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Pioneering the Pumice

Chapter XIV: Transport

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Chapter XIV: Transport

On the power to move life itself depends”—Samuel Vaile.

I remember many years ago listening to an argument between my father and a farmer as to the most important element in the value of land. The farmer held very strongly that richness of soil and abundance of water were the two absolute essentials; my father that access was the main thing. The knock-out blow came with the observation “There are millions of acres of the richest land in the moon: you may have them. I prefer even poor land that I can get on to.”

This, I think, vividly illustrates the fact that access — transport — is of fundamental importance, and so I give it a chapter to itself.

When I bought Broadlands there were several Maori main roads through it. These were not exactly up to our standard, but then maintenance did not cost £100 per mile per annum. Nor had construction cost anything. The Maoris were not foolish enough to cross the Waikato River twice (as the Pakeha has done), but kept on the Broadlands side. It was along this road that the dread Amio-whenua taua passed on its career of murder and plunder about the year 1821. All local inhabitants fled to the concealment of caves and ravines.

Another important Maori road was that from Ohaki to Murupara: and an ancient and important track led from Rangitaiki on the Napier Road to Ohaki. This effected a great page 240 short-cut on the route from Hawkes Bay to Waikato, and was more or less in use up to the time of my arrival. It was much better than most Maori tracks. Live-stock travelled that way and even wheeled traffic sometimes used it.

Down this track in the very early days a mob of four thousand sheep descended upon me. The drovers begged for a paddock with safe water, for they feared a break-away should the thirsty flock see the Waikato River. At that time I had only two paddocks — both new grass, of course: and I granted the use of one of them. In the morning I went to look at the sheep and my new paddock resembled the desert of Sahara. The hungry sheep had literally torn the grass out by the roots. I had to resow that paddock.

Warned by this, when other drovers appeared with five hundred horses I firmly refused grazing; but I allowed the mob to camp for the night. In the morning the horses had broken camp and the drovers took several days to gather them up, during which time they ate my country pretty bare. After these experiences I blocked the ancient track.

In course of time the Maori road engineers yielded pride of place to the wild horses. For long after their appearance the district was all open tussock country and the horses were very skilful at finding the best grades and situations for their tracks. These they maintained after the incursion of manuka, tutu and fern.

When the horses and cattle were shot out the tracks soon became overgrown. Tutu bushes seemed to enjoy growing right in the tracks.

In the very beginning of Pakeha times the only way of getting about was on foot through swamps and rivers and forests and over mountain ranges. Then came pack bullocks, to be followed by pack horses. As soon as roads a few feet wide were cut bullock drays followed and then bullock wagons. Rotorua traffic page 241 came to Cambridge and to Tauranga by steamer and thence by bullock wagon. At the time of my arrival the pack bullock had completely disappeared and bullock drays were very seldom seen: but there were still several bullock teams operating wagons, and I have admired the skill of drivers in backing their clumsy vehicles through narrow gateways and passages. I wonder if there is still anyone alive who could wield the mighty bullock whip with that deadly accuracy which could flick a fly off the near ear of the off leader? Now the bullock wagon has faded completely out of the picture, and even the pack-horse has gone.

Strenuous in action as well as eloquent in expletives, the “bullocky” was a wonderful aid to the civilization of the wilderness. Prior to the making of roads he was there with his great lumbering wagon harnessed to three or four pair (or “yoke”) of oxen, crashing through dense scrub, negotiating grades apparently impossible and crossing the unbridged rivers as long as the bullocks could reach the bottom with their feet. His great patient beasts were the precursors of horses. They were slower, but gave a steadier and more combined pull — “A long pull and a strong pull and a pull all together.” But their greatest advantage was cheapness. The animals cost but little — any heavy bullock not too old could be broken in to the work. A wild beast harnessed between two tame bullocks always lost the argument. After a year or two in the teams these bullocks taken out and quickly fattened made excellent beef. So nothing was lost on them. Upkeep, again, was nothing. The bullocks were turned out at night and they found their own food. In uninhabited country the carriage of hard feed for the use of horses on a long journey makes their employment impossible: moreover their greater speed necessitates better roads.

At the time of my appearance on the local horizon the railway had reached Rotorua, and a “dirt” road had been made thence to Taupo, passing near to Broadlands en route. For some reason page 242 rather obscure, but probably to serve Wairakei, the new road was diverted from the good old Maori track and conducted over the Waikato River and back again on two expensive bridges. That at Waimahana was not open for traffic for some time after the road. Meanwhile a very large canoe was used for ferry purposes. The coach was run on to it as it stood. On the opposite bank a fresh team of horses was waiting and the journey went merrily on. This outsize in canoes lay in the port of Broadlands for years after my arrival. Finally it drifted away “down the river.” Nobody knew and nobody cared what became of it.

