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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 2 (May 2, 1938.)


Many of the stout lads who took a hand in our pioneering toil in New Zealand thought nothing of a tramp of two or three hundred miles with swags on their backs. There was no chance of a motor-car lift in the days of the Sixties. There are men still living who can recall walking nearly the whole length of the South Island, in the days before roads existed. And there were hundreds of gold-hunters who swagged it across the Southern Alps even before the Arthur's Pass-Otira Road was made.

This story refers to a period of seventy years ago, soon after the Arthur's Pass road had been made, and when the Golden Coast was at the height of its treasure-hunting. The narrator was my old acquaintance the late James Capper, of Hiropi Street, Wellington; old sailor, soldier, digger, bushman, whale-hunter, bullock-puncher, and half-a-dozen callings besides. He had come out in the late Fifties from London in the ship Rose of Sharon—you can't imagine so sweet a name on the bows of a modern liner, luxury-cruiser, or tanker. Signed on then for the period of a cruise in a British brig-of-war, the Elk, to the South Seas. Next came some service in the Militia in the Maori War. He fought in the battle of Titi Hills, at the Mauku, and later transferred to the Land Transport Corps, in the march into the Waikato, as far as famous Orakau.

Well on to his nineties when he yarned of his early days, the oldtimer's memory was as keen and lively as ever. He took his two tots a day of good Jamaica—the best medicine in the world, he said—one in the forenoon “to steady me hellum,” the other in the afternoon “to keep me on me course.” He was short and stoutly built, sturdy and round, like Dickey Barrett, as described by Edward Jerningham Wakefield, or my old Whakatane acquaintance Ben Biddle, the New Zealand Cross man. When Capper died, his sons fulfilled with filial fidelity his last request to scatter his ashes on the waters of Cook Strait—a proper old sailor's grave.

The veteran's talk one day of our many koreros went back to an adventure of 1869, and the memory of that famous American-built clipper of the seas, the ship Blue Jacket. It began with the great rush to the West Coast diggings.

“When the news came of the rich goldfields at Hokitika in Sixty-five,” he said, “I was in a kauri timber felling camp on the Great Barrier Island, after a lot of soldiering and sailoring. The talk was all of the Coast and buckets of gold dust, and nuggets as big as your fist. So nothing would do me and a lot of other young chaps but we must set off for the diggings. Away we sailed in a cutter, forty of us, the Auckland cutter Eagle, built at Mahurangi. We went north-about, round the North Cape and sailed safely into the crowded river mouth at Hokitika. Very little luck about there for us. All the other fellows were picking up the gold, and it was going into the pubs and dance-halls of the gold town hand over fist. I went on to the Grey, and got a job there — a jolly wet one, too, poling boats with supplies up the river to its tributary, the Arnold, that comes out of Lake Brunner.

Early morning in the Bealey Valley. (From a water colour drawing by T. Ryan.)

Early morning in the Bealey Valley. (From a water colour drawing by T. Ryan.)

“Well, there we were toiling hard in those heavy boats when word came along one day from the other side of the range that two wool ships at Lyttelton were waiting to get crews for London. Most of the sailors cleared out from their ships those days and made for the diggings, just as they did in California and Melbourne. They were so hard up for sailors, those ships, that they were offering £80 a man for the run to London. So I thought: ‘Here's big money offering, and it's years since I was home and saw my mother. I'll be off to Lyttelton and ship.'