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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Note 7.—Bluff Harbour

Note 7.—Bluff Harbour.

The locality of Bluff Harbour was known from the earliest date of New Zealand discoveries. The existence of the harbour, however, remained unknown for many years. This is no doubt due to the fact of the through passage by Foveaux Strait not having been discovered until a much later period; consequently vessels cruising along the coast kept well out to sea in preference to getting in amongst the Ruapuke Group, which lay nearer the coast. Then, again, the coast-line for many miles north of the harbour being a low sandy beach, a break therein might easily escape notice. The headland known as Bluff Hill, however, must have attracted attention long before the existence of the harbour was thought of. In some of the earlier charts it is set down as Cape Bernardine, and in one of the earliest narratives it is alluded to by that name.

About the year 1812 New Zealand flax appears to have been brought under notice of the Sydney merchants. A variety of experiments were made, and two expeditions fitted out to proceed to New Zealand and report upon the growth of the plant. One expedition went to the north, landing at the Bay of Islands; the other, conducted by two men named Jones and Gordon, visited the South Island, landing at the Bluff. This was in the month of April or May, 1815. We may therefore assume the harbour was known in Sydney prior to that date. The object of their mission was to ascertain the probable area of the flaxfields, and report as to the probability of rendering them a profitable branch of enterprise. The ship in which this excursion was made was named the "Perseverance." Returning to Sydney a few months afterwards, they rendered but a poor account of the prospects. The page 105extent of flax, they said, was not considerable, as it only occupied the beach side of a large lagoon, and a small quantity on the sandy shore extending along the harbour to the west. This would seem to indicate pretty accurately that they were on the A warn a flats, in the vicinity of the large lagoon to the north of the harbour. They do not seem to have been at all an enterprising pair, otherwise they could have had no difficulty in ascertaining that the country along the New River plains was one vast area of flax. What would seem to confirm that opinion is a further paragraph written by the explorers to the effect that, the weather being excessively severe, with heavy falls of sleet and rain, which commenced the beginning of May, the work progressed most unsatisfactorily. They seem to have made one experiment, however, from which they report a yield of about half a ton of its own weight when the flax was undressed. It is not by any means a lucid expression, but its meaning evidently is that a ton of green flax yielded half a ton of dressed material. Speaking of the resident Natives, they stated they were very civil and very obliging, and seemed willing to assist as far as they could. Indeed, it is to the credit of the Natives throughout the South that their conduct to the European is invariably spoken of in the highest praise. One instance of an opposite character, in which the entire crew of a sealing craft was cut off, with the exception of a lad, who was saved by having caught hold of a chief under tapu, occurred. That, however, happened in the south of Stewart Island, and a certain mystery surrounds the circumstances. Altogether the southern tribes are to be congratulated on the generally good estimation in which their ancestry was held.

Allusions are made about this time to some of the surrounding districts. One party we are told, having crossed Foveaux Strait, discovered an excellent harbour, to which they gave the name of the Macquarie. It is described as lying N.N.E. from Port William (Stewart Island). This is now known as Jacob's River, and is the site of the town of Riverton. Neither the river nor the district appears to have sustained the Macquarie name for any length of time. It is now called Jacob's River in respect to an old whaler of that name who had taken up his abode on its banks. It is likewise known by the name given to it by the Maoris—viz., the Aparima. The Waiau, further to the southward, appears at this time to have been known as the Knowsley River.

Bluff afterwards became a celebrated whaling-station. In 1835 it was reported to be one of the best-managed and most successful stations on the coast. Its boats were all partly, and, in one instance, wholly, manned by Natives. A young chief, Pu atuki or Topi, was headsman, and no boat's crew could possibly have been prouder of their man than the Maoris were of the young chief. Between 1838 and 1840 the station, owned by the well-known John Jones, earned a total of 198 tuns of oil, valued at £2,376. Some of the neighbouring stations did even better. The Toitois in 1835 achieved the great whaling feat of the day: in eleven days they caught no fewer than seventeen fish. Unfortunately the party had not sufficient casks, and a great portion of the oil was lost. Afterwards, we are told, when they had provided themselves with casks, no more whales were caught, and thereafter the station was abandoned.

Another recorded incident in the early history of the harbour is that down to the year 1840 a somewhat striking character had his abode at the Bluff. He was named Spence. He had long been resident in the country, and was said to have acquired considerable means from the sale of rum. He measured 6ft. 2in., and lived in the enjoyment of connubial bliss to the extent of two wives. He had a military deportment, and boasted having been in action at Waterloo. It was whispered that he arrived in the colony by way of Sydney Cove, the assumption being that at some period in his history his fair fame had been slightly blemished. He occupied a weather-boarded house of some pretensions as housing ranked in these days. Thirty years ago it was still to the fore, but, like its owner and occupant, it has long since been levelled with the ground.

