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Pioneering the Pumice

Chapter IX: Adventure

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Chapter IX: Adventure

Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety”—King Henry IV (Part I, Act II, Scene III).

Those who may imagine the backblocks of New Zealand to be a wild west show with guns, revolvers, knives and violence are quite mistaken. But occasions do arise when courage is most necessary. The Hindu who said to me: “Might I never come back” was quite correct. He had kept a store at Reporoa and his debtors had removed to a distant bush. He offered me an enormous commission to collect his debts. I assured him that I was not in that line of business and asked:

“Why don't you collect them yourself?”

“Might I never come back!”

An unknown, friendless person might easily meet with an accident. This black-skinned, weakling son of India had had one or two experiences already. A Maori entered his shop and, after selecting a complete outfit from head to foot regardless of expense was suddenly seized with doubts as to whether the new garments would prove a good fit. Upon persuasion the Hindu permitted his customer to enter his dwelling for the purpose of trying the clothes on. Out stalks our Maori, brushing the Hindu aside, and leaving his old rags as a fair exchange. However, I understand he did not pocket any of the Hindu's personal properties in the room. Some folk are slow to seize opportunities and things!

On another occasion I had a relative of the capturer of Winiata working for me on a small contract for £10. I gave him stores to the value of £3 15s. for a start, when up came a bill from the Hindu for over £9. I hunted up my contractor and page 131 asked him what he meant by it and what he intended doing about it. His answer was: “The black b——can wait.” Seeing that he himself was nearly as black as the ace of spades I thought it rather rich. I understand that the Hindu is still waiting!

Notwithstanding these incidents the Maoris are, taken “by and large” a good-natured, good-tempered, peaceable folk, and naturally polite. But here is another exception — one Pukuriri. He was a medium kind of shearer and had worked for me at two or three shearings. However, on this occasion he was in a bad temper and was knocking the sheep about. I warned him, but shortly observed a weak sheep he had shorn standing in the port hesitating to go down the ramp. Pukuriri stuck his shears into its rump, when the animal leaped forward and fell down in the count-out pen.

“Riri that won't do; go down and lift that sheep up.”

“It will get up itself, e hoa.”

“Never mind that; go down and lift it up.”

After some growling he crawled through the port and down the ramp, stretched forth his hand, seized the sheep by its hind legs and twisted it up. When he returned I said:

“That's enough, Riri. Put your machine down. Finish.” At that he jumped around and followed me about cursing and threatening. Not being a good Maori linguist I failed to follow his rapid stream of words; but, when he used the word pukukuhua (the Maori language is strangely deficient in swear words — a defect remedied by numerous adaptations from the Pakeha) I knew he was deeply moved. At the smoke-oh my head Maori came to me and said: “You look out that ferrow. He threaten murder you.” The next morning very early (shearing starts at 5 a.m. in sheer defiance of the forty-hour week) I went to the Maori camp. “E Riri,” I said, “is it true that you threatened to murder me.” He shuffled but I held him to it, and he finally page 132 denied that he had done so. “That's all right,” I said, “but if you say that word, you look out who gets killed first.” To avenge himself this chap got a great dog which would kill without barking, and every night in the paddock opposite Riri's hut a sheep was dead, or maimed, or missing. After talking the matter over with my men we decided to patrol the river bank all night, taking it in turns. When it was my turn I must conless that I did not enjoy myself. At any moment this hefty Maori, the bully of the tribe, with his great dog might appear. If I could head him off in his canoe it would be comparatively easy. But, suppose he had landed. Which should I shoot first the man or the dog? Alone in the silence of the night with your nerves high strung, any unusual sound or circumstance causes you to “start.” One night I was patrolling near to a mob of lambs when there was a sudden commotion. Here we are I thought, and quickly dropped on one knee behind a small manuka bush — for it is well to have a sight of the enemy before he sees you. In this case it proved to be a hare running through the mob, and the lambs had evidently mistaken it for a dog!

