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Yesterdays in Maoriland

Chapter XVI In Fjordland

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Chapter XVI In Fjordland

'Mr. Reischek has undergone very severe personal hardships in his endeavour to solve some of the most difficult problems respecting the habits of our rarest birds that are found only in the most remote and inaccessible parts of the islands.' — Sir James Hector, C.M.G.

TheStella put to sea at 3 a.m., landing stores and petrol at Dog Island, a few miles from the coast. I found the strain of the preceding days and the loss of Dobson depressed me very much.

At our next stopping-place, Puysegur Point, I was greeted by the lighthouse inspector, Mr. Cunningham, who told me Marine Minister Leod had written him asking him to do anything he could for me. A second inspector, Mr. Hausen, showed me his tame kakapo, which spent its nights in the bush searching for food, and its days in his workshop among the shavings.

From this point, the fairy-like, still Fjordland began. First we came to Preservation Inlet — the entrance to the most southerly of the Sounds — and Long Sound, stretching many miles inland. Bush-covered slopes fell steeply to the west, and farther on through the Brother-drip we reached the entrance to Chalky Sound, dividing at its farthermost into two arms, the Leeward and Edward Sounds.

Then on at last past Cape Providence, the north-page 237west exit to Dusky Sound, which was to be my lonely outpost for many months to come. We anchored before Dougherty's hut, which I found quite habitable, and where my goods were carried ashore. A dog-kennel, a boat, and a somewhat damaged canoe lay on the beach; while of domestic animals, apart from Cæsar, I found a dog named Rover, and some cats.

To start off with, things were none too bad. Dougherty stayed with me until July, when the Stella returned with more stores and the mail. Thereafter I remained alone in these Fjordland solitudes until October!

Of all the Sounds, I found Dusky the most striking and magnificent. Though Milford Sound is certainly bigger and more imposing, and Doubtful Sound covers a larger area, I found that none of them exhibit such variety, such variegated beauty. Here the sea penetrates for 24 miles inland to an average width of 2 miles, while numerous islets are dotted about, including Resolution and Anchor Islands, the latter enclosing a clear lake, and protecting the deep expanse like a solid dam against the stormy waves of the ocean.

Long Island, and still farther within, Cooper Island, divide the Fjord into two channels, Large Channel and Nine Fathom Passage. The wild cleft sides of the peaks, which fall sharply in mighty terraces down to the cold still water, are clothed thick with virgin bush. Most wonderful of all is the view from the mountain-tops, reached by unbelievably steep paths from the hut, to build which Dougherty had been given a Government grant a short time before.

To wander on a clear day on these heights, when the page 238Alpine flora is in bloom, is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. The sharp, clean air steels the nerves and rejuvenates the body, and like a carpet at your feet, in endless gradations of light and shade, the New Zealand bush spreads out in green waves downwards to the edge of the ocean. The dark blue network of water which is the Sound, is sprinkled with wood-decked islands. The coast-line, rimmed with dark rocks, towers almost straight up out of the water, which goes down to a depth of some 900 feet.

In the direction of Chalky Sound the horizon is bounded by rugged peaks, and farther landwards snow-covered mountains rear themselves majestically to embrace the sky. I discovered here ore-bearing minerals, rubies, and a large number of the commoner stones. Rare New Zealand birds live in these valleys and gorges, while glacier-fed streams break now and again into the loveliest of cascades.

I had chosen an unusual time for my visit, the New Zealand autumn and winter, when the Sounds are always at their stormiest. From my arrival in April 1884, until the following October, I had only forty-four fine days in all, of which eight were in April, four in May, thirteen in June, four in July, and ten in September.

Looking back on my experiences, I am bound to admit that my expedition was unlucky, and it is not entirely my fault if the following reads like a chapter of accidents.

For one thing, I was so pestered with sand-flies that I was frequently compelled to run away from them page break
Black and white photograph of Fiordland

Vertical Country—in the Sounds

page 239 and bathe my eyes. They were sometimes so bad as to kill penguins on the beach, while three young ground-parrots I captured were so badly attacked that a few hours after capture, when I went to look at them, I found one dead and the others covered with these insects.

Another malefactor was the inconstant weather, which, though it did not prevent me from covering a good deal of country right up to the region of eternal ice and snow, played me many an unfortunate trick.

Then, in May, I started to build a canoe, but the wood proved so knotty, and the flies so annoying, that one day my axe slipped and cut my knee to the bone. I bound up the wound, but it continued to smart, and robbed me of sleep for days. During one most painful night the storm uprooted a tree, which fell across the hut and crashed in the roof. With my leg aching as it did, I had to spend all next day repairing the damage.

