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Settlers and Pioneers

17 — Punts and Bridges

page 117

Punts and Bridges

It is, or was, a good old custom in the North of Ireland and in Scotland to say a prayer when crossing a bridge. 'God bless the bridge and the man who made it,' said the Scot of the old school, grateful to the builders who spanned the dangerous rivers. That spirit of thankfulness may be disappearing now in the well-bridged, smoothed-out old lands. In New Zealand we are not yet nearly out of the constructive stage. We are continually reminded of the fact that one of the first needs of a district is the bridge. But before the bridge came the punt.

Before our country districts were able to build expensive bridges over the large rivers, the ferry punt, working on wire ropes, was the chief means of crossing for horse and vehicle and foot travellers. Some of these punts were large enough to take a coach and four horses, or a small mob of stock, up to about twenty head. They consisted of boatshaped flat pontoons on floats and a deck of planking, with a strong rail on each side, and a gate or a rope page 118stretched across at each end. The punt was carried on strong wire rope made fast to two stout posts driven into the ground on each side of the river. The sharp-ended pontoons were set at an angle to the current by means of levers, and the force of the stream against these floats carried the punt smoothly across. It was prevented from floating off downstream by the wire rope on the upstream side, which held it securely while allowing it to travel along easily. The river crossed, it was berthed at a plank landing alongside the bank; then the floats were trimmed again in the opposite direction for the return passage.

One man was sufficient to attend to the punt and collect the fee, which covered the cost of mamtaining the ferry. There was a tariff of fees; so much for the vehicle—mail coach, wagon, dray, buggy, or springcart—according to the number of horses and the size of the vehicle. The passengers in a coach usually paid sixpence each. If cattle, sheep, or horses were being ferried the crossing was often a slow procedure and there frequently was trouble when some half-wild steers were being driven on board.

Rivers which were too deep to ford made the punt a necessity on the main routes before bridges were built. The location was important; the punts could not be fixed where the river was very swift; the place was usually where it began to slacken down, as at the place where the Buller River emerged from the page 119gorge on to the swampy plain a few miles above Westport, and the Waikato River at Ngaruawahia. On the Waikato punts at Hamilton and Ngaruawahia the wire ropes and all the other gear had to be specially strong to resist the powerful though smooth current. Sometimes there were accidents; a rope broke under heavy strain, or a freight of cattle became frightened and capsized the punt. A rowing dinghy with oars laid under the thwarts ready for immediate use was usually in the water, made fast to the side of the punt. This was a precaution in case anyone fell overboard.

The settlers of the Upper Waikato in pioneer days sometimes drove their mobs of stock all the way down to the Auckland market, a hundred miles or more. A farmer was crossing the Waikato River at Hamilton with his mob from Tamahere in several punt-loads and was mid-way between the banks with the last load when the rope broke and the punt capsized. In a moment the water was full of frightened and bellowing cattle, and several were drowned. The owner told me that he was in among the bullocks and went down to the bottom of the river twice. More by good luck than by his swimming powers he reached the shore on the Hamilton West side, unhurt except for a kick or so and a jab of the horns from some half-drowned beast.

It was a long, hard, and sometimes dangerous stock-driving journey in those pre-railway days, page 120from the borders of the King Country down to Auckland. From Orakau to the city it was a distance of 120 miles. Often enough after all the expense and toil there was scarcely any little profit for the farmer. It must be remembered that there was very little help for the settlers from the Government, or the town stock agents, or anyone else. There were no dairy factories, no freezing works, for it was before the experiment of applying refrigeration to meat; little butter or cheese was made for the market. The farmer grew potatoes, wheat, and other crops, and grazed cattle and sheep. Wool and fat stock yielded him the little cash he earned. There were no State loans at low interest, there was practically no State assistance of any kind. The settlers were compelled to be self-reliant; it was no use running to the Government for everything.

To return to the punt. There were several lower down the broad Waikato; I remember particularly those at Huntly and Tuakau, where bridges now stand. One moonlit night, about midnight, a dozen of us crossed ourselves and horses from the Tuakau landing to Onewhero, on the western side of the river; a long, slow operation. The river is about a quarter of a mile wide there and moves leisurely and unrippled on its majestic course to the sea. It was a special police mission to the Opuatia, in the heart of the great Onewhero bush, then penetrated only by a rough Maori track. Only one settler lived page 121there then, toiling away on his rough bush section; beyond all was the forest, wild, tall, tangled, and glorious.

Now it is a well-tamed region of rich farms; where is that forest wild? Most of it went up in smoke. Now a fine bridge has replaced the rather cranky punt and your motor-car glides across it smoothly in a few moments just where we took an hour to get our police and survey party in two loads over the water that unforgotten moonlit midnight.

In the South Island too punts were indispensable, especially on such a river as the Buller. In Central Otago there were several important punts on the great Clutha (or Matau) River, with its length of 150 miles. A Dunedin message stated (March 1939) that the hopes of Clutha Valley settlers for more than sixty years were realised when the punt which had provided the only means of crossing the river at Clydevale during all that time was superseded by a modern concrete bridge. More than 2,500 people were present for the opening of the bridge by the Postmaster-General, the Hon. F. Jones. Only two punts now remain on the Clutha, one at the Tuapeka mouth, and the other at Paritai, below Balclutha.

Far down the West Coast a very long bridge has to be built. This is to cross the Haast, or Awarua River, that wide, snowy river which comes rolling down from the glaciers of the Southern Alps. Such rivers are often difficult and dangerous to cross on horse-page 122back; on foot they are more dangerous still. So the cry in Westland is always for bridges.

It is true that the aeroplane is a boon in such far-out places as Westland, so easily and swiftly carrying passengers, mails, and goods. But roads and bridges are needed for heavy traffic and for driving stock.