Arrowtown—"river of golden sands''—An auriferous
region—A dismal look-oat—Old gold-workings—A terrible chasm—Nature's
laboratory—Rabbitters at work —A serious plague—The kea,
or liver-eating macaw— Hawk and pigeon—"Roaring
Meg'—Cromwell township—The Molyneux Valley—Deserted diggings—Halt
SURELY there are
few towns on this earth's surface more hemmed in by
mountains than Arrowtown. The snowy peaks peer down the
chimneys, and in whatever direction you look out your eye
meets only crags and rocks, gorges and precipices.
The Arrow runs its muddy stream at the base of the
cliffs, and the houses, built of flat slate-stones, jostle
each other on the brink of the stream. The sands in the
river have been turned over for gold some five times
already; and it is said that a methodical search would
even now unearth much more treasure.
It was raining
heavily as we left O'Kane's little hostelry, where every
regard had been paid to our comfort; and never in all my
travelling experience did I face a gloomier prospect. We
seemed hopelessly caged in by immense lofty walls of rock;
and the bridle and team tracks to the various
workings, in the glens and gorges, wound along the face of
the walls at a dizzy height above the stream; with bare
gaunt pinnacles piercing the mists in all directions.
The township was
founded during the first gold rush to the district,
twenty-six years ago. The rude masonry walls of the old
houses are much more antique-looking than one commonly
sees in any colonial town.
All this region
round about is auriferous. The shaly, slaty, crumbling
mass, of which the hills and strata are composed, is
seamed and permeated everywhere throughout its bulk by
thin veins of quartz, and most of these are gold-bearing.
In all the flats, and in the beds and on the sides of all
the rivers and creeks, surface digging and sluicing
has been more or less profitably followed ; and at one
time there was an immense mining popular tion in these
lake districts. Now, however, "Ichabod" might almost be
written over the map.
there are some rich reefs now being worked, and Macetown
is even more inaccessible than Arrowtown. The teams that
go to Macetown must surely possess some of the attributes
of the goat or house-fly, for the road is perhaps one
of the most audacious in the colonies. It literally
sticks to the face of the cliffs in some parts.
Rain! rain. How
it patters. Mud! mud. How it splashes. The horses, poor
things, look veritable hypochrondriacs, and both driver
and passengers look blue as the surroundings.
Through a temporary rift in the grey mist, the gaunt
hills show their bare, naked, ugly backs, lacerated with gaping scars. All
the glamour of the kindly drapery of snow has vanished under the pitiless
pelting of the rain. Great landslips have laid bare the blue shale-beds on
the mountain sides. The chasms and abyssmal depths look the very acme of
wild unrelieved desolation. There is not a bright tint. The only signs of
motion are the foaming cascades tearing down the gullies, their silvery
streaks looking like the white locks of angry furies trailing over the
barren jagged clefts. The only sign of life is where a ghostly gull, sated
with the flesh of some poisoned rabbits, wings his heavy flight athwart the
black-blue background of dripping rock.
We seem to be
floating above the clouds, and to be dipping into a sea of
mist. Yonder is a glorious peep ! A rift in the cloud with
a spumy circle of cirrhus edges, reveals a glimpse of a
snowy peak, far, far aloft. It looks, as we might fancy,
the face of a veteran warrior, with a few lyart locks
scattered thinly over his brow, to gaze at us through the
gauzy curtains of an hospital window.
Now we cross the
Arrow, swift as its name portends ; roaring and foaming deep down in its
drumly channel. Look at the old workings! What
Titan's toil has been here ! It looks as if a pack of
prediluvian monsters had been madly tearing at the banks.
The valley is riven and torn and trenched and furrowed in
all directions. Every furlong of the way now for the next
thirty miles is like this. These are the early diggings.
