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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter XXIII. — On The River

page 220

Chapter XXIII.
On The River.

River Thames:—Navigation dangerous.—Canoe navigation.—Difficulties.—Maoripluck.—Swimming Adventure.—Rescue by Maories.—Canoe Voyage up river.—Snags and Rapids.—A Maori water Nymph.—Maori Sports.—Diving for a Bottle.—Exciting scene.—Bottles secured by a great Chief, and a Deaf and Dumb Girl.—The Chief's Chivalry.—Canoeing down stream delightful.—Exciting Songs.—Navigation stopped by Hostile Chief.—Road making over Mountains.—Removal of Rapids and Snags in river commenced.—Difficult work.—Maori obstruction.—The Man in Command.—A Colonist Killed.—River operations Stopped.—Resumed.—Dynamite.—Removal of enormous snag.—Te Au-o-Tonga rapid, a 'terror.'—A Storm.—Gallant deed.—Blowing up the 'terror.'—Magnificent Spectacle.

HE Waihou or Thames river, when I first knew it, was only navigable for 30 miles from its mouth. Beyond that point, innumerable rocky bars, rapids, sandbanks, and snags (sunken trees) rendered navigation for any craft but a Maori canoe impossible. Even canoes, were often swamped in the rapids, or upset on the snags.

For years after I purchased the Matamata estates, stores and machinery (taken apart) were sent up the river in canoes. Very often the canoes were weeks going up, and not unfrequently coming to grief on the voyage.

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On one occasion, which I may mention, because it brings out one of the traits of Maori character, I had sent up three canoes, in one of which, amongst other things was a Croskill's roller, ploughs and a bag of salt. The roller, as usual with heavy articles, had been taken apart. Two of the canoes arrived at the landing on my estate: the third having run on a snag, had deposited the iron roller and the rest of her cargo at the bottom of the river. A week later, the third canoe arrived, with every article aboard except the salt. The Maories said the canoe had stuck on a snag, and upset in deep water, but the hardy, patient fellows had dived for the cargo, and secured every article, except the salt. Of that, the empty sack only remained. This they held up with great glee, saying that

'The water had devoured the salt.'

The Waihou is a dangerous river, owing to the quicksands with which it abounds. One of my adventures on the river came near a tragic ending. I had taken up some friends in the 'Caroline,' a small schooner to Te Puke, the then head of the navigation. Whilst her cargo was being transferred to the canoes, we stripped for a swim. Owing to an under current, caused probably by some peculiar tidal action at this point, by the sudden shifting of a quicksand, I was carried under, and, unable to extricate myself, should have inevitably been drowned, had not two Maories, one squatted on the bank, the other on the 'Caroline,' seeing my position, simultaneously dived and rescued page 222me. I never forgot the true service those good fellows rendered me.

When the goods had been transferred to the canoes, we proceeded up the river. For three days we paddled over sandbanks, snags and rapids. The tedium of the voyage was enlivened by the chants and old canoe songs of the Maories. At every rapid the canoes were unloaded, the cargoes carried on shore, and the canoes hauled over the rapids. In some of the reaches where the current was swift, my Maories ceased paddling, and 'poled' the canoes, until we came into smooth water.

At one rapid, 'Te Au-o-Tonga,' the river was filled with rocks, except on the left bank, where there was a narrow channel of deep water. One of the canoes had a crew of three Maori girls, one of whom was deaf and dumb. This girl was busily poling, when her pole slipped off the edge of a rock. In a moment, she went down head foremost into deep water. This caused the greatest merriment amongst the rest of the Maories. The next instant the girl came up like a water nymph, and clambering into the canoe, resumed her pole as if nothing had happened.

In due time we arrived at the head of the navigation. The Chief William Thompson (the King Maker), with a large number of the Ngatihaua tribe were waiting to receive me. That afternoon, we pitched our tents and made ourselves comfortable. Next day, we had horse and foot races, of both of which the Maories are very fond. Amongst other sports, we had swimming and diving matches.

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At the point where we were encamped, there was a very strong 'rapid.' Just below, about forty young Maories were squatting on the bank ready for a diving contest. At a given signal, these amphibious fellows dashed into the river, and commenced 'treading water' waiting for a bottle filled with sand, to be thrown in. When they were all in position, the loaded bottle was thrown into midstream. The instant it touched the water, every Maori disappeared. Not a head was to be seen. Presently forty Maori heads came to the surface, most of them far below where we stood, carried down stream by the force of the current.

One young Maori secured the bottle, and swimming ashore with it, received the five shillings prize. I ought to have said, that the deaf and dumb Maori girl wished to be one of the divers, to which I did not consent; she walked up the bank, and covering her head with her blanket, sat alone in evident trouble.

Some of the Maories telling me that the Chief William Thompson, who was squatting on the opposite bank, was a great diver, I said, I would again throw in the bottle if he would dive for it. Thompson asked what the prize was.

