The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 44
A Month's Trip on Horseback in the North Island of New Zealand, from Wellington to New Plymouth, viâ Wanganui, And Back viâ Featherstone
A Month's Trip on Horseback in the North Island of New Zealand, from Wellington to New Plymouth, viâ Wanganui, And Back viâ Featherstone.
Riding along full-trot within a foot of a precipice varying from 50 to 500 feet in depth, where one false step would infallibly send them to the bottom, was clearly a process cither of making or breaking the nervous system. Happily it was the former, and it was surprising to themselves how soon all sense of danger deserted them. After six or seven miles of this a sudden turn brought them to the top of one of the highest cliffs, from whence the sea in all its grandeur, and sparkling in the sunshine, burst upon their view. Before them stretched out a vast mountainous region, and far below (some 1,200 feet), was the sea, then one grand succession of mighty waves, rolling in and breaking on the sand with a terrific and continuous roar. So perpendicular was the rock on which they were that a stone hurled over the unfenced track went straight into the foaming abyss. About three miles northward, and considerably below them, lay their breakfasting point, an hotel close to the seashore. The descent led through a place called Glen Valley, and exceeded in beauty even the ascent. It was simply perfect, and well deserved the universal praise ever bestowed upon it. Nor was the little place towards which it led, Pikakakiki, unworthy of the picturesque roadway. All along the coast were innumerable pure white sandhills, great masses and quite dazzling to look at in the sunshine. On closer inspection the whole surface was found to be in motion, causing a succession of small waves or ripples. This was caused by the wind. An immense sand-hill has been known to move many yards in a single day. On returning to their hotel after a stroll along the beach they found a new arrival in the shape of some seven or eight Maoris on horseback. Their chief was a finely-tattooed old warrior wearing a blue silk sash round his head. Three of his attendants were well-dressed and gentlemanly young fellows, half-castes apparently. One young lady was his daughter, and two other females seemed to be servants. They were returning from a visit to Wellington, where they had been to see a celebrated circus. As our travellers' course and theirs lay in the same direction, a polite invi- page 46 tation to make one party was accepted, and together a twenty-two mile stage along the sea-shore was commenced. On their left lay the island of Kapiti, about twelve miles distant. About twelve miles along the sandy road they came to the Wakaui river, and allowing the Maoris to take the lead, they plunged into it to reach the other side. With legs tucked up level with their seats, they found it no light task to avoid a bath. Seven or eight miles of similar sand-beach travel on the opposite side brought them to some excellent pasture land and the settlement of Otaki.
The next day, Good Friday, they were roused early from their most welcome slumbers at the hotel by the arrival of the Wellington five-horse coach from Foxton. At nine o'clock they were again in their saddles, winding along a sandy sort of track seawards. Inland they saw several Maori farms and patches of Indian corn-stalks, the corn-cobs had been gathered, and were tied up in bundles of about a dozen, and hung over a wooden framework some 10 feet high to "cure." The stalks were left on the ground to rot off. So much for Maori farming ! Hereabouts a couple of natives overtook them, and one of them happening to be going in a similar direction, volunteered to accompany them. He proved a useful guide, especially in fording one or two rather dangerous streams. One of these streams was a considerable river, about fifty yards wide, and as their guide rode across it, his legs tucked up as usual, they were somewhat appalled by a sudden semi-submergement, the bed of the river having a depth of about four feet of water. There was nothing for it but to follow their leader and hope for the best. Thanks to the plucky horses the other side was reached in safety, and cantering away they soon came to the noble river Ohow. Here fording was out of the question, and a ferry had to be sought for. Unsaddling their horses, they took their places in the boat, and being propelled by an ingenious contrivance across the hundred yards, they left their horses to follow in a more natural manner. Held by reins, and with only their noses above water, the poor brutes had all their work cut out to keep themselves from being carried away by the strong current. Altogether the adventure was most exciting, and it was with no small sense of relief that they once more found themselves seated in their saddles. Some ten miles of very sober travel now lay before them, mere monotonous flat sand-beach, along which they alternately walked and cantered their horses. They then turned inland, and for some five miles the road might have been through the desert of Sahara, so sandy and uninteresting was it. How the bi-weekly coach managed to get across the sandy waste was a mystery to them. At length they came to another wide river, the Manuwatu. Here a chain ferry awaited them, in which men and horses could accompany each other across the stream. On the other side was Foxton, a struggling settlement consisting of a few stores and three hotels, with roads of sand and sundry private houses. There was a pier at which steamers from Wellington and Nelson regularly call, and the town was the terminus of the Foxton and Wanganui railway.page 47
