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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 7 (October 1, 1937.)

Marlborough Province — Some Impressions

page 23

Marlborough Province
Some Impressions

(Rly. Publicity photo.) Picton—Marlborough's picturesque port, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, South Island, New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Picton—Marlborough's picturesque port, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, South Island, New Zealand.

The two northern provinces of the South Island lie side by side at its head and in spite of the fact that Nelson is called “Sleepy Hollow” it seems to me always that it is Marlborough that is the quiet province. I have seldom seen more alert folk even in summer than I saw in Nelson. If you want the common average of human nature in a province take the traffic on one of its country roads, and by even the norm of its aged, Nelson disclaims its drowsy misnomer. One old octogenarian that I saw pedalling along there looked more alive than many of the lads that you pass in city streets. Bernard Shaw said once that to mind your own business is to need the doctor. That old man of eighty was still vital because his interest in men and things kept his thoughts off himself. Besides, Nelsonians are as thrifty as continentals and no Belgian could have a greater devotion to the “coin du terre” policy of cultivating every spare inch of ground. I have never met lazy Nelsonians. In the country places they work their fingers to the bone and since luxuries are by them assigned to their proper place they could live in times of stress where others would die. Rip Van Winkle would find himself awakened by the flat of a spade in modern Nelson; and it is characteristic that its first of spring is called by the practical, if unlovely, name of “Spud Monday.” The calm of its landscape is in direct proportion to the verve of its people.

When I call Marlborough the quiet province I do not mean that it should have been called “sleepy.” Its quiet is the quiet of reserve. Marlborough travellers are slow to enter into conversation with strangers. I have often thought that its villages are such tranquil places because the inhabitants do not live in one another's pockets. Your average Marlburian is by instinct civil but not intimate. Perhaps the conformation of the land has something to do with this reticence. Though it lies so companionably by Nelson on the map it has been a lonely province. A fierce strip of water lies between it and Wellington and, though the distance as the crow flies is short, a ship Marlborough - bound has to pass through the lovely convolutions of her Sounds before it reaches Picton. There is something dreamlike and unreal about that winding journey. On and on the boat sails, rounding headland after headland, one heavy with bush
(Rly. Publicity photo.) A harvesting scene in Marlborough Province, South Island, New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A harvesting scene in Marlborough Province, South Island, New Zealand.

and birds, another bare and wind-bitten; one grassy and duned, another so barren that the sheep have to nose between stones for a chary mouthful; and, below, a sea of cypress green so clear that the eye goes down and down to the very sea-pan where great salty boughs and blossoms prove that no weight can stop the earth from giving. This candid water has no secrets, no afterthoughts, and by the time Mabel Island is sighted its lucent transference has prepared metropolitans for the simplicity of Picton which, too, is lonely. On the Cloudy Bay side of the province you have the Pacific neat and the Pacific is the great solitary of the oceans. It will be some time before airways conquer the reserve that such frontiers have bred.

Its other boundaries are even more lonely. Leaving Picton, which is not a village nor yet a large town, the road winds a few pleasant farm-strewn miles before it skirts the Para swamp, which is one great sigh of flax and raupo with a pukeko's blue thrown in for luck here and there. The motors pass it quickly enough now but the page 24 trapsand gigs of earlier days were glad when its last corner was rounded and they struck the creek-hemmed Tua Marina road.

On a hill there one day a little boy found a great rusty gold-hilted sword that must have belonged to Arthur Wakefield or one of his companions, for on that ridge Rauparaha and his men mowed them down in what was known as the Wairau Massacre. History has done justice to the Maori in that dispute and though the Massacre Hill holds a monument with the names of those who fell, the men of that place, when they lay their dead in that little God's acre, feel no bitterness now. Not many miles away there is a small Maori pa where the Maoris live to themselves save for friendly business relations with their white neighbours. And yet but for the common-sense of certain administrators this episode might have meant more trouble. Victory is often posthumous, and I think Arthur Wakefield himself would have seen that, though he fell on that little ridge, he attained his end, for the hill on which the urchin found his sword is part of a peaceful farm, just such a farm as the men on the “Tory” visioned.

Nor does the interest of Tua Marina end there. It was said of it once that it reached notice only in pictorial accounts of its floods of which in earlier days it had as many as seven in a winter with such heavy siltings that its paddocks were an Islamic green. Those days are gone and its waters are tamed. And yet this small village is connected with two literary names. Did I not read somewhere that Australia's great natural storyteller, Henry Lawson, wrote a rhyme once in Tua Marina and has Hubert Church not written a lengthy poem which takes its name from that place? There has been a controversy as to whether it is not a corruption of the Maori, but why change a word that has evoked a poem? I hope that it will remain Tua Marina for, wrong or right, it is dearer than any other name.

The rich, contented plain runs on towards its capital, where all the farmers' business is transacted in the same unflurried, even manner that characterises the countryside. Blenheim is urbane but not as yet urban, though its position on the air-routes may alter that. A deep and kindly tolerance distinguishes it, a tolerance as great as that for which Maryland strove in the early days of America; Marlborough has the gift of holding its tongue. Men who have to wrestle with the seasons and the sod are too much involved in the practical to overindulge themselves in the polemical.

If you go south from Blenheim the character of the country changes. It loses its ox-eyed calm and becomes hilly. The road flashes round bends and in places is as white as a rabbit's scut from limestone. Here and there a river-bank is blue with papa rock before one swings into the Kaikoura road which selvedges the sea. Few New Zealand roads are more lonely or more beautiful. It looks clear out across the Pacific and for miles and miles nothing comes between you and that sea-rim. The horizon, the kelp and the hawks have it all their own way on that road. You pass the place where the faithful little “Wakatu” grounded and sweep on under the Kaikoura mountains. This lovely crescent of snow-caps is not well enough known. Folk may recall dimly that somewhere in the South Island there is a peak, Tapuaenuku or Odin, but you have to see its white wedge against the sky. Both the inland and the seaward Kaikouras have a sharp beauty.

Then on goes the road to the Hundalees, a boundary as lonely as the sea itself. The last time I passed through that long and lonely stretch I saw only one man in miles and I heard only one bird—it was a magpie, I think, and its screech reminded me of that music
(Rly. Publicity photo.) A typical homestead in the Marlborough Province, showing the Blenheim—Christcharch main road on the right.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A typical homestead in the Marlborough Province, showing the Blenheim—Christcharch main road on the right.

hall ditty so dear to Chesterton concerning one Jane “whose vocal vagaries have killed the canaries and druv the gas back to the main.” The Southern Main Trunk will make light of that frontier.

Nor is the passage between Nelson and Marlborough on the other side of the province much more peopled. A lovely country road winds on past Havelock, past Canvastown, a mining relic, on to the Rai Saddle. There seems nothing left in the world but ridges and sky and, as the road advances, the leopard-coloured hills grow more and more barren till between the traveller and Nelson lies the great bulk of the Whangamoa.

Marlborough has had its historian in T. Lindsay Buick whose book, “Old Marlborough,” is cherished by the province; and the Blenheim countryside has been faithfully described by Nelle Scanlan in “Pencarrow.” The tide of custom follows the tide of trade and it is said of New Zealand that it tends to become Americanised; but that is not true as yet of Marlborough. Whether it will, remain the quiet province one cannot foretell, but I hope if it loses its old virtues, of which, as of its beauty, it is almost unconscious, it will replace them only by better—though indeed what can be better than a tolerance that sees the twinkle in life? I hope it will never lose that.