A fortnight having elapsed and no appearance of the defendant, we knocked off the patrol. That very night a sheep was killed. Then I found out that the chattering she-fool in the house had told a Maori woman what we were going to do! After that I would go down after dinner and walk about till midnight; or get up at two o'clock and walk about till daybreak. Mr. Riri never knew when I would be there and his attacks ceased. Some months later I found three of our friend's dogs among my sheep. Getting one of my men we took guns and crossed the river. Arriving at his whare we found that he was not there, but the dogs were, and we shot them. I then sued him for the sheep killed by the three dogs and obtained judgment which he failed to satisfy. In the end I attached his wagon and team and my damages were discharged. But I got nothing page 133 for the killings of the “strong silent” dog. Riri's star was now in the descendant. One morning a Maori came to the homestead terribly excited:

“Riri the bad man,” he gasped.

“Tell me something I don't know,” I said, “but what's the matter now?”

“By gorry very near he kill Rangi. Yes! very near he kill Rangi and Mrs. Rangi and all the famry.”

“Good God,” I exclaimed. “I'll get a few medicines and bandages and things and come over at once.”

“Oh! they newer hurt e hoa.”

After considerable questioning I found that Pukuriri had taken a gun to Rangi's house and threatened to shoot father, mother and children. My informant, with others, had headed him off. Shortly after this another Maori, a much greater fighter than Riri, came to live at Ohaki and he soon put the oldtime bully in a back seat. Riri then came to me for protection.

“Riri,” I said, “aren't you the man who threatened to murder me?”

“Oh yes, e hoa; but I newer do it!”

When the new bully started to knock the women about (including my old friend Ripeka) I straightened him up and gave him the option of being handed over to the police or leaving the settlement. He chose the latter. As he went away he met his young sister who unfortunately had £5 belonging to their father. When she would not give it up he took it from her and by way of reward gave her a hiding to go on with. Among themselves the Maoris are still at times rather primitive.

As for the Englishman he must never let himself down to the Maori level. He must be the rangatira, the boss, and maintain his dignity and authority. He must never show the white feather or retreat in any way. He must be absolutely just and quite firm.

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I once saw in an advertisement of an hotel for sale the main advantage plainly set out: “Nearest policeman twenty-one miles”; and I soon began to sense that Broadlands had the same attraction for the criminal and that I was getting a class of men whose chief object in life was to get away as far as possible from the police. Several gave rather serious trouble and I was glad to get them away without bloodshed. When I summoned one of these beauties to my study to “give him the sack” he suddenly rose, locked the study door, and put the key in his pocket. His manners and language were impolite. Among other things he loudly and fiercely declared his fixed purpose to be the cutting off of my head and subjecting it to a very gross indignity. I endeavoured to pretend that I was not in the least scared, but was careful not to irritate the fellow. He cooled down and went. Subsequently I prosecuted him and had him fined for making threats “Having the present means of executing the same.” Later I had another experience of the same kind.

And again, just after the departure of distinguished guests, I heard a noise in the kitchen. Upon enquiry I found the door blocked by a table and I was assured through a slight opening that the furniture was being moved. Repeated noise upon an ascending scale caused my return to the charge. This time I entered and beheld my married couple lying on the floor in pools of blood. It appeared that their great affection for one another had been demonstrated with lumps of firewood. I ordered the man to rise and, in his semi-dazed condition I contrived to push him into their bedroom and there beheld the fons et origo of the trouble — a dozen beer bottles emptied of their contents. Not being able to procure a taxi immediately I had to harbour these gentlefolk till the next morning.

Not very long after my taking up my country a gang of cattle thieves acquired from the Crown a lease of fifty thousand acres adjoining me at the back. These sports did not as a rule venture page 135 on to anyone's holding to duff the cattle. They would open boundary gates and wait for cattle to wander out. Several times I had the police after them but without success. They had a curious camp on the Rangitaiki River fenced in with strips of flax having pieces of fluttering calico tied on. Animals seemed frightened of this contraption and would not go near it. Finally we got one of the gang for forging a cheque, and two more for stealing chaff. To give them their due they were very successful in mustering the wild horses. When they had a mob of a hundred or two they would hold a sale in Rotorua when the animals would usually make about five shillings a leg and a bob for the tail. One time they had a bad sale and decided to hold many of the horses over. Unfortunately they had no feed, but they had ideas. At that time the R. M. Company used to feed one hundred and fifty horses in their Rotorua Stable. Our heroes then took to following the man feeding these horses and scooping the chaff into sacks and carrying it to their own brumbies. These three gentlemen having been provided with lodgings by the Government, the happy home on the Rangitaiki was broken up and the industry of horse mustering and cattle duffing ended. One day, being near my back boundary, I had perceived a fire on my country and was going over to investigate when I remembered I had given a neighbour permission to bring cattle through. But it turned out that it was our bushranger friends: and perhaps had I gone over you would never have had the opportunity of reading this truthful but yet entertaining history!

