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Station Amusements

Chapter VII. “Buying a Run.”—Continued

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Chapter VII. “Buying a Run.”—Continued.

Early the next morning we all breakfasted together, and then separated with most polite adieux. We sallied forth to look for a couple of riding horses. There were none to be hired, so we had to buy two good-looking nags for £45 a-piece. Now-a-days the same horses would not fetch more than £10 and I have been told that in Australia you can buy a horse for a shilling, but ours in New Zealand have never sunk lower than a couple of pounds, if they had any legs at all. It seemed to the horse-dealer quite a superfluous question when I timidly inquired if my horse had ever carried a lady. “No: I can’t just say as he has, mum, as you see there aint no ladies in these parts for him to carry. But,” he added magnanimously, “I’ll try him with a blanket fust, if you’re at all oneasy about him.” We did not start until the next page 106 day, as we had to hunt up side-saddles, and I had to sew a few yards of grey linsey into a riding-skirt; but by the following day we were all ready, and our “swags” packed and strapped to the saddles by nine o’clock. F——’s horse looked a very nice one in every respect; mine was evidently uneasy in his mind at the strange shape of his saddle, and I was recommended to mount outside the little enclosure, on a patch of open ground, where my steed would not be able to brush me off. The moment I mounted, the “Hermit” as he was called, made for a dry ditch and tried to lie down, but a sharp cut from a stock-whip brought him out of it, and then he laid his ears well back and started for a good gallop, to endeavour to get rid of his strange rider. However, his head was turned in the right direction; there were no obstacles in the way, and before he got tired of his pace we had left Timaru a good many miles behind us. F—— looked complacently at the “Hermit,” and observed, “He’ll carry you very nicely, I think.” I could only breathe a sincere hope that he might.

It was a beautiful day, warm but not oppressive, and delightfully calm. Our road lay at first along the sea-shore. Ever since we had left Christchurch the ground had been almost level, and the road consisted merely of a track cleared from tussocks. On page 107 our left extended the vast strip known as the Ninety-miles Beach, whilst far on our right, between us and the west coast, the Southern Alps, rose in all their might and beauty, sometimes lightly veiled by a summer haze, at others cutting our Italian-blue sky sharp and clear with their grand outlines. Our horses were a trifle too fat for good condition, and we feared to hurry them the first day, so we made an early halt at Mahiki, only a twenty miles stage; but the next day they took us on to Waitaki Ferry, past a splendid bush, and so into the heart of the hill country.

Between the ranges, beautiful fertile valleys extended; when I say fertile, I mean that the soil was excellent, and the land well-grassed. But there was no cultivation. Not a sod had ever been turned there since the creation of the world, and the whole country wore the peculiar yellow tinge caught from the tall waving tussocks, which is the prevailing feature of New Zealand scenery au naturel. Every acre had been “taken up,” but as yet the runs were rather understocked. Our fourth day’s ride was the longest,—fifty-five miles in all, though we halted for a couple of hours at a miserable accommodation house. Our bivouac that night was close to Lake Wanaka, at the Molyneux Ferry-house, and there I was kept awake all night by the attentions of a cat. I never saw such page 108 a ridiculous animal. Prince, for that was his name, took the greatest fancy to me, or rather to my woollen skirt I suppose, and found a linsey lap much more comfortable than the corduroy knees on which he took his usual evening nap. At all events he followed me into my room, which only boasted of a mattress, stuffed with tussock-grass by the way, on the floor. Here I should have slept very well after my long journey, if Prince would have permitted it. In vain I put him out of the window, not always very gently; he returned in five minutes, bringing a palpitating, just-caught bird or mouse, which he softly dropped on my face, and purred loudly with delight at his own gallantry. Twenty times did I strike a match that night and try to restore the victims to life; only one recovered sufficiently to be released, and Prince brought it in again, quite dead, five minutes later. I shut the little casement window, but the room became so hot and stuffy, and suspicious fumes of stale beer and tobacco began to assert their presence, so that I found myself obliged to open it again. Sometimes the victim’s bones were crunched close to my ear, and I found more than one feather in my hair in the morning. Never was any one so persecuted by a cat as I was by Prince that weary night.

