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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Note 8.—Devil's Staircase

Note 8.—Devil's Staircase.

Not fewer than three landmarks in Otago are dedicated to the wicked one. They are the Devil's Backbone at the Little Beaumont, the Cauldron on the Kawarau, and the Staircase at the Wakatipu. Neither can be said to be utterly depraved, not even beyond all hope of redemption. It is true the Staircase precipitated a mob of fine fat cattle belonging to squatter Rees down headlong to destruction; but then, if early transgressions are to be kept in lasting remembrance for the final account, it might go hard with other places, and persons too, besides the Staircase. The Lakes District County Council, I am told, has wrought a great reformation, so much so that a good passable saddle-track has now been made right over the ridge. I am rather disposed to think these hard names are not altogether warrantable, and are in a great measure characteristic of the person and not the place. Consequent upon the outbreak of the goldfields, the district was overrun with a class named the Young Iniquity, in contradistinction to the early settlers named in the narrative the Old Identity. This juvenile depravity has long since disappeared, leaving little else behind than the two or three undesirable names by which it designated these and other places.

The first European known to have crossed the Staircase was a man named Green, said to be brother to the celebrated sculler in New South Wales of that name. He was a ship's carpenter by trade, and had just completed a job for Mr. Rees. Returning down-country by way of Southland he got benighted on the Staircase, and had to put in a night amongst the rocks. Of course that put him in rather a bad frame of mind. Arriving at Dome Pass station, he related his troubles, in the course of which he remarked, "It came on as dark as blazes, and I tried my best to get down the hill, but it seemed to me I was stepping down to h—ll by the devil's staircase; so I held on to the rock by the skin of my teeth till day-dawn." Accordingly, it was seen, Mr. Green had established claims in connection with the ridge. The first idea was to satisfy these by naming it "Hold-on-to-the-Rock-by-the-Skin-of-the-Teeth." On more mature reflection it was felt there was too much of the foreign graft in that designation to make it generally acceptable. Then, to name it "Black as Blazes" was open to a similar objection; so that the station people were in a manner forced to call it the Devil's Staircase, or else abandon what they conceived to be their bounden duty to Mr. Green. For the time being it put them in an awkward fix. They were Free-Kirk-of-Scotland settlers, and as such were bound to renounce the devil and his works. On the other hand, they could not well ignore what they felt to be a righteous claim without doing violence to their conscientious scruples. These explanations are rendered necessary in defence of the integrity of the early settlers, by whom this unhallowed name was at first sanctioned.

It may be some slight satisfaction to Mr. Green to know, if he be still within the knowledge of sublunary affairs, that he is not the only man who spent an uncomfortable night on the Devil's Staircase. A few years later, when Bill Fox had taken up the lakes trade, two individual members of society shipped in the "Nancy" for Kingston. They were strangers to each other, but in one respect at least they bore striking resemblance to one another: Dame Fortune had been playing scurvily by them, and both looked remarkably well out at the elbows. Getting out into the fairway, the schooner could not manage to pick page 108up a breath of wind, and, after flapping her sails idly for some hours, the two voyagers were put on shore, with the injunction to keep the track and they would be sure to find Kingston. Arriving at the Staircase, the short winter's day gave out altogether, and a dark dismal night ensued. The joint resources of the pair consisted of a few scraps of bread and a handful of dry tea. These were soon devoted to their legitimate purposes, and as there happened to be a supply of timber at hand the wherewithal for a good fire was easily procurable. Hitherto my companion — for the fact is I was of the luckless pair - seemed rational enough, not over-communicative, but seemingly kindly disposed and considerate. Now, however, he became absolutely frenzied, yelling, bawling, and muttering by turns the most hideous nonsense. His mutterings seemed to be about the devil following him in the shape of a moa, and nothing would convince him but that the evil spirit was lurking about watching an opportunity to pounce down on him. He had a tomahawk, and with it he went rushing about in a terrible state of excitement, literally foaming at the mouth. Then, again, he would throw himself flat on the ground, tearing at the scrub with his bands and teeth. This went on with little or no intermission for some hours; and how he escaped being precipitated into the lake is a marvel. At last the wretched man seemed to get exhausted, and, coiling himself up like a dog, went to sleep under a flax-bush. Few men, I believe, ever spent a night of greater horrors. The extraordinary part of the affair is that in the morning he got up with the first streak of dawn, raked the embers together, lit his pipe, and boiled a pannikin of water as calm and deliberately as if nothing had occurred. Indeed, he asked how I had put in the night, remarking that he himself had had a good sound snooze. Evidently he remembered nothing whatever of what had occurred. It was subsequently ascertained he had been what, in digging parlance, is known as a "hatter," working and living all alone on the upper branches of the Shotover. His mind, as too often happens under these circumstances, had given way, and, being charged with lunacy, the Magistrate committed him for treatment. He had only been liberated the day before taking his passage in the "Nancy."

It has been already remarked that early Otago reminiscences redound, as a rule, to the credit of the Maori. Another incident of this nature occurred on the lake immediately under the Staircase. A whaleboat, containing two gentlemen named Mitchell and Rogers and a Maori named Jack, was making for Kingston when it was caught by a squall and upset. Rogers was drowned; but, after a terrible struggle extending over two hours, Mitchell was got ashore by the efforts of the Maori, who was a most expert swimmer, and who, instead of providing for his own safety, kept nobly by until Mitchell was safe on shore. Mitchell by this time was in a dreadfully exhausted state, and could not be got to move. Divesting himself of part of his clothing, Maori Jack dried them as well as he could, and, having placed them over Mitchell, set off as fast as possible to procure assistance. He made a wonderful journey, considering that the greater part of it was performed over country destitute of either tracks or bridges, and that, too, during the dead of a winter's night. It was not until an advanced hour of the day following Jack arrived back with assistance. Taking all the circumstances into consideration, they were fully prepared to find that Mitchell had expired in the interim from exhaustion and exposure. And so undoubtedly he would but for the fact that shortly after the Maori left a bush-dog came sniffing around, and, despite his feeble endeavours to drive it off, lay down on the top of him, and remained there until the rescue party arrived next day, when it took itself off into the bush. It was ascertained this good Samaritan was a collie-pup which had made its escape from the station the year previously, and could never be found. Mitchell, who was a military man, afterwards, I believe, joined the field forces in the Maori war. Maori Jack's bravery excited admiration, as it well deserved. His admirers started him on the road as a teamster, and he was well known in Invercargill for many a day in connection with the Lakes carrying-trade. The facts of his case having reached the Humane Society, he was subsequently awarded the society's medal, a decoration of which Jack was immensely proud.