by Chris Tobin
When driving through the Mackenzie country, mountaineer Gary Ball often stopped at the small Burkes Pass cemetery to visit the grave of a mate.
If he didn’t have time to stop on what, up until Covid-19, has been a hugely busy tourist route to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and the Southern Lakes, he would sound his car horn as he drove past.
In October 1993, while climbing the Himalayan mountain Dhaulagiri, Ball died from high-altitude pulmonary edema.
Yet he is still remembered at the small cemetery he often visited, nestled among trees near the small St Patrick’s Church and which captures some of the spirit of the old Mackenzie.
“There’s a memorial to him backing on to his friend’s grave,” Jane Batchelor, chairwoman of the Burkes Pass Heritage Trust, said.
Ball’s story is one of many included in a booklet history of the cemetery just published by the trust titled “On a Bronze Tussocked Terrace – The Burkes Pass Cemetery.”
Mrs Batchelor says the idea for the booklet originated from a long-time Burkes Pass resident, Liz Angelo-Roxborough.
“She thought it would be a really good idea to record the history. We were contacted by people whose family members are buried in the cemetery then it lay idle for a few years until it seemed obvious we needed to get it over the line.”
Mrs Batchelor lives in Christchurch and with her husband has owned a holiday cottage at Burkes Pass since 1984.
In the end, since it was such a massive task writing on everyone buried in the cemetery, they decided a selection had to be made.
“There are amazing stories still be told; we thought we would make a start and it could be extended.
“Part of it is an introduction to Burkes Pass, giving a bit of grounding on the history of the township.”
Before European settlement Burkes Pass was known as Te Kopi Opihito by Maori, who often stopped there on the journey to the Mackenzie basin and West Coast.
With the arrival of Europeans and farming a settlement started at the foot of the pass in 1855 and developed. A pub served as a stopover for travellers to and from the high country. The Europeans renamed the pass after an early settler Michael Burke, and it became known as the gateway to the Mackenzie. The settlement carried several early names, among them Clulee and Cabbage Tree Flat, until eventually it became known simply as Burkes Pass.
“In the 1800s, the township was seen as an outpost in a wild, hostile environment where self-sufficiency was essential and medical assistance was days away on horseback.”
Mrs Batchelor says they started the booklet with the story of AB Smith, who farmed at Rollesby Station, which surrounds the cemetery. He donated the land, the provincial government made it a reserve and the cemetery started in 1873.
A baby boy, only 8 days old, was the first to be buried there.
Since then musterers, shepherds and farmers who sometimes died in accidents or avalanches, women who died in childbirth on remote stations when the nearest doctor was in Timaru, jet-boat inventor Sir William Hamilton, of Irishman’s Creek Station, a Scottish rugby international Dr Charles Dick, the first medical superintendent at Princess Margaret Hospital, in Christchurch, are among those buried there.
One story that stands out for Mrs Batchelor is that of a 27-year-old Australian climber Ken Payne who died on Mt Cook in 1986.
“His family shared a poignant diary entry in which he was almost predicting that he was not coming back from this climb. It was quite heart-wrenching.”
Another intriguing story for Mrs Batchelor is that of Eugenie Hayter, whose courage and tenacity typified the early settlers of the Mackenzie.
“Eugenie was married to Francis Hayter, an ex-Royal Navy man. He bought Rollesby in 1881 which then had a primitive cob cottage with homestead extensions in corrugated iron.”
Francis died leaving Eugenie with eight young children to bring up and a 30,000 acre station to run, with the help of a farm manager.
“She had huge pressures because of a mortgage company but she hung on through an economic depression, snowstorms when there were great losses of sheep, and problems with rabbits. A son was killed in World War 1, two others wounded.
“Her descendants hung on at Rollesby until they sold out in the 1990s.”
One myth Mrs Batchelor is happy to lay to rest is that concerning the legendary sheep stealer, James Mackenzie, for whom the Mackenzie Country is named.
“He is not buried in the cemetery,” she says.
- The booklet is available for $20 from the Burkes Pass Church (St Patrick’s), and from The Burkes Pass Heritage Trust by ordering from firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o 41 Kirkwood Avenue, Christchurch 8041. Postage is an extra $5. Assistance with part of the cost of publication was received from the Mackenzie District Council)