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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911


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Christchurch, New Zealand, Sept. 1st, 1857.

My dear St. John,

According to promise, here follows the story of my first journey Southward, in search of the horse mentioned in my former letter.

I made the acquaintance of two Devonshire men, J. B. Acland and C. Tripp, who have come to Canterbury to try their luck at sheepfarming. Both are barristers, but having some capital and no liking for law, they have ventured, with perhaps the courage of ignorance, and have made an excellent start. Sheep-farmers are the mainstay of this Settlement, occupying extensive tracts of wild country, leased from Government at a very low rental. Merino sheep, imported from Australia, require very little shepherding, and thrive best when left to themselves, provided they have the run of plenty of country; they produce fine and valuable wool. This means that the labour and cost of maintaining a sheep-run, even with large flocks, is small; but it also means for the sheep farmer a comparatively isolated life, and a very simple one, especially marked in the case of so many of the settlers here who have been accustomed to the resources and pleasures of a civilized life at home. There can be no doubt that, if this Canterbury Settlement realizes the sanguine expectations of its founders, and becomes page 16one of the great offshoots of the Mother Country, its success will be largely due to these adventurous pioneers, who are subduing the wilderness, and preparing the way for the settlement of a large population.

Hitherto this venture has generally been limited to the plains and lowlands, but Tripp and Acland have acquired a lease of 50,000 acres in mountain country, eighty miles south of Christchurch, and have invited me to visit their "station" on my journey southward. Acland has lent me a horse which, amongst other good points, can swim well,—a matter of no small importance in a country where rivers abound, but no bridges. My outfit is intended for a journey of several weeks: a roomy saddle, with convenient saddle-bags, a light tether rope, and a waterproof roll, containing change of clothing,—locally known as a "swag," and also a very necessary companion, a pocket compass.

A few miles from Christchurch the scanty signs of cultivation disappear, and before me a great plain of tussock grass spreads out till it is lost in the south in blue haze, but is bounded, westwards, at a great distance, by the Southern Alps. One's first impression is that of strange loneliness, unlike the solitude of mountain country. Not a companionable rock or tree, or even a hummock of earth, to break the monotonous expanse of yellow brown grass; and a still silence, for there is no sound of insect or bird life, no rustle of any ground game, no trace of any wild animal. It seems that New Zealand is almost unique in this respect, for with the exception of pigs brought by Captain Cook and running wild, there is no animal life in the country, no reptiles, no snakes, no fish in page 17the rivers, except eels in backwaters, no bees, wasps, frogs or toads; though in the forests there are a variety of parrots, pigeons, and other native birds, and on the coast line wild duck. I noticed occasionally a sort of lark rising from the grass, like an English lark, but songless, and here and there a big hawk—a kite, I think,—hovering about, and I am told there is a small brown rat to be found on the plains in burrows. Otherwise the brooding silence is that of a land unoccupied by man or beast.

After thirty-five miles at a leisurely pace, I saw on the horizon some dots of dark colour which proved to be small buildings, on the bank of the river Selwyn. There I found what is known as an accommodation house, which provided me with bed and supper, whilst, after the manner of the country, I attended to my horse, tethering him in good grass. The Selwyn river is one of the smaller rivers of Canterbury, a sparkling stream with wide riverbed, wandering here and there between islands of sand, at times liable to heavy floods. I cannot help thinking it would have been better to have retained the old names given by the natives. There are but a few of them in the South Island. With poetical instinct, characteristic of their race, they have named rivers, headlands, lakes and hills. The Native name is Wai-ani-wa-aniwa, i.e. the water of the rainbow, and if, perhaps, a trifle long for our curt fashion of speech, it seems to make even the great name of Selwyn prosaic.

At supper I met an Australian who had been a little while in the country, intending to settle somewhere, and he promised to pilot me, on his way south across the river Rakaia. This river, twelve miles from the Selwyn, is one of the big glacier and snow-fed streams page 18running eastward from the mountains; we reached it early next morning; away to the west I could see in the mountain ranges a pass where the river cuts its way towards the plain, through a gorge which I am told is of great depth; in front of us lay the riverbed, some two miles wide, intersected by numerous streams of rapid water, icy cold, and in time of freshes uniting in a formidable torrent of more than a mile in width. However, we were fortunate in finding the water comparatively low; my guide threaded his way with caution through backwaters and shallow streams, keeping well above rapids, and sandy places, which are often dangerously "quick." It took us nearly an hour to reach the further bank, the water never rising higher than the saddle-girths, but running with such force that any slip on the part of the horse might be dangerous, as swimming in such a stream would be difficult. I had been warned not to look down on the water for fear of giddiness, but to keep my eyes on the further shore. Well, "the river past," I did not act on the Spanish proverb, "the Saint forgotten," but uttered, without words, my thanksgiving. At night we reached an accommodation house, on the Ashburton river, in the Maori tongue, Hakatere, and the next morning, crossing it easily, my guide left me, as his way lay southward, and mine westward.