The next day we got to a station known as “John- page 109 son’s.” It was just at the head of the lake, and as we arrived tolerably early in the forenoon we embarked, after the usual station dinner of mutton, tea, and damper, on Lake Wanaka. Alas for those treacherous blue waters! We had only a little pair-oared boat, in which I took my place as coxwain, and after pulling for a mile or two under a blazing sun, over short chopping waves, with a head-wind, we all became so deadly sea-sick that we had to turn back! As soon as we had rested and recovered, a council of war was held as to our movements, and we decided, in spite of our recent experiences, to turn our horses, who had done quite enough for the present, out on the run, and so make our way down the lake by boat. Already F—— was beginning to look anxious, for he perceived that, even after the head of the lake had been reached, the wool would cost an enormous sum to cart down to either Oamaru or Timaru, from whence alone it could be shipped.

The mile or two of the run which lay along the shore of the lake showed us frightfully rough country. A dense jungle of tussocks and thorny bushes choked up the feed, and made it impossible to drive any animals through it, even supposing that good pasturage lay beyond. Still we hoped that we might be looking at the worst portion of our purchase, and deter- page 110 mined to persevere in the attempt to penetrate to the furthest end of our new property. Accordingly we hired a safe old tub of a boat which, though too heavy to pull, was warranted to sail steadily, and with a couple of men, some cold mutton, bread, tea, and sugar, started valiantly on our cruise. But the “blue, unclouded weather,” in which we had hitherto basked, was at an end for the present. We had already enjoyed a longer succession of calm days than usually falls to the lot of the travellers in that windy middle island, and it was now quite time for the imprisoned “nor’-wester” to have his turn over the surface of the domain.

Accordingly the first day’s sail was against a light, ominously warm head-wind, and we only made any way at all by keeping up a complicated system of tacking. The start had not been an early one, so darkness found us but little advanced on our voyage, and we passed the night in a rough shanty, on beds of fern-leaves, wrapped in our red blankets. Tired as we were, none of us could sleep much. The air was dry and parched; every now and then a sough of the rising. hot gale swept through our crazy shelter without cooling us, and warned us to prepare for what was coming. Our only chance of getting on was to make an early start, for fortunately a true “nor’-wester” is somewhat page 111 of a sluggard. The skies wore their peculiar chrysoprase green tint, except towards the weather quarter, where heavy banks of lurid cloud showed that the enemy was collecting in force. Even the hour of dawn, usually so crisp and cool, brought no sense of refreshment to our languid limbs, and we embarked with the direst forebodings. A few miles further up the lake we reached an out-station hut, built by our host Mr. Johnson when he first “took up” his country and intended to push his boundary as far as this. He soon drew in his lines however on account of the rough nature of the ground. The hut was in a most picturesque spot, and although deserted, remained still in good repair. The little scrap of garden ground was a tangle of gooseberry and currant bushes among which potatoes flourished at their own sweet will.

