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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XXI. Wild Cattle Hunting in the Kowai Bush

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Letter XXI. Wild Cattle Hunting in the Kowai Bush.

We are staying for a week at a charming little white cottage covered with roses and honeysuckles, nestled under the shadow of this grand mountain, to make some expeditions after wild cattle in the great Kowai Bush. I am afraid that it does not sound a very orderly and feminine occupation, but I enjoy it thoroughly, and have covered myself with glory and honour by my powers of walking all day.

We have already spent three long happy days in the Bush, and although they have not resulted in much slaughter of our big game, still I for one am quite as well pleased as if we had returned laden with as many beeves as used to come in from a border foray. I am not going to inflict an account of each expedition on you; one will serve to give an idea of all, for though there is no monotony in Nature, it may chance that frequent descriptions of her become so, and this I will not risk.

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Our ride over here was a sufficiently ridiculous affair, owing to the misbehaviour of the pack-horse, for it was impossible upon this occasion to manage with as little luggage as usual, so we arranged to take a good-sized carpet-bag (a most unheard-of luxury), and on each side of it was to be slung a rifle and a gun, and smaller bags of bullets, shot, and powder-flasks, disposed to the best advantage on the pack-saddle. This was all very well in theory, but when it came to the point, the proper steady old horse who was to bear the pack was not forthcoming! He had taken it into his head to go on a visit to a neighbouring run, so the only available beast was a young chestnut of most uncertain temper. The process of saddling him was a long one, as he objected to each item of his load as soon as it was put on, especially to the guns; but F—— was very patient, and took good care to tie and otherwise fasten everything so that it was impossible for “Master Tucker” (called, I suppose, after the immortal Tommy) to get rid of his load by either kicking or plunging. At last we mounted and rode by a bridle-path among the hills for some twelve miles or so, then across half-a-dozen miles of plain, and finally we forded a river. The hill-track was about as bad as a path could be, with several wide jumps across creeks at the bottom of the numerous deep ravines, or gullies as we call them. F—— rode first—for we could only go in single file—with the detestable Tucker’s bridle over his arm; then came the chestnut, with his ears well back, and page 177 his eyes all whites, in his efforts to look at his especial aversion, the guns; he kicked all the way down the many hills, and pulled back in the most aggravating manner at each ascent, and when we came to a creek sat down on his tail, refusing to stir. My position was a most trying one; the track was so bad that I would fain have given my mind entirely to my own safety, but instead of this all my attention was centred on Tucker the odious. When we first started I expressed to F—— my fear that Tucker would fairly drag him off his own saddle, and he admitted that it was very likely, adding, “You must flog him.” This made me feel that it entirely depended on my efforts whether F—— was to be killed or not, so I provided myself with a small stock-whip in addition to my own little riding-whip, and we set off. From the first yard Tucker objected to go, but there were friendly sticks to urge him on; however, we soon got beyond the reasonable limits of help, and I tried desperately to impress upon Tucker that I was going to be very severe: for this purpose I flourished my stock-whip in a way that drove my own skittish mare nearly frantic, and never touched Tucker, whom F—— was dragging along by main force. At last I gave up the stock-whip, with its unmanageable three yards of lash, and dropped it on the track, to be picked up as we came home. I now tried to hit Tucker with my horse-whip, but he flung his heels up in Helen’s face the moment I touched him. I was in perfect despair, very much afraid of a sudden page 178 swerve on my mare’s part sending us both down the precipice, and in equal dread of seeing F—— pulled off his saddle by Tucker’s suddenly planting his fore-feet firmly together: F—— himself, with the expression of a martyr, looking round every now and then to say, “Can’t you make him come on?” and I hitting wildly and vainly, feeling all the time that I was worse than useless. At last the bright idea occurred to me to ride nearly alongside of the fiendish Tucker, but a little above him on the hill, so as to be able to strike him fairly without fear of his heels. As far as Tucker was concerned this plan answered perfectly, for he soon found out he had to go; but Helen objected most decidedly to being taken off the comparative safety of the track and made to walk on a slippery, sloping hill, where she could hardly keep her feet; however, we got on much faster this way. Oh, how tired I was of striking Tucker! I don’t believe I hurt him much, but I felt quite cruel. When we came to the plain, I begged F—— to let me lead him; so we changed, and there was no holding back on the chestnut’s part then; it must have been like the grass and the stones in the fable. I never was more thankful than when that ride was over, though its disagreeables were soon forgotten in the warm welcome we received from our bachelor hosts, and the incessant discussions about the next day’s excursion.

