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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XVI. A Sailing Excursion on Lake Coleridge

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Letter XVI. A Sailing Excursion on Lake Coleridge.

A violent storm of wind and rain from the south-west keeps us all indoors to-day, and gives me time to write my letter for the Panama mail, which will be made up to-morrow. The post-office is ten miles off, and rejoices in the appropriate name of “Wind-whistle;” it stands at the mouth of a deep mountain gorge, and there never was such a temple of the winds.

This bad weather comes after a long spell of lovely bright summer days, and is very welcome to fill up the failing creeks in the lower ranges of hills. I must tell you how much we have been enjoying our visit here. F—— knows this part of the country well, but it is quite new to me, and a great contrast to the other scenery I have described to you We had long talked of paying Mr. C. H—— a visit at his bachelor cottage on his station far back among the high ranges of hills, but no time was fixed, so I was rather taken by surprise when last week he drove up to Broomielaw page 115 in a light American waggon with a pair of stout horses, and announced that he had come to take us to his place next day. There was no reason against this plan, and we agreed at once; the next morning saw us on the road, after an early breakfast. We had to drive about thirty-five miles round, whereas it would have been only twenty miles riding across the hills; but our kind host thought that it would be much more comfortable for me to be able to take a carpet-bag in the carriage instead of the usual system of saddle-bags one is obliged to adopt travelling on horseback. We made our first stage at the ever-hospitable station of the C——’s, on the Horarata, but we could not remain to luncheon, as they wished, having to push on further; and, as it turned out, it was most fortunate we took advantage of the first part of the day to get over the ground between us and our destination, for the gentle breeze which had been blowing since we started gradually freshened into a tremendous “nor’-wester,” right in our teeth all the rest of our way. The poor horses bent their heads as low as possible and pulled bravely at their collars, up hill the whole time. Among the mountains the wind rushed with redoubled fury down the narrow gorges, and became icily cold as we neared the snowy ranges. It was impossible to see the hills for the thick mist, though I knew we must have a magnificent view before us. We took refuge for an hour just to rest the horses, at Windwhistle, and I cer- page 116 tainly expected the house to come down whilst we were there. I can hardly tell you anything of the rest of the drive, for I was really frightened at my first experience of a “howling nor’-wester” out of doors, and Mr. H—— made me sit down at the bottom of the carriage and heaped over me all the cloaks and shawls we had brought. It was delightful to find ourselves under shelter at last in a pretty bright snug room, with lots of books and arm-chairs, and a blazing fire; this, you must remember, in midsummer.

The next morning was perfectly calm, and the lake as serene as if no storm had been dashing its water in huge breakers against the beach only a few hours before. The view from the sitting-room was lovely: just beneath the window there was a little lawn, as green as possible from the spray with which the lake had washed it yesterday; beyond this a low hedge, an open meadow, a fringe of white pebbly beach, and then a wide expanse of water within one little wooded island, and shut in gradually from our view by spurs of hills running down to the shore, sometimes in bold steep cliffs, and again in gentle declivities, with little strips of bush or scrub growing in the steep gullies between them. The lake extends some way beyond where we lose sight of it, being twelve miles long and four miles broad. A few yards from the beach it is over six hundred feet deep. Nothing but a painting could give you any idea of the blue of sky and water that morning; the page 117 violent wind of yesterday seemed to have blown every cloud below the horizon, for I could not see the least white film anywhere. Behind the lower hills which surround the lake rises a splendid snowy range; altogether, you cannot imagine a more enchanting prospect than the one I stood and looked at; it made me think of Miss Procter’s lines—

“My eyes grow dim,
As still I gaze and gaze
Upon that mountain pass,
That leads—or so it seems—
To some far happy land
Known in a world of dreams.”

All this time, whilst I was looking out of the window in most unusual idleness, Mr. H—— and F—— were making constant journeys between the boat-house and the store-room, and at last I was entreated to go and put on my hat. While doing this I heard cupboards being opened, and a great bustle; so when I reached the shore I was not so much surprised as they expected, to see in the pretty little sailing-boat (which was moored to a primitive sort of jetty made out of a broken old punt) the materials for at least two substantial meals, in case of being kept out by a sudden head-wind. I was especially glad to notice a little kettle among the impedimenta, and there were cloaks and wraps of all kinds to provide against the worst. Four gentlemen and I made up the crew and passengers, and a very merry set we were, behaving extremely like children out for a holiday. page 118 The wind was a trifle light for sailing, so the gentlemen pulled, but very lazily and not at all in good “form,” as the object of each oarsman seemed to be to do as little work as possible. However, we got on somehow, a light puff helping us now and then, but our progress was hardly perceptible. I had been for a long time gazing down into the clear blue depth of water, every now and then seeing a flash of the white sand shining at the bottom, when I was half startled by our host standing suddenly up in the bow of the boat; and then I found that we were a couple of miles away from our starting-point, and that we had turned a corner formed by a steep spur, and were running right into what appeared a grove of rata-trees growing at the water’s edge. The rata only grows in the hills and near water; it is a species of broad-leaf myrtle, with a flower exactly like a myrtle in character, but of a brilliant deep scarlet colour, and twice as large.

