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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Chapter II

page 7

Chapter II.

The Devil's Staircase—Wakatipu Trade—Footing it to the Nevis—Getting over the Devil's Staircase—The Old Man's Shanty — Daddy Campbell, of the Arrow — The "Nancy" creeps up alongside Queenstown Wharf.

The Wakatipu trade through Southland experienced a sudden check.

Stung to madness at the sight of this lucrative business diverted to Bluff Harbour* and Invercargill, Dunedin merchants spurred on the local authorities, on whose part great efforts were made to find a viable route to the lake. Hosts of engineers and surveyors were sent out in all directions, with an army of navvies in their trail. Swing-punts were erected at the various river-crossings, the result being that in an incredible short space of time the loaded teamster made his way to the Wakatipu by the Duns tan. Southland had its advantages in point of distance, but these were not sufficient to counterbalance the superior commercial enterprise of Dunedin.

The result was that, although Bill Fox's freights were reduced in price, there still remained a serious falling-off in quantities. This gave Bill the opportunity he sought for—of paying a visit of inspection to the Upper Nevis. Accordingly, one fine morning, while the dew was on the blade, Bill boarded the "Nancy" at Kingston, and sent her shooting up the lake. Shaping his course for a convenient landing-place, and having made the "Nancy" secure, Bill footed it all the way to the Nevis.

Looked at in the light of the match, which in the hands of the little old man produced such marvellous results, a journey to the Upper Nevis appeared a simple undertaking. Divested

* See Appendix, Note 7.

page 8of that supernatural refulgence, the journey in its realities was widely different. First there was the Devil's Staircase* to get over: that meant creeping on hands and feet up the perpendicular, or perhaps it would be more correct to say overhanging, walls of huge boulder-banks, whose rough edges, exposed to all kinds of weather, were rendered brittle and insecure. The traveller was forced at times to hold on by his hands, at other times by his feet, while it not unfrequently happened that, losing both hand-grip and foot-hold, he made the backward tendency, which does not at all accord with safety to either life or limb.

Surmounting these difficulties and dangers, Bill found his further progress impeded by deep fissures, and that the only way to get over was by making use of branches of the alpine pines and shrubs, thereby accomplishing the feat by a kind of swinging leap.

The ascent being altogether about 1,000ft., and these being its chief characteristics, aggravated by a rushing stream washing its base, rendered the height, otherwise giddy enough in itself, downright intoxicating. Woe betide the traveller who attempts to cross the Devil's Staircase, and who lacks a firm nerve and steady foot. That serious mishaps have arisen is well known, but that these have not been more frequent is the marvel. A special providence would seem to preside over this man-trap, else how is it that the hundreds who, swag on back, rushed the Wakatipu in the early days survived to tell the tale?

This, then, is a faint delineation of the first part of Bill's journey in search of the old man's treasure. Following the top of the ridge until he reached the main range he descended to the bed of the Nevis, which, was likewise a work of difficulty, demanding dexterity. Bill, however, knew the lay of the land, and that rendered him no small assistance in ferreting out the way. His own account is that he steered a course by the most direct route, and in due time found himself underneath all that remained of the old man's shanty. The rubbish-heap in its vicinity was soon explored, and it was not without a feeling of misgiving Bill clutched the coveted chamois-leather bag. In outward appearance it was altogether disappointing.

* See Appendix, Note 8.

page 9

From its size it could not be the yellow pile he imagined. That view was further confirmed in the handling; so that by the time the bag was opened he had his mind made up for a sore disappointment.

The disappointment came as had been preluded. Instead of a pile of gold, the bag contained a ponderous-looking document. For a moment Bill's curiosity got the better of his disappointment, and in turning it over he remarked that it was a "legal document." The disappointment again getting uppermost in his mind, he added bitterly, "D—n the document, and double d—n the lawyer who wrote it. If it had been a bit of gold how handy it would have come in; but it is just like my confounded luck."

It is right to explain that, although a lucky digger, Bill had of late been a trifle down on his luck. The falling-off in his trade, coupled with certain extravagant habits to which diggers on a bit of gold are addicted, had seriously impaired his finances; hence the secret of his remark about his confounded luck.

On the whole, however, he took things philosophically. He took away what he found, and, folding it up, trudged back to the "Nancy" a sadder and wiser, if not a more cheerful, man.

The "Nancy" was soon skipping over the mimic waves of the lake en route for Queenstown.* During the trip Bill gave his discoveries full consideration. He looked at the newly-found document in all the lights that presented themselves to his mind, and the conclusion arrived at was, "There might be something in the darned paper after all." It had all the outward visible appearance of being a carefully-prepared document. The first few words on the top line were written with a flourish in the old English style of caligraphy; and, as it proceeded, red lines, blue lines, and black lines were interwoven, so that, as a whole, it was a document calculated to inspire reverence and respect. "Them red and blue lines look as if some lawyer coon had taken much trouble in painting the hull," reasoned Bill to himself, "and, as them chaps don't go to all that

* See Appendix, Note 9.

page 10botheration unless they're well paid, there may be money in it after all."

Then, again, there was the little old man and the match. "He would not," so Bill reasoned in his own way, "have gone to the trouble of getting up and making all that fuss with the lighted match unless the thing had been worth the trouble."

Out of these reasonings Bill evolved the resolution, in his own language: "I know now what I'll do; I'll over to old Daddy Campbell, at the Arrow, and let him have a sniff at it. He's up to all them kinds of dodges. He knows what's what, and no mistake. Only let him smell a piece of parchment on the sheep's back, and he'll spin a cuffer about fee-simples in the wool and rights of reversion in the trotters that would make the Lord Justice General himself look sheepish."

These soliloquies, added to Bill's duties in the careful handling of the craft, kept his attention pretty well occupied until the "Nancy" crept up alongside Queens town Wharf.