The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, October 1904
A Dislocated Note in the Sunny North
A Dislocated Note in the Sunny North.
There is, probably, no district in New Zealand that has so many distinctive characteristics as the North Auckland peninsula, characteristics or vegetation, of physical features, of the people themselves, and of climate, the last perhaps causal of the others. North of Auckland it is nowhere so far from sea to sea that a man cannot ride the distance in a day. Yet he must be a good horseman and well mounted that would traverse the length of this peninsula, from Auckland to the North Cape, in a week. The peninsula is so broken by fertile volcanic regions alternating with pipe clay land that it would be possible to take a man across it in several places and let him see scarcely an acre of bad land. Again, the route might be so chosen that lie should see scarcely an acre of good land. And the route might he through scenery of the most charming, or, on the other hand, of the least charming kind. But it were well not to make the journey in the Winter, because the Winter is worse there than in other places, but because the roads are, for the most part, unmetalled. Travelling on them is delightful in Summer if there is not too much dust; but in Winter your horse sinks to the hocks (local people say to the girths) at almost every step for miles together; or if the road he on clay and there is not much traffic, he slides about as if he were on ice. A golden rule that often suffices for safety, though not for comfort, is this :—"Keep off the road."
To give any account of the far North that should be at all complete would take long, and the account would probably find few readers. Then, though it is a region full of interest, though some of our loveliest scenery is to be found there, though it has seen much of stirring and romantic adventure and has been the scene of a war marked by heroic incident and by a curious chivalry—in spite of the temptations that these things involve, I propose- to confine this note to its gum-fields and its gum-diggers. Even so, the note must be scrappy and incomplete.
A gum-field is usually a somewhat uninviting place. A large field may be miles across— clay hills and valleys clothed with sparse manuka and other plants, its lower parts often swampy, owing to causes that need not be discussed here, page 13 much of the gum is found to-day in the poorest land in the North—clay containing silicious sand. This often rings like rock when it is dry, but when it is wet it is soft and heavy. The swamps are often so wet that even in Summer men work in the water, and here the gum-spear is especially useful.
A large gum-field may be traversed by a perfect maze of "roads" and tracks running from one or other of the gum-camps to the main road or to the shore, or from one camp to another. Of course it is to he understood that a "road" is only a place along which men and horses and storm-water (especially storm-water) travel, and that has thus become more or less bare and worn. Often the main. road is no more than this, and a traveller following it across a gum field is constantly in danger of leaving it for one of the better marked side tracks. I'm afraid mental as well as physical discursiveness attends this question of roads, for I feel a scarcely resistible tendency to branch off into a discussion on the subject. And I must in this connection recall the casual ways of the light-hearted digger, who observes that the tracks worn through the scrub are more easily dug than land that is less bare. He sees a likely spot, and forthwith he digs, often. deeply. He has, moreover, a wonderful art in digging so that, if he strikes a pocket of gum, he moves no more of the surface soil than he need, but works under it, making a hole much wider below than above. The beauty of this achievement lies here—your horse need not actually put his foot into the hole to be brought down. If he steps near the edge he has good prospect of bleaking the over-hanging poi tion, his leg, and the rider's neck all in one act. A track thus undermined need only to be covered with water to give all the promise of excitement that a strange" wants, especially if his horse is timid. Even the king's highway is not exempt; one may at times and digging, though not of the particularly dangerous kind just spoken of, on a coach road.
Gum camps vary in. appearance according to the permanence and character of the field A. camp of the better order contains a number of weather-board houses more or less well furnished, but nearly always unpainted. Frequently families reside in these houses. The less permanent camps comprise tents, or sod-huts, or a combination "building" of tent and sods. These can be made very comfortable.
Many camps are formed by Austrian diggers. These men are almost always friendly; but if they have been only a short time in the colony it is very difficult to understand them. The settlers and storekeepers speak well of the Austrians as peace page 14 ful and industrious, generally sober, and with a habit of paying their debts. They have shown in some districts a wish to acquire land and to become permanent settlers. In several cases they have taken up holdings abandoned by the British settle' and are working them successfully. As might be expected they turn their attention readily to vine-growing.