During my time freights on the railways have been substantially increased: on the road they have been substantially decreased — the difference between Government control and private competition and enterprise.

In passenger transport the train used to leave Auckland at 9 a.m. and arrived at Rotorua at 5 p.m. It stopped at every station past Frankton. The passenger put up for the night and at 7.25 a.m. was served with bacon and eggs and a cup of scalding tea. At 7.30 he took his seat on the Taupo coach with three horses in the lead and two in the pole. Waiotapu was reached at 11 a.m., and here a stop of about one and a-half hours was made in order that the passengers might see the sights and have lunch, and that a fresh team of horses might be put in the coach. The coach got to my turn-off about 2 p.m. At the forty-mile stables horses were changed again and Taupo finally reached about 5 p.m. On the return trip the coach passed my turn-off about 10.30 a.m. and arrived at Waiotapu about 12.30. A stop was made for sight-seeing and physical refreshment and the change of horses. Arrival at Rotorua was about 5 p.m. One put up for the night and took the “express” at 9 a.m. arriving in Auckland about 5 p.m., so that the journey each way took two days.

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Latterly I could leave Broadlands at 3 p.m. and arrive in Auckland at 11 p.m. the same day. On the return journey, nowadays the express leaves Auckland at 10.10 a.m. and arrives Rotorua 4.15 p.m. There my patient old motor awaits me and gets me out to Broadlands by 5.45 p.m. in time for dinner. Or I could leave Auckland at 7.10 p.m.: sleep at Frankton: on again at 7.29 a.m., reaching Rotorua at 11.40 a.m. Or, again, if I wanted thoroughly to enjoy myself, I could leave Auckland at two minutes to 4 a.m. and arrive at Rotorua at the same time — 11.40 a.m. How the railway folk contrive to think up times like 3.58 and 7.29 for the confusion of their passengers is a marvel. Besides the trains there are now two service cars each way every day as far as Rotorua. One of them runs past Broadlands right on to Taupo.

It will be seen that an immense saving of time has been achieved: but of course the cost has not been reduced — indeed it has been considerably increased. That is the railway “policy” — the only way to make a business pay is to increase the cost to the customers! I regret to remark that, in my opinion, the New Zealand Railways are dreadfully mismanaged. Their two books of fancy freights may be bought for one shilling and sixpence — very cheap considering that they contain thousands of varieties of rates. The cheapest freights are for such essential goods as spent oxide of iron, broken glass, marram grass, tussock grass, undressed clothes props, &c. But, if the clothes props be made of dressed timber, four times the freight is charged. There are five different rates for coal. Timber travelling inland is charged much more than timber travelling towards the coast: plain fencing wire — essential, clean, handy freight and taking a minimum of rolling stock — is charged more than double the freight for coke — not essential, dirty, taking a maximum of rolling stock.

The classic instance of this kind of thing occurred when the page 244 late Mr. Craig wanted to send some tanks to Hamilton. The railways folk looked up their tariff (just like a member of the Law Society or the Auctioneers' Association) to discover the most they could charge and demanded some exorbitant freight. Study of the tariff showed Mr. Craig that water was the cheapest freight of all. So he filled his tanks with water which he consigned as such. Arrived at Hamilton there was then no gear for unloading packages of two tons. The stationmaster wired for permission to turn the taps but Mr. Craig reminded him that he had consigned water, not tanks, and he required it delivered. However, after some days' delay he relented and permitted wastage of his goods so long as he kept the containers. It is right that I should mention that, besides the books you get for your one shilling and sixpence, you are given a number of supplements and extracts from the Gazette as a bonus. These you stick in your books according to fancy. This tariff has been in use almost since the railways started and now comprises the accumulated folly of more than fifty years. Nobody inside or outside the Department understands the incomprehensible mass. It is certain that any private carrier attempting business on these lines would become bankrupt within a year. But the mismanagement of the railways is “protected” by political processes. If you want amusement read also some of the regulations; for instance, “Special Goods” within the meaning of the Railways Act 1926 are stated as: “Bank notes: beds and bedding: bicycles: billiard tables: bills of exchange: bridge cylinders, calves, carriages, cash, &c., &c.” Would it be possible to imagine anything more heterogeneous? In passenger transport the Department seems to consider it more advantageous to have four-fifths of the first-class seats vacant at thirty shillings than occupied at twenty shillings. The advantage to the traveller of the lower fare is not given a moment's consideration. One thing the railway has never learned is that “The customer is page 245 always right.” On the contrary the railway is always right and considers only its own convenience. The customer, like the consumer in politics, is the forgotten man.