We ourselves used occasionally to ride out after wild horses and cattle. There are several ways of catching horses. The best way of all was to pay a Maori to do it for you. But if you wanted to be quite authentic and do it for yourself you firstly made a wire noose and fastened the other end to a big bundle of brush. The noose being placed across a main track you drove page 136 horses in that direction when one would put his head in the snare and dragging the bundle would soon tire him out. Secondly, by a sudden rush, drive the horses into a swamp and bog them. Thirdly run them down and lassoo them. Having caught your horse there remained getting it home, in which process you usually received more kicks than halfpence: and always you took the risk of breaking your neck or spoiling a good horse to catch a poor one. In a cattle hunt several men were necessary. The thing was to stand off and head the animals in the way they should go. So you got them inside your fence and finally into your yards — where just take care of yourself.

One day I was out in the plains with a couple of neighbours searching for a good track into my bush. Riding down a narrow rocky gorge we passed a calf curled up and apparently asleep. Presently we came on the mother. When she rushed at us head down we were fortunate in that she stumbled over a large stone and we rushed past assuring her that we would not dream of separating her from her beloved offspring — in her eyes probably the prettiest and cleverest calf in the world.

Until recently there was a large prison camp on the plains at the back of Broadlands. One evening there was a great barking of dogs while we were at dinner. I went to the door and shouted them down. When the men returned to their quarters they came back to report the loss of our best riding horse with saddle and bridle complete and some of the men's clothes. An escaped prisoner had favoured us with a call. He got nearly as far as Opotiki before he was caught, and the unfortunate horse was never much good afterwards.

On another occasion there was a ring from the head station:

“A prisoner has escaped; warn the settlers.”

(You will observe that the Government were always quick to use my telephone though they had thrown every obstacle in the way of my getting it.)

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“What sort of a man?”

“Oh! stands six feet two inches and weighs eighteen stone.”

“A pretty kind of a bird that! What was he in for?”

“Attempted murder of a policeman.”

I lost no time in spreading the glad tidings, and there was great carrying of guns by day and locking of doors by night. In a few days some Maoris rushed in exclaiming:

E hoa we see the track the here here.”


“Near Waimahana.”

I rang the head station whose response was to the effect that they would have men down in about half-an-hour; meanwhile would I give the Maoris a lead? A pretty job for a man my size! However I despatched my Maoris. “No guns,” I said, “just keep the man in sight. I will be along with the police quite soon.” Then I rang the neighbours and all agreed to assemble at the Waimahana Bridge right away. I despatched a boy for horses.

The lad was frightfully keen on coming. He got the horses saddled while I prepared serviceable manuka waddies. Arrived at the bridge not a soul was there. Subsequently I listened to the old song “My Wife Won't Let Me.” Who doubts the usefulness of a spouse? After waiting a while I decided to go on and soon saw a group on the road. The Maoris had got their man; notwithstanding my orders they had taken their guns and held him up. When I came up the prisoner angrily asked:

“What's them sticks for?”

“Don't you come too close or you'll b—soon find out.”

I was riding my valiant horse Pompey and my plan was, in the event of trouble, to stick the “hooks” in and jump all over the man. However he blew off steam in a flow of lurid language constituting a record for quality, speed and volume (or, as one might say, for number of ohms as well as voltage and amperage) — the burden of it being the debased nature of a white man who page 138 would help the police, and the emphatic promise that he would without fail give me the pleasure of his company the very day he got out of prison. This explosion over without anyone having suffered anything more than moral and intellectual damages I surrounded the man with hefty Maoris and marched him along. We had done three miles before we saw anything of His Majesty's forces. Three warders met us and I handed the prisoner over. We took him into a settler's house and refreshed him with tea and sandwiches. When the police car arrived the man defied the warders to put handcuffs on him and they departed without, amid vigorous au revoirs and kind remembrances to my debased self! When this man came before the court the judge gave him great praise for not having murdered anyone while he was out!

