Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Yesterdays in Maoriland

Chapter XVIII A Cattle Station in the Bush

page 256

Chapter XVIII A Cattle Station in the Bush

Cattle farming in the bush is a tough but healthy undertaking. Stephenson's station in the Paringa Valley consisted of a dwelling-house with a fine view over the Huka glacier, and with buildings for the cattle-drovers, stalls, sheds, slaughter-houses, and a number of kennels. The fields and paddocks were — fenced in, but the horses not needed at the station were allowed to run wild with the mares and foals across the open country and along the creeks where good feeding was to be found.

When these animals are three years old it is a hard task to break them in. Once the horses get an idea that they are going to be driven in, they rush off at a gallop, swim the river, and act so cunningly that even the best horsemen cannot catch them except by subterfuge.

The older animals are the sooner tamed, especially if the bridle is used on them, but the young are often very wild, bucking, kicking, and biting for all they are worth. Then they are shut up singly in padded boxes to keep them quiet, and broken in by degrees as pack-horses or draught animals.

The cattle run half wild in small herds through the bush, but the oxen and fat cattle are kept in the neighbourhood of the station. Each herd has its own leader, page 257and is looked after by two cowboys, who see that they do not go off to join the wild cattle.

Like deer, these cattle keep to their own grazing grounds, only leaving them when lack of food compels, or if disturbed. In most cases they are easily stampeded, when they break away with great speed through the bush, charging anything that gets in their way. Their favourite feed is the fleshy, green-leaved karaka, which makes them very fat, and gives their meat an appetising flavour.

When they are calving they make for the dense places where there is much feed. If they hear the suspicion of a noise, they hide their calves (if too young to follow the herd) in a thicket, where the little ones keep so quiet until the cows call, that it is easy to pass them unobserved. But if discovered, their pitiful bleat brings back the cow — sometimes the whole herd following — charging through the bush like mad.

At the time I was at the station the cowboys were out every day bringing back the cows which were ready to calve, and they had also to search for dropped calves before these became unruly. Provided with ropes, they would mount their horses and, accompanied by their dogs, ride to the edge of the bush, where they dismounted. Then two or more of them would enter the bush, while the dogs hunted out the cows. Once found, the calf is roped and driven out of the wood, the enraged cow charging behind. A novice would expect to see the drover tossed any minute, but he always takes good care to keep the page 258calf between himself and the mother, and the moment the cow sees her offspring, she stops, and begins to lick it until it becomes quiet. A weak calf is carried on horseback, and if the mother prove refractory, the cowboy holds the calf before him on the saddle, and rides off at full speed for the station.

Stalls have been prepared beforehand, to which the cows are admitted morning and evening, yoked and hobbled, so that the wildest animal is rendered harmless, and ready for milking. Many of them protest at first, lying down and refusing to be milked, and generally two calves are apportioned to such irreconcilables to suck their udders dry.

Cattle-droving necessitates the use of a short, tough stock-whip. If a cow gets loose, she receives a blow on the end of the horn — a very sensitive spot. Should a drover get among them without a stock, he is soon attacked. I saw one cow in particular break the rope to which her calf was fastened, and make off with it to the bush, where they were gone for a week.

The younger calves are usually tame within a month, but those that have lived in the bush for some time after their birth generally remain half wild. During my stay I saw how they were able to toss even the strongest of cowboys over a fence.

On one anxious occasion I was able to get Mrs. Stephenson out of a nasty position. She and her husband were busy handling an obstinate calf which energetically lashed out, and bleated pitifully for its mother. At this cry a number of the herd came dashing into the yard, and Stephenson let go the rope before page 259his wife could get out of the way, with the result that it flung her to the ground. I was at work in a hut close by, and rushed out to throw myself on the beast's neck, while Mr. Stephenson from the other side cut the rope and freed his wife. The maddened beast was still to be reckoned with, but a couple of well-aimed blows with a lump of stone brought her to a standstill.

Once the calves are large enough, and have been properly weaned, they are driven back with the herd into the bush, where they are mustered once or twice a year. The drovers set off in groups, each group having a different mustering area. One time, when on the post-route which leads some 200 miles through the bush from Hokitika to Jackson's Bay, I came across many such mustering camps. The drovers are usually in the bush for days together, and should one be passing in the evening, he will hear the blow of axe and the rasp of saw, while pillars of smoke rise among the trees, and a pack of dogs bark madly at any intruder. Rough voices order them to be quiet, and they run back, tails between legs, mistrustfully watching the traveller from the shadows of the trees, and ready to fall upon him should he interfere with their masters' camp.

These dogs are an indispensable aid to the cowboys, and if well-trained, fetch a very big price indeed. The drovers are tanned and weather-beaten fellows, clad in leather breeches and short-armed flannel shirts, with broad-brimmed hats of soft felt, and heavy, high-laced boots.

page 260

In spite of their strenuous life, they are splendid fellows through and through, always ready to share their bed and tucker with the stranger. Their huts and tents are chock-full of saddles, bridles, ropes, and long-plaited raw-hide whips, with beautifully decorated short handles. Sacks of flour, bread, tea, sugar, and huge haunches of beef hang from the beams around — a picturesque sight.