There I had to leave the track which we had hitherto kept, steering for the principal peak of the Mount Peel range, and for some distance found myself in difficult country. The plains here are swampy, traversed by rivulets locally known as "creeks," deep, narrow, and bordered by treacherous ground, in which a horse may easily be bogged; thickets also of cab-page 19bage trees, toi-toi grass, and flax; and when clear of these for many miles a long stretch of grass, yet practically paved with stones. The going was slow and evening was coming on apace as I approached Mt. Peel, to all appearance rising right out of the plain. Then, suddenly, I found myself on the edge of what looked like a gigantic railway cutting, so steep that descent seemed impossible, and down below the river Rangitata running through a beautiful valley; on its further side the mountain rose to a height of 5,000 feet, buttressed by spurs and terraces, forest-clad, lit up by the evening sun, in all the glory of primæval vegetation untouched by the hand of man. Up-stream I saw some huts and a few men at work, and discovering a place where I could lead my horse down, met a fine specimen of a Yorkshire man, lately settled, with a few sheep, and a newly made home. His wife, baby in arms, was with him. "Come in," he said, "we are only too glad to have a visitor." His house deserves description: a single room, built of rough slabs of wood, worked with an adze, allowing plenty of ventilation, covered with thatch; a hardened clay floor, no ceiling, furniture homemade; a wide slab-built fireplace, one or two "easy" chairs made out of barrels cut down to serve as a back with arms; and, across a part of the room, blankets fastened to a rafter forming the bedroom of my host and hostess. After a comfortable meal he took me to his shearing shed, where they had just finished work. Shearers here stand to it, holding the sheep between knees and feet, and shearing far more rapidly than at home; indeed an expert hand will accomplish his eighty sheep per day. Then came the question of bed, a problem

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I was seriously considering, but my hospitable host made light of it, thus—

"We will have a walk and look at the stars while my wife goes to bed, and then, when I am in bed, I will give you a signal; you will find blankets and a pillow on the settee." So after the signal aforesaid I went in, and was beginning to make myself comfortable when, from behind the blanket screen, came a voice: "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I've had no time to make a door; please fasten up a blanket in the doorway; there are no nails, but you can do it with forks."

Morning came, and with it an incursion of fowls, pushing their way under the blanket in search of food. Got up to do my share of housework, tidied up, built and lit a fire, and set the table for breakfast, when my host called out: "Would you mind taking baby with you for a stroll whilst we dress?" Fortunately the child took kindly to me and was quite content. Mr. Moorhouse, my host, I find, is a duly qualified medical man who has taken to sheep farming, doing also occasional practice with neighbours. After breakfast he guided me on horseback to the only available ford in the Rangitata, "the river of coming day,"—an appropriate name, as it issues from a mysterious mountain gorge, guarded on either side by snow-clad peaks, and rushes down seaward over rocks and boulders, sparkling in the sunlight, bright and clear. He could not come with me, but showed me where to enter and make for the landing-place, a good way up stream. "Let your horse pick his way; don't hurry him; don't look at the water." Acting on his advice, with some trepidation, I reached the other side, and found C. Tripp watching my progress.

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He has established quite a comfortable home under the flanks of Mt. Peel, with a considerable number of sheep, and several men in his employ, shepherds, sawyers, fencers, and a married couple who keep house for him. Stayed with him some days to see the working of the run, a mountain tract of 40,000 acres, scarcely trodden as yet by foot of man. One day we went on an expedition into the mountain valleys to "burn country," a process adopted here for the improvement of pasture. We led our horses up a stream, crossed it so as to secure ourselves from fire, set alight the grass, and in a short time there was such a blaze, not to mention smoke, that we had to beat a retreat. The fire spread up the hill-sides, fanned by a strong wind, and soon covered a large extent of country, burning for several days, and lighting up the neighbourhood by night.

Sunday came. I found that Tripp had already begun regular Sunday services for all hands, a very characteristic lot; a head shepherd with his wife, from Devonshire; next, a rough powerful Australian bushman, i.e. sawyer and axeman, who had been an English navvy; a splendidly-built half-caste Maori, his father a whaler, his mother a native, the best hand with shears and horses, and a great wrestler; another, an Australian black, of very low type, but gifted with strange instincts, quite incapable of book-learning, delighting like a child in highly-coloured children's pictures, but able to track man or sheep in the roughest country. "Andy, you find me if I go off whole day before you?" "Yes, sar, me find you anywhere, me follow, find you, up mountain there, on plain, find your track if you no go fast on horse." He would go great distances at a dog-trot page 22to carry a message, with a handful of rice and sugar in his pocket. Tripp asked me to take the services, and in the evening one of the men asked me, "Ain't you a parson?" "No," said I, "but I hope to be." "Well, we all think you're just the sort of fellow to suit us." I acknowledged the compliment, and, talking and practically living with them, soon discovered that the free and easy way in this country in which all meet together would probably help me much in my future work.

