South Canterbury: What Butler saw

By Fergus Blakiston

Far from the beaten track is a land where the wind is master, writes Fergus Blakiston.
A view of the Upper Rangitata Basin in South Canterbury. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Phillip Capper
A view of the Upper Rangitata Basin in South Canterbury. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Phillip Capper

I am there now, as I write; I fancy that I can see the downs, the huts, the plain, and the river-bed - that torrent pathway of desolation, with its distant roar of waters.

- Samuel Butler

Beyond Peel Forest the tarmac road gives way to rutted gravel. Bushy snow tussocks tremble in the nor'west wind; herds of farmed deer graze behind fences along the roadside. Undulating gently between low hummocky foothills, the road crosses mountain streams which leap downhill in deep ravines. The gradient increases as it climbs a long narrow valley overlooked by muscular hills.

Below the road the hillside falls away steeply until it is lost in shadow. Somewhere down there, hemmed by black bluffs, the Rangitata River is roaring, invisible in its deep gorge where the warmth of the sun won't touch it until mid-morning.

The Rangitata rises in a hidden valley called The Garden of Eden, high in the Southern Alps.

Melting glaciers feed the river as it descends from the mountains in a vast U-shaped valley gouged during the last ice age.

Enlarged by tributaries the river gathers momentum before surging into the confines of the Rangitata Gorge. The gorge squeezes the river into a series of cataclysmic rapids before pouring out across the Canterbury Plains to the sea.

At White Rock Station the landscape suddenly bursts wide open, like a page in a picturebook flipped over. The Upper Rangitata Valley lies before me, stretching deep inland towards a skyline of jagged mountains.

It was into this valley that a young Englishman, Samuel Butler, rode in 1860. Butler had taken classics at Cambridge two years before and had spent the intervening time quarrelling with his father. He wanted to paint but his father hoped for his son's ordination. Emigration to New Zealand offered an attractive escape.

Seeking land suitable for grazing sheep, Butler began exploring deep into the mountains. He found a huge, hitherto uncharted valley and established a sheep station there which he named Mesopotamia.

Butler farmed Mesopotamia for four years, battling floods, snow and isolation. He built a cob homestead in the wilderness and amused himself by playing Bach fugues on his piano.

In 1864 he sold the run and, having doubled his money, left New Zealand never to return. But he used his experiences at Mesopotamia as the basis for his novel Erewhon (an anagram of "nowhere"), in which he satirised the morals of Victorian society and prophesied that machines would one day dominate the world.

The wind is master of the valley. Around the homestead at Rata Peaks Station, trees lie where they have been uprooted by a past storm. Pencil-thin Lombardy poplars lean against the wind.

Further on, the timber and tin buildings of Ben McLeod Station stand slump-sided and sway-backed from years of constant buffeting. Dust blows in eddies around the sheep yards; from a ramshackle outhouse, tendrils of toilet paper flap in the wind. Scudding clouds flee across the sky. It is a raw, elemental landscape, full of the energy and change.

At Forest Creek a wooden bridge spans a stream of crystal-clear water. Fine-woolled merino sheep mooch in a paddock beside the creek. As the car bumps across the uneven planks of the bridge I feel as if I am entering Butler's kingdom: the fabled world of Erewhon.

Beyond Forest Creek a cattle grid marks the entrance to Mesopotamia Station. I have reached the end of the road. Across the river lies the gloomy, storm-wracked peaks of the Cloudy Range and, further back, the Southern Alps.

It was behind these ranges that Butler placed the fictional country of Erewhon; 140 years later, the same peaks formed the skyline of Edoras during the filming of The Lord of the Rings.

In a sun-dappled clearing, surrounded by golden poplars and birches, lie the remains of Butler's cob cottage, now just a grassy mound beside the Mesopotamia School. Closed now, the school once catered for all the primary school children in the valley.

The nor'wester is gathering strength. Rafts of cloud snag the summits of the Two Thumb Range and the first spits of rain begin falling. Watching the weather change through one of the school's windows I imagine Samuel Butler playing his piano in his house in the wilderness.

Near the remains of his cottage a satellite dish points skywards from the roof of the shepherd's quarters; a quadbike and a four-wheel-drive stand in the driveway. Butler's prophesy of a world governed by technology has come to pass even in this lonely corner of the mountains.

Yet for all the technological advances since Butler's time it is still the elements that have the final word.

As I drive out the gate, past an abandoned dray and a rusted plough, the storm breaks. A grey veil of rain descends on the valley at the end of the road to nowhere.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Rangitata is at the base of the Southern Alps, about a one-and-a-half-hour drive southwest from Christchurch.

Fergus Blakiston won the Westpac award for the best travel story under 1000 words at the Travcom New Zealand Travel Writers Awards for his piece 'Mirage of Heat and Emptiness' which was published in Herald Travel last November. His piece 'Lonely Under the Sky', which was published in Herald Travel last June, was the runner-up.

- NZ Herald

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