It is, perhaps, unwise to have one's life too heavily insured — to be worth more dead than alive. It must be remembered that any form of insurance inevitably increases the risk which it is supposed to cover. Be that as it may, it is unwise in remote regions to carry money about with you. Hakaraia, the man who murdered his mate for the sake of a few banknotes he had on him, was in my employ for quite a while.

Talking of being worth more dead than alive; it would be amusing if it were not so sad that a man for whom no person on earth would have paid £250 when alive and well, becomes worth £2,500 when killed under circumstances which give his dependants a legal claim against a wealthy insurance company.

Having sold a chip of thirteen thousand acres off my estate a survey became necessary, and the surveyors established a camp out in the back of the never-never. Of course I had to supply them with stores. One afternoon I decided to deliver the goods myself, but unforseen circumstances delayed my departure and, after having successfully forded the intervening river, darkness overtook me on the way out. Looking after a packhorse as well page 139 as your hack is also a nuisance. Having completely lost my bearings the only thing to do was to await the dawn. This interesting event has very various speeds of arrival. After the ordinary night out its coming is far too rapid; but on the occasion of this night out its coming seemed to be indefinitely postponed. Though it was freezing hard I was afraid to light a fire for fear of the heavy scrub getting ablaze — a most unpleasant predicament and that with two horses on one's hands. So I tethered the horses and lay me down to sleep without much success. My feet would stick out beyond my overcoat and get frozen. When the dilatory dawn at length arrived I quickly got my bearings and arrived at the surveyors' camp long before the milkman.

Another time I was again late but took a careful bearing by the stars on the surveyors' dwelling place. Arrived there with remarkable exactitude I found they had moved camp! Having decided where they would most likely be I started after them, but the combined effect of darkness, heavy manuka, light rain and precipices of about twenty feet decided me to have another night out, during which I discovered what enormous quantities of water will run off one's recumbent face down his devoted neck for absorption in the wilderness of underclothing. At daybreak I found myself within a few hundred yards of the new camp. With the head surveyor I climbed the hills and away out to the trig station on the Kaingaroa right on the roof of the North Island. The thing that impressed me was desolation. Within that vast range of vision was not a solitary sign of human habitation, and Carlyle's observation on the inhabitation of the stars came forcibly to my mind. Rain was still falling. My surveyor friend was carrying a tool which gave the impression that a meat-chopper had crossed with a slash-hook. With this he slashed the wettest branches across our tracks, but the thing slipped from his damp grasp and hit me a painful blow across the shin — fortunately with the back of the tool. I page 140 screamed that my leg was cut off and my friend nearly fainted with fright. It would indeed be a terrible thing if any such accident should occur away out in the never-never. Returning, we followed a beautiful gentle valley with grassy bottom.

“I don't like this valley,” I said.

“What's the matter with it?” said my surveyor. “You couldn't have better walking.”

“Yes,” I replied. “But the wild cattle and horses have not walked in it. Absence of a track argues a precipice at the end.”

“There's no precipice in this country I can't get down.”

After a while we came to a small drop — just three or four feet. Drops of increasing height succeeded. After precipitating ourselves down a precipice of about twenty-five feet we struck the grand finale, a sheer drop of about two hundred and fifty feet. Neglecting my challenge to get down it the surveyor led the retreat, but we found that the ascent of the twenty-five foot precipice was totally different from the descent. Facilis est descensus in Averno (The descent to Lake Avernus — or Hell—is easy)—or any other ghastly hole. There we were in a prison with perpendicular rock walls in the very midst of the wilderness. Repeated and keen survey of the situation led my experienced friend to consider one spot at the very edge of the precipice negotiable. “Right oh, you lead.” Up he scrambled, but his six feet two inches gave him an enormous advantage over my five feet four inches. However I managed it. As we rose, the precipice within a yard of our right hand, increased to about four hundred feet. Then the country sloped off into a steep face covered with very short fern. The surveyor wriggled up this on his abdomen. When I followed the disturbed soil started to carry me backwards. Fortunately I had no coat on and this enabled me to grab my sheath knife (the most useful all-round tool ever invented), with the aid of which I surmounted this final hurdle.

