Thursday, 13 September 2018

William O'Leary - "Arawata Bill"

An interesting letter received by a Wanaka resident from "Arawata Bill," the Alpine hermit and prospector, is as follows: 

Mr _____ 
               Cant leave prospecting. Not making much headway yet verry hard verry cold don no good yet. Malcolm is leaving and they want me back wont go cant leave yet but might have to go soon will slack as long as i can there is 40 miles of nickle country and a good mine will be goot the ore can be goot in several creeks. there is a great Power stand head of Grassy flat the fall is 70 feet about 30 heads going over, i shoed Malcolm it he said it is eaquel to any fall in holiford river, there is some good asbestos in country behind it will get some for you later on am going down the coast to vesit a Greenstone lode that i yesited twenty years ago i want to sea it again as it has been hunted for for along time cant go with turner as i have some high country to look that i think a lot of might get the rubies yet am close to them I got Parsall all right i would like to have a young strong man for a mate, to heavy carrying for one nearly nocked out living on White Baite just now soon be right some fine trout here but no pipies for Bait. Bar blocked Malcolm lost his old horse cockie and his flour bag was torn to pieces by his black dog. 
Yours truly, 
                Wm. O'Leary,
                                       Arawata Bill,
nearly nocked out. must try and get a mate to much to carry for one.
-Cromwell Argus, 1/10/1928.

What makes someone a legend in their own lifetime?  I think that a good story, made better through creative repetition, expands a reputation into something marvelous.  William O'Leary's story needed little embellishment to become legendary and a sequence of poems by Denis Glover published six years after Bill's death secured his place in New Zealand folklore.

It would not be too strong a claim to say that William O'Leary was born with gold fever.  It would make sense for him, having been born at the height of the Otago rush at Wetherstones in 1865.  His father had chased the gold from Prince Edward Island in Canada to Otago and married his mother at Lawrence in 1861.

Young William wasn't an enthusiastic scholar and spent a lot of school time out of school.  He left the Lawrence area to work on farms in the Maniototo area before beginning his life in the South Westland area, prospecting around the ill-fated town at Martins Bay.  In 1912 he took the job as ferryman on the Waitoto River, south of Haast, and was well-liked there.  It was then that he took on his nick-name.  After 16 years he resigned as ferryman and began his time prospecting up the Arawata and further afield.

Three things are said to have ruled his life - gold on the Arawata, finding a lost ruby mine and a pirate's treasure.  The gold might have been the nugget found by a mate on the Shotover which he later "found" in the Arawata as a practical joke in front of Bill.  The ruby mine was one that Bill claimed to have found though he is not known to have brought a bag of rubies out to be sold anywhere.  The pirate's gold was a story right out of pirate fiction: 

Arawata Bill and the Gold. 

The story of an old prospector's lifelong search for a cache of gold said to be worth £30,000 is told in the magazine "Touring." The gold, packed in a seaboot, was hidden somewhere in a river's mouth on the West Coast of the South Island by a party from Australia about sixty years ago. The locality is believed to be either the Arawata or the Cascade Rivers, to the north of Milford Sound, and William O'Leary, better known as Arawata Bill, is still searching for it and confident that he will eventually succeed. The secret of the cache was revealed to an old prospector by a man who had wandered, starving and exhausted, into a South Island township, and who had been hurried to hospital, where a vain effort was made to nurse him back to health. His story was that, along with another man, he had been landed from a ship which had sailed from Australia to "plant" the stolen gold. This they did, but, thinking to outwit the rest of the ship's company, they hid in the bush. Finally the ship sailed, and they were abandoned in wild, inhospitable country, where the second man died. No definite information as to the whereabouts of the gold was left, but Arawata Bill is convinced it is still somewhere near the mouth of the Arawata River. He once discovered a fragment of a letter written in 187—-, the last figure too indistinct to decipher, and evidently he still hopes to find the treasure. Thin, wiry, active, with the stump of a grey beard projecting defiantly from his chin, he is known over a wide area of Southland. Last year a party of trampers who were lost in the bush found refuge in his slab shed, where they managed to exist until rescued by aeroplane. -Evening Post, 4/10/1934.

Hocken Library photo.

In the years between the World Wars, recreational tramping took off in New Zealand and Bill was often encountered by trampers in "his" territory.  Although sometimes portrayed as a hermit, he was usually sociable.  His story became legend at around this time, with climbers pioneering new routes in the mountains often finding blazes and cairns to show that someone - most probably Bill - had been there before them, and equipped not with specialised climbing gear but cutting steps in the snow with the pick-axe he used for prospecting..  For years after he left the area people were finding his camps and signs.

Bill retired in his 70s to Queenstown, still making the occasional prospecting trip.  In 1940 he travelled to Wellington for the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition.  He stayed with a sister as was reportedly fascinated by the electric lights in her house.  In 1943 he moved to a home for the aged in Dunedin.  The confined, institutional life was not for Bill but he was faltering in mind and body.  He made several attempts to return to his mountains but wasn't able to get far.  He died in Dunedin Hospital in 1947, aged 82.  In 1953, Bill's legend was brought to the public in a series of poems by Denis Glover, full of "the endless human search for the unattainable."  Around campfires and in mountain huts his story grew with the retelling.

Ten years after his death, a public appeal organised by the Southland Tramping Club raised enough money for the headstone on Bill's Grave.  Money arrived from many places and many people who had known, worked with and met William O'Leary.  It was suggested that the stone come from the Arawata but a cheaper alternative from Bluff was agreed upon.

