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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XX. The New Zealand Snowstorm of 1867

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Letter XX. The New Zealand Snowstorm of 1867.

I have had my first experience of real hardships since I last wrote to you. Yes, we have all had to endure positive hunger and cold, and, what I found much harder to bear, great anxiety of mind. I think I mentioned that the weather towards the end of July had been unusually disagreeable, but not very cold This wet fortnight had a great deal to do with our sufferings afterwards, for it came exactly at the time we were accustomed to send our dray down to Christchurch for supplies of flour and groceries, and to lay in a good stock of coals for the winter; these latter had been ordered, and were expected every day. Just the last few days of July the weather cleared up, and became like our usual most beautiful winter climate; so, after waiting a day or two, to allow the roads to dry a little, the dray was despatched to town, bearing a long list of orders, and with many injunctions to the driver to return as quickly as possible, for all the stores were at the lowest ebb. page 157 I am obliged to tell you these domestic details, in order that you may understand the reason of our privations. I acknowledge, humbly, that it was not good management, but sometimes accidents will occur. It was also necessary for F—— to make a journey to Christchurch on business, and as he probably would be detained there for nearly a week, it was arranged that one of the young gentlemen from Rockwood should ride over and escort me back there, to remain during F——’s absence. I am going to give you all the exact dates, for this snow-storm will be a matter of history, during the present generation at all events: there is no tradition among the Maoris of such a severe one ever having occurred; and what made it more fatal in its financial consequences to every one was, that the lambing season had only just commenced or terminated on most of the runs. Only a few days before he left, F—— had taken me for a ride in the sheltered valleys, that he might see the state of the lambs, and pronounced it most satisfactory; thousands of the pretty little creatures were skipping about by their mothers’ side.

I find, by my Diary, July 29th marked, as the beginning of a “sou’-wester.” F—— had arranged to start that morning, and as his business was urgent, he did not like to delay his departure, though the day was most unpromising, a steady, fine drizzle, and raw atmosphere; however, we hurried breakfast, and he set off, determining to push on to town as quickly as possible. I never spent such a dismal day in my life: page 158 my mind was disturbed by secret anxieties about the possibility of the dray being detained by wet weather, and there was such an extraordinary weight in the air, the dense mist seemed pressing everything down to the ground; however, I drew the sofa to the fire, made up a good blaze (the last I saw for some time), and prepared to pass a lazy day with a book; but I felt so restless and miserable I did not know what was the matter with me. I wandered from window to window, and still the same unusual sight met my eyes; a long procession of ewes and lambs, all travelling steadily down from the hills towards the large flat in front of the house; the bleating was incessant, and added to the intense melancholy of the whole affair. When Mr. U—— came in to dinner; at one o’clock, he agreed with me that it was most unusual weather, and said, that on the other ranges the sheep were drifting before the cold mist and rain just in the same way. Our only anxiety arose from the certainty that the dray would be delayed at least a day, and perhaps two; this was a dreadful idea: for some time past we had been economising our resources to make them last, and we knew that there was absolutely nothing at the home-station, nor at our nearest neighbour’s, for they had sent to borrow tea and sugar from us. Just at dusk that evening, two gentlemen rode up, not knowing F—— was from home, and asked if they might remain for the night. I knew them both very well; in fact, one was our cousin T——, and the other an old friend; so they put up their horses, and housed page 159 their dogs (for each had a valuable sheep-dog with him) in a barrel full of clean straw, and we all tried to spend a cheerful evening, but everybody confessed to the same extraordinary depression of spirits that I felt.

