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Poenamo
Book the Second - Chapter IV.
The Timber-Draggers.—A Pull for Dear Life


The western shore of the Hauraki Gulf is studded with numerous large islands and chains of smaller ones. Between some of these there are fine deep-water channels which form sheltered roadsteads for large vessels, one alone being large enough for the combined navies of the world to ride at anchor in.

The Delhi was lying in one of the lesser roadsteads, at its entrance from the gulf, for the convenience of being in the immediate vicinity of the timber-loading ground, so as to save distance as much as possible in towing off the rafts. But for this consideration the vessel would have lain a mile farther up channel, and this would have sheltered her from the north-east fetch, to which she was now exposed. The reasons for my being particular as to the locale will be apparent before you have read to the close of this chapter.

The row across the gulf had so whetted our appetites that the captain of the Delhi had no cause to complain that we did not do justice to his hospitality. When Waipeha declared that he must leave us at our wine and be off on shore to visit the forest we begged off from our host too, so that we might have an opportunity by accompanying Waipeha of seeing the timber operations in the bush. Borrowing the ship's dingy, we pulled ourselves ashore, leaving our native crew to rest on board. We landed to the welcoming cry of "Haeremai! Haeremai!" from a large assemblage of the Maori feminine gender. What males there were, were of such tender years that they were of no account. The grown men, and the half-grown too, were all in the forest dragging out the last large log for the vessel's cargo.

As we passed through the native village, nestling in a little valley at the base of the high land, we noticed that the women were all busy preparing food, and the preparations were of rather an extensive kind, the fact being that as the last log was expected to reach the water's edge this day the timber- draggers were going to be regaled with a sort of small feast, and as no wars had lately been going on, giving a war supply of animal food, a virtue was to be made of necessity, and the modern substitute of pig was to be the order of the day.

In days of which I write Maori ladies did not flaunt in the last new fashion—or say the second last—from Paris, but if they were less fashionably they were far more picturesquely attired. Their flax mats and the blanket folded around their persons formed drapery which hung gracefully around them, and in which they looked natural and at ease, and, unencumbered with shoes and stockings and accompaniments, they moved about gracefully, cum grano. At all events they did not look as if they were going to topple over, as they do now when clothed in those "troublesome disguises which we wear," and balancing themselves on high-heeled boots. 'Tis true we should have preferred that some of the old bags we saw scraping potatoes and kumaras had been somewhat more disguised. The short mat from waist to knee only exhibited to our view their "ugliness unadorned displayed the most!" But we had just to put that against "beauty unadorned adorned the most," and, rolling them together, accept the average as it came out before us.

We were soon surrounded by a small band of native infantry—say to five years—in that simplicity of clothing ascribed to our first parents before their fall when fig-leaf aprons had not been invented. Those of maturer years had some rag of a garment about them, native or imported.

Our guard of honour piloted us skilfully, first skirting for a short distance the level land where it met the hills, then, striking off at a right angle, conducted us at once into the forest, and we had not proceeded very far before its silence was broken by the distant shouting of a large body of men, the sound reaching the ear at regular intervals as if keeping time to, and joining in, a chorus. A short distance farther into the forest, and then through an opening in the trees the native workmen came into sight, and their wild song struck loudly and startlingly on the ear.

It was a wild and exciting scene. The huge log the natives were dragging out was of unusually large dimensions, some three feet in diameter and some eighty in length, the largest spar of the Delhi's cargo, and the last required to make her a full ship. Every available man of the tribe had been mustered to drag the spar out, and then feast afterwards. The head of the spar was decorated with branches of flowering trees, and waving tufts of feathers had also been fastened on, adding to the effect of the "headgear." At this decorated end of the spar, and on it, stood the oldest chief of the tribe. Round his waist he wore a short mat of unscraped flax leaves dyed black. It looked like a bundle of thatching more than anything else as it hung down to his knees This constituted his whole attire. In right hand he brandished a taiaha, a six-foot Mori broadsword of hard wood, with its pendulous plume of feathers hanging from the hilt. High overhead he brandished his weapon, imparting to it the peculiar Maori quivering motion, with outstretched arm raised aloft, like unto a soldier leading on his men to battle. He kept repeating a long string of words in quick succession, lifting up one foot and stamping it down again, the body thrown back on the other leg. Every moment his voice became louder and louder until almost reaching a scream; then he grasped the weapon with both hands, sprang into the air, and came down as if smiting an enemy to the earth. At this instant some eighty or more men, minus a flax mat like the chief, or even fig-leaf, yelled forth one word as ending chorus. As one man they simultaneously stamped on the ground, and then gave one fearful pull on the rope doubled round the end of the spar—a pull that you thought would snap the rope in two but it stood the tremendous strain, and the huge mass forged ahead several feet. The chief sprang into the air again, flung his arms on high, yelled out a word, the gang repeated it with a louder yell, the earth almost vibrated, as, springing into the air, they landed as one man; then another strain, and away slid the spar a few feet more. Again and again this is done, the old chief becoming more and more excited, and even more agile instead of less so, his voice attaining to a higher and higher key until he positively screeched, and after each tug the spar advanced several feet. At last, after one tremendous pull, the gang ended their shout by prolonging it until it died away in a comparatively softened tone, and the chief accepted this as an intimation that they must have breathing-time before beginning again. So they rested; meanwhile a tribe of young children brought kits full of wet mud to besmear the sleepers in front of the spar to make it slide along more easily. It had only to be dragged a few hundred feet farther when it would be launched down a declivity to the sea-beach. So we took a stroll farther into the forest to see the trees in course of being felled and squared for other cargoes. This allowed time for the draggers to get the spar over the intervening space, as we wished to see it make its last long swift descent down to the water's edge.