When the bowsprit touched the rata-branches, which drooped like a curtain into the water, Mr. H—— made a signal to lower the mast, and parting the thick, blossom-covered foliage before us, with both hands, the way the boat had on her sent us gently through the screen of scarlet flowers and glossy green leaves into such a lovely fairy cove! Before us was a little white beach of fine sparkling sand, against which the water broke in tiny wavelets, and all around a perfect bower of every variety of fern and moss, kept green by streams no thicker page 119 than a silver thread trickling down here and there with a subdued tinkling sound. We all sat quite silent, the boat kept back just inside the entrance by the steersman holding on to a branch. It was a sudden contrast from the sparkling sunshine and brightness outside, all life and colour and warmth, to the tender, green, profound shade and quiet in this “Mossy Hum,” as the people about here call it. Do not fancy anything damp or chilly. No; it was like a natural temple—perfect repose and refreshment to the eyes dazzled with the brilliant outside colouring. Centuries ago there must have been a great landslip here, for the side of the mountain is quite hollowed out, and Nature has gradually covered the ugly brown rent with the thickest tapestry of her most delicate handiwork. I noticed two varieties of the maiden-hair, its slender black stem making the most exquisite tracery among the vivid greens. There was no tint of colour except green when once we passed the red-fringed curtain of rata-branches, only the white and shining fairy beach and the gleaming threads of water. As we sat there, perfectly still, and entranced, a sort of delicious mesmeric feeling stole over me; I thought of the lotus-eater’s chant, “There is no joy but calm,” with, for, the first time in my life, a dim perception of what they meant, perhaps; but it was over all too quickly: prosaic words of direction to back water called us from shade to light, and in a moment more we were in front of the rata-trees, admiring their splendid page 120 colouring, and our little boat was dancing away over the bright waves, with her white wings set and her bows pointed towards the little toy island in the middle of the lake; it was no question now of rowing, a nice fresh breeze from the south (the cold point here) sent us swiftly and steadily through the water. What a morning it was! The air was positively intoxicating, making you feel that the mere fact of being a living creature with lungs to inhale such an atmosphere was a great boon. We have a good deal of disagreeable weather, and a small proportion of bad weather, but in no other part of the world, I believe, does Nature so thoroughly understand how to make a fine day as in New Zealand.

A little after mid-day we ran our boat to the lee of the island, and: whilst she was steadied by the same primitive method of holding on to branches of manuka and other scrub, I scrambled out and up a little cliff, where a goat could hardly have found footing, till I reached a spot big enough to stand on, from whence I anxiously watched the disembarkation of some of the provisions, and of the gridiron and kettle. In a few moments we were all safely ashore, and busy collecting dry fern and brushwood for a fire; it was rather a trial of patience to wait till the great blaze had subsided before we attempted to cook our chops, which were all neatly prepared ready for us. Some large potatoes were put to bake in the ashes; the tin plates were warmed (it is a great art not to overheat them when you have to keep them on your lap whilst you eat page 121 your chop). We were all so terribly hungry that we were obliged to have a course of bread and cheese and sardines first; it was really quite impossible to wait patiently for the chops. The officiating cook scolded us well for our Vandalism, and the next moment we detected him in the act of devouring a half-raw potato. The fragments of our meal must have been a great boon to the colony of wekas who inhabit the island, for as they increase and multiply prodigiously their provisions must often fall short in so small a space. No one can imagine how these birds originally came here, for the island is at least two miles from the nearest point of land; they can neither swim nor fly; and as every man’s hand is against them, no one would have thought it worth while to bring them over: but here they are, in spite of all the apparent impossibilities attending their arrival, more tame and impudent than ever. It was dangerous to leave your bread unwatched for an instant, and indeed I saw one gliding off with an empty sardine tin in its beak; I wonder how it liked oil and little scales. They considered a cork a great prize, and carried several off triumphantly.

After luncheon there was the usual interval of rest, and pipes on the part of the gentlemen. I explored a little, but there is nothing very pretty or abundant in the way of wild flowers in the parts of New Zealand which I have seen. White violets and a ground clematis are the only ones I have come across in any quantity. The manuka, a sort of scrub, has a pretty page 122 blossom like a diminutive Michaelmas daisy, white petals and a brown centre, with a very aromatic odour; and this little flower is succeeded by a berry with the same strong smell and taste of spice. The shepherds sometimes make an infusion of these when they are very hard-up for tea; but it must be like drinking a decoction of cloves.

About three o’clock we re-embarked, and sailed a little higher up the lake beyond the point where we lose sight of it from Mr. H——’s house, every moment opening out fresh and more beautiful glimpses. Quite the opposite end of the shore is fringed with a thick deep forest, and another station has been built there, at which, I am told, the scenery is still more magnificent. At first I was inclined to wonder where the sheep live amid all this picturesque but mountainous country: however, I find that between and among these hills stretch immense valleys (or “flats,” as they are called here), which are warm and sheltered in winter, and afford plenty of food for them; then, in summer, they go up to the mountains: but it is very difficult to “muster” these ranges. I am almost ashamed to confess to another meal before we returned home, but there was a lovely tempting spot in a little harbour, and so we landed and boiled some water and had a capital cup of tea. You require to be out as we were from morning till night in such an air as this to know what it is to feel either hungry or sleepy in perfection! The next day we made a similar excursion, exploring the opposite shore of the page 123 lake; but, before we started, our host distrusted the appearance of certain clouds, and sent round horses to meet us at the point where we were going to lunch; and it was just as well he did so, for a stiff breeze sprang up from the south-west, which would have kept us out all night. So we mounted the horses instead of re-embarking, having first secured the boat, and cantered home. We passed several smaller lakes; there is a perfect chain of them among these hills, and I was much amused at the names bestowed on them, according to the tastes or caprice of the station-owners whose runs happen to include them: for instance, two are called respectively “Geraldine” and “Ida,” whilst three, which lie close together, rejoice in the somewhat extraordinary names of “the World,” “the Flesh,” and “the Devil.”