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Kaipara, or, Experiences of a settler in north New Zealand

Chapter VII. — A Perilous Journey

page 40

Chapter VII.
A Perilous Journey.

The news that greeted my ears the following morning on entering the breakfast room was that the all important buggy had arrived, and that we were to start as soon as possible in order to accomplish the journey by daylight. I made a hasty meal therefore, and was soon out inspecting the vehicle, in which, for the next seven or eight hours, we were to have so close an interest. It was a curious-looking affair, very like an overgrown goat chaise, with a sort of roof or covering supported on iron rods, and containing two seats, each capable of accommodating with moderate comfort three persons, while there was room for another beside the driver. To this arrangement on wheels two strong rough-looking horses were attached, and standing by their heads was the driver, a stout man with a short neck, a weather-beaten face. and a red nose of goodly proportions.

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There was a good deal of luggage to stow away, consisting of portmanteaus, theodolites, chains, tents, &c., but at last everything was ready, and we started.

For the first three or four miles all went well, except the dust which went down our throats and up our noses, till we could scarcely breathe. This was not likely to last long, however, for black clouds had been rolling up since early morning, and hanging in the sky like regiments taking position on a parade ground before a review. A break up of the weather was evidently imminent, and we thought with satisfaction of our roof, and bade defiance to the elements. Soon the aspect of the country, which had hitherto been flat, began to change, and the character of the road began to change with it, the former becoming undulating and the latter uneven. As we advanced the country became more broken, and the road problematical, and at last we found ourselves travelling along a sideling cut in the face of a range of high precipitous hills, in the valley at the foot of which the river Waikato was rushing, roaring, and tumbling in its rocky bed. The road, if it could be dignified with the name, was scarcely twelve feet wide, and sloped in places consider-page 42ably towards the outer edge, while two hundred feet below us rushed the river. In some places landslips had occurred, and it was barely wide enough for the wheels of our conveyance; and, to make matters worse, the threatened rain had commenced to fall in torrents, rendering the clayey soil as slippery as possible.

To say that the whole of the occupants of that buggy were not terribly nervous, would be to state a deliberate untruth. We all pretended to be quite at our ease, and I even tried to smoke a pipe, but our assumed composure was an utter fraud—indeed it was quite sufficient to see how we with one accord leant towards the hill, whenever the buggy wheel approached more nearly to the outer edge of the road, to be able to state positively that we were in a highly nervous condition. Old Jack, the driver, appeared to take things coolly enough; but he certainly had the best of it, for had the trap capsized he could have thrown himself off, while we, boxed up like sardines, must have gone over with it. He kept the horses going at a trot, wherever he could, and as they slid and stumbled onward, the blood-curdling thought would creep through my mind, that if one fell and slipped over the edge, he must drag us down page 43with him. It was like a fearful nightmare, and the only reassuring feature—or features—in it was old Jack's imperturbable countenance, as he sucked at his short clay and "klucked" at his horses.

At last the agony was over; we were again on level ground; that awful rushing, roaring torrent had left us, and we breathed more freely. Old Jack now called a halt near a little brook to bait and water his horses, and we availed ourselves of the opportunity to dispose of the lunch—brought with us from the hotel—and began to converse again, a thing we had not thought of attempting to do for the last two hours or more.

I inquired of Jack whether accidents often occurred on the part of the road we had lately left, and he replied that he only knew of one waggon going over the edge—the two horses were killed and the waggon dashed to pieces, but the driver, by throwing himself off, escaped with a broken arm. He, however, believed there had been another bit of a smash or two, but did not know particulars.

Pushing forward again, we came to some extremely broken country, and old Jack's method of doing this portion, though it evinced page 44a certain amount of knowledge of the laws of mechanics, was simply agonising. Whenever we came to a steep incline with a corresponding rise, he would whip up the horses in order to try and obtain sufficient impetus to take us up the other side, and down the incline we would go at a fearful pace, jolting, bumping, and hanging on like grim death. How the springs stood it is a marvel to me. We very nearly came to grief once, for the wheels on one side of our conveyance suddenly sunk in a soft bog, and it almost overturned. With our united efforts, however, we succeeded in extricating the machine, and resumed our journey, which at last came to an end, as we pulled up considerably after dark before the door of a little hotel—almost the only building to be seen in this future Chicago. Although our arrival appeared to be quite unexpected, the landlord and his wife seemed perfectly equal to the occasion. The buggy was expeditiously emptied of its contents, and bedrooms were promptly shown us. While we were engaged in removing the signs of the late fearful expedition, the sounds of frizzling and spluttering, and the delightful odours that reached our olfactory nerves from the culinary department, conveyed to our minds the satis-page 45factory assurance that provision for our exhausted frames of no mean order was under way, and served to confirm my opinion that our host and hostess were quite equal to the occasion.