'Five shillings,' I replied.

'Make it a pound,' said he, ' and I will try for it.'

I consented, and he at once swam across the river. All the principal chiefs immediately said they would dive for the bottle. In a minute, about sixty Maories were treading water in midstream. It was an exciting scene. Directly the bottle touched the water, every page 224head disappeared, as before many divers were carried down stream. This time, it was not a young Maori who secured the bottle, but no other than Thompson the Great Chief, the King Maker. Swimming ashore, he gave me the bottle, and I handed the sovereign to him.

'No,' said he, 'I dived for the bottle, not for the money,' and like a true Chief as he was, he added,

'Throw in the bottle again, and let the deaf and dumb girl try for it, and let her prize be the pound I have won.'

I readily consented, for I was touched by his chivalry. Again, a great number dashed into the river, joined this time by the disconsolate girl. As before, when the bottle was thrown, every head disappeared. Singularly enough, the Maori girl secured the bottle, to the great delight of the whole company.

I made many voyages in canoes upon this beautiful river. Up stream, canoe travelling is sufficiently tedious and tiresome, but, down stream, it is very different. Indeed, I know no mode of travelling more delightful, than paddling in a canoe down such a river as the Waihou, with its quiet reaches, shady banks, and water clear as crystal, with a crew of half a dozen stalwart, merry Maories, gaily singing canoe songs to the music of their paddles.

Gliding along a placid reach, or sweeping rapidly round a lovely wooded point; now racing another canoe amid exciting songs, joyous shouts, and peals of laughter; now shooting a rapid, steady, silent and page 225watchful; then once more, merrily paddling in smooth water. It is simply perfect enjoyment.

One day, while I was at Matamata, a Maori messenger arrived with the intelligence, that five canoes laden with my grass and clover seed, had been stopped by Tanna the son of my friend, the Chief Tamehana (Thompson), who had died about two months before. The messenger brought me a letter from Tanna to the effect, that he intended to break all his father's agreements with me; that he and all the Ngatihaua tribe refused to acknowledge the Queen's Government, and had determined to return to their allegiance to Tawhiao the Maori King; that he had turned back my canoes; and that he warned me to remove at once my servants, my sheep, my cattle, and all my goods to avoid trouble.

I knew well what this 'warning' meant.

At that time, there was only a horse track from Cambridge, the frontier town, to Matamata. I recognised the serious aspect of affairs, and I lost no time in useless negotiations with the rebel chief. I instructed the messenger to take the canoes down the river, and deliver their cargoes to my agent at Te Puke.

By this action of Tanna's I had lost the season for sowing grass seed. Without any vain regrets, I began next morning to lay off a dray road across the mountains, lying between Matamata and Cambridge. All the men (except stockmen) on the station, were page 226moved the same day to the foot of the hills with horses, ploughs, picks and shovels. Before night, tents were pitched, and everything made ready for a start on roadmaking next day.

Under the able direction of Mr. Williams, my manager, sidings were ploughed, cuttings made, and swamps bridged for a length of seven miles, where the road descended to the Waikato plains. During the progress of the work, Williams was often threatened and 'warned,' but with steady courage, he and the men persevered. In six weeks, a good dray road was finished, which being the only road into the interior, served for the subsequent movement of troops, and Nation Making advanced a step. The completion of this road, enabled me to dispense with the river transit, and to hold the country. I had lost a year it is true, but amongst the difficulties and dangers of those troubled times, I counted that a very small matter.

The danger from hostile Maories in making this mountain road, and the great difficulty of transporting across it, the multifarious articles required for the establishment and cultivation of a great estate, were such as none but the pioneers of those early times had to contend against; later settlers, happily knowing nothing of them, in these days of peace, roads and railways.

After the lapse of several years of toilsome work over the mountain road, I saw that to cultivate the Matamata estates with fair chances of success, I must page 227clear the Thames river of snags (sunken trees), sandbanks, and rapids. All my friends, who knew the river, said it could not be done: that the snags were simply innumerable: that the removal of one rocky bar, would only reveal the existence of another: that from the then head of the navigation, there were seventy miles of river which nothing but a Maori canoe would ever navigate: that it was a work, in any case, utterly beyond the power of any one man to accomplish, if it could be done at all.

I was in a minority of one, which was indeed no new thing, but I felt I could do the work, and I determined to make the attempt. The conception of the idea was one thing; the successful carrying it out was another, and a harder thing.

Besides the natural difficulties of the work, I knew I had to face the opposition of the Maories. My old opponent Tanna had fortunately left the Thames valley, and taken up his residence in the King country, but at that time, the river ran through a purely Maori district, and though the Maories were not unfriendly to me personally, I knew they were very jealous of any meddling with the river, as clearing it would open the country to White settlers.