When I awoke the next morning, I was not much surprised to see the snow falling thick and fast: no sheep were now visible, there was a great silence, and the oppression in the atmosphere had if possible increased. We had a very poor breakfast,—no porridge, very little mutton (for in expectation of the house being nearly empty, the shepherd had not brought any over the preceding day), and very weak tea; coffee and cocoa all finished, and about an ounce of tea in the chest. I don’t know how the gentlemen amused themselves that day; I believe they smoked a good deal; I could only afford a small fire in the drawing-room, over which I shivered. The snow continued to fall in dense fine clouds, quite unlike any snow I ever saw before, and towards night I fancied the garden fence was becoming very much dwarfed. Still the consolation was, “Oh, it won’t last; New Zealand snow never: does.” However, on Wednesday morning things began to look very serious indeed: the snow covered the ground to a depth of four feet in the shallowest places, and still continued to fall steadily; the cows we knew must be in the paddock were not to be seen anywhere; the fowl-house and pig-styes which stood towards the weather quarter had entirely disappeared; every scrap of wood (and several logs were lying about at the back) was quite covered up; both the page 160 verandahs were impassable; in one the snow was six feet deep, and the only door which could be opened was the back-kitchen door, as that opened inwards; but here the snow was half-way over the roof, so it took a good deal of work with the kitchen-shovel, for no spades could be found, to dig out a passage. Indoors, we were approaching our last mouthful very rapidly, the tea at breakfast was merely coloured hot water, and we had some picnic biscuits with it. For dinner we had the last tin of sardines, the last pot of apricot jam, and a tin of ratifia biscuits a most extraordinary mixture, I admit, but there was nothing else. There were six people to be fed every day, and nothing to feed them with. Thursday’s breakfast was a discovered crust of dry bread, very stale, and our dinner that day was rice and salt—the last rice in the store-room. The snow still never ceased falling, and only one window in the house afforded us any light; every box was broken up and used for fuel. The gentlemen used to go all together and cut, or rather dig, a passage through the huge drift in front of the stable, and with much difficulty get some food for the seven starving horses outside, who were keeping a few yards clear by incessantly moving about, the snow making high walls all around them.

It was wonderful to see how completely the whole aspect of the surrounding scenery was changed; the gullies were all filled up, and nearly level with the downs; sharp-pointed cliffs were now round bluffs; there was no vestige of a fence or gate or shrub to page 161 be seen, and still the snow came down as if it had only just begun to fall; out of doors the silence was like death, I was told, for I could only peep down the tunnel dug every few hours at the back-kitchen door. My two maids now gave way, and sat clasped in each other’s arms all day, crying piteously, and bewailing their fate, asking me whenever I came into the kitchen, which was about every half-hour, for there was no fire elsewhere, “And oh, when do you think we’ll be found, mum?” Of course this only referred to the ultimate discovery of our bodies. There was a great search to-day for the cows, but it was useless, the gentlemen sank up to their shoulders in snow. Friday, the same state of things: a little flour had been discovered in a discarded flour-bag, and we had a sort of girdle-cake and water. The only thing remaining in the store-room was some blacklead, and I was considering seriously how that could be cooked, or whether it would be better raw: we were all more than half starved, and quite frozen: very little fire in the kitchen, and none in any other room. Of course, the constant thought was, “Where are the sheep?” Not a sign or sound could be heard. The dogs’ kennels were covered several feet deep; so we could not get at them at all. Saturday morning: the first good news I heard was that the cows had been found, and dragged by ropes down to the enclosure the horses had made for them-selves: they were half dead, poor beasts; but after struggling for four hours to and from a haystack two page 162 hundred yards off, one end of which was unburied, some oaten hay was procured for them. There was now not a particle of food in the house. The servants remained in their beds, declining to get up, and alleging that they might as well “die warm.” In the middle of the day a sort of forlorn-hope was organized by the gentlemen to try to find the fowl-house, but they could not get through the drift: however, they dug a passage to the wash-house, and returned in triumph with about a pound of very rusty bacon they had found hanging up there; this was useless without fuel, so they dug for a little gate leading to the garden, fortunately hit its whereabouts, and soon had it broken up and in the kitchen grate. By dint of taking all the lead out of the tea-chests, shaking it, and collecting every pinch of tea-dust, we got enough to make a teapot of the weakest tea, a cup of which I took to my poor crying maids in their beds, having first put a spoonful of the last bottle of whisky which the house possessed into it, for there was neither, sugar nor. milk to be had. At midnight the snow ceased for a few hours, and a hard sharp frost set in; this made our position worse, for they could now make no impression on the snow, and only broke the: shovels in trying. I began to think seriously of following the maids example, in order to “die warm.” We could do nothing but wait patiently. I went up to a sort of attic where odds and ends were stowed away, in search of something to eat, but could find nothing more tempt- page 163 ing than a supply of wax matches. We knew there was a cat under the house, for we heard her mewing; and it was suggested to take up the carpets first, then the boards, and have a hunt for the poor old pussy but we agreed to bear our hunger a little longer, chiefly, I am afraid, because she was known to be both thin and aged.

