The exploits of the stoic and determined Thomas Brunner in the north and west of the South Island between 1846 and 1848 were the greatest single piece of overland exploration in New Zealand’s European history.
Brunner was born in Oxford in 1821. In 1841 his father signed him on as an apprentice surveyor with the New Zealand Company. That September he arrived at Port Nicholson (Wellington) with the 77-strong advance party for the Nelson settlement. This reached Nelson Haven in November, and for the next two years Brunner helped lay out Nelson’s sections and roads.
Nelson lacked extensive lands for pastoral farming. The Wairau incident of 1843 seemed to rule out expansion to the east. After a fruitless attempt to discover the great plains that were said to exist inland, Brunner explored further to the west and south. He joined forces on a number of expeditions with Charles Heaphy, William Fox, and Kehu of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri.
Brunner began his greatest journey on 11 December 1846. He was determined to trace the Buller River to the sea, traverse the West Coast as far south as Milford Sound, and find a pass across the Southern Alps. Despite continual storms and floods, Brunner’s party negotiated the Buller River gorges and headed south down the West Coast. Starved of fresh supplies, they were forced to eat Brunner’s dog to survive.
Early in 1848 Brunner began his return journey to Nelson via the Grey and Īnangahua valleys. In the upper Buller Gorge he suffered a stroke which left him paralysed on one side, but with the aid of Kehu he reached Nelson again in June 1848. Brunner received an award from the Royal Geographical Society in 1850 for this expedition, but ill health limited his ability to undertake further strenuous journeys.
Adapted by Matthew Tonks from the DNZB biography by Philip Temple