The next day they left Foxton, following the railway along a road of soft sand for six miles, the principal vegetation being patches of flax, which in damp places seemed to luxuriate in the sand. At a place called Carnarvon they left the railway and followed the Sandon road some four miles till they reached the head-quarters of the "Douglas station." Here they found a large slaughtering and boiling-down establishment, with immense shearing yards, cottages, stores, and all the requisite apparatus for converting New Zealand beef and mutton into available food for hungry Englishmen. The whole thing looked like prosperity, and on their making inquiry respecting the Douglas township a clerk was courteously told off to conduct them to it. After travelling along the sandy tracks for some seven miles a mass of bush was reached, through which a rough track was cut for about six miles. Halfway through this cutting they came upon a partially-cleared square of some three hundred acres, the site of the proposed Campbell-town. Arrived at the centre of the clearing they turned down a track for about two miles, and thus had a full view of the whole thing. The land was evidently good, but the labour requisite to make it into farms seemed immense. Not being able to ride along the newly-formed roads, they found themselves at the end of their peregrinations pretty well done up. Resuming the saddle, they once more took their way towards Sandon, passing several settlers who were gallantly hewing their way to fortune. Occasionally a saw-mill was visible, helping to clear away the all-surrounding timber. After a few miles of this they suddenly found themselves in an open country, leaving the bush, like a huge, dark hill, behind them. The transition struck them as very remarkable. Yonder was the vast mass of timber, with its undergrowth of almost trackless scrub, apparently untouched by man, and here was an open plain covered over with low fern. Nothing could be sharper than the division, and nothing seemingly more arbitrary and inexplicable. Two miles of this finely-cultivated land brought them to Sandon, well tired and fully prepared to enjoy the comforts of an hotel.
The next day was Sunday, and after breakfast they took a stroll about the town and neighbourhood till church-time. It struck them as being a very fine agricultural district, resembling in culture an English agricultural county. Far as the eye could reach, north, east, and west, stretched out a level, open country; and on the south was the weird-looking dark boundary of bush-land. After a rest somewhat prolonged, in harmony with the genius of the Day of Rest, they proceeded to Bull Town, some six miles distant, purposing to remain there for the night; but finding the scenery very enchanting and the road pleasant, they kept on their way to the flourishing township of Marton. En route they found various signs of progress and innumerable flourishing farm homesteads. The "Fox" settlement, Crofton, of Temperance notoriety, seemed to be less thriving than other places along the route. Why they did not stop to inquire. Marton struck them as being one of the most page 48 prosperous towns which they had yet seen. After refreshing themselves with a good tea at an excellent private boarding-house, and turning their horses out into an adjoining paddock, they went to the Presbyterian church, where they found a respectable old Scot discoursing abundantly sound doctrine to a score or two of somewhat somnolent hearers. They were not impressed with the attractiveness of the service, and left the church questioning the value of so ill-appointed a "means of grace." As Englishmen our travellers were struck with the contrast presented by this agricultural town or village to a similar locality at home. Instead of a few good houses and a number of more or less tumbledown hovels, the whole place resembled a city suburb of small detached houses, with their pretty gardens and various signs of comfort. Entering the humblest of them, the homes of labourers, instead of the inevitable bread and lard, with a frying-pan full of potatoes dashed with American bacon-fat, there was the good joint of beef or mutton; and waiting in the pot on the Colonial oven, was the accompanying plum-pudding. And well it might be so, for whereas wages were high, the best fresh meat could be bought for threepence per pound.
The next morning they rose early and rode to Wairoa, seven miles distant, to breakfast, passing through a very steep and beautiful gorge, with a rapid stream at the bottom to ford. The country through which they passed was level, and apparently very rich. The town of Wairoa, or Carlyle, is a small, thriving place, showing signs of rapid progress. Leaving Carlyle, they passed through another gorge to level country, quite open, but bounded on the horizon with dark, long lines of bush. On their left was the sea in the distance, and northward before them, rising solitary and sublime, like a Gladstone among European politicians, was the far-famed Mount Egmont. This glorious vision was not soon to leave them. All day long it haunted them, hidden only occasionally by clouds, which seemed to rise from its mighty base and make its sides and top their home. Every now and then the snow-clad top and patches of snow on the sides would show through the lighter clouds, giving the mountain a singularly enchanting appearance. Then as those clouds melted and passed away the outline gradually appeared again, looking like an immense cone connecting earth and sky. Four or five miles page 50 beyond Wairoa they entered a series of gorges, which brought them down to the Patea river—a fine stream, equal to the Wanganui Crossing it by a bridge, a steep road brought them to Patea, another rising township with its full complement of stores, hotels, &c. Finding their horses pretty well done up, they left them a mile or two the other side of Patea, and so reached the town on foot. Passing onwards a six miles' walk brought them to Rakaramia, where, finding a good hotel, they resolved to "rest and be thankful." The last two miles were done on a bullock-dray, a rough, strong kind of platform with a long pole in front, to which were harnessed by a yoke and chain two bullocks, and in front of these were two more similarly yoked. The driver had a long whip, and by continually talking to the beasts, calling them by their names, and a free use of his whip, he managed to get the seemingly unmanageable animals along admirably. What a man would do with four such great brutes, "unaccustomed to the yoke," it required no great foresight to predict.