Towards noon on Sunday the weather suddenly changed, and rain began to come down heavily and steadily; this cheered us all immensely, as it would wash the snow away probably, and so it did to some degree; the highest drifts near the house lessened considerably in a few hours, and the gentlemen, who by this time were desperately hungry, made a final attempt in the direction of the fowl-house, found the roof, tore off some shingles, and returned with a few aged hens, which were mere bundles of feathers after their week’s starvation. The servants consented to rise and pluck them, whilst the gentlemen sallied forth once more to the stock-yard, and with great difficulty got off two of the cap or top rails, so we had a splendid though transitory blaze, and some hot stewed fowl; it was more of a soup than anything else, but still we thought it delicious: and then everybody went to bed again, for the house was quite dark still, and the oil and candles were running very low. On Monday morning the snow was washed off the roof a good deal by the deluge of rain which had never ceased to come steadily down, and the windows were cleared a little, just at the top; but we page 164 were delighted with the improvement, and some cold weak fowl-soup for breakfast, which we thought excellent. On getting out of doors, the gentlemen reported the creeks to be much swollen and rushing in yellow streams down the sides of the hills over the snow, which was apparently as thick as ever; but it was now easier to get through at the surface, though quite solid for many feet from the ground. A window was scraped clear, through which I could see the desolate landscape out of doors, and some hay was carried with much trouble to the starving cows and horses, but this was a work of almost incredible difficulty. Some more fowls were procured to-day, nearly the last, for a large hole in the roof showed most of them dead of cold and hunger.

We were all in much better spirits on this night, for there were signs of the wind shifting from south to north-west; and, for the first time in our lives I suppose, we were anxiously watching and desiring this change, as it was the only chance of saving the thousands of sheep and lambs we now knew lay buried under the smooth white winding-sheet of snow. Before bedtime we heard the fitful gusts we knew so well, and had never before hailed with such deep joy and thankfulness. Every time I woke the same welcome sound of the roaring warm gale met my ears; and we were prepared for the pleasant sight, on Tuesday morning, of the highest rocks on the hill-tops standing out gaunt and bare once more. The wind was blowing the snow off the hills in clouds like spray, page 165 and melting it everywhere so rapidly that we began to have a new anxiety, for the creeks were rising fast, and running in wide, angry-looking rivers over the frozen snow on the banks. All immediate apprehension of starvation, however, was removed, for the gentlemen dug a pig out of his stye, where he had been warm and comfortable with plenty of straw, and slaughtered him; and in the loft of the stable was found a bag of Indian meal for fattening poultry, which made excellent cakes of bread. It was very nasty having only ice-cold water to drink at every meal. I especially missed my tea for breakfast; but felt ashamed to grumble, for my disagreeables were very light compared to those of the three gentlemen. From morning to night they were wet through, as the snow of course melted the moment they came indoors. All the first part of the last week they used to work out of doors, trying to get food and fuel, or feeding the horses, in the teeth of a bitter wind, with the snow driving like powdered glass against their smarting hands and faces; and they were as cheery and merry as possible through it all, trying hard to pretend they were neither hungry nor cold, when they must have been both. Going out of doors at this stage of affairs simply meant plunging up to their middle in a slush of half-melted snow which wet them thoroughly in a moment; and they never had dry clothes on again till they changed after dark, when there was no more possibility of outdoor work.

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Wednesday morning broke bright and clear for the first time since Sunday week; we actually saw the sun. Although the “nor-wester” had done so much good for us, and a light wind still blew softly from that quarter, the snow was yet very deep; but I felt in such high spirits that I determined to venture out, and equipped myself in a huge pair of F——’s riding-boots made of kangaroo-skin, well greased with weka-oil to keep the wet out, These I put on over my own thick boots, but my precautions “did nought avail,” for the first step I took sank me deep in the snow over the tops of my enormous boots. They filled immediately, and then merely served to keep the snow securely packed round my ankles; however, I struggled bravely on, every now and then sinking up to my shoulders, and having to be hauled out by main force. The first thing done was to dig out the dogs, who assisted the process by vigorously scratching away inside and tunnelling towards us. Poor things! how thin they looked, but they were quite warm; and after indulging in a long drink at the nearest creek, they bounded about, like mad creatures. The only casualties in the kennels were two little puppies, who were lying cuddled up as if they were asleep, but proved to be stiff and cold; and a very old but still valuable collie called “Gipsy.” She was enduring such agonies from rheumatism that it was terrible to hear her howls; and after trying to relieve her by rubbing, taking her into the stable-and in fact doing all we page 167 could for her—it seemed better and kinder to shoot her two days afterwards.

