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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter III From Auckland to the Manukau

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Chapter III From Auckland to the Manukau

In warm countries travellers set off early. Little wonder, then, that the Pacific sunrise found us already at the top of a high hill outside Auckland resting and recovering our breath after our steep climb.

The stars had begun to dissolve in the western sky above the black line of forest and the blue-grey contours of the hills. The eastern horizon shone roseate. The islands of the gulf washed their peaks in blood and gold. The emerald surface of the ocean was flecked with boats, their silvery sails turning pink in the early morning light. Multi-coloured birds shot through the air like sparkling rockets. A long compact line of small feathery clouds massed high in the deep blue sky.

Although at that time I had not learnt much about magnetic storms and their connection with these insignificant little cirrus clouds which usually herald atmospheric disturbances, my experiences at sea, backed up by what I had learnt on the road, made me distrust the gentle appearance of these storm messengers. So I said to my companion, ‘We shall have a scorcher today and in a day or two a solid shower.’

The German had no time for these celestial warnings. Instead he gazed intently at the hills about us entranced by their black or brickred slopes, which had been crevassed by violent earth movements. He closely examined the lumps of scoria which were scattered round in profusion, and would pick them up with an air of great satisfaction as if he found in them the objects of a long and hitherto unavailing search. He informed me magisterially that Auckland had risen on a heap of scoria, like ancient Pompeii. Since I knew quite a bit about this topic, for I had read long ago that the whole North Island was subject to earthquakes and even had active volcanoes, I did not take much notice of his learned dissertation. Instead I watched now the town spread before us like a map, now the sea, emerging from the darkness of the dying night and taking on the metallic glitter of day, and now the golden crests of the islands. Before I had paid full tribute to the view the time came for us to part from it. We planned that within the next ten days we should cover some sixty geographical page 26 miles, and so reach a more peaceful part of the Island than the warring province of Auckland. Our ultimate aim was the small settlement of New Plymouth, for my travelling companion had left instructions in Auckland that his mail should be forwarded there.

The highway, or what would be called a highway in the Northern Hemisphere, passed through little settlements clustered round Auckland, winding amongst barren hills towards the south. We passed these brand-new settlements, only yesterday erected from kauri boards and painted white this morning. They bore famous names, however, reminders of the settlers' love for sport, particularly horse racing. Thus we left Newmarket behind, and from there we could have gone to Epsom if it had been along our route. Both these places, as I am sure my readers are aware, are closely connected with the history of English sport.

A forced march brought us towards midday to Onehunga, on the shore of the Manukau Harbour—the sister town of Auckland, destined to control the commerce of the west coast of the North Island in the same way as Auckland controls that of the east. These towns are separated by a narrow isthmus, which is at its narrowest just at the place where we sighted the Manukau for the first time. The two seas almost touched one another. The isthmus dividing them was rather lower than the hills we passed during the morning, as if it did not wish to resist the encroaching seas whose inlets reached out towards one another like friendly hands. From one place on the road we saw the shallow, elongated Tamaki Bay almost under our feet, sneaking in from the east and the steepest hills of the isthmus. On our left a large inlet of the Manukau Bay approached us nearly as closely. A strange feeling of satisfaction filled us both as we stood there observing these two expanses of water which contrasted so strikingly in appearance. There is so great a difference between the solemn Pacific, smooth and tranquil, on the east side and the turbulent sea of the west that one would think they were separated by a huge continent instead of a flimsy strip of land.

Up till now the country we had seen was bare, a sombre brick-red, deeply furrowed by ravines. Only occasionally we glimpsed a few trees, and usually in unexpected places. They sprang from beneath our feet as if they grew in the bowels of the earth. Perhaps I can explain this more clearly by saying that the countryside resembled a roughlyhewn chessboard divided as it were by steep gaping chasms. Frequently one such chasm separated the ridge on which we were talking from another only a stone's throw away. Even at a smart pace it would take us a good hour to walk round this obstacle. Coniferous trees grew in page 27 the gorges. Their tops sometimes reached as high as the ridges so that we would pick twigs from the tops of trees whose trunks we could not reach.

At first sight it seemed that such precipitous country had no value apart from its geographical position (lying as it does between the two seas, it must in the end become an important seat of commerce). Yet considerable riches reposed in this seemingly sterile land. Long before the Europeans came these and other wastelands of New Zealand had been covered by immense coniferous forests. In time they were burnt down. During countless thousands of years tree stumps and the vegetation accumulated round them produced such an intense heat that the soil changed into a barren red substance. Thus wide areas of land became completely lost to the farmers of the future but preserved a precious substance for another kind of worker. This treasure is called kauri gum, or bitumen, and is a product of the kauri pine. The Europeans make use of it but it is found almost exclusively by the Maoris whose keen eyes discover deposits beneath the surface where we see only burnt-out dirt. Trade in it is brisk and large.

