|An obelisk marks the probable scene of the crime—not grand theft auto, but, allegedly, grand theft sheep. It's about two-thirds of the way up Mackenzie Pass, which is itself some 20 miles down a gravel road from Route 8, the only paved road through Mackenzie Country. The modest memorial was once covered with lichen, but a distant clansman of the accused went and scraped clean the three sides of the marker, which are carved respectively in English, Maori, and Gaelic. The English side 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 4TH MARCH 1855.
Believing as I do that you can go home again, at least briefly, I returned to The Mackenzie last year—driving a rental, thank you—to go deep one more time. As Mackenzie's questionable example had long been on my mind, I made a point of reading up on his exploits and made the obelisk my first stop.
An inspiration to generations of wilderness-loving Kiwis, Mackenzie was born in Scotland and arrived in New Zealand in 1850. According to a fellow Scottish crofter (who in the 1890s told a younger shepherd, who in turn wrote all this down in the 1940s), Mackenzie was six feet tall, muscular but thin, and known for claiming (when convenient) to understand only Gaelic.
Mackenzie was respected then as now for one thing: He went bush like no one has ever gone bush. The Maori were fierce warriors who had only just ceased active warfare against the British, and the colonials were still too afraid of the unknown interior to venture there. Mackenzie was not. During the early 1850s he repeatedly crossed over the mountains and disappeared for months at a time, exploring and living off the land. Only his dog, Friday, would accompany him. By 1855 colonists on the coast were calling the interior "Mackenzie's Country," a name that stuck even when Mackenzie's reputation went south, too.
It turned out that wherever Mackenzie passed, sheep disappeared. In those days cattle rustling was virtually the Celtic national sport, and Mackenzie had trained Friday to lead the stolen mobs over a new pass he had discovered (and which now bears his name). Meanwhile, the Highlander would walk a different route, ready to claim he knew nothing about any stolen cars—I mean, animals.
John Sidebottom and those two Maori shepherds with the odd names finally caught Mackenzie red-handed one rainy March day in 1855. As the story goes, they tied him up and left him on the ground. But by the time they finished rounding up the "borrowed" sheep, they returned to find their prisoner gone. Legend has it that Friday chewed through his master's ropes.
Later, Mackenzie was captured again. He was bound, this time with chains, but as they led Mackenzie toward jail he made a break for it anyway. He only got a few hundred yards before gunfire cut his legs out from under him. The wounds proved superficial, however, and he escaped again a short time later.
Escape, in other words, is the point of the place. And today, it still offers territory as free and empty as any escape artist could desire.