January 22, 2024 MacKenzie District (Day 117)

Fairlie is known as ‘The Gateway to the MacKenzie” and is on the edge of the MacKenzie District, just about center of the South Island, and a part of the Canterbury Region which is the largest region of the country by area. It includes the highest mountain and the largest intermountain basin in the country.¬†

How it came to be known as “MacKenzie Country” is an interesting story! The area was only intermittently inhabited by Maori before European colonization, mostly as a hunting area. In the early 1850’s a Scottish immigrant, James MacKenzie, came to New Zealand via Australia where he had emigrated to in 1849, not transported as a convict (convict transport eventually ceased in Australia in 1868)! In New Zealand he found work as a sheep drover as he awaited results of his land application which required that he stock the land with sheep. In March of 1855 he was found in an inland basin, previously unexplored by Europeans, with 1,000 sheep supposedly rustled from a wealthy sheep station owner on the east coast! He claimed innocence and managed to escape only to be arrested in Lyttleton near Christchurch, some 100 miles away. In April he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years hard labour¬† for sheep-stealing. He managed to escape several more times, even being shot in one instance. Eventually his case was investigated by a new magistrate who “…found that the police inquiry and the trial had been seriously flawed, and with the support of…a Superintendent, secured a free pardon for Mackenzie in January 1856.” After only 9 months of imprisonment MacKenzie was free, he made a quick getaway back to Australia it is assumed, but nothing is known of his later life. His legacy grew with the telling of his story and the significance of the inland pass and basin he was the first to utilize was quickly appreciated! “Small would-be farmers wanting their own land or resenting the power of large wealthy landowners could identify with him, as could those who did not fit the mould of genteel Canterbury society.” Remember, New Zealand was colonized by willing immigrants, no one was forced through slavery, penal conviction or indentured servitude to come to these shores! In fact many British immigrants were wealthy speculators or retiring military career pensioners, and they wanted hard-working peasant laborers! Eventually the high alpine basin was named in honor of the rebellious folk hero, and even his shepherd dog (probably a border collie) gained notoriety!

A statue has been erected in Fairlie in honor of James MacKenzie and his dog!

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