The Original Good Keen Man – Charlie (Mr Explorer) Douglas

by Tony Orman

In  A P Harper’s book “Memories of Mountains and Men” he told of the remarkable pioneer explorer Charlie Douglas. Charles Edward Douglas was a 19th century New Zealand surveyor and explorer, who came to be known as “Mr. Explorer” Douglas, owing to his extensive explorations of the West Coast of New Zealand and his work for the New Zealand Survey Department. 
In 1893 A P Harper returned to New Zealand and G J Roberts, of the Westland Survey, asked him to accompany Charlie Douglas to look for an alpine pass “free from ice and snow.” A P Harper accompanied Charlie Douglas on numerous trips into the then unexplored wilderness of south Westland.
Charlie Douglas was the original “good keen man”. Remember in those days of the 19th century there was no road down the West Coast. There were no sleeping bags or modern hiking packs or any of the modern gear ad gadgetry.
Even with today’s equipment and gadgetry we still grumble and grizzle. Heck, we never had it so good especially compared to early explorers like Mr Explorer Douglas. Charlie Douglas in many ways was not like the image of Crump’s good keen man never seeking centre stage and often content in just his own company, a very few close friends and his dog.

A P Harper related in his book, “Next day I was introduced to C E Douglas – whose mate I was to be. He was then past 50 and I was just under 30, yet we became life-long friends.”
Douglas was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh. After leaving school Douglas was placed in the Bank of Scotland but finding the “conventionalities of life irksome”, he threw up the job and when about 21 years old, came to New Zealand in the early 1860s when the gold-rush was at its height in Otago.
“From what he told me, he had no success as a digger but from time to time made better money packing tucker to out-of-the-way camps. Many old diggers told me of Charlie’s great dog, which carried a fair load, in panniers, to supplement the ‘hundred’ that Charlie himself carried.”
Charlie Douglas ended up on the West Coast. During the middle 1870s and early 1880s he varied his activities by prospecting up the then unknown valleys.
Real Hobby
“This exploration of unknown country was Charlie’s real hobby and he only worked at other jobs to earn enough to buy the necessities for a prolonged exploring expedition —he kept voluminous diaries noting the country, its geological, botanical and other characteristics besides providing reliable maps.”
“A lot of his work was done alone – with only a dog for company. He was miserable without a dog; it was not only a good mate but helped get birds for the pot such as kiwis, wekas and kakapos. He preferred what he called “a various breed, the more various the better” (in dogs) and he certainly managed to get hold of some of the most wonderful specimens of the true mongrel. There was a method in this because there is no doubt that a mongrel will stand up to the wet and rough life better than a well-bred dog.”
“Douglas had one very bright dog ‘Topsy’–when he took off his swag and began to prepare a camp, Topsy would go off into the bush and return with two birds – one for him and one for herself – he never had to worry about food while he had her.”
Superior Doggy Smile
“Another of her accomplishments was to ‘fossick’ a route around a bluff. Charlie used to tell how when he came to a bluff or gorge, he’d sit down for a smoke and send ‘Topsy’ ahead. As soon as the dog returned, he’d put on his swag and if she trotted into the gorge he knew there’d be a way through. If she waited for a lead, he knew that she meant there was no low level route.”
Sometimes Douglas thought he would check it out himself in case the dog had made a mistake. 
Topsy would just curl up for a sleep and wait till Douglas returned and then welcomed Charlie with “a very superior smile”.
“The dog was always right.”
By 1893 Charle Douglas had explored all the rivers between Bruce Bay and Big Bay. He reached the Divide at the heads of the Okuru, Waiatoto, Arawata and Hollyford Rivers.
“As to the man I can only say he was a very lovable character – a courteous gentleman of the old school.—He and I roughed it for two years but I never heard him use an expression or tell a story which would have offended a lady – even of the Victorian era. He had a dry fund of humour  — and many of his quaint sayings remain in my memory.”
Charlie Douglas was modest to the point of being principled.
A P Harper wrote “he never took credit for anything he had not done and he always gave his mate a full share in the honour of the exploration and never tried to enhance his own work by depreciating that of others – an ideal explorer.”
Some did take credit and glory for the achievements of others.
“Douglas himself was victim on more than one occasion when he led the Official Party, did most of the work and the credit went to someone else higher in the Service. He used to laugh over it – but it’s wrong,” wrote A P Harper.
Chsrlie Douglas spent long periods in the untracked, unexplored south Westland wilderness, under conditions that required special, unique qualities both physically and mentally to tolerate and indeed survive. In his diaries, letters and reports to the Lands and Survey Department, he showed a wry and at times cynical sense of humour. Spelling mistakes did not detract but added a quaint touch to his musings and recording.