Before I left Tripp suggested that we should build a boat, and try to establish a ferry over the deeper part of the ford. With the aid of a carpenter I did my share, especially in shaping oars from likely saplings. We then launched our craft, flat-bottomed and rather clumsy, Tripp steering, and I rowed, with Smith the head-shepherd behind me. I had pared down the oars too finely, in my zeal to turn out a pair such as one uses on the Thames, and midstream Smith's oar broke off short at the rowlock. He couldn't swim and, losing his head, in the swirl of the rushing water, put up his hands, and began to pray. "Smith, Smith," cried Tripp, "stop praying; there's a spare oar, take it!" He did so, just in time to save us from going down a dangerous rocky rapid;—the experiment of a ferry proved a failure in such a stream.

Leaving Mt. Peel, I travelled southward across rich plain country, very well watered, one night finding shelter with a settler in his hut, another camping down amongst the shelter of flax bushes, fording some considerable streams, and arriving at the "Levels" Station, where a Mr. G. Rhodes, from Australia, has an extensive sheep-run. He was the first man to venture down and settle in this part of Canterbury.

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In the morning I was able to do him a little job in return for his hospitality. He had to give delivery of some thousand sheep to a settler, and his one reliable man to make the count for him was ill, so I volunteered to do my best. The sheep came out with a run through a narrow gate in the yard, and, after the manner of sheep, hesitating, rushing, jumping over each other, whilst on one side I stood, with a smooth stick and a knife, ready to make one notch for every ten, and two for every hundred, as they passed me. Opposite me the purchaser's shepherd did the same. Both our tally sticks were found to correspond, to my no small satisfaction.

The Canterbury Plains here come to an end, and for the next fifty miles there are rolling downs, very well grassed, with a few patches of forest here and there in the valleys, and on the slopes of the distant hills. I rode towards the sea-coast, not liking to lose my way inland, and coming on a bay, enclosed by low cliffs, found a solitary hut, occupied by an old whaler and his wife, who gave me dinner, and directed me to ride along the beach, so as to avoid swamps and broken country, which fringe the downs near the sea. The bay, which is a pretty bit of coast scenery, has a Maori name, Te Maru, "the place of shelter," well named, as it was used by whalers as a landing place where they could try out their oil. Sam Williams showed me some of their trypots still remaining on the beach, and I spent a pleasant hour with him, listening to his yarns of old days. Here also I met an Australian on horseback, who was exploring the country, who said, "Some day I am sure this will be the site of a harbour, for what I have seen of the country here convinces me that it will carry a large page 24population; if you chose to buy land here now, and wait thirty years or so, you would make a fine profit."

After camping for the night on the road, I reached a very pretty, well wooded, sheltered spot, lying under a ridge of the downs which ran down to the sea, intersected with streams, which had little fall, some deep, and almost without current, bordered with thick flax, and not easily crossed, except in certain places. Its name is appropriate, Waimate,—"Dead water"; there was a small Maori "Pah" in the neighbourhood. I found a welcome from Mr. Stud-holme, the first settler, and next day crossed the downs and, fording a stream of some size, which looked as if it ought to be full of trout, the Waihao, I reached a settler's house, on the banks of the Waitangi river, one of the largest glacial torrents of the South Island, formidable both in width and volume of water to man and horse, and if one was superstitious, in its name, which in Maori tongue means, "The water of lamentation," a name probably given to it by the natives because of some catastrophe which had happened to them. Being unable to get a guide, or any information as to a possible ford, I had to tackle the river alone; descending its steep banks, which lie some distance from the actual river, as, during the ages, it has changed its course repeatedly, I crossed several back-waters and small islands, dotted with cabbage trees, and found myself on the edge of a broad, fast-flowing stream, running apparently over a smooth shingle bottom, shallow at first, and then deeper. Taking off boots and coat, and strapping them to the saddle, I went in, heading down stream towards what looked like a good landing-place on the other side; in a few yards my horse was swimming, the water page 25right up to my chest, the horse's head stretched out level with the stream, his teeth set, and lips drawn back; a fine swimmer, keeping a perfectly level back, and not trying to bottom with his hind feet; it was strange to find that I had to hold on tight to the saddle to prevent the water lifting me out of it. We landed safely on an island, thick with vegetation, and I could find no exit save by a similar performance across another broad bit of water, and then a third stream as wide as the others, but all safely negotiated, thanks to my excellent steed, a quite invaluable companion in this country. Soaked to the skin, and by no means warm, for these glacial rivers are terribly cold, I got off to lead my nag and quicken my blood by walking, and we climbed the southern terrace bank, where stood some Maoris, who had come from a small settlement up the river. They were highly amused, pointing sarcastically to my dripping horse and my sodden clothes, explaining in broken English the joke of it all,—"No cross there! only one cross long way off!" then, patting my horse, "He make fine swim," and handling my wet clothes, "All the same you swim alone." "You go Maori Pah, Moeraki? you come back? you cross river far down then, no much swim there."

