Jody Clarke: An Irishman’s Diary about a trailblazing Tipperary man

‘A doctor’s son, Caples left Hollyford in Tipperary for Australia before heading for New Zealand in 1860 and the promise of gold’

Patrick Caples eventually set off  to prospect from the head of Lake Wakatipu, which curls like a capital letter N around Queenstown. Photograph:  Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Patrick Caples eventually set off to prospect from the head of Lake Wakatipu, which curls like a capital letter N around Queenstown. Photograph: Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

 

Turn anywhere in Queenstown, New Zealand, and you find yourself looking up . . . high along the ice-sculpted valleys and out to the west, where the snow-covered Southern Alps burn brightly in permanent winter.

Getting to the other side of New Zealand’s famous fjords is a five-hour drive. Alternatively, you can book well ahead and get a rare ticket to walk in the footsteps of the Irishman who popularised the Routeburn Track, which was the only way over the Southern Alps for decades.

We got lucky with a cancellation, packing our rucksacks with a second-hand saucepan and teabags. The New Zealand department of conservation provides huts with gas stoves, which left us with the single dilemma of ravioli or risotto for the three days it would take us to make our way over it.

Patrick Caples, regrettably, was not so fortunate, running out of food and surviving on rats as he made his way west in 1863.

A doctor’s son, Caples left Hollyford in Tipperary for Australia before heading for New Zealand in 1860 and the promise of gold. Elected to the local mining board, he eventually set off as their representative to prospect from the head of Lake Wakatipu, which curls like a capital letter N around Queenstown.

Maori had traversed the area for centuries in search of their precious pounamu, a green jade stone you can pick up in any good tourist shop. But the new Europeans were more interested in finding a way to export their newly found wealth.

Determined to sketch a route to potential ports from where they could export gold, Caples became the first European to follow the ancient routes of pounamu collectors to the west coast.

Honest explorer

His reports back to the mining board make him out to be a single-minded if honest explorer, admitting his fear of hiking alone but nevertheless setting out by himself on January 3rd, when he detached himself from a group of fellow prospectors.

By January 24th he started crossing the “glacier mountains, without gun or map”, soon making it “to a lake on the mountains surrounded by glaciers”, which he selflessly called Lake Harris after a local official.

The short strip of land that flanks the pass from the valleys in the west to the east became the Harris Saddle, which now sits across two national Parks; Fiordland in the west and Mount Aspiring in the East.

Jagged mountain tops soar up and around a wild canvas of deep glacial valleys and restful, silver lakes, which wink back at the long white clouds of the Southern skyline just as they did 170 years ago.

Caples was not taken to hyperbole, it would seem, simply saying it had “a magnificent appearance.”

The low, rolling valleys of the Golden Vale can have that effect on people, I suppose.

‘ Lord of the Rings’

Caples continued downhill to what became the Routeburn, Greenstone and Hollyford valleys, which he named for his home town in Ireland. But despite finding just “specks” of gold, his real legacy is in the way he picked through the mountain.

“The routes I took and the landmarks seen may lessen the labors of any prospector going in that direction.”

It wasn’t prospectors that followed however, but tourists, who have wandered this trail since the 1880s. Routeburn has gone on to inspire New Zealand’s other “Great Walks”, as they’re called, which for ease of reference can be spotted in any one of the Lord of the Rings films. Milford (fanghorn forest) and Kepler (pretty aerial shots in The Fellowship of the Ring) are both nearby.

Caples became a successful businessman, managing quartz mines on the South Island and getting elected to the local district board.

He died in the small west coast town of Reefton in November 1904, with his name living on in the many trails and creeks that bear his name, not to mention a town too. But perhaps his greatest legacy might be to inspire his own home town of the importance of walking trails.

Hollyford is a stop-off on the long-planned Beara Breifne Way, which winds its way north for 550km from the Beara Peninsula in Cork.

Just as their native son set off a new history for the land of the Long White Cloud, they can be certain that they are on the cusp of starting something historic too.