The auriferous earth was sluiced, and the boulders
and rocks and pebbles piled up in great dykes and
battlements out of reach of the water. It is a most unique
appearance. I have never witnessed such. The dykes and
wavy irregular outlines are quite unlike the debris and
tumuli left after the workings or alluvial gold-washing in
any part of Australia I have visited. Look back! How
majestic seem these mighty sentinels, clad in
eternal snow, and looking down so purely and serenely on
the disrupted valley, as if in pity at the mad
hurry-scurry and feverish lust of gold which they have
plough has now succeeded the eager pick and shovel, and
several thatched farmcots are visible here and there through the
On our left a
magnificent cascade comes shooting down over an abrupt ledge, and now we
reach the Swift Burn gorge. 'Twould take a Dore to
paint this awful chasm. Far below, the Swift Burn
dashes. Appropriate name! The abyss is appalling in its
inky hues of desolation. It looks as if mortification had
set in on all the livid faces of crag, and rotting cliff,
and the black-blue tinge of universal dissolution has set
its seal on all the surroundings. The Arrow here loses its
mud- begrimed waters in the olive-green volume of the
swift Kawarau. The canyon is of a depth that makes
one shudder. The crags and peaks are blasted as if by the
scorching breath of the legions of Apollyon. The seamed
and riven sides of the crumbling gorge assume the most
ghastly hues. All the potent agencies of nature in her
most wrathful mood, have seemingly been exerted here
to produce a chaos of wild, weird desolation. It is
a picture fit for a prophet's vision, laden with wrath and
woe, and desolation.
It is, indeed, a
vision of judgment. The memory of it haunts me yet. A
solemn awe settles on our spirits. Words utterly fail to
present a tithe of the terrific awesomeness of this
We cross the
Kawarau by a massive iron bridge, slung on thick wire
cables, let into the solid rock on either side. A column
of splintered spray comes scatteringly down over the giddy
height to the left. We shudder as we gaze back at the
Surely, now we
are coming into some more cheerful environment? But no!
Nature presents herself in these wild solitudes in her
most forbidding guise. The Hindoos would say that Kali,
or Doorga, the goddess of wrath and desolation, was the
presiding divinity here. Everything is baneful—malign.
See dangling on
yonder line a row of gory mangled scalps—a ribbon of
bloody flesh with a silver selvage? What is it? Nay, start
not! These are only a few hundred gory rabbit-skins
drying for market. They are quite in keeping with
A few farmsteads are
scattered over this desolate strath. On the other side of the river the
strath is ribbed into ridges by the file-like teeth of innumerable
rills and runlets. These are nature's files, eating away the mass of the
earthquake's upheaval. The swift Kawarau there is but nature's bosom,
sweeping the detritus of the workshop down into the open plains of the
low country, there to be worked up by the rosy fingers of that cunning
artificer old Helios into ruddy fruit and golden grain, and all the
witching loveliness of grass and flower and tree.
What a laboratory is this ! We are looking
here at nature in her apprentice stage.
The mist is now gathering its serried
battalions and slowly retiring to the mountain tops.
The valleys come out more distinctly. The sound of
falling waters becomes more clear and musical.
Hurrah! Yonder is the sun, and we are to
have a fine day after all.
What a glorious vision have we here !
Surely, reader, could you but behold this with me my
rhapsodies might be pardoned.
This gorge is named Nevis
Bluff Pass. How eerie and uncanny look those rotten crumbling masses
overhead. The road winds in and out amid heaps of fallen debris, and the
rocks hang ominously over the horses' heads. Below, the impetuous river is
in a more savage mood than ever. The water, pent up and impeded by fallen
rocks, roars and swishes and churns itself into foam, as it dashes in
impotent wrath against the great buttresses and barriers that seek to
retard, its furious rush. There is not a blink of brightness here to relieve
the pallid leaden look. Even the snowy heights are again hidden by the grey
dark envious mist, which clings to the sodden soil like grave-cloths.
Here is an episode in keeping with the general
aspect. The rabbitters have been out laying
poisoned grain. Poor greedy bunny! Have you no premonition
of danger? No; the all-devouring greed which makes these multitudinous
hordes such an awful plague, is not to be deterred by
any scruples. The grain is looked on as a godsend, for of grass and
green herbage there is not a blade—all eaten up long ago.
The vermin are at starvation point. They eat. See now !
Look at that one leaping in the air in its death agonies.
Look at the contortions and gyrations of that
other. Hear the agonizing screams of a third ; the deadly
drug is eating at the vitals of the hapless rodents. The
earth is dotted with white upturned pelts of dozens of
them. They lie thick behind every tuft of spear-grass, in
scores under every cliff, in hundreds over the plains. The
peltry hunters will have a rich harvest this evening. As
the rabbitters move forward, picking up the dead
beasts and rapidly skinning them, hundreds of seagulls follow the gang,
flitting about like eerie ghosts, and gorging themselves
on the poisoned carcases. The poison does not seem to
affect these birds; at least no dead gulls are ever
noticed, though I saw them myself feeding on the poisoned
This rabbit infliction is of
awful dimensions here. We saw them by the thousand,
bobbing about among the dry withered thistle-stalks, and
many hundreds of tons of skins are exported from
Otago and Southland every year. On some runs as many as
fifty men are employed laying poison and collecting skins.
