nursed him, the other guide and his wife having abandoned them.

Brunner (actor's voice): Although I could only stand on one leg, I resolved to try and proceed.

Narrator: Five weeks later, Brunner reached the house of a settler.

Brunner (actor's voice): So thank God, I am once more among civilized men.

Narrator: When he reached Motueka, in June 1848, Brunner had been away for 18 months, enduring terrible weather and starvation. Brunner died at Nelson in 1874 aged only 52. His funeral was attended by several hundred people, including a large Maori contingent. His guide Kehu was chief mourner.

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