A sentimental journey confirms nothing stays the same

Tourists motoring to Mt Cook in 1908 take a break at the old Burkes Pass Hotel. PHOTO: WEEKLY NEWS
Tourists motoring to Mt Cook in 1908 take a break at the old Burkes Pass Hotel. PHOTO: WEEKLY NEWS
If reading about people retracing their youth in sentimental journeys upsets you, then look away now. (There’s a real travel page elsewhere in the paper).

I refuse to travel north of Ashburton so my tale is of South Canterbury in the 1960s. In those days a bunch of broadcasters from the Timaru radio station would make regular trips "up the road" on their days off. I was the youngster among them and had my first taste of the attraction of small country towns which explains why I’ve now ended up in one of the smallest.

"Up the road" meant heading west towards the Mackenzie Country with refreshment stops at Cave, Albury, Fairlie and Kimbell. I could do a chapter on each of those places: for now let’s ponder our final stopping place, Burkes Pass. There was a shop and a church, of course, but the pub was the main event.

Russell Kingsbury was the genial host and, learning of my interest in history, presented me with a booklet written by previous publican Jeannie Jamieson. I have it still.

John Burgess opened the pub at Cabbage Tree Creek, Burkes Pass, in 1861, the first to be licensed in the Mackenzie Country. A regular a few years later was noted surveyor and draughtsman Edmund Norman. He was a boundary rider at nearby Haldon Station before trying his luck goldmining in Central Otago. He was soon back in the Mackenzie Country at Sawdon Station, up the steep "long cutting" from Burkes Pass.

In June 1875, after two days at the pub, Norman set off back to the station. It was freezing and he never reached home. His body was found the next day at the foot of the cutting, a book and a half-full bottle of whisky beside him.

His landscapes are often found in history books and, although he was buried in the Burkes Pass cemetery, there should really be some sort of memorial to him in the township as well.

An Edmund Norman view of the Mackenzie Country in 1872. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
An Edmund Norman view of the Mackenzie Country in 1872. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Burgess was obliged to provide four beds for travellers and yards to hold 50 cattle and 2000 sheep. His pub was little changed 100 years later, although when I stayed one night I was assured the bed was not one of the original four. 

The bar (at the left in the picture) was just as a country pub bar should be. It was a small horseshoe-shaped affair and this was perfect for conversations and telling lies which involved all the patrons at once. A notice on the wall stated, "You are requested to watch your language — there could be truck drivers or shearers present."

There were certainly shearers and sheep men there and their tall tales seemed never to end as each was topped by the next man at the bar. One of us ensured the stories were not lost by returning several times to record them for a radio documentary which can still be heard long after the tale tellers are gone.

I’m pretty sure one or two judges carried out their duties watching dog trials from the corner of the bar nearest the window. The Mackenzie Collie Dog Club began in 1890 and the hill beside the pub was a favourite venue. In the old days a dance would round off the day and buses brought spectators from Fairlie, women travelling free. (No use having a dance with no females). There was always a dog or two in the bar: sometimes a clown would bring his horse in for a drink. Are there no real country pubs like that now?

Later, the Burkes Pass Hotel had a large ugly lounge built in front of the old bar and the magic was gone. Just like any town pub. Then came a fire in 1994 which did enough damage to the additions to end the days of a great community hub.

The old pub building still stands but the tourists stop now to poke around a display of petrol-head memorabilia. They can buy replica "Route 66" and "Texaco" signs but of the Burkes Pass Hotel they know nothing. If they take the time to do the short walking trail there is much to see. The old school, the Mount Cook Road Board office (a memento of the days when Burkes Pass was a candidate to be the "capital" of the Mackenzie Country), several cottages and St Patrick’s Church.

At the old pub site there’s a fine display of genuine timber garden furniture and the craftsman behind the operation happily supplied bags of wood shavings to one of our party who’s building a five-star hen house.

An enjoyable meander down memory lane for one old bloke but he sure missed the yarns and chuckles around the bar.

— Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.