‘Progress … was really painful’

Welshman William Gilbert Rees (1827-1898) was one of the first Europeans to arrive in the Queenstown Lakes area, searching for pastoral land to realise his dream of being a runholder.

He’d set out with five others from Dunedin in 1860, the party making it through the harsh landscape via Omarama, Lindis and Wanaka. It was a tough journey and by the time the party made it to Cardrona, there were only two men left; Rees and Nicholas von Tunzelmann, said to have been a godson of the Tsar.

There’s a quote from Rees used as a piece of art in Queenstown Gardens: “No fires had cleared the country … progress was not only fatiguing, but really painful, speargrass often more than three feet high and masses of matagouri constantly impeded us…”

Speargrass, or Spaniard, in the Lewis Pass area. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The next part of that quote, not used in the art work, shows just how dedicated Rees and von Tunzlemann were. “Our trousers from the thighs downwards were filled with blood and it was with the greatest difficulty that our poor horses and pack mule could be urged forward.”

Every part of the speargrass is sharp, including the flowers armed with needles! Read more about Aciphylla in an earlier posting. Matagouri is also well armed – the thorns were sometimes used by Maori for tattooing.

After exploring the area for three weeks, the pair took the arduous journey back to Dunedin and lodged a claim for grazing rights.

The Experience Queenstown website uses this quote from King Wakatip by G J Griffiths (1971): “One of the first white men to reach Lake Wakatipu and the founder of what has become the beautiful tourist resort of Queenstown, [Rees] is remembered particularly for his dominant personality at the time of the gold rushes. The picture most New Zealanders have of him is a big bearded run holder, holding off hungry miners with a loaded revolver as he carefully rationed out inadequate supplies of precious flour.”

William Gilbert Rees and a merino stand by the water front in Queenstown. The sculptor is Minhal al-Halabi. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Unfortunately, his dreams of a high-country farm were shortlived as in 1862 gold was discovered in the Arrow River – and Rees found himself at the centre of a rush, even his homestead was declared an official goldfield.

In the early days of the rush Rees was the only source of food for miners around Lake Wakatipu. With a flock of sheep and the Undine, the first boat of any size on the lake, Rees could bring flour and other supplies from the south end of the lake. He was – for a few vital weeks – able to prevent starvation for many miners.

In 1864 he was awarded £10,000 as remuneration for the loss of his 240,000-acre farm and in 1867 moved away from the area.

As a by the by, Rees was an early New Zealand exponent of cricket, having been born into the Grace family and having as a cousin, English cricketing legend W. G. Grace. Rees appeared in one first-class match for New South Wales in 1857; his cousin William Lee Rees played for Victoria in the same match.

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