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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter III. On to New Zealand

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Letter III. On to New Zealand.

As you so particularly desired me when we parted to tell you everything, I must resume my story where in my last letter I left it off. If I remember rightly, I ended with an attempt at describing our great feast. We embarked the next day, and as soon as we were out of the bay the little Albion plunged into heavy seas. The motion was much worse in her than on board the large vessel we had been so glad to leave, and all my previous sufferings seemed insignificant compared with what I endured in my small and wretchedly hard berth. I have a dim recollection of F—— helping me to dress, wrapping me up in various shawls, and half carrying me up the companion ladder; I crawled into a sunny corner among the boxes of oranges with which the deck was crowded, and there I lay helpless and utterly miserable. One well-meaning and good-natured fellow-passenger asked F—— if I was fond of birds, and on his saying “Yes,“ went off for a large page 16 wicker cage of hideous “laughing Jackasses,” which he was taking as a great treasure to Canterbury. Why they should be called “Jackasses” I never could discover; but the creatures certainly do utter by fits and starts a sound which may fairly be described as laughter. These paroxysms arise from no cause that one can perceive; one bird begins, and all the others join in, and a more doleful and depressing chorus I never heard: early in the morning seemed the favourite time for this discordant mirth. Their owner also possessed a cockatoo with a great musical reputation, but I never heard it get beyond the first bar of “Come into the garden, Maud.” Ill as I was, I remember being roused to something like a flicker of animation when I was shown an exceedingly seedy and shabby-looking blackbird with a broken leg in splints, which its master (the same bird-fancying gentleman) assured me he had bought in Melbourne as a great bargain for only 2 pounds 10 shillings!

After five days’ steaming we arrived in the open roadstead of Hokitika, on the west coast of the middle island of New Zealand, and five minutes after the anchor was down a little tug came alongside to take away our steerage passengers—three hundred diggers. The gold-fields on this coast were only discovered eight months ago, and already several canvas towns have sprung up; there are thirty thousand diggers at work, and every vessel brings a fresh cargo of stalwart, sun-burnt men. It was rather late, and getting dark, but still I could distinctly see page 17 the picturesque tents in the deep mountain gorge, their white shapes dotted here and there as far back from the shore as my sight could follow, and the wreaths of smoke curling up in all directions from the evening fires: it is still bitterly cold at night, being very early spring. The river Hokitika washes down with every fresh such quantities of sand, that a bar is continually forming in this roadstead, and though only vessels of the least possible draught are engaged in the coasting-trade, still wrecks are of frequent occurrence. We ought to have landed our thousands of oranges here, but this work was necessarily deferred till the morning, for it was as much as they could do to get all the diggers and their belongings safely ashore before dark; in the middle of the night one of the sudden and furious gales common to these seas sprang up, and would soon have driven us on the rocks if we had not got our steam up quickly and struggled out to sea, oranges and all, and away to Nelson, on the north coast of the same island. Here we landed the seventh day after leaving Melbourne, and spent a few hours wandering about on shore. It is a lovely little town, as I saw it that spring morning, with hills running down almost to the water’s edge, and small wooden houses with gables and verandahs, half buried in creepers, built up the sides of the steep slopes. It was a true New Zealand day, still and bright, a delicious invigorating freshness in the air, without the least chill, the sky of a more than Italian blue, the ranges of mountains in the distance covered page 18 with snow, and standing out, sharp and clear against this lovely glowing heaven. The town itself, I must say, seemed very dull and stagnant, with little sign of life or activity about it; but nothing can be prettier or more picturesque than its situation—not unlike that of a Swiss village. Our day came to an end all too soon, and we re-embarked for Wellington, the most southern town of the North Island. The seat of government is there, and it is supposed to be a very thriving place, but is not nearly so well situated as Nelson nor so attractive to strangers. We landed and walked about a good deal, and saw what little there was to see. At first I thought the shops very handsome, but I found, rather to my disgust, that generally the fine, imposing frontage was all a sham; the actual building was only a little but at the back, looking all the meaner for the contrast to the cornices and show windows in front. You cannot think how odd it was to turn a corner and see that the building was only one board in thickness, and scarcely more substantial than the scenes at a theatre. We lunched at the principal hotel, where F—— was much amused at my astonishment at colonial prices. We had two dozen very nice little oysters, and he had a glass of porter: for this modest repast we paid eleven shillings!