Andersons Bay Cemetery

...The lowest point in this part of the Dart Barrier Range, O’Leary Pass, is a place of interest to all those familiar with the exploits of the celebrated “Arawata Bill.” Repulsed again on his most recent attempt, it is now some years since this plucky veteran has reached his happy hunting ground, the Joe River, by this route. Our respect for William O’Leary increases when we realise that he attempts, with no more formidable equipment than a long-handled shovel, a pass in which the rock ledges have baffled those alpinists who have been curious enough to investigate them. Undaunted by recent failures, "Arawata” intends to try again next season!  -Otago Daily Times, 17/9/1938. (excerpt)

McArthur’s Flat, Arawata River, would have seemed a pleasant enough spot if our sojourn there had not been due to bad weather. As it was we were held up for four days by northwest rain, while, even if we could have forded the swollen river, there would have been little point in pushing up to a high camp while conditions militated against climbing. The swirling sound of the river, characteristically yet indefineably altered when rain is about, the patter of rain on the tent fly and the sizzling response from the camp fire — these no doubt contributed, in such a place, to the obscure atmosphere of loneliness which the plaintive cry of the ever-suspicious Paradise ducks seems only to augment In between the heavier showers we collected firewood and explored the mile-long river flat looking for fords to attempt when the weather should moderate. 
For the several months which had gone to the planning of the expedition, the prospect of fording the Arawata River had seemed the crucial point upon which our subsequent success or failure might depend. It seemed desirable to ford the Arawata and Williamson Rivers separately near their confluence at the southern end of the flat, but the larger of the two flowed past at this point as a constricted, angry torrent which proved quite impassable. Despite the greater volume of water involved, there was nothing for it but to find a ford below the confluence and, after several attempted crossings, we found one safe enough to suit our purpose. Using a stout log we kept our feet on the bottom for two-thirds of the way across before the depth forced a recourse to swimming. We seemed to be making little progress, but did not in reality lose much ground before the torrent cast us up contemptuously on the shingle of the opposite bank, an exultant sodden trio shamelessly exuberant in our mutual felicitations. A ludicrous touch was added by the sight of a bedraggled cigarette butt hanging from the lips of one member of the party; the hero of the crossing, superior to the exigencies of strenuous effort and some excitement, it had somehow managed to survive. 
On the far side of the flat we took to the bush for a short distance, where the river swept in towards the wall of the valley. Well above the river, on a ledge overhung by a protecting rock outcrop, we stumbled upon an old camp site which, from our knowledge of similar camps in other valleys, we could identify with certainty as that of “Arawata Bill.” The choice of camp site was characteristic of the man. There were a few charred logs, old tent poles, an adze with a broken handle, and under a rock we unearthed an old bucket and a heavy camp oven. The oven contained a tin of rusty nails and staples, candles and a rusty saw. Rabbit traps and strangest of all, two large pieces of home-made soap completed this odd assortment, pathetic mementoes of the inveterate potterer. Elsewhere on McArthur’s Flat we had come across a 20-yard patch of good English cocksfoot oddly out of place in a valley innocent of other introduced plants. We had heard previously that it was one of “Arawata Bill’s" idiosyncrasies to include cocksfoot seed among the assorted stores of food and equipment which he relayed into the remote valleys, and to sow it about for reasons known only to himself. 
The sight of that camp oven in such an inaccessible place spoke volumes for the patience and endurance of the man who had swagged such an object up the “10-hour gorge” — a gorge referred to by Charles Douglas, the explorer, as one of the worst on the West Coast. Although he acquired the nickname “Arawata Bill” through the fact that he was for many years ferryman at the mouth of the Arawata River, William O’Leary has spent many a lonely season blazing trails and prospecting the Upper Arawata and the association of the name of this picturesque old prospector now living in retirement at Queenstown has in the public mind, endowed the Arawata Valley with an intangible air of mystery and adventure. 
Our plan in climbing and mapping the Northern Olivine Range consisted in taking a week’s supplies to a high camp at the head of a hanging valley flowing into the Arawata. From this we were to work south to link up with our work of the previous season and then climb the peaks to the north, shifting the high camp as occasion should demand. We left the valley by a long spur leading up from the head of the “10-hour gorge." Viewed from further up the valley, this ridge appeared to be long and gently sloping; this in itself was true enough, but we were soon disillusioned as to the supposed ease of travelling. As is the case in other parts of the Arawata Valley the basic rock formation consisted of huge tree and moss-covered boulders, many of them as big as a two-storeyed house and often separated by deep fissures and caves. West Coast undergrowth at its worst made progress slow, and we seemed to be climbing bluff after bluff only to descend again and push through more vines before tackling the next obstacle. Our packs were light enough, but we had been travelling for seven hours before we approached the upper limit of the bush, and, although close to the snowgrass, we could make no further progress towards it. One peculiar block formation was still present at this height, and the huge masses, now packed more closely together, were separated by clefts over which no amount of reconnoitring could discover a route. It became necessary to retrace our steps and descend off the main spur before we eventually emerged from the bush. 
We camped at dusk that night after a long search which eventually discovered one of the few tarns on the spur, and in perfect weather the next morning descended into a hanging valley which ran well back into the range and ended in a cirque which we hoped would offer a pass to the Cascade, a river running from the western side of the Olivine Range. At noon stores and gear were left at the head of the valley, and we continued on to spend the rest of the day in reconnaissance. We had seen this cirque from the slopes of the Dart Barrier Range some days before, and since then we had been speculating as to whether its steep glaciated walls would offer any break for a route to the neighbouring peaks. Fortunately, we found a couloir which, although broken, on account of the mild season, took us on to the saddle overlooking the Cascade Valley. A brief inspection showed us that this discovery would offer an easy pass from the Arawata to the Cascade River, and we then continued round snowfields to a col between the head of the cirque we had just left and that of the Shelf Glacier further to the south.  -Otago Daily Times, 15/6/1940. (excerpt)

Lake County Mail

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