A hearty meal, followed by a pleasant chat, in a snug little sitting-room, with a bright coal fire burning in the grate, formed a most delightful close to what had been, to say the least of it, anything but a pleasant day's travelling.

I was up betimes in the morning, and was woefully disappointed with the look of the country. Stretching in all directions was a vast undulating plain covered with stunted brown fern—not a blade of grass, not a green tree nor shrub was to be seen—nothing but brown fern. The hotel, the manager's house, a wooden shanty, some surveyors' tents, and a small hut alone broke the monotony of the view. In the extreme distance could be discerned ranges of high hills, but whether covered with trees or vegetation of any kind they were too far off to determine. Nothing seemed to be stirling either; no busy workmen were there laying out the streets of the future city or erecting houses for the future citizens; no sign of any-page 46thing going on. Nothing but brown fern. I had evidently arrived a quarter of a century too soon.

I will not say anything of the quality of the land. It may have been first rate—in fact. I am inclined to think it must have been—for on inquiry I found the company demanded eight pounds per acre for suburban allotments two miles from the centre of the township.

Nothing but brown fern.

Nothing but brown fern.

To build the smallest house before a railway was made would cost seven hundred and fifty pounds, timber being twenty-five shillings per hundred feet. There was no wood for firing, and coals were eight pounds per ton. It was evidently no place for me, and the only thing left to determine was how to get back again. The landlord of the hotel, whom I consulted, told me that a waggon with stores and coal was page 47expected in a day or two, and thought I would have no difficulty in arranging with the driver to go back in it. "To wait for the waggon," as the old refrain recommends, was therefore evidently the best way out of the difficulty, and I determined to do so. I called on the manager, and told him it would be impossible for me to settle there at present. He fully agreed with me, and advised my renting a small house in Cambridge until matters had become more advanced, when he promised to do all he could. He feared, however, it might be some time before he could be of any use to me, and I must say I feared so too. However, I thought it would be better to follow his advice, and determined on another house hunt when I reached Cambridge. I spent the rest of the day with him, and in the evening strolled back to the hotel, which was about three quarters of a mile off, being solely guided to it by its light, as there was no road or track of any kind.

On my way I was startled by hearing the most hideous noises at some distance from me, but gradually growing nearer. They evidently proceeded from human throats: what could it mean? Louder and louder grew the fearful sounds, until at last I could make out a party of page 48men on horseback, who, on their nearer approach, I found to be Maoris. They passed me without notice, still keeping up the horrible din, and I came to the conclusion that they must have been imbibing too freely at the hotel. On arriving there, I mentioned the matter to the landlord, and he told me that they were natives from the King country who had come over to buy some stores, and that they were making the noises I heard to drive away "the Taipo," a sort of devil who devotes his attention exclusively to Maoris, over whom, however, he only possesses power at night. The Maoris, I learnt, would never go out singly after dark, and when they ventured in company, gave utterance to the unearthly cries I have described to keep him away; and it strikes me that if "the Taipo" has anything like a correct ear, the method adopted ought to be most effectual.

Two days passed, and on the afternoon of the third the waggon appeared. It had been detained on the road through a breakdown, and the driver had been obliged to spend a night in the open air, which, as the weather was now extremely cold, must have been anything but pleasant. He had succeeded in repairing damages in the morning, for, with a cautiousness page 49begotten probably by previous catastrophes, he had with him the necessary tools, and was enabled to complete his journey. My proposal to accompany him on his return was favourably received, particularly as I agreed to pay a pound for the privilege, and on the following morning we started.

After over nine hours of torture, mental and bodily, for the waggon was innocent of springs, Cambridge was reached; and I was once more installed in the comfortable hotel there.