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A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays

Crossing the Rangitata

page 143

Crossing the Rangitata

Suppose you were to ask your way from Mr. Phillips’s station to mine, I should direct you thus: “Work your way towards yonder mountain; pass underneath it between it and the lake, having the mountain on your right hand and the lake on your left; if you come upon any swamps, go round them or, if you think you can, go through them; if you get stuck up by any creeks—a creek is the colonial term for a stream—you’ll very likely see cattle marks, by following the creek up and down; but there is nothing there that ought to stick you up if you keep out of the big swamp at the bottom of the valley; after passing that mountain follow the lake till it ends, keeping well on the hill-side above it, and make the end of the valley, where you will come upon a high terrace above a large gully, with a very strong creek at the bottom of it; get down the terrace, where you’ll see a patch of burnt ground, and follow the river- bed till it opens on to a flat; turn to your left and keep down the mountain sides that run along the Rangitata; keep well near them and so avoid the swamps; cross the Rangitata opposite where you see a large river-bed coming into it from the other side, and follow this river-bed till you see my hut some eight miles up it.” Perhaps I have thus been better able to describe the nature of the travelling than by any other. If one can get anything page 144 that can be manufactured into a feature and be dignified with a name once in five or six miles, one is very lucky.

Well, we had followed these directions for some way, as far in fact as the terrace, when, the river coming into full view, I saw that the Rangitata was very high. Worse than that, I saw Mr. Phillips and a party of men who were taking a dray over to a run just on the other side of the river, and who had been prevented from crossing for ten days by the state of the water. Among them, to my horror, I recognised my cadet, whom I had left behind me with beef which he was to have taken over to my place a week and more back; whereon my mind misgave me that a poor Irishman who had been left alone at my place might be in a sore plight, having been left with no meat and no human being within reach for a period of ten days. I don’t think I should have attempted crossing the river but for this. Under the circumstances, however, I determined at once on making a push for it, and accordingly taking my two cadets with me and the unfortunate beef that was already putrescent —it had lain on the ground in a sack all the time—we started along under the hills and got opposite the place where I intended crossing by about three o’clock. I had climbed the mountain side and surveyed the river from thence before approaching the river itself. At last we were by the water’s edge. Of course, I led the way, being as it were patronus of the expedition, and having been out some four months longer than either of my companions; still, having never crossed any of the rivers on horseback in a fresh, having never seen the Rangitata in a fresh, and being utterly unable to guess how deep any stream page 145 would take me, it may be imagined that I felt a certain amount of caution to be necessary, and accordingly, folding my watch in my pocket-handkerchief and tying it round my neck in case of having to swim for it unexpectedly, I strictly forbade the other two to stir from the bank until they saw me safely on the other side. Not that I intended to let my horse swim, in fact I had made up my mind to let my old Irishman wait a little longer rather than deliberately swim for it. My two companions were worse mounted than I was, and the rushing water might only too probably affect their heads. Mine had already become quite indifferent to it, though it had not been so at first. These two men, however, had been only a week in the settlement, and I should have deemed myself highly culpable had I allowed them to swim a river on horseback, though I am sure both would have been ready enough to do so if occasion required.

As I said before, at last we were on the water’s edge; a rushing stream some sixty yards wide was the first instalment of our passage. It was about the colour and consistency of cream and soot, and how deep? I had not the remotest idea; the only thing for it was to go in and see. So choosing a spot just above a spit and a rapid—at such spots there is sure to be a ford, if there is a ford anywhere—I walked my mare quickly into it, having perfect confidence in her, and, I believe, she having more confidence in me than some who have known me in England might suppose. In we went; in the middle of the stream the water was only a little over her belly (she is sixteen hands high); a little farther, by sitting back on my saddle and lifting my feet up I might have avoided getting them wet, had I cared page 146 to do so, but I was more intent on having the mare well in hand, and on studying the appearance of the remainder of the stream than on thinking of my own feet just then; after that the water grew shallower rapidly, and I soon had the felicity of landing my mare on the shelving shingle of the opposite bank. So far so good; I beckoned to my companions, who speedily followed, and we all then proceeded down the spit in search of a good crossing place over the next stream. We were soon beside it, and very ugly it looked. It must have been at least a hundred yards broad—I think more, but water is so deceptive that I dare not affix any certain width. I was soon in it, advancing very slowly above a slightly darker line in the water, which assured me of its being shallow for some little way; this failing, I soon found myself descending into deeper water, first over my boots for some yards, then over the top of my gaiters for some yards more. This continued so long that I was in hopes of being able to get entirely over, when suddenly the knee against which the stream came was entirely wet, and the water was rushing so furiously past me that my poor mare was leaning over tremendously. Already she had begun to snort, as horses do when they are swimming, and I knew well that my companions would have to swim for it even though I myself might have got through. So I very gently turned her head round down stream and quietly made back again for the bank which I had left. She had got nearly to the shore, and I could again detect a darker line in the water, which was now not over her knees, when all of a sudden down she went up to her belly in a quicksand, in which she began floundering about in fine style. I was off her page 147 back and into the water that she had left in less time than it takes to write this. I should not have thought of leaving her back unless sure of my ground, for it is a canon in river crossing to stick to your horse. I pulled her gently out, and followed up the dark line to the shore where my two friends were only too glad to receive me. By the way, all this time I had had a companion in the shape of a cat in a bag, which I was taking over to my place as an antidote to the rats, which were most unpleasantly abundant there. I nursed her on the pommel of my saddle all through this last stream, and save in the episode of the quicksand she had not been in the least wet. Then, however, she did drop in for a sousing, and mewed in a manner that went to my heart. I am very fond of cats, and this one is a particularly favourable specimen. It was with great pleasure that I heard her purring through the bag, as soon as I was again mounted and had her in front of me as before.

So I failed to cross this stream there, but, determined if possible to get across the river and see whether the Irishman was alive or dead, we turned higher up the stream and by and by found a place where it divided. By carefully selecting a spot I was able to cross the first stream without the waters getting higher than my saddle-flaps, and the second scarcely over the horse’s belly. After that there were two streams somewhat similar to the first, and then the dangers of the passage of the river might be considered as accomplished—the dangers, but not the difficulties. These consisted in the sluggish creeks and swampy ground thickly overgrown with Irishman, snow-grass, and spaniard, which extend on either side the river for page 148 half a mile and more. But to cut a long story short we got over these too, and then we were on the shingly river-bed which leads up to the spot on which my hut is made and my house making. This river was now a brawling torrent, hardly less dangerous to cross than the Rangitata itself, though containing not a tithe of the water, the boulders are so large and the water so powerful. In its ordinary condition it is little more than a large brook; now, though not absolutely fresh, it was as unpleasant a place to put a horse into as one need wish. There was nothing for it, however, and we crossed and recrossed it four times without misadventure, and finally with great pleasure I perceived a twinkling light on the terrace where the hut was, which assured me at once that the old Irishman was still in the land of the living. Two or three vigorous “coo-eys” brought him down to the side of the creek which bounds my run upon one side.