As a first step, I interviewed two or three of the most powerful Chiefs, and after some difficulty, obtained their tacit consent to commence work. My next step, was to secure a suitable man to take charge of the operations. This was a task of no little difficulty, for in a country like New Zealand, riverine engineers were not then plentiful, especially with the page 228indispensable knowledge of the Maori language and Maori ways. In such selections the main 'point is to have a clear idea of what you want to do, and then to keep your eyes open for the man. In this case, as in many other important works I have taken in hand and carried out, I found the man I wanted. He was a young 'Colonial,' a sailor, a born engineer, and a Pakeha Maori—that is—a European with a Maori training.

Captain Tizard, whom I had known as a boy, was the man I selected. The work began about thirty miles from the mouth of the river. Tizard commenced operations with a whale-boat, and a Maori crew. By means of gunpowder, crosscut saws, and tackle of various sorts, he made good headway for about a year. At the end of that time, a Colonist was killed by the King Natives, in a neighbouring district. The wildest excitement followed. Troops of armed and angry Maories passed up and down the river. One by one, the snagging hands deserted, and I was compelled to discontinue the work.

In about twelve months, the excitement subsided, and I recommenced operations. By this time, dynamite had become known, and I set to work with better equipments. I built a small steamer of very light draft (engined by my eldest son) and a strong punt of shallow draft This was fitted with windlass, derrick, clutches and tackle of various kinds. The barge was decked over, with a house on deck for the crew. Taking aboard the necessary stores and a ton page 229of dynamite, Captain Tizard resumed operations at the point he had left off, the previous year. The work was hard and difficult. Tizard and his Maori crew were regular water dogs, and it was well they were. The first summer, they spent much of their time in the water, depositing the dynamite below the water-logged snags. Subsequently, we found this was unnecessary, experience showing that it was sufficient to place the dynamite upon the snags or rocks, whenever the water covered the charge a few inches.

Working his way slowly up stream, by the end of the summer Tizard had cleared a narrow channel of sufficient breadth to enable him to get up to the cataract, Pako Pako (now named Stanley after the African explorer), the northern boundary of my Matamata estate.

Arrived at this point, operations ceased for the winter, the river being too cold for continuing the work.

Next summer we began at Stanley, and worked down stream, clearing a channel forty feet wide. Hundreds of snags (water-logged trees) were blown up, many of them of very large size. One of these, lay right across the river (except a passage of about eight feet), with a few inches of water running over it. The sand had banked up behind it, and from time immemorial it had been used for a crossing place. This snag, which was a tree about five feet in diameter, had created a fall across the river with a depth of water about eight inches in front of it, and eight feet below page 230it. After a good many charges of dynamite had been exploded, the snag was finally removed, and the sand, being carried down by the current, gave an even depth of about five feet, above and below the site of the obstruction.

The removal of the numerous rocky bars forming the falls and rapids was a difficult undertaking, requiring a great expenditure of dynamite. One of these 'Te Au-o-Tonga' was as Tizard called it, 'a terror.' After a careful survey, he decided on a plan of operations. I went up to see the last of 'Te Au-o-Tonga,' the worst impediment to navigation on the river.

That night I slept on board the punt, accompanied by one of my sons, and an artist friend. We had half a ton of dynamite on board, upon which we lay in our blankets, and slept soundly enough, until we were awoke by a loud peal of thunder. Vivid flashes of lightning, followed by instantaneous thunder peals, warned us that danger was not very far off. Had the lightning struck the mast, there might possibly have been a terrific explosion heard in the quiet valley, but nothing more would have been heard of us. Amidst a torrent of rain, Tizard climbed up the mast with a length of fencing wire, which, by the lightning flashes, he was enabled to twist round the mast, with the end projecting a few inches above; then, throwing the coil of wire over the side of the punt into the water, he had provided a lightning conductor. After this daring exploit, he came below, and all hands went to sleep once more.

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Next day was occupied in making long lines of narrow calico bags, in which many hundred pounds weight of dynamite cartridges were placed, and carefully laid in position on the submerged rocks. Just before sunset all the preparations were completed. The steamer 'Tui' and the punt were moored under the lee of a high bank, and Tizard with a Maori boy went off in the 'dingy' (small boat) to light the fuse. That done, they lost no time in giving the dynamite a wide berth. I stood on the river bank to see what would happen.

After a few very quiet moments of suspense the dynamite exploded. Never did I hear such a terrific roar, or behold so grand, so sublime a spectacle. With a wondrous majesty, the whole breadth of the river seemed to mount upwards, diminishing in breadth as it rose, and then, for an instant, there was projected against the background of the purple mountains, a column of translucent water, adorned with a hundred radiant pinnacles rising higher and higher, and terminating in a final pinnacle five hundred feet above the river. Illumined by the setting sun, a thousand tiny rainbows dazzled us for one instant, and then, the gorgeous spectacle dissolved, and slowly fell back a shapeless mass of water, into the river,

An unsubstantial pageant faded.