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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 11 (February 1, 1940)

Von Tempsky — On The Diggings — A Memory Of The Forest Rangers

page 49

Von Tempsky
On The Diggings
A Memory Of The Forest Rangers

(All Rights Reserved).

Major Von Tempsky, from a photograph taken in 1865.

Major Von Tempsky, from a photograph taken in 1865.

Scene I—The Gold-Diggers' Camp.

The tents and slab huts of a hundred treasure-hunters whitened the banks of the Kapanga Creek and the small streams that came tumbling down from the wooded ranges to the muddy foreshore of Coromandel Harbour. The tentage cover was of all shapes and sizes; the shanties of split timber were mostly roofed with brown strips of tangae, the bark of the totara tree. Some had a covering of blackpine shingles, neatly nailed in overlapping layers. There were not many bushmen-diggers who went to the trouble of shingling their huts; the care they took to make their quarters weatherproof might be taken as an indication that they were there to stay, or at any rate to give their claims a thorough and patient trial. Old warrior Hauauru, the West Wind, had compared the restless gold-diggers in his domains with the wandering albatross, which stopped to pick up a bit of food here and a bit there, and then passed on. The white man just paused long enough to get a trifle of gold, that worthless looking thing “not as big as a sandfly” and not so useful as a bit of fernroot; then he was off again like the bird of the ocean. But the man under the shingled roof—sometimes he even had a little vegetable garden patch —clearly intended to hang on a while.

The mining claims pitted the ferny slopes for a mile or more above the tideway, to the ragged and stumpblackened edge of the forest that went climbing up in waves and tiers of foliage to the range top. The first wild rush to the Coromandel diggings had passed by this time, mid-winter of 1863, and many diggers had left the field with their picks and shovels and wash-dishes, selling out for a five-pound note, or just walking out.

Sundown was knock-off time. To make a ship-shape ceremony of it some digger from the Bendigo and Ballarat fields had introduced the Australian touch by firing a shot from his gun each evening. The crack and the bellow echoing far up the valley and dying away in the foggy ravines told those diggers who were toiling down below that it was time for fire and tucker. Clay-stained figures stepped out of the buckets wound up by their mates at the windlass. Presently fires were twinkling all over the field, and smoke from scores of cooking places rose in blue columns and wreaths. There you would smell that most characteristic incense of the New Zealand wilds—the scent of burning manuka. Little mists crept from the murmuring stream gullies to blend with the smoke of the diggers' camps.

The frying-pan was on; the billy was boiled—they called it the quart-pot in those years of the ‘sixties. Bacon and damper and hard biscuit, and here and there a pigeon from the bush, or a snapper or kingfish from the harbour; that was diggers’ fare. The most delicious fish in the world were there for the catching, and what could be better fare than a fat pigeon, stuffed almost to bursting with the resinous hinau and tawa berries that were abundant right up to midwinter, or a big kaka parrot that could easily be knocked over when it came fluttering and ka-ka-ing around at the imitation of its raucous screech. After the freezing and sterile wastes of the Otago fields, with scarcely a patch of scrub to give fuel, the diggers lived in cheapness and luxury on the Coromandel shore. Food in water and bush, firewood without limit, running water everywhere; all they needed was a trifle of flour and tea and sugar and now and again a side of bacon from the town of Auckland a few hours' sail away across the Gulf.

It was not yet quite dark when a miner came out of a slab-and-sail cloth hut beside the Kapanga and descended the gravelly bank with his greasy tin dishes. He proceeded to wash them by the simple process of swishing them about in the gravel and the swift water. A concertina and a jews harp made melody in a neighbouring camp. The page 50 dish-washer leisurely squatting there drying his tinware raised his voice in a song like a shipboard forebitter:

“Come all ye bright young fellows
Who have a mind to range
Into some far-off country,
Your fortunes for to change.
Come rove with me along the banks
Of the blessed O-hi-o;
Oh, the prairie we will wonder
And we'll chase the buffalo.”

The late Mrs. Lina Kettle, of Napier, the only daughter of Major G. F. Von Tempsky.

The late Mrs. Lina Kettle, of Napier, the only daughter of Major G. F. Von Tempsky.

