Explore NZ's History: The Legend of Mackenzie

Explore NZ's History: The Legend of Mackenzie

May 13, 2019

by guest blogger, Fergus Blakiston

As you head south in your Affordable Motor Homes vehicle, you will cross Burkes Pass into the Mackenzie Basin.

This vast high country basin, famous for its merino sheep, is named after the sheep-stealer James Mackenzie.

There is a statue of Mackenzie on the main street of Fairlie (the small town you will pass through en route) and his legend is still told around the campfires of shepherd’s huts in the local hills. This is the story of James Mackenzie.

James Mackenzie NZ

On Sunday March 4, 1855, James Mackenzie made camp below the summit of a mountain pass. Nearby, on a small flat where two streams met, a flock of 1000 sheep grazed, guarded by Mackenzie’s faithful sheepdog, Friday.

Mackenzie had stolen the sheep from a farm called The Levels, near Timaru, and had driven them over the remote pass that he had discovered three years before. But as he ate his meagre supper of cold gruel, Mackenzie was unaware he was being watched.

On the hillside above, John Sidebottom, manager of The Levels, and his two Maori shepherds Taiko and Seventeen, scrutinized the camp below. They had pursued Mackenzie for two days through rugged, trackless hills, up the twisting bed of a stream, over the pass and, finally, down to the spot where they now hid.

Leaving the cover of the tussock, the three men crept up on Mackenzie. The sheep-stealer had trained his dog not to bark, so she gave no warning of the men’s approach. After a struggle, they overpowered him and tied his hands. Mackenzie fought wildly at his bonds, so Sidebottom took away his boots and threatened to “apply a bark poultice to his head” if he did not settle down.  

Despite being barefoot, Mackenzie escaped from his captors during the night. He turned up in Lyttelton six days later, intending to take a ship to Australia. However, no vessel was ready to leave and as he waited for one to depart he was arrested again on March 16.  

Convicted of sheep-stealing, Mackenzie was sentenced to five years’ gaol. In the first year of his sentence Mackenzie escaped five times. On each occasion he was re-captured. Eventually the authorities decided the easiest option was to set him free on the condition that he quit the country. Mackenzie left New Zealand in 1856, bound for Australia, perhaps thinking his talents as a rustler would be more appreciated there.

James Mackenzie is one of New Zealand’s few folk-heroes: our own version of Ned Kelly or Dick Turpin. Little is known about him and even the spelling of his name (McKenzie or Mackenzie; James, John or Jock)  is open to conjecture.

How many sheep he actually stole and how he managed to drive them so far with only one dog depends on which version of the legend you believe. But one thing is certain though: he was a tough bastard. You had to be to survive out in the hills.

Mackenzie pass and burkes pass

The Mackenzie Pass today is a quiet, virtually forgotten part of the South Island.  A battalion of power pylons marches over the hills. The road hardly ever sees a car.

On easterly days, mist spills over the top of the Dalgety Range and cold winds whistle down the valley.  Rows of dark green pines shiver in the breeze: austere inhabitants of an austere landscape. Overhead, clouds polarize white against the cobalt blue sky.

Mackenzie Pass

The pass itself occupies a narrow notch in the ranges.  The distant snow-capped Southern Alps lie blue/black in their veil of haze.  The road, a powder white scratch in a beige landscape, winds out from the hills and seems to lose itself in the vastness of the Mackenzie Basin.  

The Mackenzie Monument stands on a corner where the road curves to cross the Mackenzie Stream.  

The three-sided obelisk has an inscription in English, Maori and Gaelic which reads: “In this spot James Mackenzie, the freebooter, was captured by John Sidebottom and the Maoris Taiko and Seventeen and escaped from them the same night.”

Mackenzie monument