We had finished breakfast by seven o’clock the following morning, and were ready to start. Of course page 179 the gentlemen were very fussy about their equipments, and hung themselves all over with cartridges and bags of bullets and powder-flasks; then they had to take care that their tobacco-pouches and match-boxes were filled; and lastly, each carried a little flask of brandy or sherry, in case of being lost and having to camp out. I felt quite unconcerned, having only my flask with cold tea in it to see about, and a good walking-stick was easily chosen. My costume may be described as uncompromising, for it had been explained to me that there were no paths but real rough bush walking; so I dispensed with all little feminine adornments even to the dearly-loved chignon, tucked my hair away as if I was going to put on a bathing-cap, and covered it with a Scotch bonnet. The rest of my toilette must have been equally shocking to the eyes of taste, and I have reason to believe the general effect most hideous; but one great comfort was, no one looked at me, they were all too much absorbed in preparations for a great slaughter, and I only came at all upon sufferance; the unexpressed but prevailing dread, I could plainly see, was that I should knock up and become a bore, necessitating an early return home; but I knew better!

An American waggon and some ponies were waiting to take the whole party to the entrance of the bush, about four miles off, and, in spite of having to cross a rough river-bed, which is always a slow process, it did not take us very long to reach our first point. Here we dismounted, just at the edge of the page 180 great dense forest, and, with as little delay as possible in fine arrangements, struck into a path or bullock-track, made for about three miles into the bush for the convenience of dragging out the felled trees by ropes or chains attached to bullocks; they are not placed upon a waggon, so you may easily imagine the state the track was in, ploughed up by huge logs of timber dragged on the ground, and by the bullocks’ hoofs besides. It was a mere slough with deep holes of mud in it, and we scrambled along its extreme edge, chiefly trusting to the trees on each side, which still lay as they had been felled, the men not considering them good enough to remove. At last we came to a clearing, and I quite despair of making you understand how romantic and lovely this open space in the midst of the tall trees looked that beautiful spring morning. I involuntarily thought of the descriptions in “Paul and Virginia,” for the luxuriance of the growth was quite tropical. For about two acres the trees had been nearly all felled, only one or two giants remaining; their stumps were already hidden by clematis and wild creepers of other kinds, or by a sort of fern very like the hart’s-tongue, which will only grow on the bark of trees, and its glossy leaves made an exquisite contrast to the rough old root. The “bushmen”—as the men who have bought twenty-acre sections and settled in the bush are called—had scattered English grass-seed all over the rich leafy mould, and the ground was covered with bright green grass, kept short and thick by a few tame goats page 181 browsing about. Before us was the steep bank of the river Waimakiriri, and a few yards from its edge stood a picturesque gable-ended little cottage surrounded by a rustic fence, which enclosed a strip of garden gay with common English spring flowers, besides more useful things, potatoes, etc. The river was about two hundred yards broad just here, and though it foamed below us, we could also see it stretching away in the distance almost like a lake, till a great bluff hid it from our eyes. Overhead the trees were alive with flocks of wild pigeons, ka-kas, parroquets, and other birds, chattering and twittering incessantly and as we stood on the steep bank and looked down, I don’t think a minute passed without a brace of wild ducks flying past, grey, blue, and Paradise. These latter are the most beautiful plumaged birds I ever saw belonging to the duck tribe, and, when young, are very good eating, quite as delicate as the famous canvas-back. This sight so excited our younger sportsmen that they scrambled down the high precipice, followed by a water-spaniel, and in five minutes had bagged as many brace. We could not give them any more time, for it was past nine o’clock, and we were all eager to start on the serious business of the day; but before we left, the mistress of this charming “bush-hut” insisted on our having some hot coffee and scones and wild honey, a most delicious second breakfast. There was a pretty little girl growing up, and a, younger child, both the picture of health; the only drawback seemed to page 182 be the mosquitoes; it was not very lonely, for one or two other huts stood in clearings adjoining, and furnished us with three bushmen as guides and assistants. I must say, they were the most picturesque of the party, being all handsome men, dressed in red flannel shirts and leathern knickerbockers and gaiters; they had fine beards, and wore “diggers’ hats,” a head-dress of American origin—a sort of wide-awake made of plush, capable of being crushed into any shape, and very becoming. All were armed with either rifle or gun, and one carried an axe and a coil of rope; another had a gun such as is seldom seen out of an arsenal; it was an old flint lock, but had been altered to a percussion; its owner was very proud of it, not so much for its intrinsic beauty, though it once had been a costly and splendid weapon and was elaborately inlaid with mother-of-pearl, but because it had belonged to a former Duke of Devonshire. In spite of its claims to consideration on this head as well as its own beauty, we all eyed it with extreme disfavour on account of a peculiarity it possessed of not going off when it was intended to do so, but about five minutes afterwards.