Each drover has two dogs, whose business it is to hunt out the cattle. Having found a beast, one of these stands on guard whilst the other runs back for its master. Should one of the half-wild beasts rush at the drover or the dog, the other snaps at its hind leg, making the animal turn about, and so saving the assailed. Times are, however, when these brave fellows have to remain sitting up a tree until some especially vicious brute disappears. The wildest beasts, once caught and driven into the stockyard, are quickly dispatched. One such animal would have broken through the high stock fence had I not put a bullet through him.

After mustering, the fat beasts are sorted out and driven to market, sometimes a distance of 70 or 80 miles away. Floods and rivers have to be crossed en route, and they are driven by short stages, so as not to lose weight, and at night left grazing in the open.

On a sheep-farm the work is not so strenuous, grazing being in the open country, for sheep very often go astray in the bush.

While at Stevenson's station I was often out studying page 261the surrounding bird life, and some amusing experiences befell me. On August 1, I heard the cry of a Paradise duck at a great distance from the station. Going that way I presently spotted the fowl making its way through the rushes and uttering its characteristic cry of alarm. I told Cæsar to go and catch it, and a little while after, to my dismay, he came running back with one of Mr. Stevenson's tame geese! It had evidently been led away by wild-fowl and had taken to their mode of life. Rather shamefacedly we took our capture back to the station. When we stole in with our kill, Mrs. Stevenson pulled a wry face; but the men of the party laughed so uproariously that at last we all joined in.

On August 12, a clear but very cold morning, I went off to Blue River. With me went little Mary, one of Stevenson's daughters, a wonderful kiddie of ten and the best guide on the station. She was much more observant than most grown-ups, and if any of the horses ran away, it was she who was sent to find them. She was always on the go, and the pride of her life was a wild horse called 'Curly' which, on this occasion, we took with us as a pack-horse.

We camped on the shore of Blue Lake, and while my young companion lit a fire and did all the chores, I went hunting. Next day I was out before dawn, while Mary prepared breakfast. Cæsar brought a pair of kiwi into camp, and after breakfast we packed up, and wandered on a few miles to a new riverside camp.

Towards night, numbers of mountain duck came page 262over, and I shot one or two, which Cæsar retrieved from the ice-cold river. When he came back, his fur was a mass of frozen ice. Off again early on the 14th, we came across some blue duck and some thrushes, and then struck off back to the station.

September 6 was a lucky day for me. The post arrived with a box of cigars from a friend, which I was overjoyed to get, having been seven months without any. Among my letters there was one from Sir Julius von Haast, inviting me to go and see him; but a short time after, I was deeply grieved to learn that this loyal friend was dead. He died on August 18, two days after he wrote this letter.

The head wound which I had received from the fallen tree on Taranga Island began to trouble me once again, and Mrs. Stevenson undertook the unpleasant job of operating on it. She managed to get out some splinters of bone, and proved a devoted and tender nurse.

On October 7, 1887, just five minutes before midnight, we witnessed a striking natural phenomenon. A great fire-ball came out of the south-east; it shone as brightly as a ball of electric light, and fell in the bush apparently only a short distance away. We then heard a roaring subterranean noise towards the east, which lasted several seconds, and finally ended in a bang like a gun-shot. I suppose it was a meteor.

This October I attempted to scale the glacier-clad mountains, but was driven back by a heavy snowstorm after I had got to about 3700 feet. The weather page 263continued wretchedly bad — nothing but a continuation of rain, snowstorms, and gales, lasting a long time, which caused heavy floods; but on December 12, in the evening, I was rejoiced to find the glass rising, and with the hope that there would be a few fine days, I at once packed my swag with provisions, ammunition, and blanket, and made an early start at 3 a.m., my dog Cæsar being my companion.

I took a south-westerly direction up the mountains, following an overgrown track which had been cut to get the sheep to the grass country above, but was now quite abandoned. The track led through dense forest, and in places was blocked by trees lying across. These giants, in some parts near the track, had been torn up and broken by some whirlwind, and lay like fallen men on a battlefield. It can be easily imagined that this, together with the undergrowth which had sprung up, made travelling with a heavy swag rather laborious work. Only those who have travelled with swag and gun through such country and up steep hills have any idea of the labour required.

In the evening the track got to an end, when I came out on the grass country, at 3500 feet above sea-level. Here I camped. Three dwarf birch-trees formed the roof of my shelter, and a few tussocks formed my bed. After lighting a good fire, I searched for water, which is generally found on these Alps clear and good; but in this case I was doomed to disappointment, for all I could get was stagnant water full of insect life.

In spite of my fire and shelter, I found it bitterly page 264cold; a sharp wind came from across the ice and snow of the glaciers which chilled me to the marrow. Sleep was out of the question; and as the moon had now risen, I took some provisions and a gun and ascended higher.

