Farming dreams lost to gold


European settlers first set their eyes on Lake Wakatipu in the 1850s, in the search for new land to farm. It was William Rees who first claimed what we now call Queenstown for his sheep - until he was booted out by goldminers. Louise Scott explores

William Rees described the Wakatipu Basin as one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, but his journey was anything but pleasant.

He wasn’t a fan of matagouri bushes and, according to records, was covered in blood after walking through what is now known as Speargrass Flat. His attire was no match for the spiky native bushes.

Lakes District Museum boss David Clarke says Rees left Dunedin in 1860 with Nicholas von Tunzelmann and a small party of men, searching for pastoral land. While many Europeans settled on the coast, the wilds of NZ and the interior remained largely unexplored.

They journeyed up the Waitaki Valley and reached the tiny settlement at Lake Wanaka Station, before tackling the Crown Range.

Clarke: “They struck up Cardy Valley and after a couple of days on the road got themselves stuck in Cardrona Gorge, surrounded by mountains. They couldn’t get up over them so everyone returned to Wanaka except Rees and Von Tunzelmann.

“They took a different route, got to a high point, and saw the Wakatipu Basin spread out below them. They realised it would be a suitable area for them to graze sheep.”

After going a smidge further, the pair reached Queenstown Bay, made a raft and explored the head of the lake, finding more grazing land.

Clarke says the process of claiming land was pretty straightforward. You just applied to the Crown and it was leased for grazing.

Once granted, Rees built a rudimentary camp, including wooden buildings, a homestead and had a grazing area for about 3000 sheep. His initial woolshed was beside Horne Creek, near today’s posh hotel, Eichardt’s.

Clarke: “They used what was available to them. It was pretty intrepid to be able to get timber and get something established.”

Rees’ wife joined him and a couple of staffers were brought in. A cook and builder were charged with getting a vege garden sorted, planting spuds and making dorm-type accommodation for shepherds and shearers.

The wood was probably taken from pockets of beech trees near One Mile, Clarke says.

He reckons Queenstown would have been pretty barren and isolated.

Everything had to be brought in from Dunedin at a time when there were no roads. It meant diets were pretty rubbish - mutton and damper, a scone-type thing made out of bread and water.

Stock also had to be mustered, which proved difficult. Rees did a couple of burn-offs to make it easier to drive sheep through bracken-filled hills.

On one journey shepherds had to kill 300 new-born lambs as they wouldn’t have survived. Despite efforts to get his house in order, Rees’ claim on the Wakatipu Basin was short-lived.

Goldminers were making their way south and an accidental find by one of Rees’ employees, Jack Tewa, set tongues wagging.

As miners started to arrive, Rees faced a dilemma. He tried to expand his farm but felt responsible for keeping the miners alive.

Clarke: “They arrived here and it was so isolated. There were no stores – he [Rees] was serving out flour with a gun to control things.”

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. In late 1862, Rees was paid out and booted out.

He got 10,000 from the government and told his farm was now a goldfield. Rees relocated to Frankton, near today’s Hilton Hotel.

Author Richard Thomas, who is writing a novel based on Rees’ story, says it’s a tragedy his dream was lost to gold.

“He believed he had found ‘the promised land’ – a place to make a pure and healthy life for himself and his family,” Thomas says by email from Wales.

“The discovery of gold in the Arrow River in 1862 quickly saw that dream shattered. Within weeks gold hunters from all over the Empire were flooding into the Wakatipu Basin.

“Records show barely two years after Rees had established his paradise the area had become overrun with gold prospectors, traders, grog-sellers and prostitutes.”

Efforts to maintain his claim were ignored. Thomas says he struggled on for a few years but in 1867 he left, never to return to the town he founded.

Where We Come From is a Mountain Scene series exploring the history of the Wakatipu, with help from Lakes District Museum