We had only time to beach the boat, that is to say F—— and the two men did so, whilst I ran backwards and forwards with the blankets and provisions, before the hurricane was upon us. Henceforth there was no stirring out of doors until the gale had blown itself out. We dragged in some driftwood, barricaded the door, and prepared to pass the time as well as we could. Oh, the fleas in the hut! The ground was literally alive with them, and their audacity and appetite was unparalleled. Our boatmen sat tranquilly by the page 112 tiny window and played cribbage incessantly with very dirty cards and a board made out of a small bar of soap. As for me, I turned an empty box up on its end, so as to get out of the way of the fleas, and perched myself on it, finding ample occupation in defending my position from the attacks of the active little wretches. Sometimes I felt as if I must rush out into the lake and drown myself and my tormentors together. It was very bad for everybody. The poor boatmen doubtless wished to smoke, but were too polite to do anything of the sort. F—— had nothing whatever to read, except a torn piece of an old Times, at least two years old, which we had brought to wrap up some of our provisions; whilst I was still more idle and wretched. Two weary interminable days dragged, or perhaps I should say, blew, themselves along in this miserable fashion, but at sundown on the evening of the third day the wind dropped suddenly, and we did not lose a moment in darting out of our prison and embarking once more. For the first time since we started we could perceive the grandeur of the surrounding country; but grand scenery is not necessary nor indeed desirable in a sheep run. Splendid mountains ran down in steep spurs to the very shore of the enormous lake. Behind them, piled in snowy steeps, rose the distant Alps of the Antipodes; great masses of native bush page 113 made dark purple shadows among the clefts of the hills, whilst the lake rippled in and out of many a graceful bay and quiet harbour. Not a fleck or film of cloud floated between us and the serene and darkening sky; a profound, delightful calm brooded over land and water. Although there was no moon, the stars served us as lights and compass until two o’clock in the morning, by which time we had reached the head of the lake (which is thirty-five miles in length), where we landed, extemporized a tent out of the boat sail, and turned in for a refreshing flea-less sleep.

The next day was beautifully still, with a light air from the opposite point, just sufficient to cool the parched atmosphere; and we made our way along the head of the lake to a place were a couple of sawyers were at work. One of them had brought his wife with him, and her welcome to me was the most touching thing in the world. She took me entirely under her care, and would hardly let me out of her sight. I must say it was very nice to be waited on so faithfully, and I gave myself up to the unaccustomed luxury. All she required of me in exchange for her incessant toil on my behalf was “news.” It did not matter of what kind, every scrap of intelligence was welcome to her, and she refused to tell me to what date her “latest advices” extended. During the three days of our page 114 stay in that clearing among the great pines of the Wanaka Bush, I gave my hostess a complete abridgment of the history of England—political, social, and moral, beginning from my earliest recollections. Then we ran over contemporary foreign affairs, dwelt minutely on every scrap of colonial news, and finally wound up with a full, true, and particular account of myself and all my relations and friends. When I paused for breath she would cease her washing and cooking on my behalf, and say entreatingly, “Go on now, do!” until I felt quite desperate.

All this time whilst I was being “interviewed” nearly to death, F—— employed himself in making excursions to different parts of the run. One of the sawyers lent him a miserable half-starved little pony; and he penetrated to another sawyer’s hut, seven miles distant up the Matukituki river. But no matter whether he turned his steps to north or south, east or west, he met with the same disheartening report. There was the ground indeed, but it was perfectly useless. Not only was there was no pasturage, but if there had been, the nature of the country would have rendered it valueless, on account of the way it was overgrown. It would be tedious to explain more minutely why this was the case. Sufficient must it be to say that whilst F—— was only too anxious page 115 to keep his eyes shut as to the ground he had alighted on after his leap in the dark, and the sawyers were equally anxious to induce settlers to come there, and so bring a market for their labour close to their hand nothing could make our purchase appear anything except a dead loss. As for the plans, they were purely imaginary. The blue lake was about the only part true to nature; and even that should have had a foot-note to state that it was generally lashed into high, unnavigable waves, by a chronic nor’-wester.

No: there was nothing for it but to go home again to the little run which had seemed such a mere paddock in our eyes, whilst we indulged in castle-building over 100,000 acres of country. It was of no use lingering amid such disappointment and discomfort; besides which my listener, the sawyer’s wife, had turned her husband and herself out of their hut, and were sleeping under a red blanket tent. Poor woman, she was most anxious to get away; and the lovely sylvan scene, with the tall trees standing like sentinels over their prostrate brethren, the wealth of beauteous greenery, springing through fronds of fern and ground creepers, the bright-winged flight of paroquets and other bush birds, even the vast expanse of the lake which stretched almost from their threshold for so many miles, all would have been gladly exchanged page 116 for a dusty high street in any country town-ship. Her last words were, “Can’t you send me a paper or hany thing printed, mam?” I faithfully promised to do my best, and carried out my share of the bargain by despatching to her a large packet of miscellaneous periodicals and newspapers; but whether she ever received them is more than I can say.