Bluff Harbour, situated in latitude 46° 36′ south, longitude 166° 22′ east, is a harbour of great natural excellence, and commands a larger area of valuable page 106back country, and a longer range of sea coast, than almost any other in New Zealand, Lyttelton, perhaps, alone being excepted, on the ground of the wide area of agricultural land under cultivation in the central part of Canterbury. The geographical position of Bluff Harbour, when taken in connection with the area and depth of water in the estuary, is certainly such as to justify the prediction that it is destined to become, at any rate, one of the chief southern harbours of New Zealand. As regards the South Island, it is the first port of arrival from, and the last for departure to, Tasmania, Victoria, and Europe; it is no further distant from Sydney than Manukau, which may be regarded as the western watergate of Auckland, or than New Plymouth at the south-western extremity of the North Island; it is even nearer to Sydney than Wellington. Both as regards general commerce and as a mail-packet station for the South Island, Bluff Harbour, therefore, possesses unusual advantages. The area of the Awarua Estuary, in which this harbour is situated, is 21¾ square miles at high-water mark, the quantity of tidal water passing in and out through the entrance at ordinary spring tides is no less than 104,250,000 tons. The entrance is unencumbered by any bar, and is so situated that its aspect is upon the weather shore. There are two channels leading into and out from the harbour; the principal of these runs nearly north and south, the other east and west. The harbour and its entrance have been well buoyed, and there is a signal-station on the summit of Bluff Hill, with which vessels requiring pilots or instructions should communicate, or, failing that, with the station on Starling Point. Both signal-stations are connected by telephone to the Harbour Offices. A fixed white light is exhibited from a small vessel placed in the narrowest part of the entrance. The Straits outside the harbour are well lighted by the following lighthouses: Puysegur Point on the northern shore, Centre Island on the western entrance to the Straits, Waipapa Point, on the north-north-east shore, and Dog Island Lighthouse, east-south-east of the harbour. The port is possessed of a powerful steam tug, which will go out to vessels signalling for it from the Strait, and is owned by the Bluff Harbour Board. The wharfage accommodation is 1,700ft., and the depth of water alongide the wharf, corrected to low springtides, is as follows: 372ft. of wharf, 24ft.; 400ft., 19ft.; 500ft., 18ft.; and 400ft. 17ft. deep. These depths are being gradually increased by a Priestman dredge, which is kept almost constantly at work. The Harbour Board is continually adding to the wharves, and at present have a contract under way for 225ft. of wharfage extension.

The wharf is about a mile and a half from the course of vessels coming either from the eastward or the westward, and is protected from westerly and southwesterly gales by the high ranges at the back of Campbelltown, down the sides of which several small creeks run into the harbour, and from which a supply of fresh water has been provided for the shipping. Campbelltown, on the northern side of the Bluff, is the port of Southland, and has large stores for grain, which is shipped in quantities for the Australasian Colonies and Europe; there are also two frozen-meat works, from which extensive quantities of frozen meat are shipped to Great Britain. Besides grain and frozen mutton, large quantities of wool, hides, tallow, rabbit-skins, timber, and preserved fish and rabbits, are annually exported to Great Britain and other countries.

Water and ships' supplies are abundant: fresh beef, 2½d. per lb.; vegetables, 2d. per lb., potatoes vary from 1s. to 5s. per cwt.

Stevedores are available, their usual charge being 1s. 3d. per hour, and 2s. per hour overtime. Stone ballast can be purchased at 4s. 6d. per ton, which includes railage to the ship's side, and vessels arriving in ballast generally dispose of the same to the Railway Department, the ship paying haulage at the rate of 1s. per ton.

During the fourteen years, ending 31st December, 1891, the Bluff Harbour Board has been in operation, its ordinary revenues amounted to £72,953; ordinary working expenses to £34,602; leaving a balance for new works, plant, engineering charges, interest on loan, and contributions to sinking-fund of £34,602. These revenues steadily increased from £1,945 in 1881, to £11,998 in 1891. During late years the increase has been most marked. It rose from £7,184 in 1890 to £11,998 page 107in 1891. The expenditure for the last-named year did not exceed £3,305, as against £2,903 the preceding year.

The shipping entered inwards during the fourteen years mentioned represented a total of 1,855,125 tons, the rate of progress being 71,744 tons in 1878 and 216,789 tons in 1891. With one single exception, and that not involving more than one hundred tons, each succeeding year represents an increase on the year preceding. It rose from 180,801 tons in 1890 to 216,789 the following year.