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Station Amusements

Chapter V. Toboggon-ing

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Chapter V. Toboggon-ing.

I cannot resist the temptation to touch upon one of the winter amusements which came to us two years later. Yet the word “amusement” seems out of place, no one in the Province having much heart to amuse themselves, for the great snow storm of August, 1867, had just taken place, and we were in the first days of bewilderment at the calamity which had befallen us all. A week’s incessant snow-fall, accompanied by a fierce and freezing south-west wind, had not only covered the whole of the mountains from base to brow with shining white, through which not a single dark rock jutted, but had drifted on the plains for many feet deep. Gullies had been filled up by the soft, driving flakes, creeks were bridged over, and for three weeks and more all communication between the stations and the various townships was cut off. The page 76 full extent of our losses was unknown to us, and dreary as were our forebodings of misfortune, none of us guessed that snow to be the winding sheet of half a million of sheep. The magnificent semi-circle of the Southern Alps stood out, for a hundred miles from north to south, in appalling white distinctness, and no one in the whole Colony had ever seen the splendid range thus free from fleck or flaw. We had done all we could within working distance, but what was, the use of digging in drifts thirty feet deep? Amidst, and almost above, the terrible anxiety about our own individual safety,—for the snow was over the roof of many of the station-houses,—came the pressing question, “Where are the sheep?” A profound silence unbroken by bleat of lamb, or bark of dog, or any sound of life, had reigned for many days, when a merciful north-westerly gale sprung, up, and releasing the heavily-laden earth from its white bondage, freed the miserable remnant of our flocks and herds. At least, I should say, it freed those sheep which had travelled down to the vallies, driven before the first pitiless gusts, but we knew that many hundreds, if not thousands, of wethers must have been surprised and imprisoned far back among the hills.

Such knowledge could not be acted upon, however, for no human being could hope to plunge through the page 77 drifts around us. Old shepherds who had lived on the run for fifteen years, confessed that they did not know their way fifty yards from the homestead. The vallies were filled up, so that one gully looked precisely like its fellow; rocks, scrub, Ti-ti palms, all our local land-marks had disappeared; not a fence or gate could be seen in all the country side. Here and there a long wave-like line in the smooth mass would lead us to suppose that a wire fence lay buried beneath its curves, but we had no means of knowing for certain. Near the house every shrub and out-building, every hay-stack or wood-heap, had all been covered up, and no man might even guess where they lay.

This had been the terrible state of things, and although the blessed warm wind had removed our immediate and pressing fear of starvation, we could not hope to employ ourselves in searching for our missing sheep for many days to come. None of us had been able to take any exercise for more than a fortnight, and having done all that could possibly be done near at hand, F—— set to work to manufacture some sledges out of old packing-cases. Quite close to the house, a hill sloped smoothly for about 300 yards, at an angle of 40 °; along its side lay a perfectly level and deep drift, which did not show any signs of thawing for more than a month, and we resolved to page 78 use this as a natural Montagne Russe. The construction of a suitable sledge was the first difficulty to be surmounted, and many were the dismal failures and break-neck catastrophes which preceded what we considered a safe and successful vehicle. Not only was it immensely difficult to make, without either proper materials or tools, a sledge which could hold two people (for F—— declared it was no fun sleighing alone), but his “patent brakes” proved the most broken of reeds to lean upon when the sledge was dashing down the steep incline at the rate of a thousand miles an hour.

We nearly broke our necks more than once, and I look back now with amazement to our fool-hardiness. How well I remember one expedition, when F——, who had been hammering away in a shed all the morning, came to find me sitting in the sun in the verandah, and to inform me that at last he had perfected a conveyance which would combine speed with safety. Undaunted by previous mishaps, I sallied forth, and in company with Mr. U—— and F——, climbed painfully up the high hill I have mentioned, by some steps which they had cut in the frozen snow. Without some such help we could not have kept our footing for a moment, and as long as I live I shall never forget the sensation of leaving my friendly Alpenstock planted page 79 in the snow, and of seating myself on that frail sledge. Perhaps I ought to describe it here. A board, about six feet long by one foot broad, with sheet-iron nailed beneath it, and curved upwards in front; on its upper surface a couple of battens were fixed, one quite at the foremost end, and one half-way. That was F——’s new patent sledge, warranted to go faster down an incline than any other conveyance on the surface of the earth. I was the wretched “passenger,” as he called me, on more than one occasion, and I will briefly describe my experiences. “Why did you go?” is a very natural question to arise in my reader’s mind; and sitting here at my writing-table, I feel as if I must have been a lunatic to venture. But in those delicious wild days, no enterprise seemed too rash or dangerous to engage in, from mounting a horse which had never seen or felt the fluttering of a habit, to embarking on the conveyance I have described above, and starting down a mountain-side at the risk of a broken neck.