It was suggested to me very politely that I might possibly prefer to remain behind and spend the day in this picturesque spot, but this offer I declined steadily; I think the bushmen objected to my presence more than any one else, as they really meant work, and dreaded having to turn back for a tired “female” (they never spoke of me by any other page 183 term). At last all the information was collected about the probable whereabouts of the wild cattle—it was so contradictory, that it must have been difficult to arrange any plan by it,—and we started. A few hundred yards took us past the clearings and into the very heart of the forest. We had left the sun shining brightly overhead; here it was all a “great green gloom.” I must describe to you the order in which we marched. First came two of the most experienced “bush-hands,” who carried a tomahawk or light axe with which to clear the most cruel of the brambles away, and to notch the trees as a guide to us on our return; and also a compass, for we had to steer for a certain point, the bearings of which we knew—of course the procession was in Indian file: next to these pioneers walked, very cautiously, almost on tiptoe, four of our sportsmen; then I came; and four or five others, less keen or less well armed, brought up the rear. I may here confess that I endured in silence agonies of apprehension for my personal safety all day. It was so dreadful to see a bramble or wild creeper catch in the lock of the rifle before me, and to reflect that, unless its owner was very careful, it might “go off of its own accord,” and to know that I was exposed to a similar danger from those behind.

We soon got on the fresh tracks of some cows, and proceeded most cautiously and silently; but it could hardly be called walking, it was alternately pushing through dense undergrowth, crawling beneath, page 184 or climbing over, high barricades made by fallen trees. These latter obstacles I found the most difficult, for the bark was so slippery; and once, when with much difficulty I had scrambled up a pile of débris at least ten feet high, I incautiously stepped on some rotten wood at the top, and went through it into a sort of deep pit, out of which it was very hard to climb. On comparing notes afterwards, we found, that although we had walked without a moment’s cessation for eleven hours during the day, a pedometer only gave twenty-two miles as the distance accomplished. Before we had been in the bush half an hour our faces were terribly scratched and bleeding, and so were the gentlemen’s hands; my wrists also suffered, as my gauntlets would not do their duty and lie flat. There were myriads of birds around us, all perfectly tame; many flew from twig to twig, accompanying us with their little pert heads on one side full of curiosity; the only animals we saw were some wild sheep looking very disreputable with their long tails and torn, trailing fleeces of six or seven years’ growth. There are supposed to be some hundreds of these in the bush who have strayed into it years ago, when they were lambs, from neighbouring runs. The last man in the silent procession put a match into a dead tree every here and there, to serve as a torch to guide us back in the dark; but this required great judgment for fear of setting the whole forest on fire: the tree required to be full of damp decay, which would only smoulder and not page 185 blaze. We intended to steer for a station on the other side of a narrow neck of the Great Bush, ten miles off, as nearly as we could guess, but we made many detours after fresh tracks. Once these hoof-marks led us to the brink of such a pretty creek, exactly like a Scotch burn, wide and noisy, tumbling down from rock to rock, but not very deep. After a whispered consultation, it was determined to follow up this creek to a well-known favourite drinking-place of the cattle, but it was easier walking in the water than on the densely-grown banks, so all the gentlemen stepped in one after another. I hesitated a moment with one’s usual cat-like antipathy to wet feet, when a, stalwart bushman approached, with rather a victimised air and the remark: “Ye’re heavy, nae doot, to carry.” I was partly affronted at this prejudgment of the case, and partly determined to show that I was equal to the emergency, for I immediately jumped into the water, frightening myself a good deal by the tremendous splash I made, and meeting reproving glances; and nine heads were shaken violently at me.