After a good night's rest our travellers, now reduced to footmen, started for Manuthai, determining there to breakfast The five miles' walk carried them through sundry gorges, and on leaving this little place their path lay through a fertile country, with the usual alter-nations of hill and dale. Their next halt was eleven miles distant from Manuthai, at a place called Hawera, a flourishing town with three or four good hotels, &c. Passing on towards Normanby they fortunately got a ride for a few miles. This very modern town already boasted of its hotel, which our travellers deemed one of the best they had yet stopped at. These hotels are quite a feature of colonial life. They are mostly well fitted up, and altogether unlike the average English public-house. They are, in fact, public boarding-houses. Three times a day in a large dining-room a bell summons the visitors together, and there is found an abundance of solid food, but no strong drink. Tea or coffee may be had at each meal, but stronger drinks can only be got at the bar. The charges vary from one shilling to two shillings per meal, and the utmost order prevails. Most hotels boast of an Alcock's billiard-table, a celebrated Melbourne maker, but no drinking is allowed in the room. The charge for a bed is usually one shilling and sixpence, and fees to servants are unknown. Leaving Normanby in the morning they pushed on to Kitemaria, across a fine, open, pasture country. Straight before them was glorious Mount Egmont, seeming more majestic than ever, as it stood out in the clear morning air without a cloud to drape its bold outline. As they gazed upon it, rising from its thirty mile diameter-base to the skies, the lines of Coleridge on Mont Blanc, as viewed from the valley of Chamouni, rose involuntarily to their thoughts, and they found themselves asking—
"Hast thou a charm to stay the morning star
In his steep course? So long he seems to pause
On thy bald, awful head, O sovran Blanc ?"
A few miles of walking brought them to the mountain track, a rough way, a chain wide, cut right through the bush for some thirty miles. The appearance of the road, if such a track can be called a road, was very singular. Right before them appeared nothing but a seemingly interminable avenue, with trees on either side. After walking three or four miles, however, they reached a valley, down which they wended their way, and found at the bottom a beautiful stream with a quantity of fine watercress growing in it. They stopped and partook of the true hermit's fare, washing it down with the delicious "mountain dew." Some miles further on they came to a large clearing of some six hundred acres, and learnt that it was a new town to be called Stratford, the junction of the railway from New Plymouth to Wellington, where the branch strikes oft' to Napier, right through the very centre of the island. Here they found signs of life and enterprise. Gangs of men were felling trees, and others were erecting sheds for stores and lodgings. Passing through this place they again entered the lane of bush, and another mile, making sixteen since they started in the morning, brought them to a lodging-house where they found welcome rest. After tea they sallied forth to see the process of clearing, and coming upon some woodmen who were felling a huge giant of the forest they essayed to render help. The tree in question was some 120 ft. high, and from. 4 to 5 ft. in diameter near its base. A large notch had been cut in the side on which it was intended it should fall, and the men were at work cutting away on the opposite side. By-and-by sundry slight creaks were heard, and all were warned to look out. They one and all retreated some 20 or 30 feet. Now the ominous creaks became louder and more frequent, and looking up they saw a slight, leaning motion. This gradually increased, and the noise grew louder, and then slowly, gracefully, gradually the monarch bowed his head and submitted to his fate. With a shock like the crack of doom, and a thud which shook the solid earth like an earthquake, the huge tree came to the ground. It was an interesting and exciting scene.
On the following day they once more resumed their journey through the bush, and as they drew near the end of the romantic avenue signs of life and activity became visible. This forest tract was to become a metalled road, and side by side with it would run the future railway. Newly-built bridges became apparent, and indicated the progress of the intended roads. Gangs of men also were seen at intervals along the track making cuttings at the top of some of the ridges, and filling up the hollows. As they drew nearer Ingle-wood the railway works became more developed, and for some miles they walked along the newly-made road. Tired and wearied they at length reached Ingle wood, the terminus of the New Plymouth Railway, and after waiting a couple of hours they secured seats in a train to Plymouth, where they arrived about 6.30 P.M. fit only for tea and bed.