Winter let loose all the elements on me shortly after the departure of the Stella. The whole sky grew black and threatening, and for days on end I caught no glimpse of sun nor stars. The sea roared and the wind howled, and the trees groaned as they swayed incessantly. Every few minutes a king of the forest would be laid low. The thunder rolled and woke a thousand echoes from the neighbouring hills and the distant mountains. All hell seemed let loose, and I realised as never before the insignificance of man in the presence of the unbridled power of eternal Nature.

It was a wild but inspiring adventure to witness page 240such a storm, to stand alone in pitch-black night, between these great walls of rock, far distant from human contact. I watched with amazement the tumult of the abandoned elements raging with full force until, finally exhausted, they relapsed at length into the impressive silence of dawn. Truly how inspiring the old spirit of Earth can be, thundering thus in the ears of us little men!

As soon as the weather improved I got out my canoe and made for Resolution Island, some 20 miles away. Near Breaksea Sound a storm came on, and as it was too late to land, I ran before the wind. It was all I could manage to do to balance the canoe, while Cæsar kept as still as death, as though he knew quite well the danger we were in. Finally I recognised a landmark opposite the camp, and a wave suddenly picked me up and deposited me on the beach. Everything that had not gone overboard was soaked. I landed so dog-tired that it took me some days to get over it.

While recuperating, I had to rely on Cæsar for my meat supply. The first morning I told him to go and catch a bird for his master. The first he brought me was a penguin. I said, 'Ugh! that's no good!' and showed him the skin of a wood-hen, and two hours later, sure enough, he brought one back. From then on he took care of me, until I was able to get about again.

Then a new misfortune befell me. On July 27, I skinned some fish, but forgot to wash my hands after-wards. I soon felt pains in my stomach and great weakness. I quickly swallowed some warm water and mustard, and spewed as hard as I could, and a little page 241warm milk and brandy made me feel a lot better. It was the first time in twelve years' practice as taxidermist that I had poisoned myself through carelessness, and in spite of my precautions the poison took quite a hold.

On August 3, I was feeling utterly sad and miserable. I tried my hand at many things, but nothing gave me pleasure. I developed a limp, and had to rally all my will-power to suppress the voices of despair. It was several days before I felt my old energy return.

In due course I finished the canoe, and cut a passable track a mile or two up the hillside. I pitched my tent in a gorge, 600 metres above sea-level, close to a wild stream. It seemed a suitable place from which to explore the neighbourhood, where the snow now lay to a depth of over 3 feet. I was still troubled with the wound in my knee, for though the skin was healed, it still gave a fair amount of pain. The surface of the snow being frozen, with every step I sank in, and once again my wound burst open, giving me such agony that I could scarce hobble back to the tent.

Then a snowstorm from the west came on. I tried to sleep, but the pain prevented me, and during the night the storm blew my tent away. I wrapped my things in a ground-sheet, put on an oilskin, drew my sou'wester down over my face, and sat like a frozen mummy until morning. When I tried to make a fire I found all the wood was frozen. I tried for ten solid hours, but had to give it up as hopeless.

Next day, however, I had better luck. After many efforts I managed to light a fire from little pieces of page 242wood, which I cut up and sat on till they had thawed and dried. You can bet I didn't let the fire die down after that!

The storm lasted three days. My mouth-organ was my only comfort. In order to lessen the pain and forget the misery of my situation, I composed a song, 'God Bless my Country' ('Leb'wohl, Heimatland'), which a friend of mine, a music-teacher in Auckland, afterwards took down from my playing. It was received with great enthusiasm at a benefit concert given, on my behalf, in Auckland on my return.1

In August I measured the ice on one of the pools on a summit of the Alps. It was 6½ inches thick.

The beginning of September I experienced a snowstorm and thunderstorm combined, which lasted four days and four nights. It was a spectacle of indescribable sublimity. Imagine being some 4500 feet up among the wild surroundings of the Southern Alps, at one moment enveloped in thick darkness, the next dazzled by flashes of lightning. And the flashes followed one another so quickly that for a considerable space of time the sounds below, the naked peaks above, and the realm of bush between were lit up in marvellous detail. I could see an enormous waterspout dancing with insane speed over the Sounds, the column of water rising, falling, and whirling hither and thither, and where the whirlpool struck the shore, trees and rocks page 243were splintered. This storm was one of the most sublime things I ever experienced.

