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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Scouts in the Flax Bush — A Von Tempsky Story

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The Scouts in the Flax Bush
A Von Tempsky Story

AN American would have called each of them a two-gun man, those two scouts, crouching in the heart of a thick flax-clump on the outskirts of a great Maori armed camp. One was a foreign-looking fellow with long black hair curling out under an old felt hat; across his blue uniform tunic were two shoulder belts, each with a holstered revolver; at his waist belt hung a long bowie-knife in a battered leather sheath. His companion, big-framed and whiskered in the Dundreary mode, wore a cavalry uniform, minus the high boots and spurs. His breeches were tucked into long stockings, and he was shod infantryman fashion, like the other. He, too, wore a brace of revolvers, but instead of the sheath-knife a short-handled tomahawk was thrust through his belt, after the Maori manner.

The pair of them, on their knees, peered through cautiously-parted openings in the flax-bushes, whose dew-laden blade-tips rustled a man's height above them. They looked out at the clay lines of an entrenchment, ditch and bank, one tier above the other, on the curving bank of a clear little river, and at an encampment of thatched huts, some of them semi-subterranean, straggling along the creek banks. They were almost within the lines they had come out the previous night to reconnoitre. The place was swarming with Maoris, and they could almost touch some of the shawl-kilted or blanket-robed warriors on the marshy track that wound among the flax bushes.

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The bowie-knife man was the veteran Gustavus Von Tempsky, Lieutenant (later Captain) of Forest Rangers. His comrade was young Tom McDonnell, a sub-altern in Colonel Marmaduke Nixon's Colonial Defence Force Cavalry and a perfect Maori linguist. With Nixon's approval—though he did not like sending them on so perilous an expedition—they had volunteered (the time was August, 1863) to gather information for General Cameron about the Kingite fortifications at Paparata in the Mangatawhiri Valley, half-way across the fern country between the Waikato and the Hauraki shores. With field-glasses they had scanned the position from the Koheroa ridge, above where Mercer township is now, the distant works that were clearly visible, lines of freshly turned red clay, between the Mangatawhiri and Mangatangi rivers. All the previous night they had been trudging cautiously along the sometimes swampy, sometimes high and fern-fringed track from the Whangamarino Redoubt, where the two Armstrong guns now and then threw shells into the main Maori position, the Meremere entrenchments, three tiers of them, along the eastern bank of the Waikato River.

That night march through the enemy country had its nervous moments. Once the scouts thought they were being followed by stealthy-footed foes. Now and again they went down on their hands and knees and remained there scanning the skyline and listening intently. Once they were startled by what McDonnell took to be an outlying picket of the Maoris, forms lying asleep, wrapped in white blankets. They dropped flat on their faces, then crawled on, to discover that it page 64 was the gleam of pools of water among the flax bushes beside the track.

The first of the grey damp dawn was faintly lightening the sky when they found themselves at their destinations; in fact, almost before they realised it they were within the outer lines of the Maori position, and crept into cover in the high flax just as they heard the sounds of an awakening camp. They debated whether to remain there or take to the shelter of a tract of tall bush which towered in deep shadows on their right front. As events soon proved it was fortunate that they chose the flax-bush cover and not the forest. A shower of rain fell after they had settled themselves there.

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From the flax-leaf nest in the dawn, the scouts, squatting down close to each other, scarcely daring to breathe, saw a tattooed warrior on horseback, with a gun and a dispatch-bag slung across his shoulders, ride rapidly toward their cover. His bare feet brushed the flax-leaves as he trotted along the narrow trail. He passed them and was soon out of sight at a bend in the track. He was on his way to Meremere, evidently a messenger to the Maori King's camp. Here I shall let Von Tempsky himself take up the story; the narrative is contained in a MS. journal in which he described many events of the war.

“The Maoris were bent on sport that morning,” wrote Von Tempsky. “In the forest to our right, not above one hundred yards away, some spirited pigeon-shooting was going on. How we blessed our stars that we had not taken cover in that bush! There seemed to be quite a regiment of fowlers expending powder and page 65 shot. The general hubbub increased at every moment. As to the numbers around us, Tom whispered to me, ‘It's just a rabbit warren’; and it seemed so to me, too, so much so that I saw at a glance it was hopeless to attempt any further penetration. And it certainly seemed very doubtful even whether we should ever be able to leave this place again. Still, I had great confidence in our cover, its very handiness to the road making a suspicion of ambush unlikely.

“Suddenly I heard the bark of a dog, pig-hunting. My comrade heard it. We had heard enough of dogs during the night and morning, but we knew that this peculiar yelp was given in chase of a pig. We listened anxiously for the direction of that bark. It seemed to go round us in a circle, but the circle seemed to grow narrower as time went on, and then, convinced of the certainty of detection, our eyes met. No word was needed to say to one another, ‘The time has come.’

