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Distant Homes; or the Graham Family in New Zealand

Chapter IX

page 55

Chapter IX.

A Walk in the Forest—Grossing a River—Advice from an Old Settler.

The road, or path, for road there was none, lay through an immense natural forest, principally of the Kauri no Kauri in S. I., or Yellow Pine, the most valuable tree in the island; it grows to an enormous height; the long straight bole towering high in the air, without a single branch to break its surface; then spreading out giant limbs which, crossing and intermingling with each—covered as they are, too, with a separate vegetable growth, springing out of their own stems, as moss or miseltoe does at home—form an impenetrable roof, and effectually exclude the rays of the sun, rendering the way below dark and close, which adds considerably to the toil of cutting one's way along; by cutting a way, I mean actually using a large clasp-knife to sever the creeping plants, which, running from tree to tree and bush to bush, try to prevent any passage; besides, the rank vegetation, caused by the heat and the damp, is often difficult to push through; and Tom now found that it would have been utterly impossible to attempt to ride, and that the guides had done wisely in leaving the horses on the outskirts of this veritable thicket, where, in charge of a couple of natives, they were to remain until they had fulfilled their journey, and were returning to Nelson.

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Tom had read a good deal of tropical forests; but, extravagant as his ideal pictures had been, nothing reached the reality of this, his first introduction to a New Zealand one; and his father, although he had studied the natural history of the country deeply, found himself often at a loss to answer Tom's questions, or satisfy his wondering curiosity as to the name or nature of the hundreds of new plants and trees springing on every side.

The long spars of the Kauri were evidently intended by nature as masts for ships, and instantly established themselves in Tom's favour, and, in his imagination, became a forest of men of war. This, however, is not the sole use of the Kauri, as there is a valuable gum extracted from it, which is sent to England, and sold for a high price; besides, the wood being hard and close grained, it is highly prized by carpenters for household furniture, though the Rimu, or Yellow Pine, is much prettier, and closely resembles mahogany; while the bark is usefully employed in tanyards.

The tree, however, which astonished Tom most, was the fern, which, growing to the height of sixty or seventy feet, still retains a close resemblance to the English plant, and looks very graceful and peculiar. It affords a soft and silky-looking material resembling spun glass, but as delicate and elastic as silk. In some of the Pacific islands, the natives gather this from between the branches in great quantities, and stuff pillows or mattrasses, etc.

After the first novelty of the dark, sombre forest path wore off, Tom began to wonder why he did not see any birds; a circumstance explained by his father as owing to the dense foliage keeping away the sunlight, no bird page 57 except owls liking to live out of his bright rays; indeed, Tom very soon had this truth proved, as, on reaching an open space, they were greeted by the voices of hundreds of little songsters, who were so innocent of any fear, that they scarcely moved out of the travellers’ way, hopping from branch to branch as Tom shook them off.

From this break in the forest, a fine open country lay before them for many miles, covered with long grass, and the English fern, short in comparison with the tree, but still towering in many places a foot above Tom's head. A large river lay a short way off, and upon the banks of this they proposed resting for the night, as the rapidity of the current made crossing rather a dangerous undertaking, requiring both time and a careful examination; for, well as the guides knew the river, every flood changes the depth of the bed; there are so many quicksands, that however shallow the stream may appear, the ford may be impassable; besides these changeable dangers, there is one which is equally formidable, and is always a barrier against any progress; namely, the fearful force of current or stream, against which, even in shallow water, it is often impossible to struggle, and the rash traveller is often swept down, and, if he is not fortunate enough to reach a piece of quieter water, he is almost certain to be drowned, as it is well known that if a man once loses his footing in even a comparatively mild current, there is very little chance of his regaining it again, or swimming against the stream.

The banks of this river were precipitous and covered with shrubs and fern, while the bed of the stream was a wide ravine, covered with large stones and trunks of trees, page 58 earned down by the floods, and left lying about in every direction, giving it a dismal and wild appearance, showing that though the river at present consisted only of three narrow streams rushing down the valley, during a flood it must entirely fill it, and present a truly magnificent scene.

The encampment for the night upon the bank of the river was a most exciting thing to Tom; and remembering what he had read Robinson Crusoe did in his lonely island, he proposed looking for a cave. This the guides laughed at, telling him they would soon make him a capital house. Accordingly, they set to work cutting down the young pine trees that grew in abundance all about. These they stuck into the ground, resting them against each other, like a card house, but securing them with a rope they carried for the purpose. Having thus formed a strong and secure framework, they gathered armfuls of fern and laid it against the slanting holes, much as you see men thatching cottages. Over this they laid some heavy bags, to prevent the sudden gales of wind which are so frequent and violent in New Zealand, from tearing them away.

Tom looked on in great delight, thinking how nice it would be to make just such huts for himself, when his father had settled on his “run,” as a sheep farm is called.

Tom peeped into the hut, which looked very comfortable, particularly when the bottom was covered by a thick layer of moss and grass, to form a bed; and next morning both he and his father declared they had never slept souuder, and felt quite sorry to leave their pretty little resting-place.

Long before either of them were awake, the guides had page 59 discovered a safe place to cross the river, though the current was so rapid as to render the precaution of a rope, tied round the waist of each man, very advisable. Poor Tom would have had a very faint chance of crossing, had this not been the plan; as it was, he lost his footing, and was only saved by the support of the rope.

Their journey, for the next two or three days, was much the same. They crossed no less than three rivers, struggled through another forest, bivouacked at night under the fern tent we have described, pursuing their way in daylight, occasionally shooting wild-ducks or other birds for their supper. Thus they journeyed forward, and on the fourth day reached the coast, along which their path now lay, for some distance, passing a cape, called upon the map, Double Corner. On their way, they took their guide's advice, and made a call at a settlement belonging to two Englishmen.

Captain Graham was very glad to have an opportunity of seeing such a well-conducted farm, and received a great deal of very good advice from his hosts, who had lived for many years in the Canterbury settlement, and travelled through most of it, looking at the different “blocks,” or divisions of land the Government buys from the natives to resell to the settlers; one, in particular, they strongly advised Captain Graham to look at as soon as he arrived at Christchurch, as it was very well situated, had a good deal of clear plain, and a nice stream running through part of it, upon which a situation for a house might easily be found. Tom heard of the plan with great delight. His journey had made him wild for a bush life, and the thought of living with his father in fern tents, while they were page 60 superintending the clearing and building of a house for his mother and the others, was almost too charming to dwell upon; and had Captain Graham been inclined to forget the advice (which he was not), Tom would assuredly have given him no excuse to do so, as he talked of nothing else all the way to Christchurch, examining everything they saw, with a view to finding out whether it would be useful in the bush, and making so many wonderful plans, that if half of them had been even divided among half-a-dozen settlers’ families, the district would have been the most perfect province in New Zealand. Although he did not say so openly, it was evident that the river was Tom's greatest attraction. Upon this he settled he was to have a boat to convey the corn, etc., never stopping to find out the size of the river, or where it ran into the bay; all he thought of was the boat.