There is no earthly reason why railways in New Zealand, capably managed, should not successfully compete with motorlorries. The ordinary goods train carries a load of two hundred and fifty tons with a crew of three; it runs on a smooth, firm surface with a maximum grade of one in fifty and a minimum curve of five chains; it burns local fuel. Its competitor needs forty vehicles with forty men to handle the same goods; these vehicles run on a rough surface with a maximum grade of one in twelve and a curve often of one chain and even less; it burns expensive imported fuel. The factors enabling successful competition of lorries with railroads in America do not exist here. In New Zealand motor-vehicles cost twice, repairs three times, and fuel five times the American figures.

The whole policy of the present Government seems to be the obtaining of a monopoly of transport facilities to the end that more revenue may be squeezed out of the people.

So that it will be seen that, before ever he comes to the road freights, the backblocks settler has many serious hurdles to surmount.

Travel on this dirt road was terribly dusty — especially with a gently-following breeze, and when one reached Waiotapu Hotel he was confronted with the legend: “Please be very careful with the water.” Anyhow the supply was so arranged that a decent wash was an impossibility. To while away the tedium of seven miles an hour the game of “bottles” was popular. Whoever first saw a “dead marine” lying on the roadside cried “bottle” and the holder of the biggest score swept the pool and was expected to empty a few more bottles.

At the same time as the coaches came the horse wagons. In the beginning all freight is one-way into the country — implements, page 246 manures, seeds, stores, and the like. At first backloading is nil and for years there is only a bit of wool and chaff and hay and a few potatoes. Nowadays it would open the eyes of these wagoners to see a great lorry load of cream leaving the district every day.

In the early days the great problem was how to get goods from Rotorua to Broadlands. A wagon would not start with less than two tons, and even when you had assembled the two tons the only firm having anything like a service of wagons displayed a lordly indifference to customers' inconvenience. I would ride into Waiotapu to stir them up on the telephone. Their reply often enough was “You had a wagon a fortnight ago: you will have to wait.”

This “fed me up” and I put a wagon and team on the road for myself. Besides the convenience of prompt delivery I got the goods out at a cost of thirty-five shillings per ton as against £2 7s. charged by the carriers. The procedure in those days was: load the wagon and reach “the eight-mile”; camp there, the wagoner feeding his horses, cooking his own food, and sleeping under the wagon. Up at daybreak, groom and feed the horses, cook his own breakfast; midday feed the horses and “spell” them for an hour and a-half; have lunch; by evening reach “the twenty-eight-mile” and repeat the process; next day reach Broadlands and unload. There he always had one good meal which he did not have to cook for himself; back to the twenty-eight-mile that day; next afternoon reach Rotorua and home, sweet home.

During the War road freights gradually rose to fifty shillings per ton. Labour became scarce. Men could not be found to undertake the hardships and long hours of wagon driving. Motor lorries began to appear. They were frequently bogged on the dreadful road. Soon after the War freights rose to seventy shillings per ton. However, as the roads became improved freights page 247 began to fall again until heavy bulk goods such as manures were carried as cheaply as twelve shillings and sixpence per ton, and a lorry would make two trips from Rotorua to Broadlands in the day. Competition had become acute, to the great benefit of settlers and of trade. One enterprising man established a lorry service right through from Auckland to Taupo, thus obviating double handling with its delays, expense and occasional losses. However, our intellectual Government, from its vast knowledge of the conduct of business, suppressed our old pride — the freedom of the King's highway — and transposed our sound old slogan “Competition is the soul of business” into the imbecile expression “Uneconomic competition.” The Auckland-Taupo service was abolished because the proprietor worked too hard! This might have resulted in others having to do their best instead of carefully measuring out a minimum dole of effort! And so, to save the poor dears, this enterprising and hard working man was put off the road without a penny of compensation for the loss occasioned himself, his customers, and the district. Ere long all lorries in competition with the railways were put off the roads without compensation — to my mind a most iniquitous proceeding — and for no purpose other than bolstering up the mismanagement of our railways at the expense of the unfortunate population forced to employ this only available transport whether they desire to or not.