We now agreed to venture into the paddock and see what had happened to the bathing-place about three hundred yards from the house. I don’t think I have told you that the creek had been here dammed up with a sod wall twelve feet high, and a fine deep and broad pond made, which was cleared of weeds and grass, and kept entirely for the gentlemen to have a plunge and swim at daylight of a summer’s morning; there had been a wide trench cut about two feet from the top, so as to carry off the water, and hitherto this had answered perfectly. The first thing we had to do was to walk over the high five-barred gate leading into the paddock just the topmost bar was sticking up, but there was not a trace of the little garden-gate or of the fence, which was quite a low one. We were, however, rejoiced to see that on the ridges of the sunny downs there were patches, or rather streaks, of tussocks visible, and they spread in size every moment, for the sun was quite warm, and the “nor’-wester,” had done much towards softening the snow. It took us a long time to get down to where the bathing-place had been, for the sod wall was quite carried away, and there was now only a heap of ruin, with a muddy torrent pouring through the large gap and washing it still more away. Close to this was a very sunny sheltered down, or rather hill; and as the snow was rapidly melting off its warm sloping page 168 sides we agreed to climb it and see if any sheep could be discovered, for up to this time there had been none seen or heard, though we knew several thousands must be on this flat and the adjoining ones.

As soon as we got to the top the first glance showed us a small dusky patch close to the edge of one of the deepest and widest creeks at the bottom of the pad-dock; experienced eyes saw they were sheep, but to me they had not the shape of animals at all, though they were quite near enough to be seen distinctly. I observed the gentlemen exchange looks of alarm, and they said to each other some low words, from which I gathered that they feared the worst. Before we went down to the flat we took a long, careful look round, and made out another patch, dark by comparison with the snow, some two hundred yards lower down the creek, but apparently in the water. On the other side of the little hill the snow seemed to have drifted even more deeply, for the long narrow valley which lay there presented, as far as we could see, one smooth, level snow-field. On the dazzling white surface the least fleck shows, and I can never forget how beautiful some swamp-hens, with their dark blue plumage, short, pert, white tails, and long bright legs, looked, as they searched slowly along the banks of the swollen creek for some traces of their former haunts; but every tuft of tohi-grass lay bent and buried deep beneath its heavy covering. The gentlemen wanted me to go home before they attempted to see the extent of the disaster, which we all felt must page 169 be very great; but I found it impossible to do anything but accompany them. I am half glad and half sorry now that I was obstinate; glad because I helped a little at a time when the least help was precious, and sorry because it was really such a horrible sight. Even the first glance showed us that, as soon as we got near the spot we had observed, we were walking on frozen sheep embedded in the snow one over the other; but at all events their misery had been over some time. It was more horrible to see the drowning, or just drowned, huddled-up “mob” (as sheep en masse are technically called) which had made the dusky patch we had noticed from the hill.

No one can ever tell how many hundred ewes and lambs had taken refuge under the high terrace which forms the bank of the creek. The snow had soon covered them up, but they probably were quite warm and dry at first. The terrible mischief was caused by the creek rising so rapidly, and, filtering through the snow which it gradually dissolved, drowned them as they stood huddled together. Those nearest the edge of the water of course went first, but we were fortunately in time to save a good many, though the living seemed as nothing compared to the heaps of dead. We did not waste a moment in regrets or idleness; the most experienced of the gentlemen said briefly what was to be done, and took his coat off; the other coats and my little Astrachan jacket were lying by its side in an instant, and we all set to work, sometimes up to our knees in page 170 icy water, digging at the bank of snow above us—if you can call it digging when we had nothing but our hands to dig, or rather scratch, with. Oh, how hot we were in five minutes! the sun beating on us, and the reflection from the snow making its rays almost blinding. It was of no use my attempting to rescue the sheep, for I could not move them, even when I had scrattled the snow away from one. A sheep, especially with its fleece full of snow, is beyond my small powers: even the lambs I found a tremendous weight, and it must have been very absurd, if an idler had been by, to see me, with a little lamb in my arms, tumbling down at every second step, but still struggling manfully towards the dry oasis where we put each animal as it was dug out. The dear doggies helped us beautifully, working so eagerly and yet so wisely under their master’s eye, as patient and gentle with the poor stiffened creatures as if they could feel for them. I was astonished at the vitality of some of the survivors; if they had been very far back and not chilled by the water, they were quite lively. The strongest sheep were put across the stream by the dogs, who were obedient to their master’s finger, and not to be induced on any terms to allow the sheep to land a yard to one side of the place on the opposite bank, but just where they were to go. A good many were swept away, but after six hours’ work we counted 1,400 rescued ones slowly “trailing” up the low sunny hill I have mentioned, and nibbling at the tussocks as they went. The proportion of page 171 lambs was, of course, very small, but the only wonder to me is that there were any alive at all. If I had been able to stop my scratching but for a moment, I would have had what the servants call a “good cry” over one little group I laid bare. Two fine young ewes were standing leaning against each other in a sloping position, like a tent, frozen and immoveable: between them, quite dry, and as lively as a kitten, was a dear little lamb of about a month old belonging to one; the lamb of the other lay curled up at her feet, dead and cold; I really believe they had hit upon this way of keeping the other alive. A more pathetic sight I never beheld.