The cheerful singer of the Far West ditty was a lean-framed, hard-featured fellow with a short-pointed red beard; a touch of the American frontiersman about his dress. Sam Nicholls was a Forty-niner. He had fossicked for gold on half a score of fields, from Sacramento to Bendigo and Gabriel's Gully; he had heard the six-shooters cracking in the wild camp towns; he had been one of the Vigilantes that helped to rid infant San Francisco of some of its bad bargains. His digging mate, Von Tempsky, in this Coromandel claim, Number Eight on the Goldfields Warden's register, had been only a year later than Forty-nine himself in the great Californian rush.

“You'll have to revise your ‘Comeall-ye,’ old man,” said Nicholls' mate, who had made the early tea and gone down to the beach to meet the mail cutter. He was a swarthy, foreignlooking man, sparse of beard and long of hair under his black-pointed wideawake. His high cheek-bones gave a touch of the Tartar to his Magyar features. He had a newspaper in his hand. “Never mind your buffalo; we'll make it ‘Maori foe’ now. Here's the ‘Southern Cross’ just in from Auckland. Come inside and read the latest from the Maori war front. The old sword is ready to jump from its sheath again, my friend.”

The Waikato War had just begun, the campaign that was to end in the seizure from the Maori King's tribes of a vast area of native country in the heart of the province. “Here, see what this says, first of all.” Nicholls took the paper opened at the war news and Militia notices. This was the invitation to arms that he read out aloud, above the rushing of the creek:

To Militiamen and Others.

Active Young Men, having some experience of New Zealand forests, may now confer a benefit upon the Colony, and also ensure a comparatively free and exciting life for themselves, by joining a Corps of Forest Volunteers, now being enrolled in this province to act as the Taranaki Volunteers have acted in striking terror into the marauding natives, by operations not in the power of ordinary troops.

By joining the Corps the routine of Militia life may be got rid of and a body of active and pleasant comrades ensured.

Only men of good character wanted.

For further information apply to the office of the “Daily Southern Cross,” O'Connell Street, Auckland, 31st July, 1863.

“What do you think of it, Sam?” asked Von Tempsky, eagerly. “I'm off; I must have a hand in this. I'll never let a chance of active service slip. Do you think I could enlist a corps here on the diggings, a company of my own? They're at it in Auckland; but there's good stuff here on the diggings.”

Sam's reply was non-committal. But he thought Von could put it to the diggers at any rate. There were many likely young men here, fellows used to roughing it. Most of them had been sailors and bushmen before they took to the diggings life.

“I'll put it to them straight away, Sam, if you can get them together. You know them better than I do. They'll roll up for you.”

A Camp-fire Council.

So, giving the camp time to get through its tea, Sam convened a gathering by dint of a joyful noise on a frying-pan and a loudly-bawled invitation to roll up, roll up, and hear the news of battle.

Forty or fifty diggers strolled up presently, in ones and twos and threes, to the cheery blaze of a fire Von Tempsky had set going on a terrace above the Kapanga; they squatted around, smoking, free and easy, and waited in silence.

Von Tempsky stood in the circle of firelight, read the martial invitation, and without any more preamble called for volunteers. He was a soldier; he would offer the services of a company of his own to the Government if he obtained fifty recruits.

“How do we know that you can lead a company?” asked one young digger. “We've only your word for that.”

“Don't you make any mistake, mine friend,” said Von Tempsky in his quick sharp way. “I was schooled in the best soldiering school in the world”–he pronounced it with a “v”—“and what is more, I have fought against good bush fighters and have beaten them. You can take it from me I am able to lead men and teach them what war is. Now, my friend who asked this question, I will take you on at anything you like. What is it—sword, revolver” (he pronounced it “refolfer”), “rifle, bowieknife, long-handled tomahawk, shorthandled tomahawk? Take your choice, and we'll have a set-to.”

There was a general laugh. The critic said no more.

“Come on, gentlemen,” Von Tempsky began again, “this is the great opportunity. If you don't volunteer, you'll
The late Louis Von Tempsky, of Hawaii, son of Major Von Tempsky.

The late Louis Von Tempsky, of Hawaii, son of Major Von Tempsky.

be drafted into the Militia, mind that, and you'll curse it. We'll have better standing in the volunteers, we won't have to turn to and build redoubts and make roads for the troops. Oh, come along, I know what I am talking about! Fighting was my trade before the gold page 51 fever got me. Now, who's with me to make up a company and tackle the Maoris at their own game?”