On the highway south from Auckland we encountered numerous carts full of corn, potatoes, wool, and timber. There is nothing to enthuse about in this: one sees the same sight in many other parts of the world. What surprised us was a different kind of goods, which the Maori women carried on their backs. Judging by their tired expressions they must have marched with their loads for several days. They carried their goods in flat, strangely shaped baskets of their own making, from which dark-brown formless lumps could sometimes be seen sticking out. These were pieces of kauri gum. The fact that so many people were engaged in the delivery of the resin spoke volumes about its commercial importance. The annual value of gum exported from Auckland alone is two hundred thousand pounds. The duty imposed on kauri gum brings in a sizeable revenue to the treasury, for other ports share in this lucrative trade. The tax is a direct levy on the whole native race, for even well-to-do Maoris, who grow their own food and manufacture their own clothes, contribute next to nothing apart from this towards the upkeep of government.

During my stay in Auckland at a desolate place near the town I had a chance to watch the whole process of seeking kauri gum. A man armed with an iron rod, well sharpened at one end, poked the earth where he thought the resin was buried. After many vain attempts he might feel a hard lump. Immediately he would celebrate his find by taking a rest. While he smoked his pipe his female companion would dig out the lump, finding, more often than not, that the rich strike was a page 28 piece of pumice, or simply a stone. A sizeable volume could be written about the various ways of earning one's daily bread in the colonies which are absolutely undreamt of in Europe.

Later I saw how white people set about finding the precious resin—this time in a forest, not in a barren waste—by piercing the roots of living trees with their iron rods.

The midday heat made us look for some shade, which we soon found in the shape of a big boulder beside a spring near the road. This offered us reasonable protection from the sun, and we threw down our packs, more than ready for a rest. In a few minutes I had collected some grass and dried cow dung and set about starting a fire. The German spread out on the ground a piece of oil cloth, which we always kept handy, to make the pancakes, a chore he had willingly appropriated. The art of mixing flour, salt, water, and soda to produce a flat cake is not difficult to imitate but he had a marvellous knack of cooking it which I vowed I would learn as soon as I could. (I managed to, eventually, to my great satisfaction.) First he would place a lump of dough in the pan with some fat. As soon as its under-side had browned he would toss the half-cooked cake and the fat into the air. He managed it so that not a drop of sizzling fat spilt on the fire, and the cake, having turned a complete somersault in the air, came down in its proper receptacle. Sometimes he would show what a virtuoso he was by throwing the dough really high, so that it somersaulted three times before landing back in the pan. He boasted that during his sojourn with the gauchos, from whom he had apparently learned this art, he used to throw a pancake through the opening in the roof which served as a chimney and run outside to catch it before it had a chance to fall to the ground. This story was never supported by any evidence, and though I fully intended to master the trick I could not do so without instruction, and am inclined to think it is one of those fairy stories in which the colonials take delight.

As we fried and ate our pancakes between the two seas our conversation turned to a disaster of which we had often been told during the last few days. It had occurred in the Manukau Harbour some time previously, though it was still fresh in the memory of many Aucklanders.

The Manukau has the shape of a big, irregular rectangle, from which two bays issue. The first, and nearer, squeezes into the Auckland isthmus; the other, and longer, joins the harbour with the ocean. Navigation in the entry to the harbour is very difficult, not only because its channel is winding and complicated but also because it changes every time a strong westerly obstructs it with sand through which the page 29 ebbing and flowing currents make a new passage. Thus, where before the storm there was a deep channel, now there are shallows. Elsewhere sandbanks rise several feet above the waves where formerly a ship of the line could sail with perfect safety. At the mouth of the harbour, where the channel meets the open sea, the water is always turbulent and the great breakers pound into a surf. To find a way through this water is an onerous task and a pilot station has been established here. Pilots are sent out from it to incoming ships or use coloured flags to signal the steersmen as to which course they should take, and which avoid.

The Maori disorders and the open rebellion of certain tribes against the Colonial Government gave this harbour a definite strategic significance, since the military reinforcements despatched from Australia and England could land much sooner here than in Auckland on the other side of the Island. These reinforcements consisted of rather fewer than twenty thousand regulars, and sailors of Royal Navy, who were transformed on dry land into artillerymen. With the hardihood and endurance which mark seafaring Englishmen these men not only made excellent use of their cannon and fought like the best of the infantry (something which the Maoris themselves recognized, for they feared the blue-jackets, and despised the redcoats) they also acted as draft horses in bush which was too dense even for bullocks. The sight of a long line of, sailors hauling the heavy, dismounted guns through moutains, mud, and thickets was commonplace during the New Zealand campaign.