“I drew my bowie-knife from its sheath,” continued Von Tempsky, “and flattened myself as much as possible on the ground. My hat, an old felt wideawake, I took in my left hand. The flax grew so thickly over us that even if the dog followed our tracks to this spot it would have to tread almost upon us to see us. Then I thought of presenting my hat suddenly to its muzzle, and when its fangs would have mechanically and instinctively closed on it, my knife would have silenced it.

“But the bark of that dog, when very near, grew less vehement, and then it ceased. I must confess I drew a long, long breath of relief. The other noises continued, but I cared not about them. Man's ingenuity I felt capable page 66 of defying, but the instinct of an animal was rather too much for me at the time.”

That tense moment over, the two scouts wondered what time it was. Neither of them had a watch, and they anxiously looked for the position of the sun behind the clouds. Twice they agreed it was noon, but a watery glimpse showed them that the sun was not yet nearly high enough. It was a long day to them. They ate some tinned meat and army biscuit. They changed their cramped positions in the flax-clump, and waited. Von Tempsky made a rough sketch of the fortified camp, as far as he could judge of its conformation and extent. Gradually the sky grew more dull, and at last it began, faintly and almost doubtfully, to rain.

No anxious farmer in a dry season, no thirsty castaway sailor looked more eagerly for the increase in those fine drops than the scouts did. There was no doubt that the early morning's rain had saved them by drowning the scent of their tracks. A heavy fall now might make them perfectly safe, and turn back the pot-hunting sportsmen in and around the forest, with their dogs.

“How we blessed that rain!” wrote Von Tempsky. “It increased to a steady downpour. With silent ecstasy I felt streams of water running over my prostrate body. Rain on, rain on! What a relief! And thus it went on the whole afternoon. We opened some more small tins of food, and joyfully made a meal that must serve us until we safely reached our camp again. We agreed that, as we could not do much good by a further advance, we would return to the Whangamarino stockade under cover of night, and on our way see if we could catch that mounted Maori messenger on his journey page 67 back from Meremere. The day gradually deepened into evening, and at last we had the gloom we needed for our escape from this perilous flax-nest of ours.”

When it was quite dark, out of their hiding-place they crept, those two scouts. They listened intently to the sounds of the Maori camp. All the people were in the shelter of their whares; danger from them was over, though there might be danger ahead. Before they left the place they decided, in their light-heartedness, to play a joke on their unsuspecting foes. McDonnell broke up some biscuit and laid an artistic trail from the flaxbushes along the track for a few yards. That biscuit and the empty meat tins in the bivouac would give the Kingites something to talk about next day.

This business done, the scouts cheerfully padded along the home trail, ten miles of it, now and again stopping to listen for a few moments. They crossed the swampy ground and ascended the clay slopes leading to Koheroa and Whangamarino. They met no one; the horseback messenger probably was warm in some Meremere dug-out shelter, waiting for daylight for his return journey.

“It's a pity,” said McDonnell, “we can't bail him up and take him and his dispatches to the general.”

It was after midnight when the adventurous comrades reached the Whangamarino Redoubt. They answered the sentry's challenge, and were admitted to the camp, where Lieutenant Pickard, the gunner, joyfully received them, and rousted out the cook to get them a hot meal. “Better than that flax-bush camp, eh, Von?” said Mac, as he emptied his comforting jorum of commissariat rum.

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When the scouts reported to Colonel Nixon at the Queen's Redoubt the good old veteran was greatly relieved to see them safely back. “I threw my cap in the air when I saw you coming, my boys,” he said. He had been very anxious about them, and indeed reproached himself for letting them go on so desperately dangerous a mission. General Cameron was highly pleased with the information they were able to give him, and it was not long before each of them received a step up in rank. McDonnell lived to receive the New Zealand Cross for this service; Von Tempsky, as Major of Constabulary, fell in battle the year before the decoration was instituted.

∗ ∗ ∗

As for the warriors of Paparata, I should like to have listened that morning to their remarks when they found that biscuit trail on the track and turned out the relics in the flax-lair of the scouts. What consternation in the camp when they realised that pakeha spies had been in their very midst all day! Their confidence in their fortified position was rudely shaken. What would the pakeha do next?

They held on there for a few weeks, but immediately Cameron's gunboats on the Waikato passed up the river beyond Meremere, bombarding and outflanking the long lines of rifle pits and the gun-positions there, Paparata was abandoned, and the garrison fell back southward, to help hold the mid-Waikato plain against the invaders.