Nick Atkinson near Dennistoun Pass, with Mt Shyness prominent (Photo: Finn Scholes)

In search of Erewhon: Notes from a Southern Alps adventure

Two musicians head for the hills to seek out peace, snowmelt swims and Samuel Butler’s fictional utopia, Erewhon.

Imagine a land where the unwell are treated like criminals. Perhaps now we don’t have to. Erewhon is such a place. Law breakers are tended and cared for while the sick are imprisoned. Machinery is outlawed and meat illicit. Samuel Butler’s utopian satire, first published almost 150 years ago, is especially compelling in these times, yet it has long held a fascination with local mountaineers who devour the opening chapters that read like a 19th-century adventure travelogue. Butler’s early years exploring the Southern Alps while carving out a living in Mesopotamia inspire the beginning of Erewhon. The region is now a high-country sheep station nestled in a grand hollow surrounded by mountains emerging from the Canterbury Plains. Butler’s opening passages provide an illuminating glimpse of a past when peaks and glaciers were unmapped and in many cases untrodden. Once Butler’s protagonist crosses the icy watershed and descends into Erewhon he finds a land drawn from the author’s fondness for northern Italy. This new realm feels like a hazy background landscape from a renaissance painting, all cultivated and charming. Yet our hero soon finds a society built on a different set of moral foundations.

I first read Erewhon while cycling across the Patagonian pampas in the late 90s. I’d packed 14 paperbacks for the two-month pedal from the southern tip of the continent to Santiago, halfway up Chile. Most of the books were Penguin classics collected cheaply at secondhand bookstores. Patagonia has much in common with Canterbury; indeed they would in places be hard to distinguish if uninhabited. To picture Patagonia one only needs to remember our own tussocky high country, the approaches to Aoraki dissected by long, milky green lakes backed by glaciated peaks topped with lenticular clouds. Beech forests heavy with moss clothe the west while dry windy plains spread east. Patagonia is a grander version of our Mackenzie country. The perfect place to drink in Erewhon as the tent fabric beat incessantly thanks to the endless dry nor’west wind blowing across the pampas.

Finn Scholes, noted trumpeter and Nick’s tramping companion, looking over Mesopotamia (Photo by Nick Atkinson)

Since then I’d wanted to visit Mesopotamia and see the site of Butler’s original mud-walled, tussock-thatched house, which is said to have still been standing at the beginning of the 20th century. Whatever became of the piano Butler brought in with horse and dray? My hope was to walk in to Mesopotamia after crossing the Alps from the west. The charm of this approach centres around the contrast between the west and eastern side of the main divide. You find two distinct worlds arguably inhabited by different people. The Coasters, living in an almost perpetual gloomy mist and drizzle are instantly recognisable, as are those who inhabit the bright breezy high country to the east. In spring the braided rivers weaving across these wide stony eastern valleys become difficult to ford as the winter snow begins to melt. We wanted a pass across the ranges that would drop us on the same side of the Rangitata River as Mesopotamia. This ruled out Whitcombe Pass, which Butler is thought to have visited, and nearby Butler Saddle. These spots will have to wait for another season. As Finn and I boarded our flight from Auckland to Christchurch dressed in our modest outdoor gear the steward asked if we were going home. It was an auspicious start to the journey.

The following day trumpeter extraordinaire Finn Scholes and I had our thumbs out near the roundabout on the main highway that runs through Hokitika. We were both wearing black tights. Finn sported wraparound shades. It was instructive to see how many folks were driving past with trailers full of coal for the range. Winter overhangs spring in the south. The peaks inland were still heavy with their blanket of melting snow. On the kerb it was hot. We took our sunglasses off before the cars went past. I’m not sure it helped.

Eventually we were dropped at the end of a short, grey dirt road on the banks of the Whataroa River. The steady rain now falling enhanced the feeling of entering another realm. The grand bending river, cloudy with glacial silt, rumbled past tall ancient rimu and moss-draped tōtara.

Five boggy and steamy hours later we arrived at Nolan Hut on the banks of the Perth River. Surprisingly this run-down relic of deer culling days possessed an occupant, a possum trapper taking time out from his pest control routine to catch a few more possums. He told us he wasn’t much at sewing, yet his first project was to be a possum fur coat. Distracted with these tales I boiled over Finn’s coffee and later the pasta. In the candle-lit gloom the young trapper’s eyes sparkled with kindly ambition as he imagined dazzling the West Coast locals dressed in his fur finery. We hung on his every word. Next morning the possum population was undiminished, but there were two fewer rats in the valley.

Sunrise found muscular forested peaks hung with kindly splashes of creamy mist. Like learning a new tune it’s best to start a day in the hills walking at a slow and steady pace, with the metronome set to a languid tempo. After a few hours you’ll be cooking along, treading lightly over the notes or river stones. Scone Hut was deserted, nestling at the confluence of rivers falling directly from the main divide. We lit the fire. Outside the water tank had a tap at hip height and you could wash both hands with ease. It seemed the height of luxury.

