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Tikera; or, Children of the Queen of Oceania

Chapter IV The Pakehas learn about New Zealand flora

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Chapter IV The Pakehas learn about New Zealand flora

It would be tedious to describe in minute detail the ups and downs of our expedition from the Manukau to the Waikato River. Our chief occupations during that time were pricking our blisters, treating boils, climbing steep hills, filling our stomachs, and sleeping under the open sky or in the tent, depending whether we camped in a field or the bush. But perhaps it will not be amiss to mention some of the more important events of the journey.

Once the Manukau was behind us we approached a region famous for its active mud crater, which regularly discharges an evil-smelling slime. We made a special detour to see this smelly wonder and met a Maori who offered to show us round its numerous pools. In the middle of one of them boiling white mud swelled from time to time like milk overflowing from a saucepan, and emitted gas bubbles as it erupted. This gas, which hung low over the mud, has a temperature approaching ninety degrees centigrade. We did not feel any heat but its appalling stench still haunts my memory.

Despite my forecast of an imminent storm the first day of our long walk was sunny and hot. Towards evening we camped in an open field near a farm won from the primeval forest, the only green patch in the whole barren region. We stopped there for a night to save money although there was no lack of small settlements, seldom consisting of more than four houses apiece, large farms, and sawmills along our route in which, for three shillings, we could have had a good supper, shelter for the night, and breakfast the next morning. The working classes in the colonies (to which a Polish pakeha temporarily belonged by choice, and a German by compulsion) are used to camping, preferring to spend a night in the open when the weather is fine or in a tent when it pours with rain, to sleeping in a comfortable bed shut in by four walls. Those who live so usually catch cold when they change their habits and sleep indoors. Frequently, I cannot sleep at all under a roof. There is another reason I deprive myself of pleasant amenities: while staying in the bush, I choose to live like an animal and eat biscuits and corned mutton. Then I have more money to spend when I go to town.

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New Zealand's weather plays a different role from Europe's, where crops and jobs are largely governed by it. In fine weather after the sun has set, when stars twinkle in the sky and the camp fire on top of the hill throws a gay light, the traveller, snug in his woollen blanket, feels friendly towards the whole world. The earth on which he rests is no longer hard. His pillow, or what he uses as a pillow—usually his saddle or, worse, a pair of boots, soles up in case it rains, wrapped in a couple of flannel shirts—seems soft. Putting his head on the flannel between the boots' heels (being careful not to get in contact with their heelplates), he watches the blue canopy of the heavens. The clear air, the silver moon, a rising breeze, and the gentle crackling of the fire together send the traveller to a sleep whose sweetness can only be appreciated by those who have managed without a roof over their heads. All these have already been described often enough, both in prose and verse, for as long as the two have been in existence. The main attraction, however, is not in the moon's soothing silver light and the intricate patterns of the burnished stars, or in the dark-blue dome one watches so intently, or the gentle breeze which encourages one to think that tomorrow will be another beautiful day. These are welcome because they say that no rain is coming, and that one can sleep without fear for boots, food, or person. Without this reassurance, the study of astronomy and meteorology, undertaken in leisure hours while camping, would not have much satisfaction for a cynic like myself, who forgets the most breathtaking sky when he sees it clouded with the ostrich feather formations from which scientists forecast magnetic disturbances, but which to me foretell a downpour, chattering teeth, mud, a ruined pair of boots, and troubles galore. When those forerunners of bad weather are supplemented by the song of voracious mosquitoes buzzing that a steady rain is in the offing, and they assault my nose and ears so ferociously that I must hide under the blankets until I almost suffocate for want of air, and am still stung by a few enterprising specimens who reach me by way of a microscopic slit left specially for breathing, then I would exchange the moon, stars, and sky for two ells of muslin to make myself a mosquito net.

My wanderings have also taken me to Australia. Mosquitoes there reduce cattle to walking skeletons. Inch-wide horse-flies and, at the other extreme, microscopic sandflies, cover the human body with itchy spots which in no time at all turn into sore ulcers. In Missouri (where I have also been) in a single breath one swallows a good half-dozen of these pesky creatures. When I used to live in the State of Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware River, I heard of a Frenchman who, early one morning, caught a desperate band of mosquitoes using page 34 his grinding stone. And what do you think they were doing? Just resharpening their stings which had been blunted by excessive use during the night. In short, I have had personal experience of all the bad mosquitoes in the world, with the exception of the Siberian species and possibly some other minor varieties. None of them compare with their New Zealand cousins. None of them would be so stubborn, so shameless, and so shrewd as to violate a man's most sacred privacy by pursuing him under his own blankets. In this Realm of Oceania, conditions for their successful evolution (from their point of view) are truly excellent; forests and stream serve as ideal breeding grounds, and the open spaces allow them full scope to enjoy themselves.