It was a lovely night indeed, for Nature had put on her most romantic garb. How I wish I could describe it! Imagine the silver shimmer of the moon-lighting up the landscape, causing endless shades and reflections of the hills and vegetation; the valleys covered with a silver-grey mist, the sparkling stars competing with the glaciers in brightness, and the dark cliffs dotted over with patches of snow. All this grandeur and the solemn silence of the scene put me in mind of the fairy-tales of my childhood. Yes! here was loveliness enough, but the fairies had gone.

I walked on for about three hours, up and down these mountains and gullies, when I was startled by the booming noise of some bird unknown to me. It sounded somewhat like that of a bittern, but far louder, and I did not imagine that bird was to be found at a height of 4000 feet. I now remembered that the call of an exceptionally rare and supposedly extinct bird, the Notornis mantelli, had been thus described to me. The fever of discovery fell upon me, for to what infinite pains had I not gone, and through what untrodden wildernesses, without having seen or heard sign of Notornis! At last one seemed to be within my reach!

Quietly I crept in the direction from which the call had come. Arrived at a pool, Cæsar pointed, and I page 265beckoned him to go round while I stood on tiptoe with anticipation. Alas! he found no sign of any bird, and soon my wild excitement gave way to the bitterest disappointment.

Journeying over huge blocks of rocks (which lay as if they were on purpose thrown together) on one side and deep precipices on the other, I came to a stop, and there was nothing for it but to await daylight. There being no vegetation, I could not light a fire, so had to walk about to keep warm. Dawn at last appeared, and no Laplander ever welcomed the glorious sun more joyfully than I did in this region.

Still ascending, I crossed snowfields which were of considerable depth in some places. The snow had been blown together, and was frozen so hard that I had to take my tomahawk to chop it down so, as to get softer snow to refresh myself with a wash. My breakfast was snow dissolved in my mouth, with a little oatmeal and a few biscuits.

The walking now became easier over the snow, and I was able to travel much faster. At last I arrived at the source of the left branch of the Paringa River, and a short distance from the Hooker Glacier.

The grandeur of the scene caused me to stop, and although I have travelled through many of the mountainous parts of Europe, and have ascended some of the glaciers, I never beheld anything more beautiful than this charming scene before me. The sky was clear and cloudless. The Paringa River was seen winding its course, like a huge eel, through the valley in a northerly direction to the ocean; N.W., Lake Paringa page 266like a horseshoe, and Lake Roskill lay buried in the dense forest below; W.S.W., the Blue River with its oblong lake; S. and S.E., a large extent of forest with dark cliffs and enormous fissures, and rugged, snow-clad peaks. Then Mount Cook, the biggest, giant, of the south, came in full view, towering triumphantly above me, with his companion snow-capped mountains, and their network of glaciers stretching out for miles.

Then the sun rose higher, throwing his rays on the masses of ice and snow, and making them scintillate like mountains of diamonds. This imposing scene did not last long, I am sorry to say, for the heat of the sun caused a vapour to rise which soon covered up this lovely panorama.

I stood for some time drinking in this picture, until the cold pierced me to the marrow, bringing me back to reality. I felt it was high time to think about returning, and it was a long and, tiresome descent that brought me finally to the place where I had left Cæsar with my gun. Thence I got down amongst Alpine vegetation, which lay around like a flowered garden. Getting back to the station on the 15th December, I found the Stella was expected, and packed everything ready.

Alas! at long last I was going to leave Cæsar behind me. He was now twelve years old, and had become enfeebled with age and hard work. On the 21st I said good-bye to him for ever. How sad he was, as though he too felt the tragedy of parting! He looked at me in such an entreating way that I could not contain page break
Black and white photograph of Mount Cook/Aoraki

Mount Cook (Aorangi)

page 267 myself any longer, and the tears coursed down my cheeks. Poor old chappie! you had been more than a friend to me. Never, never, could I repay you for what you had given me in love and trust and faithful service!

But it was impossible to take him (thought I), for he was no longer equal to the hardship of further travel. Besides, the Stevenson family, who had been so kind to me, had grown very fond of him, and would do all they could to make his last days happy and comfortable. But as it happened, Cæsar never could forget his master. Shortly after I left, he pined away and died. Mr. Stevenson carefully preserved his head in spirits.

I spent Christmas and New Year in a camp by the sea, where I had taken all my things to be ready for the Stella as soon as she put in an appearance. On New Year's Day all the members of the Stevenson family turned out to wish me bon voyage! It was sad, I can tell you, to say good-bye to this silent world of bush, and to these people who had looked after me with such wonderful kindness. But most saddening of all was to feel I was losing for ever that piece of my heart and soul, my old dog, Cæsar — to think that never again should I see him.

The Stella appeared on January 7, 1888. It was stormy, the Paringa being in flood and landing difficult, so that the ship was rolling heavily when I got on board. Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson's daughters came down to the shore, and waved to me until the ship passed out of sight.

page 268

Again we went back to Fjordland. In Chalky Sound I availed myself of a short stay to visit my old hut. I found the carrots, beans, and turnips that Rimmer had planted doing well. The old boat still lay on the beach. By January 14 we were back at Port Bluff.