After shaking out the water from my clothes, as best I could, and rubbing down my horse with tussock grass, I rode down the valley of the river towards the sea to a sheepfarmer's house, at a place called Papakaia; it was occupied by a Mr. Filleul and his brother, who had emigrated from St. Heliers, Jersey. It was Saturday, and I found there not only a most kindly host, but several settlers, who had come long distances, as their habit is, to spend Sunday with the Filleuls, page 26who always conduct service in their own house. We were too many for the house itself, and, with several others, I slept well in an outhouse, on straw, with blankets. Filleul asked me to take the services. One of the party was a Mr. Valpy, a relation of the well-known Dr. Valpy of Reading Grammar School, whose Latin Delectus you remember well. He had settled in Dunedin, and named his place "The Forbury," after the street in Reading, and was on his way to Christchurch, riding with, as his custom was, two horses, as hard as he could go, and, as usual with travellers here, he questioned me as to the state of the rivers, and told me of how one of their well-known settlers in the neighbourhood had been washed off his horse and drowned in that same Water of Lamentation, the Waitangi. At supper I met another man on his way to Christchurch, who lives near Moeraki, whither I was bound, and, being a local Magistrate, had much to do with the Maoris there. He told me that a native boy had lately come there from Christchurch, bringing with him a ring of some value; the native Chiefs had brought it to him, having found that the boy had stolen it. He said the Maories are noted for their honesty. It so happened that the ring was mine, given me by an old friend at Oxford, with my initials upon it; I had mislaid it while the boy in question was doing some work in and about my Father's house. As I could easily identify it, he handed it over to me.

A day or two afterwards I went on, and arrived at Moeraki, a very picturesque headland, which juts out into the sea, forming a sheltered bay, with sandy beach, the headland and the sloping sides of the bay dotted with low trees, noticeable for their glossy green page 27foliage. In amongst the trees nestled the Maori village, huts built of Toi reeds, flax sticks, well thatched; and some substantial weather-boarded small houses. Quite a peaceful, reposeful place, which perhaps may account for the meaning of the name "Moeraki," i.e. "a place for sleep by day." Maori imagination seems to have seen something specially characteristic in every noticeable nook and corner of nature. The Maories were busy, it was harvest time, and they had cut their crops of wheat and oats, and were at work threshing the grain, in a very primitive fashion; boards set upright in the ground, women and boys on either side with bunches of wheat in their hands, beating out the grain on the edge of the boards.

Welcoming the "Pakeha," i.e. stranger, they left work and gathered round me. I managed to explain that I had come for the horse which "Pihopa Herewini" (Bishop Selwyn) had left with them for Pihopa Harper. Presently a lad brought it, a fine, upstanding, strawberry roan, six years old, bred by a settler in Dunedin from an imported Australian horse. "Dick" was just the sort of animal my Father will need, strong and good-tempered, and a weight carrier. Then, when all were looking at me with the courteous curiosity which marks the Maori, greatly interested in the white man, but always careful not to annoy him by unseemly inquisitiveness, I spied the boy who had taken my ring, so I suddenly held it up in full view of them all, having hitherto had it, on purpose, in my pocket. At once they seized the lad, hustled and shoved him towards me, whacking him severely, till I pleaded for mercy. "He make a tief, he make a tief!" There could be no doubt he had broken one of the unwritten laws of the community and brought page 28disgrace upon them, and the satisfaction expressed in every countenance with his dramatic punishment, in my presence, bore testimony to the conscience of the native, in regard to dishonesty.

Leading Dick, and occasionally shifting my saddle, and riding him to ease my own horse, after various small adventures I reached Christchurch, having been a month on my journey; and I am now preparing to accompany my Father on his first exploration of his Diocese to its southernmost point, about five hundred miles distant. We shall be absent for a considerable time, and in my next letter I hope to tell you how we fared.

Meanwhile, I am yours,

H. W. H.