Well, not very long before my arrival in New Zealand, the corvette Orpheus was sent there from Sydney. She was the most powerful steamer serving on the South Pacific station, and was under the flag of Commodore Burnett. She was to enter the Manukau where the channel had recently shifted. Commodore Burnett entered the channel according to his chart, but for some reason, either because he misunderstood the pilot's signal or because he had been misinformed, he missed the correct channel and sailed along the old sand-obstructed course until his ship ran aground.

Any reader who has witnessed a similar occurrence knows only too well what will happen to an immobilized ship in the face of magnificent, smooth, but constantly advancing waves. The waves are magnificent and smooth as long as they meet no obstacle. But the moment they do so, they shoot up about it in a seething, howling turbrlence. Strewing it with the pearly drops from their crowns, they flood down upon it. So, when such a mass of water encounters a motionless ship, the rising waves turn into a furious deluge which batters the ship's sides with a force of thousands of pounds per cubic foot. They beat out her life. The raging waves, snow-white foam and green page 30 fountains of solid water overflow the deck, roaring, biting, pounding, and tearing apart. A wave passes, and is followed by a moment of respite. Pens, coops, barrels, the wheelhouse, the galley—all have been swept overboard. The deck is free save for the masts. On their highest yards hang those sailors who have so far escaped the deluge. But the armistice is over. A second wave thunders in, overturning, crushing, and tearing as it comes. The ship's sides creak menacingly; the ropes which join the hull and the masts and give the ship its balance snap with an unforgettable whizzing sound. The ship can no longer resist the sea's invading columns. One rope after another gives way; their loose ends vibrate in the air like gigantic whips. Shaken about by the epileptic dance of the masts they bring death to the men hiding in the foretops.

Another armistice follows. The masts are still standing but the ropes which held them have vanished. Only the tattered ends of ropes and a few shreds of sail are visible. Up in the masts the sailors can scarcely move. A third attack starts, followed by a fourth and then a fifth. The waves shoot up unrestrainedly to the yards. In their fury they resemble dragons' tongues intent on devouring their hapless victims. Each tongue licks about the yard and then enfolds its victim in a violent embrace. Now a sailor's blue jacket is engulfed, now a soldier's red coat, and now a resplendent officer's epaulette. Before the masts break up and fall, one after the other, there are few left alive on them. All who remain go down with them to the abyss.

For some time after, the sea labours and raves round the lifeless carcass of the ship. It tears the body to pieces, sending its snapped boards to the nearest shore; it rends the iron plates and swallows them piece by piece. Through the broken ship's sides float barrels, cases, boxes—which the towering waves pile on to the beach. Finally a few ribs, firmly implanted in the sand, stick out from the sea like the tibia of a primeval giant. The sea meets little resistance from them and becomes gentler. It sings a mournful dirge over the dead men. The story is a tragic one. I witnessed it once, and shall never forget it.

Such was the end of the Orpheus. After the ship had run aground her boats were lowered. Some of them mastered the waves, Some escaped with the crews assigned to them, The Commodore's sloop had been smashed by the sea. He remained aboard the ship despite the entreaties of the sailors who begged him to take their seats in other boats. All of them were ready to sacrifice their lives for the man they looked on as their father and for whom they would have exchanged their places. The Commodore, true to a naval training which has schooled so many Nelsons, ordered the boats away and with three-quarters page 31 of his men climbed the yards. Here, in full view of the boats which rowed to safety, the steamers which came from the port to help but were unable to approach the disastrous shallows, and a dense crowd on shore, wailing in impotent despair, these men went undaunted through the supreme moment of their lives and were swallowed finally by the wild elements when the last surviving mast snapped and was washed away. The Commodore, who could clearly be seen from the shore with the aid of a spy-glass, to the very last gave his men a living and heroic example of passive resistance. They all helped each other. Through a united effort they stuck together up there, hanging like a human swarm which, bit by bit, disappeared from sight when the masts, yards and all, plunged into the sea. Their bodies, most of them naked, for the sea leaves nothing to its drowned victims, were collected the following day on the beaches of the Manukau.

Ever since, this sad and noble story has been associated with the melodious Maori name of the bay, and has prevented it from being corrupted into something clumsy, as the settlers are so fond of doing. For no one is bold enough to change the name of a place which has become the grave of so many of his fellow men and was the scene of a hero's exemplary refusal to accept the sacrifice of even the humblest of his crew to save his own life.