The British gum-diggers are very hospitable, always glad to hear news from the outer world, but often with the taciturnity that comes of isolation. Much has been said, of titled gum diggers. There are such men but they are not so common as is believed. Numbers of men of good family and good education are to be found on the fields, but they are not a large proportion of the gum-digging population. The large proportion of gum-diggers would, if they lived in towns, be classified under the head of "Unskilled Labour." Gum-digging Society is very "mixed." Its best men are very fine fellows indeed, whatever be their birth and education: its worst are—well, undesirables. Taking it all round, gum-digging morality is probably not much below nor much above the average morality of the Colony.
The Maori gum-digger is the Maori living spasmodically the life of the European labourer. The Maoris do not, as a rule, form permanent camps in the gum-fields but go to them, men, women, and often children, when planting or dolce far niente does not demand their presence in the kainga. On the field they work hard and get much gum, but often to little permanent advantage. They live on European food, bought at the store, and find that pleasant enough to compensate for the hardships of earning it. At the close of their sojourn on the gum-fields they are sometimes a little better off than when it began.
When the gum-field storekeeper is the lessee of the field (and incidentally the publican) much depends upon him. A large hearted man could do much good: a selfish man does much harm. As the storekeeper provides many of the diggers with their outfit they often start in his debt. Naturally he expects them not only to sell their gum to him but also to get all their supplies from him. It can be seen that the possibilities are great. Probably an ideal state of things cannot be approached until the Government becomes the owner of all fields, but obviously there are enormous difficulties in the way of that.
The gum-digger appears to be less afflicted with the disease called taihoa than most people in the North. The name page 15 of this disease is Maori, and it means "bye and bye" or "wait." It was probably climatic in its origin, although it afflicts the Maori from the North Cape to Stewart Island. It is endemic in the North, and Europeans are frequently attacked by it. A new settler feels that he is too strong for it and will never be attacked; but sooner or later it comes. If he succumbs to the attack he usually remains a victim to the end of his days. It does not seem to impair his happiness; but he never admits that he has it, although he frequently deplores the sad condition to which other victims have been reduced. The mental effects of this disease are peculiar; but may be summed up in the unrecognised motto of the afflicted: "Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow." Perhaps clinical examination, involving the observation of a couple of incidents will give a good idea of the disease in its bad form. In this form one sometimes meets it in happy Hokianga, one of the most attractive places in the North, and a place where one meets a great number of very nice people, some of them not afflicted with the disease at all.
Incident observed in connection with case 1.
You ride into a little place that has seen better days, a place situated in a low spur running down to Hokianga harbour. You are going up the harbour (the "river" it is called.) You take up your quarters at the hotel, make the acquaintance of the groom (Maori) and go with him to feed your horse. You say "Now Bene, I am going up the river. Here's half-a crown, look after my horse well. Give him three feeds a day, and put plenty of oats in. When I come back you'll get another half-crown." He grins and gives you to understand that your confidence is well placed. You go away and come back two days after. As you land on the little pier, just in time for lunch, you look up the street and see your horse hanging his head over the paddock fence. He sees you and trumpets loudly—a note that has expectation in it as Well as pleasant welcome, perhaps more of the former than the latter. You find the groom. "Well, Bene, has my horse had his breakfast this morning ?" He smiles : "Oh, not yet! Plenty time I" The man has taihoa, chronic taihoa.
Incident observed in connection with case 2.
You have to come down one arm of the harbour and go up another in the same day. No oil-launch is available, and you know your boatman will only go with the tide,-small blame to him for that, as the tide runs like a river. You must start with an ebb that will take you down to the junction about the time that tide begins to flow up the other arm. You engage a settler (European) to take you, and he says that 6.30 in the morning is the latest time for starting. He will bring his boat and pick you up at that time. You get your breakfast by candle light and are out on the bank in good time. The boatman is not there. You wait till seven and then send for him. You learn that he is just having his breakfast and will be with you in ten minutes. At seven-thirty you send again, loading your messenger with impatient words. You learn that the boatman is just putting the rowlocks in the boat. At eight you borrow a boat and row page 16 down alone. You afterwards hear that the man came at eight thirty, and expressed his unflattering opinion of you for being in such a lurid hurry. Again you diagnose taihoa.
The disease, although most prevalent in the North, exists elsewhere. One even hears reports of cases in Wellington.
I don't know how much of this the Editor, in compassion for his readers and his solicitude for his circulation, will cut out; but I expect it would all go into the waste basket if I were even to touch on the hundred points that I have left alone. After all, no one expects him to convert "Spike" into a hedgehog.