Well, to return to that terrible moment. I see the whole scene now. The frail, rude sledge, with its breaks made out of a couple of standards from a wire fence, connected by a strong iron chain; F—— seated at the back of the precious contrivance, firmly grasping a standard in each hand; Mr. U—— clinging desperately to his Alpen-stock with one hand, whilst page 80 with the other he helps me on to the board; and Nettle, my dear little terrier, standing shivering on three legs, sniffing distrustfully at the sledge. It is extremely difficult even to take one’s place on a board a dozen inches wide. My petticoats have to be firmly wrapped around me, and care taken that no fold projects beyond the sledge, or I should be soon dragged out of my frail seat. I fix my feet firmly against the batten, and F—— cries, “Are you ready?” “Oh, not yet!” I gasp, clinging to Mr. U——’s hand as if I never meant to let it go. “Hold tight!” he shouts. Now what a mockery this injunction was. I had nothing to hold on to except my own knees, and I clasped them convulsively. Mr. U—— says, “You’re all right now,” and before I can realize that he has let go my hand, before my courage is half-way up to the necessary height, we are off. The breaks are slightly depressed for the first few yards, in order to regulate our pace, and because there is a tremendously steep pitch just at first. Once we have safely passed that he tilts up the standards, and our sledge shoots like a meteor down the perfectly smooth incline. I cannot draw my breath, we are going at such a pace through the keen air; I give myself up for lost. We come to another steep pitch near the bottom of the hill; F—— is laughing to such a degree at me that he page 81 does not put down his breaks soon enough, and loses control of the sledge. We appear to leap down the dip, and then the sledge turns first one way and then the other, its zinc prow being sometimes up-hill and some-times down. It seems wonderful that we keep on the sledge, for we have no means of holding on except by pressing our feet against the battens; yet in the grand and final upset at the bottom of the hill, the sledge is there too, and we find we have never parted company from it.

Will any one believe that after such a perilous journey, I could actually be persuaded to try again? But so it was. At first the fright (for I was really terrified) used to make me very cross, and I declared that I was severely hurt, if not “kilt entirely;” but after I had shaken the snow out of my linsey skirt, and discovered that beyond the damage to my nerves I was uninjured, F—— was quite sure to try to persuade me to make another attempt, and I was equally sure to yield to the temptation. As well as my memory serves me, we only made one really successful journey, and that was on an occasion when we kept the breaks down the whole way. But I never could insure similar precautions being taken again, and we consequently experienced every variety of mishaps possible to sledge travellers. I persevered page 82 however for some days until the north-westerly wind, which was blowing softly all the time, began to lay bare the sharpest points of the rocks, and then I gave in at once, and would not be a “passenger” any more. It was rather too much to strike one’s head against a jagged fragment of rock, or to dislocate one’s thumb against a concealed stump of a palm tree. Then the sharp points of the Spaniards began to stick up through the softening snow, and nothing would induce me to run the risk of touching their green bayonets. Besides which, the fast-thawing snow made it very difficult to climb up to the top of our hill, for the carefully-cut steps had disappeared long ago. So I gave up sledge journeys on my own account, and used only to look at F—— and Mr. U—— taking them.