Nothing could be more beautiful than the winding banks of this creek, fringed with large ferns in endless variety; it was delightful to see the sun and sky once more overhead, but I cannot say that it was the easiest possible walking, and I soon found out that the cleverest thing to do was to wade a little way behind the shortest gentleman of the party, for when he disappeared in a hole I knew it in time to avoid a similar fate; whereas, as long as I persisted in stalk- page 186 ing solemnly after my own tall natural protector, I found that I was always getting into difficulties in unexpectedly deep places. I saw the bushmen whispering together, and examining the rocks in some places, but I found on inquiry that their thoughts were occupied at the moment by other ideas than sport; one of them had been a digger, and was pronouncing an opinion that this creek was very likely to prove a “home of the gold” some day. There is a strong feeling prevalent that gold will be found in great quantities all over the island. At this time of the year the water is very shallow, but the stream evidently comes down with tremendous force in the winter; and they talk of having “found the colour” (of gold) in some places. We proceeded in this way for about three miles, till we reached a beautiful, clear, deep pool, into which the water fell from a height in a little cascade; the banks here were well trodden, and the hoof-prints quite recent; great excitement was caused by hearing a distant lowing, but after much listening, in true Indian fashion, with the ear to the ground, everybody was of a different opinion as to the side from whence the sound proceeded, so we determined to keep on our original course; the compass was once more produced, and we struck into a dense wood of black birch.

Ever since we left the clearing from which the start was made, we had turned our backs on the river, but about three o’clock in the afternoon we came suddenly on it again, and stood on the most beautiful spot I ever page 187 saw in my life. We were on the top of a high precipice, densely wooded to the water’s edge. Some explorers in bygone days must have camped here, for half-a-dozen trees were felled, and the thick brush-wood had been burnt for a few yards, just enough to let us take in the magnificent view before and around us. Below roared and foamed, among great boulders washed down from the cliff, the Waimakiriri; in the middle of it lay a long narrow strip of white shingle, covered with water in the winter floods, but now shining like snow in the bright sunlight. Beyond this the river flowed as placidly as a lake, in cool green depths, reflecting every leaf of the forest on the high bank or cliff opposite. To our right it stretched away, with round headlands covered with timber running down in soft curves to the water. But on our left was the most perfect composition for a picture in the foreground a great reach of smooth water, except just under the bank we stood on, where the current was strong and rapid; a little sparkling beach, and a vast forest rising up from its narrow border, extending over chain after chain of hills, till they rose to the glacial region, and then the splendid peaks of the snowy range broke the deep blue sky line with their grand outlines.

All this beauty would have been almost too oppressive, it was on such a large scale and the solitude was so intense, if it had not been for the pretty little touch of life and movement afforded by the hut belonging to the station we were bound for. It page 188 was only a rough building, made of slabs of wood with cob between; but there was a bit of fence and the corner of a garden and an English grass paddock, which looked about as big as a pocket-handkerchief from where we stood. A horse or two and a couple of cows were tethered near, and we could hear the bark of a dog. A more complete hermitage could not have been desired by Diogenes himself, and for the first time we felt ashamed of invading the recluse in such a formidable body, but ungrudging, open-handed hospitality is so universal in New Zealand that we took courage and began our descent. It really was like walking down the side of a house, and no one could stir a step without at least one arm round a tree. I had no gun to carry, so I clung frantically with both arms to each stem in succession. The steepness of the cliff was the reason we could take in all the beauty of the scene before us, for the forest was as thick as ever; but we could see over the tops of the trees, as the ground dropped sheer down, almost in a straight line from the plateau we had been travelling on all day. As soon as we reached the shingle, on which we had to walk for a few hundred yards, we bethought ourselves of our toilettes; the needle and thread I had brought did good service in making us more presentable. We discovered, however, that our faces were a perfect network of fine scratches, some of which would go on bleeding, in spite of cold- water applications. Our boots were nearly dry; and my petticoat, short as it was, proved to be the page 189 only damp garment: this was the fault of my first jump into the water. We put the least scratched and most respectable-looking member of the party in the van, and followed him, amid much barking of dogs, to the low porch; and after hearing a cheery “Come in,” answering our modest tap at the door, we trooped in one after the other till the little room was quite full. I never saw such astonishment on any human face as on that of the poor master of the house, who could not stir from his chair by the fire, on account of a bad wound in his leg from an axe. There he sat quite helpless, a moment ago so solitary, arid now finding himself the centre of a large, odd-looking crowd of strangers. He was a middle-aged Scotchman, probably of not a very elevated position in life, and had passed many years in this lonely spot, and yet he showed himself quite equal to the occasion.