Another Sunday morning found our travellers refreshed by a good night's rest and in a good frame of mind for a visit to the Presbyte- page 52 rian Church. They found the church a plain building, and about one quarter full. The singing was good, and the sermon on the "Grapes of Eshcol" was thoroughly enjoyed. The pastor appeared to be a man of considerable mental power, and his command of language was exceptionally good. In the afternoon they witnessed the arrival of the Union Steam-Ship Company's steamer the Taiaroa, and a most exciting affair it was. The steamer lay about a third of a mile from the beach, and the passengers and merchandize had to be landed by surf-boats—a most laborious process, and not free from danger in rough weather. Half the inhabitants appeared to be out witnessing the arrival, and two hours and a half were consumed in getting off the consignment of passengers and freightage. With proper conveniences the work might be done in half-an-hour. On Monday they devoted the day to further exploration of the interesting locality. Mounting a high hill overlooking the town they saw the old blockade used in the late destructive Maori war. It is now converted into immigration barracks. Strong palings surround it, in which slots are cut, through which the defenders fired upon the hostile natives. The view from this hill was very fine, and revealed a country rich in all agricultural requisites. When the projected harbour is carried out Taranaki, or New Plymouth as it is to be in future called, will take rank among the most important of the New Zealand ports.
Having thus accomplished their task our travellers commenced their return journey, resolving, however, to make a detour at Sandon, or Sansona, as it is named in the maps. Instead of going viâ Foxton, they struck off eastward for Awahuri, in order to see the Fielding settlement of the "Colonist Emigration Aid Association," whose office is in Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster, London. On reaching the Awahuri valley they saw in the distance the huts of this township. Finding an hotel at the Awahuri river they put up at it. The place seemed very quiet, but the land was good, and there was plenty for sale. A native settlement existed in the valley, and at the hotel numbers of Maoris as usual congregated during the evening.
On the following morning they left Awahuri for Palmerston, some eight miles distant. The ride took them through a bush country interspersed with small clearings of settlers. They found Palmerston a new settlement, with a square of good clean grass-land, through the centre of which ran the railway from Foxton to Wanganui. The only building in the centre of this square was the station. Stores, banks, &c., clustered around it, while outside the square were the homes of the settlers. Having breakfasted at this infant settlement they proceeded along the railway track for some two miles, and then re-entered the bush. About nine miles from Palmerston they came upon a large swamp leading down to the Manuwatu River. Crossing this in a ferry-boat they found themselves confronted with the Manuwatu range of hills. Winding up the road for about two miles they came to the entrance of the celebrated Manuwatu Gorge. Their way then led for four miles through this page 53 gorge until they ascended to a road cut out on the mountain side. The gorge fully sustained the universal verdict respecting it. Nothing could exceed its wildly romantic character. They had beneath them the river now rushing along in rapids, with a roar like those just above Niagara Falls, and now slowly and gradually like those Canadian rapids after they have taken their tremendous leap and are flowing peacefully into the Ontario lake. Both sides of the gorge were well-nigh perpendicular, and some four or five hundred yards high. A rich foliage quite covered them down to the water's edge. Coaches traverse the seemingly dangerous pass, and the need of good nerves on the part of both coachman and passengers may be inferred from the fact that he dares not let his horses walk round the many curves, lest they should stumble. Security is sought in a sharp trot, keeping the horses at full tension as it were, and too much occupied to shy. In places they saw the wheel tracks within a few inches of the edge of a precipice, to go over which would be instant death to all. Occasionally they came upon vast overhanging masses of ironstone rock which only needed loosening to sweep away road and all that was thereon. The roadway was a narrow ledge from 6 to 8 feet wide, and even less in some places. As our travellers passed along they were favoured with exceptional alternations of weather, which served to bring out the beauties of the gorge. Now a glimpse of sunshine, then a shower of rain; anon a dark cloud would throw a sepulchral gloom over all; then an exquisite rainbow would throw its resplendent form athwart the abyss. The wondrous changes of colour and beauty were simply indescribable, and, like an occasional sunset over the Nelson mountains, must be seen to be at all understood.
At length the gorge opened out and they approached a large bridge over the river at a considerable height above it. Passing over this they were soon again in the bush, but had every now and then a beautiful view of the country and of the river. A three or four mile ride brought them to Woodville, a new settlement through which the coaches ran to Napier and the east coast, some hundred miles distant. Here they stayed the night. On leaving Woodville the next day they entered on a forty mile bush road which leads to Masterton, sixty miles off. Their journey of twenty-seven miles that day to Elecuhuna involved riding through four rivers, two of which were wide and rapid currents, just high enough and strong enough to test the mettle of the travellers.