On the heights around Dusky Sound I found a species of kakapo which was both larger and lighter than the usual kind, and a large species of kiwi which differed' from the ordinary both as to size and the greater length of feather. It seems that in summer these birds live high up among the mountains, descending only during the winter.

To investigate this, I started off into the mountains on September 25. Everything was covered with snow. Cæsar and I got on a slope covered with thick ice, and I began to cut steps with my ice-axe. When I had climbed up one-third of the slope the ice broke, and I commenced sliding valleywards. Cæsar, who was tied to me, succeeded in jumping on to a slippery ledge, and fortunately the weight of his spring was enough to arrest my course. The ice beneath me shot away over a precipice a few feet below, and but for the dog I should have been killed.

On another occasion, when approaching the same place from the other side, I had almost to abandon Cæsar to his fate.

In the spell of warm weather after my arrival in late summer I found an especially large number of rare and beautiful mountain kakapo. I wanted to observe the winter habits of these quaint birds, but when I saw the mass of snow and ice covering the side of this gorge, my courage almost failed me. However, I decided to attempt the descent, roping Cæsar up and lowering him over the ice.

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I found a fair number of tracks, and dug a hole in the snow big enough to take both myself and the dog. Then I spread a white roof of snow over us so as not to arouse the suspicion of the birds. Here I sat for hours watching. It was bitterly cold. A number of kakapo passed our hiding-place, busily searching for seed among every tuft of snow-grass, and pecking at the soft branches of the ake-ake (Dodonæa viscosa). At the least movement I made they would fly into their holes, to get in and out of which they had dug tunnels in the snow. I captured one or two fine specimens.

To get out of this place proved both dangerous and difficult. As already mentioned, the valley was bounded on one side by a steep, unclimbable wall of rock, while the terrace formation of the other side, looked at from above, seemed quite an easy climb. I had done it once, earlier on.

I now discovered, much to my dismay, I had mistaken the distance and slope of the now slippery terraces. I had a good load on my back, and by the time I reached the last of the ledges I was quite exhausted.

But looking up again, I found yet another slope to climb, steeper and higher than the last. It was too late to turn back, and I should have been frozen to death had I stayed where I was, so I summoned what energy I had left and attacked this fresh problem, determined to get to the summit. The effort proved too much for me. I was too weak to haul the dog up after me, and was overtaken by such an acute attack of cholic that I rolled helpless on the ground. I lay page 245there a long time before I was able to pull myself together and painfully scramble to the summit.

After a rest, I began to climb down the other side. Reaching the bush, I collected branches of silver spruce and encircled myself with fires, which dried my clothes and allayed my cholic.

I now returned to camp, where illness kept me four days in bed, after which I made a canoe expedition in the Sounds. When we had gone some way, Cæsar jumped up and began growling, attracting my attention to the bottom of the canoe. It was half full of water owing to a leak, which it must have sprung in the last storm.

On my next outing I was crossing a frozen waterfall when Cæsar lost his footing and slipped downwards out of sight. From above I could not make out what had happened to him, and I searched the whole neighbourhood without finding any trace. When darkness came on, I sadly turned downstream, several times falling into water up to my neck. I reached camp cold and beaten, and certain that Cæsar was lost for ever. I fired off several rounds outside the hut, and then lay down, but could not sleep. About two o'clock in the morning I heard scratching on the door, and Cæsar came creeping in, stiff with cold.

Dougherty came back again in September, and as the Stella was expected in a few days' time, I began to think about civilisation once more. My hair had grown very long, and I asked my companion to cut it but he was hardly an expert. While he was still on the job, the Stella arrived, six days before her time. It would page 246be impossible to describe my wild appearance when I got on board.

Next morning we let early, leaving Dougherty behind. We went up the west coast as far as Cape Farewell, and turned into Tasman Bay and Cook Strait, stopping at Nelson.

On the way a sad adventure befell. I had brought some kakapo from Dusky Sound, with the idea of taming them. One day some prying individual opened the cage doors, and the birds got out and clambered up the rigging. It was impossible to recapture them, and finally they were all driven to the top of the mast, whence they sprang into the sea and were drowned. I was very sad about this, as I had promised Professor Parker a pair. From Nelson I made northwards to Wellington, and thence again to Auckland.

1 Dr. Reischek, jun., has sent me the programme of this concert, given at the Choral Hall, Auckland, on March 31, under the distinguished patronage of the then Governor, Sir William Jervois, K.C.M.G. — Ed.