It is needless to say that we were all most dreadfully exhausted by the time the sun went down, and it began to freeze; nothing but the sheer impossibility of doing anything more in the hardening snow and approaching darkness made us leave off even then, though we had not tasted food all day. The gentlemen took an old ewe, who could not stand, though it was not actually dead, up to the stable and killed it, to give the poor dogs a good meal, and then they had to get some more rails off the stock-yard to cook our own supper of pork and maize.

The next morning was again bright with a warm wind; so the effect of the night’s frost soon disappeared, and we were hard at work directly after breakfast. Nothing would induce me to stay at home, but I armed myself with a coal-scoop to dig, and we made our way to the other “mob;” but, alas! page 172 there was nothing to do in the way of saving life, for all the sheep were dead. There was a large island formed at a bend in the creek, where the water had swept with such fury round a point as to wash the snow and sheep all away together, till at some little obstacle they began to accumulate in a heap. I counted ninety-two dead ewes in one spot, but I did not stay to count the lambs. We returned to the place where we had been digging the day before, and set the dogs to hunt in the drifts; wherever they began to scratch we shovelled the snow away, and were sure to find sheep either dead or nearly so: however, we liberated a good many more. This sort of work continued till the following Saturday, when F—— returned, having had a most dangerous journey, as the roads are still blocked up in places with snow-drifts; but he was anxious to get back, knowing I must have been going through “hard times.” He was terribly shocked at the state of things among the sheep; in Christchurch no definite news had reached them from any quarter: all the coaches were stopped and the telegraph wires broken down by the snow. He arrived about mid-day, and, directly after the meal we still called dinner, started off over the hills to my “nest of Cockatoos,” and brought back some of the men with him to help to search for the sheep, and to skin those that were dead as fast as possible. He worked himself all day at the skinning,—a horrible job; but the fleeces were worth something, and soon all the fences, as they began to emerge page 173 from the snow, were tapestried with these ghastly skins, and walking became most disagreeable, on account of the evil odours arising every few yards.

We forgot all our personal sufferings in anxiety about the surviving sheep, and when the long-expected dray arrived it seemed a small boon compared to the discovery of a nice little “mob” feeding tranquilly on a sunny spur. It is impossible to estimate our loss until the grand muster at shearing, but we may set it down at half our flock, and all our lambs, or at least 90 per cent. of them. Our neighbours are all as busy as we are, so no accurate accounts of their sufferings or losses have reached us; but, to judge by appearances, the distant “back-country” ranges must have felt the storm more severely even than we have; and although the snow did not drift to such a depth on the plains as with us, or lie so long on the ground, they suffered just as much,—for the sheep took shelter under the high river-banks, and the tragedy of the creeks was enacted on a still larger scale; or they drifted along before the first day’s gale till they came to a wire fence, and there they were soon covered up, and trampled each other to death. Not only were sheep, but cattle, found dead in hundreds along the fences on the plains. The newspapers give half a million as a rough estimate of the loss among the flocks in this province alone. We have no reliable news from other parts of the island, only vague rumours of the storm having been still more severe in the Province of Otago, which lies to the south, and page 174 would be right in its track; the only thing which all are agreed in saying is, that there never has been such a storm before, for the Maories are strong in weather traditions, and though they prophesied this one, it is said they have no legend of anything like it ever having happened.