These two persevered so long as an inch of snow remained on the hill-side. Some of their adventures were very alarming, and certainly rather dangerous. One afternoon I had been watching them for more than an hour, and had seen them go through every variety of disaster, and capsize with no further effect than increasing their desire for “one more” trial. On the blind-side of the hill,—that is to say the side which gets scarcely any sun in winter,—a deep drift of snow still lingered, filling up a furrow made in former years by a shingle-slip. Thither the two adventurous page 83 climbers dragged their sledge, and down the steep incline they performed their perilous descent many a time. I became tired of watching the board shoot swiftly over the white streak; and I strolled round the shoulder of the hill, to see if there was any appearance of the snow-fall lessening in the back country.

I must have been away about half an hour, and had made the circuit of the little knoll which projected from the mountain side, returning to where I expected to find sleigh and sleighers starting perhaps on just “one more” journey. But no one was there, and a dozen yards or so from the usual starting-point, the snow was a good deal ploughed up and stained in large patches by blood. Here was an alarming spectacle, though the only wonder was that a bad accident had not occurred before. I saw the sledge, deserted and broken, near the end of the drift: of the passengers there was neither sign nor token. I must say I was terribly frightened, but it is useless in New Zealand to scream or faint; the only thing to do in an emergency is to coo-é; and so, although my heart was thumping loudly in my ears, and at first I could not produce a sound, I managed at last, after many attempts, to muster up a loud clear coo-é. There was the usual pause, whilst the last sharp note rang back from the hill-sides, and vibrated through the clear silent page 84 air; and then, oh, welcome sound! I heard a vigorous answer from our own flat where the homestead stood. I set off down-hill as fast as I could, and had the joy, when I turned the slope which had hidden our little house from my view, to see F— and Mr. U—— walking about; but even from that distance I could see that poor Mr. U——’s head was bandaged up, and as soon as I got near enough to hear, F—— shouted “I have broken my neck!” adding, “I am very hungry: let us go in to supper.”

Under the circumstances these words were consolatory; and when I came to hear the story, this was the way the accident happened. As I mentioned before, even this drift had thawed till it was soft at the surface and worn away almost to the rocks. During a rapid descent the nose of the sledge dipped through the snow, and stopped dead against a rock. Mr. U—— was instantly buried in the snow, falling into a young but prickly Spaniard, which assaulted him grievously; but F—— shot over his head some ten yards, turned a somersault, and alit on his feet. This sounds a harmless performance enough, but it requires practice; and F—— declared that for weeks afterwards his neck felt twisted. The accident must have looked very ridiculous: the sledge one moment gliding smoothly along at the rate of forty miles an hour,— page 85 the next a dead stop, and F—— flying through the air over his passenger’s head, finishing feet first plump down in the soft snow.

Looking back on that time, I can remember how curiously soon the external traces of the great snow-storm disappeared. For some weeks after the friendly nor-wester, the air of the whole neighbourhood was tainted by dead and decaying sheep and lambs; and the wire fences, stock-yard rails, and every “coign of vantage,” had to be made useful but ghastly by a tapestry of sheep-skins. The only wonder was that a single sheep had survived a storm severe enough to kill wild pigs. Great boars, cased in hides an inch thick, had perished through sheer stress of weather; while thin-skinned animals, with only a few months growth of fine merino wool on their backs, had endured it all. It was well known that the actual destruction of sheep was mainly owing to the two days of heavy rain which succeeded the snow. Out of a flock of 13,000 of all ages, we lost, on the lowest calculation, 1,000 grown sheep and nearly 3,000 lambs; and yet our loss was small by comparison with that of our neighbours, whose runs were further back among the hill, and less sheltered than our own.

Long before midsummer our cloud-shadowed hills were green once more; and I think I see again their page 86 beautiful outlines, their steep sides planted with semi-tropical palms and grasses, whilst the more distant peaks are veiled in a sultry haze. During that peculiarly bright and lovely summer we often ask each other, Could it have been true that no one knew one mountain from the other, and that hills had been apparently levelled and vallies filled up by the heaviest snow-fall ever known. But whilst the words were on our lips, we could see a group of palm-trees, ten feet high, with their topmost leaves gnawed to the stump by starving sheep, that must have been standing on at least seven feet of snow to reach them; and there was scarcely a creek on the run whose banks were not strewn, for many a long day, by bare and bleaching bones.