Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
Uncleared virgin bush dominated the Kaponga landscape throughout the decade. Its place in the settlers' lives and minds is evident in a Star (22/4/86) report on an ill-considered expedition that left Manaia for the mountain on Friday, 16 April 1886. Two men were about to set out for Dawson Falls and Fantham's Peak when two women decided to join them at the last moment, delaying the start by two hours. This led to their being caught by darkness before reaching the falls and becoming lost. A tent was pitched for the women and the men bivouacked by a large fire. On the Saturday morning they made an early start and successfully reached Fantham's Peak. They then decided to do some exploring by following the Kaupokonui until it struck Opunake Road. Throughout the day they constantly heard wild cattle in the bush and saw ‘thousands’ of pigeons. Fatigued by a 14-hour day of hard travelling they at last reached the pack track and pitched their tent. They had run out of food but were able to shoot a good supply of pigeons, which they roasted on spits and washed down with tea brewed by the cupful in a small jam tin. They made a lazy start on the Sunday, one of the party eventually setting off to fetch their horses from Manaia Road. When he reached them about 3pm he discovered that every man in Kaponga had been out since 8am searching for his party. He recalled these search parties by firing his gun for 20 minutes. All then proceeded to Kaponga, where ‘refreshments were forthcoming at nearly every house’. Meanwhile further search parties were already being organised in Manaia.
From this episode we learn several things about the ‘Kaupokonui’ wild: its richness in game, especially wild cattle and pigeons; a settler fascination with exploring it; and an awareness of the possibilities of accidents and of getting lost, countered by mutual watchfulness and a facility for rapidly assembling search parties. Hunting, exploring and occasional short searches must have continually taken the settlers into the bush, with only the occasional episode reaching the level of ‘news’. The ‘Kaupokonui’ bush did not, in fact, prove to be particularly hazardous. The clear indications of direction provided by the local topography, the wide scatter of clearings, and the cross-hatch of road lines, all meant that it was not easy to get lost, that one's movements were fairly well monitored, and that help was fairly quickly at hand in an emergency.
We now turn to the wild on the individual settler's holding. Here a major issue of the 1880s was backpegging. Most of the Kaupokonui bush sections initially had boundary pegs only on their road frontages. When Prime Minister Sir Frederick Whitaker visited Hawera in January 1883 this was one settler concern put to him. He was told of one man who had page 54 mistakenly felled 17 acres of his neighbour's bush, for which this neighbour refused to pay. Whitaker was surprised to learn that the surveyors had not cut sectional lines. Harry Atkinson, who was accompanying him, explained that it had been found useless to cut lines in bush land that was selling slowly, as they became overgrown before the land was occupied. Whitaker promised to look into the matter.60 He probably found that the surveyors were pushing on with this work as fast as their resources would allow, which was just as well as DP settlers were under an obligation to make progress with felling and fencing, and there were reportedly many instances of felling and grassing across unmarked boundaries.61
For a time the Survey Department apparently sent a surveyor and chainman and expected the two settlers involved to supply the labour to cut the lines, but this didn't work out very well because it meant in practice that
when the two settlers immediately interested had milked their cows, chopped their wood, fed the pigs and calves, and done a few more odd jobs, they would go off to the line-cutting, and stay there until it was time for them to knock off and repeat those useful, but withal prosaic operations in the evening. As a natural consequence, the time of the surveyor and his assistant was terribly frittered away …62
Finding that it could do the whole job more smoothly and almost as cheaply without this kind of assistance, the department dispensed with it. Settlers probably often continued to help, appreciating the company of the surveyors and being keen to see where their boundaries lay. In September 1883 an accident provided a news item on one such instance. Surveyor Alfred Atkinson and chainman Thomas Harrison were backpegging in a block between the Duthie and Palmer roads. Some of the men were chopping a large matai tree and as it fell the party took shelter under another large tree nearby. Unfortunately a dead limb was dislodged from this latter tree and in falling it broke chainman Harrison's leg and stunned and bruised settler Henry Downey. Harrison was carried by stretcher to Okaiawa and driven from there to a doctor in Hawera, arriving after midnight.63 The accident may have happened deep in the bush as three months earlier Downey had had only 18 acres of his 320-acre block felled.64 Backpegging did not solve all boundary problems. The surveyors' matai pegs were often destroyed in the bush burns, others were knocked out by fencers putting in strainer posts and driven in again ‘somewhere thereabouts’. Such happenings were said to cause ‘no end of disputes’ in bush districts.65