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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 5 (August 1, 1936)

Pictures Of New Zealand Life

page 25

Pictures Of New Zealand Life

The Portent: Instinct, or Starvation?

We were discussing old maritime life on the New Zealand coast, and talk turned on ships that went missing after departure, from one or other of our ports. There was the story of rats leaving a doomed ship, a sea-tale so often derided yet firmly believed in by many seafarers. Undoubtedly there have been many authentic cases of this kind, a strange manifestation of animal instinct—or was it simply that the rats had been starved out?

I mentioned a story told me by an old frieend, a shipmaster in the Shaw-Savill sailing clippers. He was an officer in a wool-ship lying at Lyttelton, and his younger brother was an apprentice in another ship there. The brother's ship sailed first, for London. The night before he left the wharf, the lad saw the rats walking ashore along the hawsers; they were deserting her for good. He told his elder brother, who strongly advised him to leave the ship. “Give her the slip,” he begged. “She's doomed,” he said, “I've never known that sign to fail.” But the boy, though strongly impressed, thought it would be unfair and cowardly to desert his ship like a rat. “No, I'll stick to her, Tom,” he said. He sailed next day; and neither the ship nor he was ever heard of again. Struck an iceberg, caught fire, foundered in a hurricane? No one ever knew.

One of our group narrated the mystery story of the Kentish Lass. This vessel, a barque engaged in the timber and coal trade between New Zealand and Australia, was owned in Wellington. After discharging a cargo of coal she went up to Hokianga and loaded kauri for Sydney. A night or two before she sailed all the rats came on shore. That fact was observed by people on the wharf as well as on the ship. She sailed out into the Tasman and vanished from human ken. Hers was the Port of Missing Ships.

Why this often-verified habit of “ratting” from a ship on the eve of a last voyage? Had the rats some uncanny sense of foreboding, or was it simply because they were tired of sailing in a hungry ship? Who knows?

The Navy's Handy Men.

The Royal Navy is proverbially equal to anything. It is as useful on the shore as it is afloat; therein lies the difference between sailor and soldier. It always was so in the Navy, and one is sure it always will be. The association of the Navy with New Zealand was particularly close in the days of the Maori wars, and there were long inland expeditions in which a Naval brigade added strength and skill to the operations of the military. I have just turned up a capital little description of an incident in Hone Heke's war of 90 years ago in North Auckland, which illustrates my point about the handiness of the men-of-warsmen in those days of sail.

The crews of three British warships, the frigates Castor and North Star, and the Indian Government's ship Elphinstone, took part in the march from the Bay of Islands to the bush stronghold of Kawiti and his warriors, Ruapekapeka Pa. Commander Johnson, of H.M.S. North Star, received orders from Governor Grey to send up a 32-pounder to the front, for use in the bombardment of the fort. Johnson was at the time in command of the British camp at Tamati Pukututu's pa on the banks of the Kawakawa River. He manned the gig which had been left in a creek near Tamati's pa, and rowed down to the ship. There he had the 32-pounder hoisted out into the launch, and rowed up with it to the foot of the pa, helped by the flood tide. Two hundred sailors from the frigate also pulled up the river to assist.

The Gun in the Canoe.

He had a large Maori canoe cut in two, lashed the gun in the bow end of the craft, made fast a five-inch hawser round the bow, with a clovehitch round the muzzle of the gun, had a relay of handspikes to place under the canoe, and then the sailors dragged it through the manuka on the riverside and up to the naval camp. The summit reached, the lively sailors, at the double, hauled the gun to the front of the pa, cheered themselves for their success, mounted the gun on its carriage, and fired three rounds blank out of it, by way of impressing the friendly natives, their allies. The gun was then placed on a bullock-dray and carted over the rough track sixteen miles to Despard's advanced camp in front of Kawiti's great stockade, at which it was soon battering away.

The Pluck of the Kotuku.

In a natural history note (1860) Von Haast recorded the self-defence methods of the white heron. A beautiful Kotuku, of large size, was standing in the water, in a stream on the Matakitaki Plains, Buller Valley, when it was attacked by three sparrow hawks at once. “They made frequent but well concerted charges upon him from different quarters. It was admirable to behold the Kotuku, with his head laid back, darting his pointed beak at his foes with the swiftness of an arrow, whilst they, with the utmost agility, avoided the spear of their strong adversary, whom at last they were fain to leave to fish unmolested.”