Finn looking for a descent into Bettison Stream (Photo: Nick Atkinson)

By morning our gear was almost dry. The sun smiled. Finn, a natural in the hills, set too hot a pace while climbing a spur. Halfway up and panting I had to insist on slowing down. We continued to ascend a rough track through the forest, eventually arriving at a seam of coarse scree and boulders that led to the tree line above Bettison Stream, a torrent that bounds down a steep-sided valley. From our craggy high point we descended cautiously to the riverbed, where the going became straightforward. Parched, we swam in a perfectly clear, icy pool, between bluffs seamed with quartz. As we dried off Finn spotted a small avalanche above our side of the valley. A rumble accompanied a small waterfall of snow pouring over a slab that was remote, yet almost above us. A handful of large boulders chased the snow over the ledge before describing a series of big lazy bounces downwards. They were headed in our general direction and we considered our options. Luckily they clattered down a gully we’d crossed not 10 minutes before, pounding into the river with fearful cracks, unseen, just downstream. Dust and spray hung in the air. Strangely, our first reaction was one of giggling gratitude at being able to witness such wild action at close quarters. We dressed and moved on.

Not long after, Finn spotted the perfect spot for a fly camp. Previous parties had constructed a low stone wall sheltering a flat sward of close-cropped grass, among scrub high in the Bettison Valley. Our brand new tent fly fit like a glove. We reclined, smoked, and were visited by bellbirds, then at dusk a pair of kea.

“We reclined, smoked, and were visited by bellbirds, then at dusk a pair of kea” (Photo: Nick Atkinson)

At dawn I lost my pocket knife, but couldn’t devote any time looking for it amongst the sub-alpine herbs and flowers. I was determined to get going smartly: we had to climb a long snow gully before the sun hit. We had a few hours up our sleeves, as our chute that led to the crest of the Main Divide was on the shady side of the slope. As the sun touched the cliffs and high snow fields of Mt Shyness across the valley, avalanches began to fall. Indeed they were the soundtrack to our fiddling and soft grunting as we fitted our crampons. Finn led up the snow gully with an easy rhythm. We had to keep an eye and ear out for discs of ice which were almost constantly buzzing past us thanks to the sun touching the rocks above our couloir.

Two hours later we reached the crest of the divide. Beautiful though it was, we were uneasy. It was bright but cold. We ate cheese and salami joylessly now, committed to teetering along a 200 metre ridge-line in softening snow, steep and exposed on both sides. Small avalanches continued to bark and hiss as sunlight softened heavy layers of snow. We climbed down off the ridge-crest one at a time, facing into the slope, kicking steps. We still had a broad slope to cross, seamed with avalanche trails. Once that was behind us we were out of the line of fire.

A selfie at Eric Stream after descending from Dennistoun Pass (Photo: Nick Atkinson)

Eric Stream below was full of deep, melting snow. As we worked our way down the high-sided valley I found a few holes and on a couple of occasions got stuck, sinking to my waist. Finn found this most amusing. He seemed to waft along almost floating above the snow, hardly ever breaking through. It was a relief to reach the snow-free river bed. Later we had a fine swim that refreshed us both. Down the bouldery stream we continued, eventually finding the rarely-visited hut on Agony Island. It was a beautiful position, the air clear and dry, a study of pale blues. This island is really a scrubby mound rising above a braided riverbed, surrounded on all sides by snow peaks. The “island” is clothed in picturesque dracophyllum and ferns, with a tiny red hut placed neatly on the summit. We’d been on the go for 10 hours, but now we were in clover, the dangers of the crossing behind us. We still had a good 40 kilometres to cover before arriving at Mesopotamia Station, but here we reclined, gazing on a landscape not far from Erewhon.

The view from Agony Island hut (Photo: Nick Atkinson)

During these longer trips Finn and I both notice our eyes gradually recovering from our almost constant screen time back home. The dull and subtle ache of your weary eyeballs disappears after a few days away from phones and laptops. You’re so used to it, you hardly notice the tired, slightly sore feeling until it’s gone, like the silence of our empty roads.

Samuel Butler found time to write while breaking in new land on the banks of the Rangitata. In 1863, under an alias, he wrote an article for the Christchurch paper The Press headlined Darwin Among The Machines. “The machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them; more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life.”

Like Butler, many who spend time in the mountains do so in the hope of experiencing what it may have felt like in a time before people stalked the earth. Curiously, some do so in their utes, which we now began to see in the braided riverbed with some frequency.

Lydia and Finn near the site of Samuel Butler’s house (Photo: Nick Atkinson)

We found ourselves footsore and windblown by the time we reached Mesopotamia, so named by Butler in 1860. We were a day early and we shared the Hunter’s Cottage with some well-mannered young rabbit shooters from Culverden. They had many questions about going out at night in the city. We did what we could to highlight the qualities of Karangahape Road. Thanks to their hospitality we tried both rabbit and hare. My partner Lydia Jenkin arrived the following day by road bringing wonderful fresh provisions and beer. For the following two days we explored the farm and the grand surrounding country. Nothing remains of Samuel Butler’s house but a small grassy pile next to the farm’s school. Since his time the shelter belts have grown thick and tall. Now the farm houses sit peacefully nestled amongst giant conifers and birches while an almost perpetual wind blows dust down the valley.

The weather had broken and the river was high and turbid. While sun shone on the warm tussock of Mesopotamia the main divide was hidden in storm clouds. In the following weeks the Rangitata continued to rise, eventually cutting the highway south for several days while Australian bushfire smoke turned the sun red. Finn and I felt lucky to have made the trip while the peaks still wore their winter snows. Now we wait hopefully for the doors of another mountain season to swing open once more.



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