During the early years the road was frightfully rough and passenger vehicles were fitted with thoroughbraces instead of springs. In the summer the abundant fine pumice dust simply smothered the traveller: in the winter the deep mud rendered progress laborious and slow. Once when I was going into Rotorua in an overcrowded service buggy a great heave of the vehicle threw a passenger right off and into the soft mud. When he crawled out the comicality of his appearance appealed much more to the sense of humour of the other passengers than it did page 248 to his. Anyhow we secured him with a rope — so he couldn't do it again.

When motor-vehicles began to invade the sanctity of our seclusion the road would not stand up to the work at all. Through stretches a mile or more in length the vehicle ploughed its way axle deep on low gear. A moment's hesitation: an attempt to get out of the regular rut of the traffic, resulted in getting bogged and having to wait for help — usually horses — to pull you out.

People have almost forgotten what roads used to be like. Up north they were notoriously impassable in wet weather. In the winter time vehicles — horse drawn, not automobiles — got bogged by the dozen and were jacked out and left on the roadside till next summer's dry weather should make the clay track passable again. Coming ashore at the numerous ports there was a good chance of sinking down to the girths as soon as one got off the wharf. In hilly places the roads became formed into stairways up which experienced local horses made their way laboriously: inexperienced horses came to grief. In the pumice area roads were not so bad as in the clay districts and I have never seen a horse-drawn vehicle bogged. But when motors appeared they were often quite helpless. Manuka was much used for road metal, both temporarily and permanently (even Queen Street, Auckland, is built on manuka fascines). Many a time and oft I have got my car going by collecting manuka brush, forcing it under the rear wheels and giving the good old 'bus something to pull on. I used to carry a few empty sacks for the same purpose. They are readily forced under the wheels and, provided the bog is not too deep, four or five of them will see you out. After this performance they are not clean.

This use of manuka reminds me of the story of the Bishop on his way to conduct service up country. A sudden lurch resulted in the splitting of his buggy pole. He appealed to a passing page 249 yokel to get a move on and summon help. But the youth disappeared into the scrub emerging quickly with a stout manuka stick and some leaves of flax. Lashing the stick firmly to the buggy pole made quite a good repair and enabled the Bishop to proceed. “Why couldn't I have thought of that?” quoth the Bishop, to which the yokel retorted “There's them as knows, and there's them as don't know.” Necessity is the mother of invention and it is wonderful what can be accomplished with the most meagre resources. The Maoris are rather past masters. For instance you should see them sew without a needle.

To return to our story. “The waybacks” suffer not only in the transport of passengers and goods, but also in the getting and sending of news. This is often most important — as when I was actively promoting the construction of the Taupo railway. To receive one's news three days late is a most serious drawback.

There was a mail six times a week during the summer, and three times a week in the winter, so arranged that our outgoing mail had to be sent out in the morning and our incoming mail received in the afternoon, thus seriously delaying opportunity of reply. The distance from my house to the mail box being three and a-half miles, this entailed fourteen miles riding every mail day. But the boys just loved it — even if the horses didn't. As I have pointed out our news was often three days old, and our every-other-daily bread was just as fresh.

In emergencies we had to ride fourteen miles to the nearest telephone. The instalation of a telephone was, I think, the greatest single improvement I ever effected — and it was certainly a great convenience to the whole district! To illustrate my meaning. A boy was run over by a wagon (and team). It was his own fault, but that did not help matters. One of his mates galloped to the telephone, but it was eight hours before a doctor arrived — or could arrive. All ended well. On another page 250 occasion the “married woman” became seriously ill. I jumped on a powerful horse and covered the distance to the telephone in seventy minutes. When the doctor arrived we detached the wire mattress from the bedstead, carried the patient out on it, lashed it on to the four-seater buggy, and she reached hospital safely.

Special journeys meant catching a horse and crawling along at four to five miles an hour in the winter, accelerated to seven miles when the road was in its best form. Many a time and oft I have, when the weather was fine, seized my trusty, rusty bike and propelled it into Rotorua to catch the morning train at 9 a.m. This saved catching a horse and maintaining him in Rotorua during my absence.

The dreariest journeys I ever took were rides to Rotorua during my father's last illness. I would get word “Father worse.” Then a horse was brought in for me, fed and stabled. Rising about 2 a.m. I rubbed down my steed, saddled up and was off in the deadly dark. My aim was to reach Rotorua by 8 a.m. to get a bite of breakfast before the “Express” left at 9. Often I have gone in and back and seen no sign of life on the road. If I may repeat a time-honoured joke the road to Rotorua resembled that to heaven in one respect — you didn't meet a damned soul on it. One evening I drove out with one or two of my folk to hear the Bishop preach in the schoolhouse some dozen miles distant. All the way ice crackled beneath the buggy wheels, and I fancy my fingers would have snapped off if I had forced my hands open. We were rewarded by a sermon preached at the exact centre of the ceiling and based in part on the difference in the meaning of the Latin word in when it takes the accusative instead of the ablative. Very thrilling to a congregation of cockies and Maoris and helpful to the eternal salvation of their immortal souls.