“Oh,” said one old digger after a while, “that's all very well for you, Von, you're one of them fire-eating chaps frothing to take a pot at anything. But the Maoris ain't a bad sort. We've got no quarrel with them. Why, there's Maoris here on the diggings, pegging in like any white man.”

“Yes,” said a miner, whose jungle of whiskers belied his youth, “I don't want no quarrel with the Macris. That's the Government's job. It wants the Maori land and doesn't care how it gets it. It makes all the mess, let it clean it up itself. None of this gun and tomahawk business for me.”

“By Jove, though, where are the Maori diggers?” This speaker looked around the camp. “Not one about tonight; and I don't think I have seen one all day.”

“Where do you think they are?” asked Von Tempsky impatiently. “They're off like Deerfoot to the fighting. They must have sloped before sun-up this morning. They didn't wait to talk all round it like you fellows.”

“Mein Gott!” exclaimed a big sailorlylooking man that the others called Dutchy. “That explains it! My doublebarrel gun's gone, but I didn't put it down to the Maoris when I missed it this morning. Mein Gott, it was a bully gun—one barrel rifled, the other smooth. I paid fifteen pound for it, I did that! I bet there's more than one gun gone from the camp.”

“I sleep with my weapons in the blankets with me,” said Von Tempsky. “Force of habit. Now I'm going to turn in, gentlemen, and let you talk it over.”

(Rly. Publicity photo.) A scene in Queen's Gardens, Nelson.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A scene in Queen's Gardens, Nelson.

When he had gone to his tent the group sat smoking in silence. Presently one digger growled out his opinion.

“Blessed furriner! Does he think Englishmen will serve under him? Danged if I will, Militia or no Militia.”

“Same here, Bill,” said another. “Why should we butt in to this silly war, and leave our claims to be jumped, all because this Prooshian or Rooshian or whatever he is wants the glory of it? These ‘Vons’ and ‘Schneider how you vas,’ and all dot! If we must go on the war-path and shoulder one of them long Enfields let's do it under a British officer—and that's bad enough, Heaven knows.”

Now the Forty-niner had his say for the first time. “Von Tempsky's my mate,” said Sam, “and, of course, I'll stick by him. I know the stuff he's made of, and let me tell you he's as good as any British man and a darned sight better than most. He's fought the Spanish in Central America for the British. I'm leaving it to him, and I'm quite ready to chuck my claim. It's panned out nothing so far but a bout of rheumatics for me.”

But Sam's voice was the only one raised for Von Tempsky. The speaker before him seemed to have expressed the general opinion. It was tolerably certain that no “furriner” would be able to enlist a company in that camp.

[Note.—This is the first episode in Von Tampsky's efforts to form a forest-ranging corps for the Maori War. The diggers did not know what an experienced bush-fighter they had among them. He had given good service to Britain in expeditions in Central America against Spanish stockades. As to nationality, there was more of the Pole than the Prussian in his ancestry and character. Further incidents in his New Zealand career will be given from narratives of his old Forest Rangers to the author.—J.C.]

Result “Puzzle Pie” No. 325.

In this contest the following competitors submitted correct solutions and divide the prize-money of £200 in Cash. Their names are:—