Of his own ability to traverse and survive in the rugged mountains he wrote, “I can combine the swagging abilities of a mule, the stowage capacity of a pelican with the digestive powers of an ostrich so can go places where few dare venture through fear of starvation.”
Often humour enabled him to overcome annoyance such as with the region’s notorious sandflies. He wrote “the philosophical mind can derive instruction and amusement  from even them, which counter balances any annoyance they may give.”
“At first streak of dawn, he (the sandfly) proceeds to business with a fiendish skill. He soon discovers a hole or weak spot in the blankets, so in he goes followed by all his relations and up you must get.”
Of mosquitoes he said “He meanly attacks people when they ought to be asleep: he at least has been the cause of many vigerous (sic) additions to the English (language) and he promotes the manufactures of gauze and crime (scrim).”
“A mosquito is said to carry about with him to aid in torturing humanity, a scythe, brush, auger and pump.”
But Charlie Douglas declared “Revenge is sweet and all past miseries are forgotten when a fellow gets under a mosquito proof netting – then he can listen with delight to the where-iz-ee of thousands of exasperated blood-suckers.”
He appeared to not have much time for politicians. Of then Prime Minister Richard John Seddon Charlie Douglas wrote “Richard John, great as he imagines himself to be, when an election is near, has to crawl and cring (sic) to every ignorat (sic) shirtless vagabond who happens to have a vote.”
Nor did he admire wetas, the fearsome looking nocturnal insects that often inhabited caves he slept in. “The typos (as her called them) are swarming all over. At night when you have covered yourself up in blankets, you can feel the playfull (sic) creatures running races and dancing hornpipes all over you.”
Charlie Douglas wrote a multitude of reports for the department. In 1903 he dryly wrote in a letter “The older a man gets the less inclined he is to write. Writing government reports about the country has been the ruin of me. Through them I am beginning to hate the very thought of pen and ink.” It was G J Roberts, Chief Surveyor for Westland  who set Charlie Douglas to writing and map-making, especially in the winters so that the great explorer was employed after field exploration became impossible for him to handle.
Together G J Roberts and Mr “Explorer” Douglas developed a strong relationship. Both were fascinated and strongly motivated to learn about the unexplored mountain wilderness. Both tended to be introverted shunning the lime light and apparently both had the same wry, often quirky sense of quiet humour.  G J Roberts was quoted as describing his relationship with Douglas as between  “two good human beings who fully understand each other and, ignoring our many weaknesses, fully appreciate the remainder”.
Charlie Douglas had close friends but he did not crave human company. Not surprisingly he was a loner. How else would he withstand weeks and months in unexplored wilderness?
He wrote in the same letter “People here are too sociable for me. If I am by myself, some fool thinks I must feel lonely, come in and spins away about bullocks, sheep horses or the latest football match.”
Modest to a Fault
At his retirement from the Lands and Survey department in 1908, accolades were showered upon Mr. Explorer Douglas probably much to his embarrassment. One tribute described him as “a well read and educated man, a keen observer, of great originality of thought, most honourable and conscientious yet modest to a fault, of winning, unassuming manner, he never advertised himself, but was ever willing to impart his knowledge.”
In his later years he struggled with his ill health.
Douglas died, two months short of his 76th birthday, of a cerebral haemorrhage in the Westland Hospital on 23 May 1916, and was buried in Hokitika Cemetery.

Footnote: In 1957 John Pascoe wrote the excellent book “Mr Explorer Douglas.”  More recently mountaineer/historian Graham Langton wrote a fine revised edition of Pascoe’s work (published 2000, Canterbury University Press)  which was reprinted in 2004 and 2016. 

© Charlie Douglas and A P Harper about to head into the mountains, 1894 – with Topsy

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4 Responses to The Original Good Keen Man – Charlie (Mr Explorer) Douglas

  1. Tom Knight says:

    Very interesting read. Thanks

  2. Sam Braithwaitte says:

    What an amazing guy Charlie Douglas was. Makes us chaps today seem like softies.
    Thank you.

  3. Tim Neville says:

    I have read this before and still enjoyed re-reading it. It has been part of our heritage to put such people on a pedestal through print media; long may it last. I especially resonate with his sand-fly description.
    Tim Neville

  4. "Deerstalker" says:

    What a wonderful sense of humour Charlie Douglas had! Great observations of wetas and sandals!
    A.P Harper was also a notable figure in his own right in the mountaineering/exploration world and I recall reading many years ago, his fine articles in his later years in the “NZ Outdoor” magazine.

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