In spite of our thick skins we spent the first few nights after our departure from Auckland groping all over the road for dry cow dung to throw on the fire, and so to produce a smoke which even these infuriating insects cannot endure. Unfortunately, it was necessary to keep changing the position of the fire in order to surround ourselves and our camp with a screen of smoke in which the mosquitoes would choke to death, a fate we almost shared.

When at last dawn came we stowed our belongings in two long rolls shaped like horsecollars, which we hung across our shoulders. This indicated our Australian origin; New Zealanders carry their packs on their heads or in drum-like rolls on their backs, thus keeping their hands free for all kinds of tasks—hacking back branches, climbing hills, and so forth. The clear sky of the previous day was half-obscured by slow-moving clouds which became darker, denser, and blacker. The whole countryside was striped like a tiger-skin: yellow where the sun shone, bleak and mournful where it was shadowed by the sluggish, sooty clouds.

That morning we set off earlier than is usual in the colonies because there was no dew—a sure sign of rain. On fine mornings, drying blankets and tent by huge fires can take anything up to an hour. Today, everything was dry.

After we had been walking for an hour a tall, heavily laden man, dressed rather roughly as is the colonial fashion, caught up with us. He wore an open flannel shirt, brightened by a kerchief wrapped round his sunburnt neck. His trousers, off-white in colour, were made from the stuff which the English call moleskin. This is very suitable for working in hot climates. It is light and cool, dries quickly and wears well. His shoes were solid. His hat was made from the cabbage tree. It was a handsome and durable article. A scarf which had once been white hung down his back from its crown. The whole rig-out would page 35 have looked quite respectable had it not been so dirty and lacking in buttons.

Similar clothes are worn by nine-tenths of the males in New Zealand. The only differences are that the better-off people choose costlier shirts, their shoes are finer and often ornamented with silver spurs, their neckerchiefs and hat scarves are of silk, and their hats are often very expensive.

‘Where are you going, boys?’ asked the stranger in a husky voice.

‘Where the Lord will give us a job,’ answered my companion, who recognized him as an artisan and wanted to win his sympathy.

‘The time's bad for that. This war is spoiling everything. Where are you from?’

‘I used to be a seaman until recently. Before that I was in Sydney. My friend was there too,’ I replied.

‘So you were in Sydney? Then you must know Pat Murphy.’

Country bumpkins who live in the small world of their own friends and relations usually make these silly assumptions. If, for example, someone returns Home from Philadelphia, he is promptly asked whether he met one Mr S. who lives down Patagonia way and earns his living as a vaquero on an estancia. If he says he did not, everyone looks at him with suspicion, because Mr S. was very well liked and widely known before he left for overseas. Indeed, he was known for his cleverness in all the districts of Polesie.

So our new acquaintance asked his question as holy innocents all over the world do. No doubt they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven on account of their simplicity of mind.

It so happened that before leaving Sydney I had read in a newspaper that a certain Pat Murphy had been sentenced to three years in jail for horse stealing. So overnight he had become persona grata.

‘Pat Murphy?’ I said, vaguely remembering the not very flattering account of his exploits in the crime column of the newspaper, ‘Isn't he the one who got three years for ….’

‘That's enough … don't rub it in … I know, I know—he got a Government post for three years. So you know him?

‘Yes, by reputation.’

‘Let me shake your hand. He's a cousin of mine. Let's drink his health.’

‘Your cousin? A close one?’ I inquired.

The Irishman thought for a while before he explained the degree of their blood relationship. The Irish are extremely fond of claiming bonds of kinship and, particularly when they are away from home, consider every countryman of theirs a relation at the smallest pretext. page 36 At last he answered, ‘It's like this. Pat Murphy promised to marry my stepsister, but instead he played a dirty trick on her by running away to Australia.’

‘And that's how you are related?’

‘Well, we are not cousins directly, just kinsmen in spirit. We are very old friends. Besides, we come from the same place in the old country and that makes us cousins.’