The skins almost pay for the outlay, but of course the
check to the wool industry cannot be formulated in
figures. The skins are most valuable naturally when the
winter fur is on them. There is so much difficult country
hereabouts where the vermin can breed in safety, that
they will never now be wholly eradicated, but already they
are being sensibly held in check, and meantime the poor
people comfort themselves with the thought, that after
all, employment is given to many hundreds of hands, and
money is of necessity spent in the country which might
otherwise only swell the hoards of absentee squatters,
and rich corporations. The poison used is phosphorized grain. For flat
country, where the warrens are easily accessible, and the
soil not too porous, probably no better means of checking
the plague has been found than that promulgated by
an old fellow-student of my own, whom I had the
pleasure of meeting again in Dunedin after a long
separation of more than twenty years.
I refer to Professor James G.
Black, Professor of Chemistry in the Otago University.
Some nine years ago the rabbit plague was working havoc
with the prospects of pastoralists in Southland ;
and one of the leading squatters, Mr. James Holmes, of Castle Rock station,
Southland, wrote to Professor Black, almost in despair, to
see if he could suggest any remedy. After some
consideration the professor recommended the trial of the
bisulphide of carbon and himself superintended the
experiments. The rabbits were first of all hunted into the
warrens by dogs. A rag or stem of the common New Zealand
flax (phormium), dipped in the bisulphide, or a spoonful
of the liquid itself, was then put into each hole in the
warren and a sod was then stamped into each opening. The
poisonous fumes are immediately generated and
penetrate to the remotest recesses of the warren, and no
live rabbit escapes the deadly dose.
For low lands this is the
best remedy that was then known, and none better has been
discovered since, and to Professor Black belongs the
honour of having first suggested and tried it. It gives me
genuine pleasure to be able to record this of an
old fellow-student ; for his modesty is only equalled by
his high attainments.
During this digression the
coach has been jolting on, and the weather has been
Right ahead, seemingly
barring the valley, Mount Difficulty towers aloft. It is
well named. Its black bare ribs are like the bones of some
giant megatherium, which have been scorched and
blackened by primeval fires. We cross the Victoria Bridge,
and in the valley below, the Nevis here joins its waters
to those of the Kawarau. The Nevis is muddy and thick as
pea- soup from recent freshets.
In these wild glens the
liver-loving kea is very plentiful. This epicure is rather
an interesting example of an uncommon fact in natural
history. Of course it is pretty generally known that the
kea has attained an unenviable notoriety on account
of the damage he does to the sheep. He fastens on to some
unlucky beast, and with his powerful hooked beak regularly
cuts a hole into the poor victim till he reaches the
dainty he is in search of—the liver. This luscious morsel
having been appropriated, the bleeding, lacerated victim
is left to die in agony, while the rapacious kea
transfers his attentions to another ill-fated member of
the flock. And yet the kea was formerly a fruit-eating
bird. He is allied to the macaw family, and how the taste
for a carnivorous diet became developed does not seem yet
to be known. It is a curious instance of change of natural
I should say the student of
natural history would find a fine field for observation
here. Another episode befell us here, and thus : The
driver and I were chatting gaily, when an exclamation from him
roused my attention to the swift movements of a couple of
birds. A sparrow- hawk in pursuit of a fine blue rock
pigeon. They swept past us on fleet, strong wing. The hawk
swooped to strike; but the pigeon eluded him. Again
they circled, swept upward, downward, flashed past us like
a streak of light, and again the hawk made his deadly
dart. Palpitating, trembling, the harried pigeon just
managed to swoop under the friendly shelter of a clump of
bushes beside a mountain rill that came merrily
rippling down the hillside. The baffled hawk, with a most
malignant glitter in his eye, took up his station on a
jutting rock, and had evidently made up his mind to wait
for the poor pigeon.
"No, old man, I'll be hanged
if you'll have him," said Jack, the driver, apostrophizing
"Here, sir, hold the
ribbons." This to me, throwing me the reins. Jack got down
from his perch, and after a little search in the bush was
rewarded by the capture of the poor dazed pigeon, who was
consigned to safe custody in the boot. The hawk dodged a
stone, which Jack threw at him, and very sulkily winged
his way off in quest of other prey.