We slept on board, had another walk on shore after breakfast the following morning, and about twelve o’clock set off for Lyttleton, the final end of our voyaging, which we reached in about twenty hours.

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The scenery is very beautiful all along the coast, but the navigation is both dangerous and difficult. It was exceedingly cold, and Lyttleton did not look very inviting; we could not get in at all near the landing-place, and had to pay 2 pounds to be rowed ashore in an open boat with our luggage. I assure you it was a very “bad quarter of an hour” we passed in that boat; getting into it was difficult enough. The spray dashed over us every minute, and by the time we landed we were quite drenched, but a good fire at the hotel and a capital lunch soon made us all right again; besides, in the delight of being actually at the end of our voyage no annoyance or discomfort was worth a moment’s thought. F—— had a couple of hours’ work rushing backwards and forwards to the Custom House, clearing our luggage, and arranging for some sort of conveyance to take us over the hills. The great tunnel through these “Port Hills” (which divide Lyttleton from Christchurch, the capital of Canterbury) is only half finished, but it seems wonderful that so expensive and difficult an engineering work could be undertaken by such an infant colony.

At last a sort of shabby waggonette was forthcoming, and about three o’clock we started from Lyttleton, and almost immediately began to ascend the zig-zag. It was a tremendous pull for the poor horses, who however never flinched; at the steepest pinch the gentlemen were requested to get out and walk, which they did, and at length we reached the top. It was worth all the bad road to look down page 20 on the land-locked bay, with the little patches of cultivation, a few houses nestling in pretty recesses. The town of Lyttleton seemed much more imposing and important as we rose above it: fifteen years ago a few sheds received the “Pilgrims,” as the first comers are always called. I like the name; it is so pretty and suggestive. By the way, I am told that these four ships, sent out with the pilgrims by the Canterbury Association, sailed together from England, parted company almost directly, and arrived in Lyttleton (then called Port Cooper) four months afterwards, on the same day, having all experienced fine weather, but never having sighted each other once.

As soon as we reached the top of the hill the driver looked to the harness of his horses, put on a very powerful double break, and we began the descent, which, I must say, I thought we took much too quickly, especially as at every turn of the road some little anecdote was forthcoming of an upset or accident; however, I would not show the least alarm, and we were soon rattling along the Sumner Road, by the sea-shore, passing every now and then under tremendous overhanging crags. In half an hour we reached Sumner itself, where we stopped for a few moments to change horses. There is an inn and a village here, where people from Christchurch come in the warm weather for sea-air and bathing. It began to rain hard, and the rest of the journey, some seven or eight miles, was disagreeable enough; but it was the page 21 end, and that one thought was sufficient to keep us radiantly good-humoured, in spite of all little trials. When we reached Christchurch, we drove at once to a sort of boarding-house where we had engaged apartments, and thought of nothing but supper and bed.

The next day people began calling, and certainly I cannot complain of any coldness or want of welcome to my new home. I like what I have seen of my future acquaintances very much. Of course there is a very practical style and tone over everything, though outwardly the place is as civilized as if it were a hundred years old; well-paved streets, gas lamps, and even drinking fountains and pillar post-offices! I often find myself wondering whether the ladies here are at all like what our great grandmothers were. I suspect they are, for they appear to possess an amount of useful practical knowledge which is quite astonishing, and yet know how to surround themselves, according to their means and opportunities, with the refinements and elegancies of life. I feel quite ashamed of my own utter ignorance on every subject, and am determined to set to work directly and learn: at all events I shall have plenty of instructresses. Christchurch is a very pretty little town, still primitive enough to be picturesque, and yet very thriving: capital shops, where everything may be bought; churches, public buildings, a very handsome club-house, etc. Most of the houses are of wood, but when they are burned down (which is often the case) they are now rebuilt of brick or stone, page 22 so that the new ones are nearly all of these more solid materials. I am disappointed to find that, the cathedral, of which I had heard so much, has not progressed beyond the foundations, which cost 8,000 pounds: all the works have been stopped, and certainly there is not much to show for so large a sum, but labour is very dear. Christchurch is a great deal more lively and bustling than most English country towns, and I am much struck by the healthy appearance of the people. There are no paupers to be seen; every one seems well fed and well clothed; the children are really splendid. Of course, as might be expected, there is a great deal of independence in bearing and manner, especially among the servants, and I hear astounding stories concerning them on all sides. My next letter will be from the country, as we have accepted an invitation to pay a visit of six weeks or so to a station in the north of the province.