Our new friend was returning from the neighbouring settlement of Drury. From his trembling hands, swollen face, the bottle of brandy wrapped in a handkerchief which stuck out from his pack, I judged he had had a good time there. He soon told us that he was a topsawyer in a mill deep in the forest which loomed ahead, and that he drew three pounds pay every week, all found. A true son of Erin, he insisted on sharing his liquor with us, despite our lack of enthusiasm. We took it, of course, for we knew that a refusal would be interpreted as an insult. He outdrank us easily, taking three nips to each one of ours until the bottle was bone-dry.

In the first roadside hotel we came to (there is one every few miles in New Zealand, usually a low, wooden building, freshly painted and well maintained), he treated us again. We had to return the compliment, because the silly colonial etiquette demands that one ‘shout’ one's host in order to demonstrate that one does not intend to be inebriated at his expense. If one is unlucky enough to fall in with a barroom crowd, one is immediately involved in a drinking party, which often ends in arguments, fighting, and of course a considerable wastage of money. Much of the misery and at least half the crimes committed in North America and the colonies originate from this custom, which is known in the former as ‘treating’ and in the latter as ‘shouting’ (from calling loudly for a drink).

As a result of all this drinking, our new friend became so friendly and lachrymose that we could not get rid of him. He kept on saying that he was no skinflint Dutchman, and insisted that we should visit his house.

‘It's no more than three miles from here, just through the wood round that bend in the river, that's all. You'll have dinner with me and afterwards we'll take a path back to the road. That will save you a couple of miles, for the road makes a big curve, and the path cuts across it.’

This last made us accept his invitation. The narrow path through the forest was wide enough to accommodate the two-wheeled colonial carts. We met several such laden with deal boards. Each was drawn by a team of five pairs of bullocks harnessed in yokes, and with steel page 37 bands about their necks. The teamsters cracked their long whips, with which they could reach even the leading pair. Each beast had its name—a white one was always ‘Snowy’, whereas a reddish one would sometimes be ‘Brindle’, sometimes ‘Damper’, and sometimes ‘Boley’. The carts creaked by on their high wheels. It demanded considerable practical skill to distribute the load so that the shaft would not weigh down the bullocks' necks. The cart wheels sank up to their axles in the wet, overhung road. A cart could be pulled from a really deep pot-hole only with the help of an extra team. If that failed a chain was attached to its rear and it was hauled out backwards and diverted on to a side path, supposedly with a firmer surface.

Our guide also tried to teach us about the forest trees we saw. Around us grew lofty kauris, as straight as candlesticks and so high that we could scarcely see the birds fluttering among the topmost branches. The trunks were often several hundred feet in height, and the first leafy branches were a good hundred and fifty feet above the ground. Although no single tree had much foliage the forest top made an even dome high over our heads. We could only glimpse the sky through that thick green canopy, and from the ground it seemed like isolated blue stars. The daylight was scarcely able to penetrate the trees. Long luminous shafts crept in and fell like bright drops of water sieved through that leafy covering, here on green mosses, there on the brown tree bark.

‘These are kauri trees,’ said our guide, full of condescension towards us who for the first time stood face to face with these kings of New Zealand trees. ‘These are about the best trees in the North Island, or perhaps even in the world, for milling. When my saw is well sharpened I can cut them all day long, even though I don't choose any tree under foor feet in diameter. But when it's well-seasoned, this timber becomes as hard as sheet-iron.’

Everything he said about any other tree was related to its milling qualities. His practical mind did not at all appreciate the charms of nature. The beauty of the various trees, plants, and bushes might as well not have existed. For him the foliage overhead which displayed every possible shade of colour, from the dark-green of the kauri to the near-yellow of the totara, mottled by the rusty leaves of a lesser plant or a parasite's purple flowers, was simply a nuisance which had to be cleared away before the timber could be taken to the sawmill. The giants we saw occasionally, brooding paternally over the forest's growing youth, were to him no more than kauri trees from which a certain number of boards could be sawn and which, when dug into the ground, would never rot. He could not appreciate the serene beauty of the page 38 forest because he was constantly anxious that a storm might break and find him in the middle of it. In such an event, falling branches might crush this wretched numbskull, from whose thick head his mechanical work, interspersed with Sabbatical drinking bouts, had driven all thoughts but one—he still cared for the safety of his miserable drunken self.

One tree, rarer than the kauri, though frequent enough, he called ‘rimu’. He claimed that its timber was even better than that of the kauri, because it could be varnished.