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I may here remark that undoubtedly surveyors are among the first and greatest of pioneers. With unrecognized but great courage they go in advance of settlement into the roughest of country laying out roads and fixing boundaries that the ways may be made straight for those who follow.

They endure rain and cold: they ford or swim the unbridged rivers: they scale and they descend the precipices hanging on by their eyebrows and the seat of their pants. Gentlemen afraid of wetting their feet and who want their clothes aired should not adopt the surveyors' profession. The accuracy of their work considering the difficulties is astonishing.

Another adventurous trip was that taken in conducting the first motor-car through the country now named Reporoa. I did not drive but gave “Gilby” (Gilbertson) an extra £1 to attempt the passage. Leaving Strathmore homestead we took ropes and spades in the car, and our lives in our hands. The track had been used only for riding and there were no bridges. At the last creek before reaching the main road it looked as if we should have to go all the way back: but we “gave it a spin” and got through. “Fortune favours the bold” is a true saying.

Burning the scrub is often fraught with danger and many a good man has lost his life in this operation. As the fire tends to surround you the heat overcomes you and the smoke fills your eyes and ears and mouth. Many a man enveloped in the smoke has lost his bearings and run into the fire instead of away from it.

On the day of the great Raetihi fire I had gone out burning with a couple of boys, this time in the standing scrub. We took a big two-horse buggy load of seed for sowing on the ashes. The horses were tethered and the buggy left in a comparatively bare patch to windward of our fire. Our fires were blazing merrily when the wind suddenly changed right round and blew a hurricane. I rushed to the buggy and just had time to let the page 142 horses go and I and they had to run for dear life. As soon as possible I returned to the buggy to find some of the harness burned, the buggy badly scorched and the grass seed on fire. Quickly separating the burning bags from the others I contrived to suppress the fire though with considerable loss of seed. Then I went after the boys. You will hardly believe it but these junior fools were still lighting fires. Talk about homo sapiens! We then had a perspiring time reversing the process and beating the fire out as well as we could.

In clearing an area I have always kept patches of the heaviest growth as a subsequent shelter for stock. The preservation of these is always difficult and sometimes adventurous. We found that, even after the fire had been successfully manoeuvred past, up the shelter would go in a sudden blaze. Some small spark or some creeping fire had undone all our toil and sweat and roasting. Latterly I had all such clumps ploughed round to stop the creeping fires and the fallen scrub on the windward side carried away to reduce the sparks. Then the fire was lit to leeward—if there should be a breeze; but we were usually out before daybreak to get a breathless burn around danger spots. Once fire has got into heavy standing scrub it is “goodbye.” In light scrub with sufficient men it may be curbed after great exertion. Another feature of burning off was this:

Along the rivers were fairly extensive flats lying about twenty feet below the general level of the country. On these grew especially heavy manuka. Down these precipices wild stock had engineered paths but, when the fire was raging, it was not always easy to reach them. Fire will travel over the mass of fallen scrub much faster than a man. At times I have had to jump into a creek to avoid the flames; at others I have been desperately clambering up the precipice with the flames just about tickling my tail.

Having discussed the danger of fire let us turn for a minute to page 143 flood. On Broadlands floods were not in fashion, the creeks being remarkably steady, and never rising or falling even as much as a foot. The Waikato River has a rise of about four feet but movement is very slow and steady. It would take “old man river” fully a month to raise himself up or let himself down. But it was far otherwise with the Waiotapu River through Strathmore. Before it was straightened and dredged it would rise many feet in a few hours and flood thousands of acres. Riding back from Rotorua one day I looked in to Waiotapu Hotel for lunch and enquired of the Lord Mayor whether it would be safe to follow the riverside track as I wished to call on Mr. Charlie Butcher. That knowledgeable authority having given a favourable verdict, I took it on. Duly arrived at the Waiotapu Valley I beheld a lake of at least five thousand acres. Foolishly I would not turn back but plunged in. When well out I reflected that there would be places where I could not detect the current of the river and might walk in and suddenly find myself swimming. While in this quandary three young horses trotted up. I contrived to head them in my direction and they led me safely through. When I arrived the Butchers could not adequately express their astonishment at this miraculous achievement. And by a town-bred blighter too!