On getting back again we were just in time to hear the old chief begin his long recitation to work the men up to proper pitch. This he did, and after some vigorous strains on the rope we saw the branches, flowers, and tufts of feathers suspended, as it were, in mid-air; then the other end of the spar tilted up, and away rushed the stupendous mass, sweeping everything before it, snapping young trees like carrots, and then passing clear of the forest it flung a cloud of dust into the air as it swept across the narrow belt of open ground, pursuing, like an avalanche, its wild career, and by the time the prolonged shout with which it had been seat on its last swift journey had died away the spar had reached the, beach, and its garlanded head, now sadly despoiled, sent a shower of spray into the air, showing it had reached the water's edge, and then another loud, long, and joyous shout rang through the forest.

Nota bene.—The old warrior chief was not standing on the end of the spar when the last long and strong tug at the rope was given!

Surrounded by the natives—no longer nude now that their work was over—we retraced our steps to the village, at which I shall leave our native friends to enjoy a Maori feast without describing it here, as I shall hereafter have a more fitting opportunity. The sun was now fast sinking, and we had to get into our little dingy and pull back to the Delhi.

Waipeha seated himself in the stern and took the tiller, we took the oars, and we soon pulled out from the bay into the open reach. With the evening a smart breeze had set in after the hot, calm day, and we found we had to pull against a strong tide and a strong wind. The short, bluff little boat bobbed up and down in the "jabble of a sea," the spray dashing over the bows. We were half-way from either shore and a good half-mile from the ship.

And now the tide ran swifter and the wind blew stronger, and we amateur rowers pulled weaker just when we were wanted to pull stronger. And when the nose of the little boat plunged into the head sea you thought it was never coining out again, and the spray literally went right over us, flying slap into Wailieha's face as he sat in the stern-sheets. We were soon all soaked to the skin, and the water in the boat began splashing about our feet. On looking towards the shore through the gloom the painful truth was forced upon us that instead of gaining ground we were losing way. I was but a poor oarsman in those days, and "feathering" my oar was an accomplishment I had still to learn. If I had only known it I had plenty of hard rowing before me.

Darkness closed in upon our struggle, the shore loomed up a black mass, but fortunately for us we had a beacon light from the stern cabin windows of the Delhi to steer by, and we strained away at our oars to reach our desired haven.

"Lay in the after oar and bail out the boat," sang out Waipeha; "she lies like a log in the water, and we are not making a foot headway."

So now, to make matters worse, we were only three at the oars, and had to strain away harder than ever, but though we did so, and for ever so long too, the beacon light grew no brighter or nearer.

"Tthere is more water in the boat than when you began to bail," I exclaimed. "I feel it up to my ankles now."

"I thought I had made but little progress," said Cook, who was bailing, "how long and hard I have been at it."

"Off with your hat and bail with it," I said.

"That broken calabash is no good. The boat has sprung a leak, and the water is gaining upon us."

"Pull, my boys," shouted Waipeha. "Well done! A strong pull, a long pull, and a pull all together. Steady stroke and we'll soon make way."

But the way we made was very doubtful, and the water kept swashing about our legs, and was ominously plentiful, though Cook was bailing away like grim Death—and for fear of him.

"Stick to it, my hearties," cried Wraipeha when a lull came—'stick to it. I dare not put the dingy round to run before it; she would be swamped before I got her round. Stick to it."

Of course we did—we redoubled our efforts. Stick to it? Yes, I should think so, for grim Death was having a hungry look at us, and we pulled, and pulled all together, to keep him from boarding us and taking us to his eternal haven. We had no desire to reach it just yet. We were not sick of life, and we had our worldly eyes on the Delhi; that was the haven we wished to reach, and her beacon light seemed to mock us. Stick to it? Didn't we just! We were all too young and the world was still too dear for us to wish to leave it yet awhile.

Yes, we strained our utmost. The wind still blew as fiercely, but fortunately for us the tide had slackened, and we did make some headway. Then a fiercer blast came, and we barely held our own. But the still-slackening tide favoured us, and during the lulls we at last made visible progress, and Waipeha cheered us up by proclaiming how distinctly he now could see the lights from the Delhi's stern windows.

At last, drenched from head to foot, and with blistered hands—mine were, at all events—we reach the Delhi, and scramble up the rope-ladder. The welcome voice of the captain said he concluded that we had remained on shore, or he would have sent a boat's crew to our assistance.

This was my first struggle for life on the waters. of Poenamo—but it was not destined to be my last.

In blanket bay we all slept soundly that night in board the Delhi—all the sounder for having "stuck to it" so well. And had we not stuck to it so well we should have slept under the waters of Te Hauraki!


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