‘Pity it's so hard,’ he added. ‘It destroys our saws.’

He grumbled most about ‘supplejack’, a parasite found everywhere in the forest, which stretches its ropes from branches to the ground and from one bough to another, binding the huge trees together and forming great nets high in the air. Some of its threads are so thin that the Maoris use them for making fishing nets. Others are thick enough to serve as chains for ships' anchors. Each time we were forced to step off the path because a cart was blocking it we had to hack down the clinging vines from either edge. The tough stems normally grow in loops, but once they have been cut they hang straight, parallel with the tree trunks, and may be used to help one climb as high as a hundred and fifty feet to the top of the tree.

It is beyond my powers to describe this jumbled mass of trees, bushes, plants, and creepers, of countless frail but indomitable seedlings, all racing up towards air and light, all swathed in the most intricate festoons, garlanded and broidered with whiplash vines and many-coloured blossoms. Better pens than mine have written of these luxuriant forests. But no description can truly portray their glory. It must be experienced in person: one must see with one's own eyes the varying colours; one must smell for oneself the forest scents; and breathe in their coolness with one's own lungs.

At the back of the forest, across a narrow river, a sawmill clattered away to the counterpoint of falling water. Nearby, a small hotel rang with the voices of revellers. Beyond this lay a large clearing, still littered with stumps of trees. Here were a few farms, their little plots thick with maize which shone green in the afternoon sun. Past the maize, on the neighbouring hill, glinted a long strip of wheat—promise of the approaching harvest, which was still too distant for us to wait for it. Obviously, the countryside was fertile, for we could hear hidden watermills working away in dense apricot orchards. The small farmhouses stood on wooden piles. They were roofed with drab shingles on which fluttering pigeons—white, grey and marbled—formed a mosaic with their lovemaking. The moss-covered barns were page 39 thatched with the native raupo, and so, too were a few dwellings. Raupo is noted for its long, straight stems which from a distance resemble hop-poles. Our guide told us that when a new farm is being established more often than not the first homestead will be a raupo hut, until such time as it is possible to build a wooden house. His own employer, who had come out to the Colony years earlier as a simple sawyer with scarcely a pound in his pocket, had brought up his family in one of these same huts. This man had since accumulated a fortune of some half million pounds.

Our Irish friend offered us the standard colonial dinner of tea, biscuits, and bacon. He did not eat anything himself, suffering as he was from acute alcoholic remorse after the good time he had had the day before. Although he invited us to stay with him overnight we refused, on the grounds that we were pressed for time. Before we parted he gave us each a shilling. He was surprised when we did not want to accept his gift. In the colonies a labourer seldom refuses a handout from a fellow worker, even if he is a stranger. I explained to him that we had some money with us.

‘Take that shilling. You're looking for work, and that's not easy to find with a war on. A shilling can be handy, there's no doubt of that at all,’ he added. ‘We old-fashioned folk’ (by which he meant that he had previously belonged to a penal settlement in Australia) ‘don't begrudge a bit of food or a shilling to you young men—though new settlers like yourselves are spoiling the country for us. We used to live like kings here, making the damned Maoris work for us. In those days, nobody had ever heard of war, and there was plenty of work. Nothing bad ever happened to us, unless one of our comrades had the misfortune to be eaten by the cannibals. And now?’—here he spat contemptuously, nodding his head and starting to tremble again as the drink took hold of him.

I took his shilling and noted down his address, fully intending to send him some tincture of opium from the nearest township, the only remedy I know of for alcoholic collapse.

Before we reached the neighbouring settlement we were caught in the storm which I had been expecting for the last two days. We'were just in the middle of the forest, approaching the road, when it came. At first we took shelter under a tree but water was soon spouting down it straight on our heads in quantities which if they had fallen as rain would have sprinkled a sizeable area of ground. We waded through mud and the pouring rain resignedly, and were delighted to see a white strip of road appearing at the end of the forest path amidst the gathering shadows of nightfall. All of a sudden page 40 we saw a gleam of light, the gay inviting light of an inn where, only moments later, we willingly paid three shillings each for a night's lodging. It was a comfortable place, and some friendly drovers stood us a drink which this time we gratefully accepted. Afterwards, as we set off along the dark corridor to bed, we fell in with a couple of Maori servant girls, just as ready to frolic with two reasonably presentable young foreigners as the girls in our own villages.