Auckland: Mrs. E. Osborne, Mrs. A. McGinness, M. Valvol, Mrs. E. Goodenough, Mr. S. Civil, Miss J. Civil, H. and M. Civil. Hastings: Mrs. S. Ryan, G. Ryan. Napier: Mrs. M. Barham, H. Moore-Wright. Botorua: Mrs. L. Keighley. Wanganui: E. Rayner, Mrs. L. Page, L. Page. Dannevirke: D. Huntley, G. Freeman, Mrs. W. Burlace. Masterton: Mrs. A. Wyeth. Eitham: A. Cooper, Mrs. J. Cooper, Miss M. Gower. Opotiki: G. Stevenson. Greatford: V. Peddie (3 shares). Mohaka: Mrs. G. Wainohu, Miss R. and Miss E. Wainohu, C. Wainohu, H. Pitiera. Inglewood: Mrs. L. Instone, L. Instone. Oakura: Mrs. M. Karaka. Stratford: Mrs. M. Cooper, Miss R. Coward. Palmerston North: H. Ayson, Miss M. Cockburn. Waihou: A. Young. Halcombe: Mrs. S. Smith, L. Smith. Petone: H. Laird, H. Knowles. Waikanae: G. Field, J. Field. Wellington: P. Sheehan (10 shares), Miss E. Robinson (10 shares), F. Orange, Mrs. M. Orange, Miss M. Keegan, J. Samuels, Miss D. Newman, Mrs. D. Round, L. Round, H. Cane, Miss G. Cane, Miss N. McDuff, D. Hicks, M. Boyd, A. McElwain, Mrs, A. Keenan, Mrs. R. Robertson, Miss E. Higgs, W. Sullivan, Miss B. McLeod, P. Field, R. Meyer, Miss N. Millar, M. Roche, A. Wogan, Mrs. –Noot, Mrs. R. Foon, G. Hill, J. Hickmott, J. Fuller, A. Russell, J. Hansen, Miss M. Hansen, Mrs. J. Hansen, Mrs. C. Smith, Miss A. McQuade, R. Durrant, F. O'Brien, H. Montague, R. Howe, Mrs. W. Pharazyn, L. Fenton, Miss M. Mackintosh, M. Hunt, Mrs. L. O'Sullivan, H. Astin, J. Connell, F. Hunt, J. Concher, Mrs. D. Geddes, A. Carmen, I. Field, Mrs. Geohegan, W. Hutchings, Mrs. A. MacAulay, P. Harrison, Mrs. M. Berthold, Mrs. E. Berthold, H. Berthold, C. Berthold, Mrs. C. Spiro, J. and S. Spiro. Nelson: Miss Dobb, Miss M. Thomas, Mrs. Best. Havelock: Mrs. R. Brown. Bienheim: Mrs. K. Snowden. Christchurch: Mrs. S. Bush, Mrs. B. Mayell, B. Mayell G. Davies, C. Taylor, Mrs. B. Corrigan, A. Corrigan, Mrs. B. Campbell, V. Cox (100 shares), R. Gordan, Mrs. M. Simpson (16 shares), J. Simpson (84 shares), J. Cassells, P. Davies (100 shares), A. Mitchell, G. Harrison (80 shares), P. Harrison (80 shares), Mrs. S. Sullivan, H. Smith (100 shares), S. Black, J. Mason (100 shares), S. Owen, Miss M. Anderson, Miss A. Burnaby (100 shares). Akaroa: Mrs. E. Maslen. Methven: Mrs. W. Ross, W. Ross. Ashburton: Mrs. F. Roberts, S. Roberts. Temuka: Mrs. L. Leary. Timaru: Miss G. Ayres, H. Scarf (2 shares). Norsewood: J. Mildon. Coalgate: Miss J. Mitchell. Dunedin: Mrs. A. Nash, S. Nash, G. Nash (3 shares), M. Baston, Mrs. J. Fergus, J. Anson, W. Wilson, H. Denley, Miss S. Hey, Mrs. G. Ramsay, Mrs. R. Samson, C. Samson, N. Terry, Mrs. E. Terry, J. Burns, Mrs. E. Robertson, Miss E. Griffiths, Mrs. J. Kirkwood, Mrs. M. Wood, Mrs. G. Bennett. Mataura: H. Pelham. Ranfurly: Mrs. R. McErlane. Milton: Mrs. L. Mitchell (39 shares). Waipahi: J. Ladewig. Patearoa: Mrs. F. McAtamney, Miss A. McAtamney, W. McAtamney. Port Molyneux: Mrs. S. McColl. Winton: Mrs. H. Hyde, Mrs. M. O'Malley, Misses M. and E. Kelly. Invercargill: G. Mitchell, Mrs. L, Mitchell, Miss B. Humphrey, P. Humphrey, W. Wong, I. Mitchell, Miss E. Johnston. Waikaka: Miss G. Browning. Gore: Mrs. M. Stewart, Mrs. I. Stewart, A. Stewart, J. Stewart (2 shares), M. O'Flynn, Mrs. V. Cross, Mrs. M. Jones, R. Lewis, V. Vernon. Bluff: H. Orr.

Each share will be 4/-, and the prizemoney will be posted on Monday, February 12th.

Solution To “Puzzle Pie” No. 335.

Paragraph from “N.Z. Truth,” 30th August, 1939: “As the car finally drew away, handkerchiefs fluttered from many of the windows and balconies, and the little crowd at the gate broke into a cheer which Mr. Savage acknowledged by a wave of his arm.”