Dear reader, have you ever attempted the crossing of a stream by walking over on a strained wire? That would be rather to out-Blondin Blondin: but in the earliest days I have often done it—sometimes on two wires one above the other. The art in this case is to keep upright, for if one allows his legs to assume the horizontal one will soon crash down out of control. Three wires are comparatively luxurious: then you take one wire in each hand and walk on the third. The arms must be kept quite rigid — otherwise you will certainly get wet. Crossing a creek by the comparatively safe method of clambering along the wires of a fence — especially if they be barbed wires — is not so very easy page 144 or free from risk. Should one strike a slack wire, or a spot where two or three staples are missing, one may fall in.

Once with some wire and a few planks we made a flimsy bridge over the Waiotapu to afford a short cut to a football match. This elegant structure was quite safe for one or two at a time: but, when the home-going folk after the match insisted on crowding it, down she came like the American bridge with the railway train and the cow on it at the same time. With great exertions we fished about seven people out of the stream and believed that we had a correct tally!

Earthquake was a not infrequent cause of alarm at Broadlands. The 'quakes at Rotorua and Taupo, strangely enough, did not seem to affect us much. We got our bad shakes from the east coast. The way to judge the intensity of an earthquake is to watch a swinging lamp and observe how close it will come to knocking a hole in the ceiling. Another method is to place a golf ball on the floor and watch it career around. We never experienced a 'quake violent enough to throw things off shelves: but the window sashweights banging about and the water swishing about in the tanks make a terrific noise which frightens many people. When the great Napier earthquake struck us I at once recognized that something quite out of the ordinary was happening. I was near the homestead and watching the trees dancing a grotesque tarantella when I heard piercing shrieks from the house. Running thither as well as I could over the heaving earth I found the housekeeper and her daughter in paroxysms of fear. They clung to me and pleaded “You won't leave us, Mr. Vaile.” “Of course not,” I replied. “I'll stop the 'quake at once.” And it stopped! After much persuasion the good women accompanied me into the house to display the havoc they had reported. Then the fun started afresh. Had I been able to put a stop-watch on those women I am sure fresh records for sprints would have been registered. In the end I page 145 found not a thing damaged, but about half the water had been jerked out of the tanks and several cracks had opened out in the earth — about nine inches wide and several feet deep, and some small cliffs had come down. The Murchison earthquake also gave us a pretty hefty bump.

One's ordinary work will now and again lead one into danger. Thus when the sills of our main bridge showed decay I decided to replace them, engaging for the purpose the local bridge-builder. He professed complete confidence in his ability to do the work: but, arrived on the job, he realized that he had forgotten to bring his sky hooks. However, I invented a method and we got two of the stringers moved without much difficulty. This gave the Maoris over-confidence and they let the third one slip. It threw me across another stringer and thence into the water. Two or three strokes brought me ashore and I was giving a few orders before going to the house for a change of clothes when attention was drawn to the fact that I was bleeding freely. Arrived home I found a deep wound right in the groin — evidently caused by a nail. Having dragged out from it a quantity of cloth I was not quite happy and rang up a doctor who insisted on immediate attendance at his studio where he removed from the wound a second and final instalment of rubbish. Had I stayed home I would soon have joined the boy whose crown was won by blowing down an empty gun and the girl who lit the fire with kerosene.

But, after all, these occasional adventures of danger by fire and flood and violence and exposure are not nearly as great a test of courage as the hourly, daily, everlasting struggle against the poverty of one's bankers, the dreadful power of resistance inherent in the wilderness and the terribly active increase of one's enemies, both animal and vegetable. The frightful fertility of the unfit and the injurious is a terrible fact as well in the backblocks as in the crowded slums of the cities.

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Added to all this is the constant fear that you may fail — lose your money and your repute and “go out on your head” penniless—as so many have done before you.

The great adventure was taking up the land. The courage consisted in maintaining the struggle till final perseverance brought the enterprise to a successful conclusion and I achieved a “Happy issue out of all my afflictions.”