Driving an open buggy is very different from driving a closed page 251 car. One's body is exposed and the trip takes somewhat longer! Think of it you tender motorists idly seated in your luxurious glass boxes on wheels propelled by effortless power derived from the spirits of foreign lands. And lighting the buggy candlelamps in “the wind and the rain” presents more difficulties and takes longer than switching on the car lights: and after all the trouble, the light of the buggy lamps is like the speech of a Minister of the Crown — more effective in obscuring the facts than in disclosing them.

And yet to this day I would rather drive a pair of smart intelligent horses than a brainless mechanical monster. And the advantages of horse transport to this country were many and great. Vehicles and harness made here mostly from local material: horses bred here: oats grown here. No debt incurred to foreign countries that will not buy anything from us.

The official estimate of the cost of motor traffic in New Zealand for the year 1938–1939 was £33,634,000 — a sum which may well mean all the difference between affluence and indigence.

Moving about over my own country and its surroundings was exclusively a horseback affair. In the early days I had plenty of hacks and gear and could mount half-a-dozen men at any time. Riding out over the plains after wild cattle and horses was a common recreation but yielded no profit. We thought nothing of jumping on a horse and riding across country to Taupo, fording two large rivers and other small ones. Assuredly my country lay in the centre of a vast and uninhabited area. Ofttimes when I had been out all day riding through the interminable desolation the beauty of the human voice was deeply impressed upon me as I approached the homestead. The voices of children calling out to one another possess in a special degree a rich music.

In the old days when Strathmore and Broadlands were the only inhabited houses I would often ride over to spend the evening with my good friend and next door neighbour, Mr. Butcher page 252 — a distance of about six miles. The evening was always pleasant but not so the ride home in the winter time. It was usually late when I tore myself away from my hospitable host and often very cold. One night I arrived home with my beard solidified with frozen breath. Problem what to do with or about it. This was before I had established a hot water service.

The first time I “got bogged” on horseback gave me quite a shock. I was riding with Mr. Butcher on a new road made through a deep swamp. The centre was fascined but very springy. My horse got frightened and jumped off the fascines. Down he went till only his head and his rump were above ground. Mr. Butcher was rather amused and said “Let him rest awhile. Then give him a hard clout on the part whereby there hangs a tail and he'll spluther out.” Even so it was.

The greatest drawback to remote country is its remoteness. It is not only distance and consequent cost. The losses caused by delays are often greater. When a farmer has a few fat lambs, a few prime cattle, and the like, he cannot send them off, but must keep them fat until he can make up a mob. Again stock sent off the place may look perfect, but that is not how the animals will appear when they reach the saleyards and the buyers. Several days of starvation and of dust or mud, and battling with motor-cars on the road takes all the bloom off them. They look bedraggled and are greatly reduced in value.

Again, if a tradesman is required, his travelling time and expenses will probably amount to more than his work on the job. In the backblocks one's dependence on his fellow-man is borne in on the settler. For the want of a blacksmith he wastes much time on a job with results not very satisfactory: for want of a “vet” he treats an unfortunate animal injured or sick by “trial and error” — the animal enduring the trial and the settler making the error; he leaves jobs where he is really useful to undertake those for which he is not well qualified. He spends page 253 idle days unfit for work for want of a competent doctor. Nor is there any place to buy medicine.

I opened this chapter with a saying of my late father — the Railway Reformer — who devoted his life to advocating better and cheaper means of transport. On the lines of this he argued that the greater facilities for motion the more abundant the life. In some respects the modern motor does not seem to support this theory! We are going to extremes. Take the aeroplane — undoubtedly the greatest curse that has ever struck the human race. And now scientists talk of interstellar travel: but dear old Einstein with his simple little theories says that out in interstellar space we shall not know whether we are moving forwards or backwards or sideways; or rising up or falling down. There will be no North, South, East or West to guide us, and no top and no bottom. It seems we shall be travelling through the nothingness to nowhere, and if we get there and load up at the local service station for the return voyage we may not be able to find our tiny speck of Earth. We shall out-do the celebrated journey of Christopher Columbus who did not know where he was going: when he got there did not know where he was: and, when he returned home, did not know where he had been. Anyhow let us hope that neither noxious insects nor evil spirits from other spheres will be passengers on the returning 'plane!