Mount Hobson's Scroll of Fame
by John Mowbray
 

While Liz Westbrooke was doing research in the Auckland Public Library she came across this article in the 1931 New Zealand Observer. The lyrical descriptions of the Mount Hobson environment and the inside-look into attitudes of the day provide a snapshot of bygone times.

The dominating peak of the confused mass of spurs and ridges which breaks up the whole of the surface of the Great Barrier Island is Mount Hobson, a weathered summit over 2000 feet in height.

My first attempt on Mount Hobson – which from the point of view of the serious climber would not be considered a very notable mountaineering achievement – was made when the timber workings of the Kaiarara (sic) Valley, by which the summit is reached from Port FitzRoy, were in full blast. Yet even then the former glory of the forests had largely departed.

Earlier activities, conducted on a grand scale by the Kauri Timber Company from its bases on the Whangaparapara side, had swept the lower slopes almost clear of standing timber. The K.T.C. with its 12,000 acre concession, had been in possession for many years, and mention of its magic name still evoked among Barrier residents the most reverent recollections of the days when that notable camp, “the Drum” so named after a massive excrescence on the flanks of Mt Hobson, was in its hey-day, and prosperity and the K.T.C. ruled the fortunes of the Great Barrier with a lavish hand.

TO TIDE WATER

FROM Raroharo Bay at “FitzRoy” we rowed round to the mouth of the Kaiarara in the cool of one of the mornings which seem full of glorious promise for the afternoon. Alas for our fond anticipations! Even the upper air bore faintly-trailing wreathes of cloud which a few hours later were to descend like a blanket on our goal.

But even if that excursion did not bring the fulfilment of an ambition to climb Mount Hobson, it at least gave a practical insight into that most interesting of the timber-getter’s arts, the utilisation of a running stream to get the timber to tidal water.

Ultimately the path reached an abrupt escarpment perhaps 100 feet high. Climbing up the goat-track which zig-zagged across this face was by no means pleasant for the uninitiated. Above lay a reasonably level piece of ground, in which the encampments of the timber-workers, and their fowl runs, pig-sties, tool-sheds and dining hall – for this was a semi-permanent “township” – were scattered among noble kauris.

From a hogs-head at the door of the dining hall the cook – a jovial fellow who confessed that he had lately “blued” his entire earnings for the past year at a race meeting in Ellerslie – poured us out a draught of home-made beer, heady stuff that fired our ambitions, lent new zest to fatigued muscles, and set us hot-foot up the narrowing path to complete the conquest of the mountain.

FANTASTIC HEIGHTS

Presently the valley forked. The steep path was hemmed between ridges of rock sculptured by wind and rain into queer and fantastic pinnacles. Meanwhile the weather, that had seemed so promising, began to thicken, and soon large drops of rain began to fall.

By the time No. 2 dam came into sight, the pace and the grade were beginning to tell. No. 3 dam, a little further ahead, marked the end of the path. We crawled across the top stringer of the dam, and from an open space looked about us for a route to the summit.

By this time the summit was blotted out. Rain was falling in a soft steady downpour. Occasionally the wisps of mist parted, to show us an angular abutment that seemed almost directly over our heads. Perched on that abutment we would see a cross that looked uncommonly like a rude trig. But before we could locate it the mists would come down again.

So, we set off by the most obvious route, a line of log skids down which the kauri boles had been consigned to the dam from the upper slopes. When the skids petered out we were left hanging to a steep face in almost impenetrable bush, that shed water on us in so many bucketfuls that a unanimous sigh from all three members of the party quickly brought us to the one possible conclusion. It were far better to acknowledge defeat than to spend the afternoon and possibly the evening exploring a kauri forest and looking for Mt Hobson. Every item in our environment, from our saturated boots to the rain clouds, seemed to say “Beat it” and we did; back to the Dams Nos. 3, 2 and 1, in that sequence; the cook, and the beer, and back to the boat in Kaiaraara Bay. And that, as far as I was concerned, was the end of Mount Hobson for some time.

PROMISE – AND ILLUSION

Two years later I tried again. From Raroharo Bay at Port FitzRoy we rowed round to the mouth of the Kaiaraara in the cool of one of those mornings which seem full of glorious promise for the afternoon. And this time the promise held true.

There was another promise I had made. Without it I should never have lured my two companions on this occasion into anything so unconventional and energetic as an attempt to scale Mount Hobson. This second promise had to do with the cook at the timber camp, and his beer.

But as soon as we entered the pathway through the manuka trees, and I saw what had happened to the Kaiaraara stream, doubts began to assail me. The banks of the stream had been torn and mutilated. Its bed was four or five times its former width. The trim little shingle bars of two years earlier had been lacerated or swept out of existence. In their place lay enormous yellow boulders. It gradually dawned on me that this was what happened when the timber men carried out their flooding operations to get the kauri to the sea.

The defacement of that valley was complete. One realised that it was inevitable. But never again will the Kaiaraara be what it was.

The clumps of kauri that I remembered were gone. There were dead branches and leaves among the undergrowth, and here and there a young or withered tree. But the plumes that decked the skyline were no more.

The hospitable cook, and all those he had fed save one stray fowl and a sheep that was trailing its unkempt fleece through the bracken – they, too, had gone. So also had the beer. The hogshead was still outside the door, but of home brew there was none. It was the unkindest cut of all.

We sat in the dining hall, roofless now, for the roofing material had been taken away, though the kauri rafters were left there to rot, and studied the litter that timber contractors leave behind them. Bottles were there a-plenty. They must have had a farewell party up there in the Kaiarara before they left, and our sympathetic eyes even alighted on some familiar labels, bearing the magic name of one Charles Heidseick, Rheims. The tastes of bushmen are by no means as simple as people imagine, we thought, as we set off again up the track; and I remembered that when there before I had seen a modern calculating machine in that sylvan setting.

THE SCROLL OF FAME

This time we reached the top of Mount Hobson. We forced our way up the last face, through “cutty grass” and the stunted trees that guard the rocky platform at the summit of the mountain, and added our names to the many already enshrined there in a whiskey bottle under the trig. There had been many there before us. City dentists, stock brokers, telegraphists, reporters, architects, and others of unknown denomination, had all inscribed themselves triumphantly on Mount Hobson’s scroll of fame.

The smoke of an outward-bound liner lay like a smudge beside distant Cuvier Island. There was the glimmering of a waterfall on the slopes of the Coromandel Peninsula. Rangitoto’s cloven summit beckoned to us like a friend, and all around us we could see the indented coast of the Barrier, its harbours like mirrors at our feet.

Even from its satellites, the Drum, the Sisters and those many other freakish crags which stand sentinel upon its slopes, Mount Hobson maintains a charming aloofness.

It is something to have climbed Mount Hobson, to have admired the view, and to have placed one’s name in exclusive company inside a whiskey bottle. That was in 1929. I wonder how many have been added since then.