The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 2 (May 2, 1938.)
Sailors and Gold-Diggers — A Memory of the Old West Coast. — The Man Who Missed the Blue Jacket
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.
“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.'
Over the Range.
“There was another sailor chap, a mate I'd picked up—I've quite forgotten his name—and he, too, had had all the gold-digging he wanted. So we decided to go together and walk across the Southern Alps by the Otira Road and Arthur's Pass and across the Canterbury Plains to Lyttelton.
“Off we started with our blankets and gear and tucker for the big walk. On the way to the Taramakau River (the one that Tom Bracken used to call the ‘Terry McKow') we came up with a Scotsman who was driving two pack-horses. He packed supplies to the road camps along the track— they were finishing the road from Canterbury then. I remember we lived page 18 page 19 on wekas on that tramp to the mountains—knocked them over with sticks—wekas and damper. Scotty saw that I knew something about packing horses, and remarked on it. I ought to have known a bit about it considering that I'd been in the old Transport Corps up the Waikato in 1864.
Two Mates Drowned.
“At the Taramakau ford we came to grief. I lost my two poor mates, the sailor and the packer. We didn't reckon on any danger; the river was low, though very swift, and running in several streams. It was a dirty white, discoloured from the Alpine glacial ice and silt, you couldn't see the bottom in those snow rivers.
“The packer, Scotty, got on the bigger horse of the two, and took the sailor up behind him, and I followed on the pony. They were a few yards ahead of me, when, to my horror, their horse seemed to sit down—he'd slipped on a boulder. The sailor clutched the other man round the neck, and over both of them went and they were whirled away in a moment. I couldn't help them in the slightest.
“I got out of it safely by giving my wise little horse his head and letting him pick his steps through the swift current. Once over the river, I got to Blake's road-contract camp, and got some men, and we searched for our mates. We found their bodies four miles down the river. The curious thing about it was that their horse got out all right—he was quietly feeding on the river bank a little way down.”
Capper mourned deeply that tragic loss of his good mates. That wild bad river the Taramakau was accursed among the West Coasters. Many a swagger had gone to his death in its icy waters. But it was not often that horsemen came to grief. He continued his narrative:
“Well, I went on alone. At Kelly's camp, the next place, there was a little old foreigner, a Sardinian; he'd been an army bugler and fought in the times of Garibaldi—like my old friend Rowley Hill, of Auckland—and now that I think of it, he was very like Rowley—small, nuggetty and tough, and plucky as they make ’em. They called the little Sardinian ‘Tantara-ra-ra’ at the camp, because he still had his bugle and he kept tootling away on it at all hours. We chummed up and we went on together. We camped near where the Otira township is now, and went on up the Gorge. I remember to this day the freezing chill of the Otira River.
The Long Traverse.
“We tramped through the Gorge and over Arthur's Pass. Then down and across the big river, the Waimakariri. It was running in five streams, about a mile across the streams and shingle altogether. We camped in a bit of the mountain-beech bush near the Bealey, and trudged on down, up and down, down to the plains. We met the gold escort coming up from Christchurch—three or four mounted men, armed, and an express trap; coming over to carry the gold from Hokitika. They didn't keep the escort going very long, I believe. It was easier and quicker to send the gold away by sea.
“Every now and then on that long tramp we'd meet swaggers, sailors most of them, all bound for the diggings. And everyone that we met I'd ask about wool ships at Lyttelton and the pay. Soon the £80 we'd heard about on the Coast dwindled to £20. Well, I thought, even that will do; I want to get home to see my mother that I'd not seen or written to for so long.
“I tramped through Christchurch, very weary; didn't stop, but went right on over the Port hills by the Bridle Track to Lyttelton and straight to the wharf. Well, there a famous big wooden clipper ship was lying, the Blue Jacket, American-built and then under the Liverpool White Star flag. She was ready for sea, loaded with wool for London. I went on board and asked about signing on. But she had shipped all her crew a day or two before, and all they'd signed on for was £4/10/- a month. Well, says I, I wouldn't leave New Zealand for that pay anyhow, so here I stay. I saw the Blue Jacket go to sea. Then I went down to Pigeon Bay, on Banks Peninsula, back at bush work once more, for a sawmill. Later I shipped aboard a coasting ketch, and ran one on shares— and lost her, too, in a terrific gale in Lyttelton Harbour and was all but lost myself.
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“Now, this is the curious part of it—it was jolly lucky for me I'd taken so long on that tramp across the West Coast, and was too late to ship in the Blue Jacket. For why? Because news came from London that she had been burned at sea that very voyage—burned off the Falkland Islands, and nearly all her crew were lost—adrift in boats and never heard of again. The captain's boat was picked up by the barque Pyrmont, after seven days; he had the 35 or 36 passengers with him, but the sailormen in the other boats perished— and I'd have been with them no doubt. Spontaneous combustion was the cause —some damp wool among the cargo. I was well out of that fine clipper, the Blue Jacket.”