After heavy rains travellers have to wait for days before they can get over, and many a fool-hardy adventurer has been swept away in the attempt. The horse has but to make one false step amid the boulders, and at once rider and horse are in the power of the merciless torrent. Several Maori pahs were passed and numbers of natives in all varieties of dress and undress. One old Maori came out of his hut to speak to them, but they did not understand his speech. Happily they were able to do something which he understood. Offering him some tobacco he thankfully put out his hand to page 54 receive it, revealing as he did so, absolute nakedness saving the blanket thrown around him. Their road for the most part, was an absolutely straight line cut right through the dense bush. They came upon a party of surveyors near the end of their ride, hard at work at their invaluable pioneering duties.
At length the wild, rough Scandinavian settlement of Elecuhuna was reached. Here they passed a night and interviewed the settlers. They were not favourably impressed with the foreigners, who appeared to be a soulless race of toiling money-grubs, with but one object in life and but one hope, bartering away generosity and all that makes man superior to the brutes for little piles of one pound notes. Leaving the Scandinavians to their destiny our travellers pursued their way in the morning through the remainder of the bush. At length they emerged from the sylvan road and came to a large open plain, bounded as usual all round with immense hills, save where the forest lay from which they had just emerged. They found the land there in cultivation, but of an indifferent quality, a light, stony soil. About three miles further on they came to a river, and crossing it they found an excellent road of some six miles in length, with good farms scattered along its course. This road led to Masterton, a business-like town, with shops equal to any they had seen in New Zealand, and which would not discredit Regent Street, London.
Everything indicated prosperity. They stopped one night in the town and then took the road leading to Featherstone. Their road lay across a level country with the immense Rematucka range of hills on their right and in front of them. Crossing a wide stream by a bridge they came to a long, straight road of about six miles, which brought them to Carterton, a long, straggling township in a very early stage of formation. Passing this they once more entered the bush, which was fast disappearing before the advancing civilisation.' Settlements and clearings grew more and more numerous, indeed the six miles were but a continuous series of them. They learnt that all the necessaries of the settlers were supplied from Wellington, and as that city was sixty miles off and all must come by road, the traffic was very considerable. They frequently met immense wagons laden with goods and drawn by six or eight horses, reminding them of the state of things in England forty years prior to the railway era. The township of Featherstone they found to be a small, neat affair, nestling at the feet of a huge range of hills. The railway works caused considerable activity among the Feather-stonians, a number of the workmen residing there temporarily. Near the town was a formidable engineering exploit, a tunnel of some miles in length through the mountain chain to Katokie, the present terminus of the Wellington railway.
Leaving Featherstone early on the day following their arrival they at once commenced an ascent of the range of hills. Their road was in reality a vast mountain pass, longer and higher than any they had yet been along. The track, cut as usual out of the side of the mountain, was thirteen miles long, although probably the distance as a page 55 bird would fly would not exceed four miles. Occasionally their road seemed immediately before them, only some 100 feet above their heads, but to reach it they must wind round sundry bends and crevices, and come back again on the other side, thus going a mile or more to get a 100 yards. Here, in these mountain gorges, were evidently the manufactory and the home of the notorious Wellington winds. Our travellers found it hard work to hold their own against them, and it is no unusual thing for a cart and horse to be swept clean away by them, so terrific is their normal force. On reaching the top of the high mountain chain they had an imposing view of the surrounding country through occasional gaps in the bush. A descent of seven miles brought them to Puratakaka, where they arrived by 10 o'clock, quite ready to do full justice to a good breakfast. The remainder of the distance to Wellington, twenty-nine miles, was done by rail. They reached that city by 5 o'clock, having accomplished about 600 miles of travel in twenty-four days. The weather on the whole was good, and the trip such an one as they will never forget. The abiding impression left on their minds was that the country was pre-eminently a grand and glorious one, one which not New Zealanders only, but every citizen of the British Empire might be justly proud of. It had clearly all the elements of prosperity about it, and more nearly resembled the promised land of the Israelites than even Canaan itself did. It was indisputably "a good land, a land of hills and valleys; a land of brooks and rivers; a land of sunshine and of song; a land whose stones are iron;" its sand along the sea-shore at Taranaki being literally of iron, and out of whose hills you may not only "dig brass" but gold, silver, copper, tin, marble, and "all precious minerals."