We were afraid of lingering too long, lest another nor’-wester should become due; and we therefore started as soon as F—— had decided that it was of no use exploring our wretched purchase any further. We had a stiff breeze from the north-west all the way down the lake; but as it was right a-stern it helped us along to such good purpose, that one day’s sailing before it brought us back to Mr. Johnson’s homestead and comparative civilization. The little parlour and the tiny bed-room beyond, into which I could only get access by climbing through a window (for the architect had forgotten to put a door), appeared like apartments in a spacious palace, so great was the contrast between their snug comfort and the desolate misery of our hut life. Of course nothing else was talked of except our disappointment at our new run; and although Mr. Johnson had indulged in forebodings, which were only too literally fulfilled, he had the good taste never to remind us of his prophecies.

page 117

Of all the forms of human woe,
Defend me from that dread, ‘I told you so.’

After a day’s halt and rest we mounted our much refreshed horses, and set our faces straight across country for Dunedin. This is very easy to write, but it was not quite so easy to do. We could only ride for the first fifty-two miles, which we accomplished in two days. These stages brought us to the foot of the Dunstan Range, and near the gold-diggings of that name. I would fain have turned aside to see them, but we had not time. However, we felt the auriferous influence of the locality; for a perfect stranger came up to us, whilst we were baiting at another place, called the Kaiwarara diggings, and offered to buy our horses from us for £30 each, and also to purchase our saddles and bridles at a fair price. This was exactly what we wanted, as we had intended to sell them at Dunedin; and I was no ways disinclined to part with the Hermit; who retained the sulky, misanthropical temper which had earned him his name. He was now pronounced “fit to carry a lady,” and purchased to be sold again at the diggings. Whether there were any ladies there or not I cannot tell. Of course, before parting with our nags we ascertained that the ubiquitous “Cobb’s coach” started from our resting place for Dunedin next day, and we made the rest of our journey in one of that page 118 well-known line. Its leathern springs, whilst not so liable to break by sudden jolts, impart a swinging rocking motion to the body of the vehicle, which is most disagreeable; but rough and rude as they are, they deserve to be looked upon with respect as the pioneers of civilization. All over America, Australia, and now New Zealand, the moment half-a-dozen passengers are forthcoming, that moment the enterprising firm starts a coach, and the vehicle runs until it is ousted by a railway. All previous tracks which I had journeyed over seemed smooth turnpike roads, compared to that terrible tussocky track which led to Dunedin.

But that bright little town was reached at last, the hotel welcomed us, tired and bruised travellers that we were, and next evening we started in the Geelong for Port Lyttleton. This little coasting steamer seemed to touch at every hamlet along the coast, and after each pause I had to begin afresh my agonies of sea-sickness. There was no such thing as getting one’s sea-legs; for we were seldom more than a few hours outside, and had no chance of getting used to the horrible motion. Timaru was reached next day, but we had suffered so frightfully during the night from a chopping sea and an open. roadstead, that we went on shore, and entrusted ourselves once more to page 119 the old coach. It seemed better to endure the miseries we knew of, than to make experiments in wretchedness. So we went through the old jolting and jumbling until we were dropped at an accommodation house, fifteen miles from Christchurch, where we slept that night, and at daylight despatched a messenger to the next station for our own horses. He had only thirty-five miles to ride, and about mid-day we started to meet him on hired horses, which we were very glad to exchange for better nags a stage further on.

And so we rode quietly home in the gloaming, winding up the lovely, tranquil valley, at whose head stood our own snug little homestead. At first we were so glad to be safely at hone again that we scarcely gave a thought to our fruitless enterprise; but as our bruised bodies became rested and restored, our hearts began to ache when we thought of the money we had so rashly flung away in BUYING A RUN.