After that first uncontrollable look of amazement he did the honours of his poor hut with the utmost courtesy and true good-breeding. His only apology was for being unable to rise from his arm-chair (made out of half a barrel and an old flour-sack by the way); he made us perfectly welcome, took it for granted we were hungry— hunger is a very mild word to express my appetite, for one—called by a loud coo-ee to his man Sandy, to whom he gave orders that the best in the house should be put before us, and then began to inquire by what road we had come, what sport we had, etc., all in the nicest way possible. I never felt more awkward in my life than when I stooped to enter that page 190 low doorway, and yet in a minute I was quite at my ease again; but of the whole party I was naturally the one who puzzled him the most. In the first place, I strongly suspect that he had doubts as to my being anything but a boy in a rather long kilt; and when this point was explained, he could not understand what a “female,” as he also called me, was doing on a rough hunting expedition. He particularly inquired more than once if I had come of my own free will, and could not understand what pleasure I found in walking so far. Indeed he took it so completely for granted that I must be exhausted, that he immediately began to make plans for F—— and me to stop there all night, offering to give up his “bunk” (some slabs of wood made into a shelf, with a tussock mattress and a blanket), and to sleep himself in his arm-chair.

In the meantime, Sandy was preparing our meal. There was an open hearth with a fine fire, and a big black kettle hanging over it by a hook fastened somewhere up the chimney. As soon as this boiled he went to a chest, or rather locker, and brought a double-handful of tea, which he threw into the kettle; then he took from a cupboard the biggest loaf, of bread I ever saw—a huge thing, which had been baked in a camp-oven—and flapped it down on the table with a bang; next he produced a tin milk-pan, and returned to the cupboard to fetch out by the shank-bone a mutton-ham, which he placed in the milk-dish: a bottle of capital whisky was forth- page 191 coming from the same place; a little salt on one newspaper, and brown, or rather black, sugar on another, completed the arrangements, and we were politely told by Sandy to “wire in,”—digger’s phraseology for an invitation to commence, which we did immediately, as soon as we could make an arrangement about the four tin plates and three pannikins. I had one all to myself, but the others managed by twos and threes to each plate. I never had a better luncheon in my life; everything was excellent in its way, and we all possessed what we are told is the best sauce. Large as the supplies were, we left hardly anything, and the more we devoured the more pleased our host seemed. There were no chairs; we sat on logs of trees rudely chopped into something like horse-blocks, but to tired limbs which had known no rest from six hours’ walking they seemed delightful. After we had finished our meal, the gentlemen went outside to have half a pipe before setting off again; they dared not smoke whilst we were after the cattle, for fear of their perceiving some unusual smell; and I remained for ten minutes with Mr——. I found that he was very fond of reading; his few books were all of a good stamp, but he was terribly hard-up for anything which he had not read a hundred times over. I hastily ran over the names of some books of my own, which I offered to lend him for as long a time as he liked: and we made elaborate plans for sending them, of my share in which I took a memorandum. He seemed very page 192 grateful at the prospect of having anything new, especially now that he was likely to be laid up for some weeks, and I intend to make every effort to give him this great pleasure as soon as possible.

We exchanged the most hearty farewells when the time of parting came, and our host was most earnest in his entreaties to us to remain; but it was a question of getting out of the bush before dusk, so we could not delay. He sent Sandy to guide us by a rather longer but easier way than climbing up the steep cliff to the place where the little clearing at its edge which I have mentioned had been made; and we dismissed our guide quite happy with contributions from all the tobacco-pouches, for no one had any money with him. We found our way back again by the notches on the trees as long as the light lasted, and when it got too dark to see them easily, the smouldering trunks guided us, and we reached the clearing from which we started in perfect safety. Good Mrs. D—— had a bountiful tea ready; she was much concerned at our having yet some three miles of bad walking before we could reach the hut on the outskirts of the bush, where we had left the trap and the ponies. When we got to this point there was actually another and still more sumptuous meal set out for us, to which, alas! we were unable to do any justice; and then we found our way to the station across the flat, down a steep cutting, and through the river-bed, all in the dark and cold. We had supper as soon as we reached home, tumbling page 193 into bed as early as might be afterwards for such a sleep as you Londoners don’t know anything about.

I have only described one expedition to you, and that the most unsuccessful, as far as killing anything goes; but my hunting instincts only lead me to the point of reaching the game; when it comes to that, I always try to save its life, and if this can’t be done, I retire to a distance and stop my ears; indeed, if very much over-excited, I can’t help crying. Consequently, I enjoy myself much more when we don’t kill anything; and, on the other occasions, I never could stop and see even the shot fired which was to bring a fine cow or a dear little calf down, but crept away as far as ever I could, and muffled my head in my jacket. The bushmen liked this part of the performance the best, I believe, and acted as butchers very readily, taking home a large joint each to their huts, a welcome change after the eternal pigeons, ka-kas, and wild ducks on which they live.