At this part of the road the
rocks show a curious honeycombed appearance, and the river
rolls along in a series of rapids, in a terrific chasm far
below. This spot is known locally as " the natural
bridge." A mass of fallen rock obstructs the stream, which
at low water can be easily forded here over the
o'er-arching rocks. High up in mid air, a broken and
partly dismantled iron flume spans the gorge. It was
designed to carry water across to some diggings on the
other side of the valley ; but the span was too great, and
it was never a success.
road crosses "Roaring Meg." The name describes the torrent. It comes
roaring, tearing, crashing, dashing down the steep, and plunges like a
catapult into the river bed. The force and velocity must be stupendous, and
the impact of so many tons of water at such a speed sends the volume of the
Kawarau high in air, tossed in blinding spray, and the mighty buttresses of
rock seem to tremble again as the water surges to and fro in their cavernous
recesses. The swift Kawarau staggers, and its waves, swift as they are, are
for the moment dammed back, and rise as a charger preparing for a bound into
the thick of the fray. The point of junction is a hissing hell of foam—a
very Phlegethon of fury. It needs the pen of a master to fitly describe such
a "meeting of the waters" as this.
Below this point, and across
the foam-filled chasm, we see the miners' huts on the
Gentle Annie claim. Provisions and stores are sent across
in a chair slung to a wire rope stretched across the
river. By the same dizzy contrivance the wives and
children of the district cross and re-cross. The school
children use this contrivance daily. Surely here, if
anywhere, we should have a race of women not liable to
that mysterious malady known as "the nerves."
Still farther down the
valley, great beetling rocks rise on either hand, and amid
their honeycombed recesses colonies of blue and white pigeons
have taken up their quarters. Here we release our
rescued captive, and watch his gladsome exultant flight,
as he rejoiced in his recovered freedom.
There is a
magnificent cataract in the river here for some hundred yards. Several
Chinamen are fossicking among the chinks and crannies of the colossal dykes
which the early toilers for gold have formerly heaped up. Millions upon
millions of tons of earth must have been sluiced from these hillsides.
We pass now a gang of men
busily restoring the traffic which has been interrupted by
a terrific landslip caused by the recent heavy rains. The rocks
here are rotten and treacherous. The formation is
chiefly mica schist, both hard and soft, with beds and
layers of slate and phyllite.
A short distance beyond, we
reach the deserted Kawarau Gorge township. There was
formerly a dense and busy population here; but there are
only some three houses and a school now standing.
The valley now widens out,
and away across the river, Jack points out the cliffs of
Bannockburn, where active sluicing is even now being
carried on, and where some very heavy finds of gold have
made the place famous. Like mostly all the fields
around this district, however, Bannockburn is now getting
worked out, and will soon be deserted.
Now we rattle on to a broad,
flat, sandy plain, a church steeple showing its tip at the
far verge ; above which towers a snowy range, and nestling
in the shadow thereof is the neat little town of
Cromwell, in common with
mostly every town of any importance in New Zealand, can
boast of one thing which Sydney with all her magnificence
"And what is that?" you may
ask. Well, it is simply this: a perfect and plentiful
water supply. Its source is in the hills over the river, and the water
crosses in great pipes under the bridge. There are three banks represented
in the town, and a racecourse and hospital testify both to the philanthropic
and sporting tendencies of the people.
From a lignite pit a few
miles out on the plain, good fuel can be procured at 20s.
per ton. This rather unusual conjunction of coal and gold
is common enough on the Otago goldfields.
At Cromwell the individuality
of the Kawarau becomes merged in that of the Molyneux, and
the valley downward is now named the Molyneux
Valley; emblematic this of the gradual absorption
of the native in the foreign element. In a hollow by the
river, we find the Chinese camp. Of course a gardener is
to be found in close proximity, and the rocking of several
mining cradles, shows that these industrious and
persevering Asiatics are yet finding payable gold, though
the more impatient Anglo-Saxon has long since considered
the workings "played out."
The contrast between the
green current of the Molyneux and the grey muddy volume of
the Kawarau is most striking. All around the junction
of the two streams the country consists of bare
grey rugged cliffs and tumbled rocks of a friable
material, which crumbles and flakes under the influence of the weather; and
the river carries enormous masses of material with it in
its onward course.
In fact, New Zealand is a
good instance of growth—not merely mental, or political,
or commercial, but physical material growth. Geologists
tell us that every year the land encroaches on the sea ;
and when we see the rivers at work we can see the process
The valley of the Molyneux is
much wider and more open; but at this wintry season (May)
it is not less bare and desolate-looking than the upper
straths and gorges.
Clyde is another languishing
little town through which we pass. The new bridge on stone
piers is a noticeable feature. The old one, with four
others on the river, were swept away entirely by
the great flood of 1878.
At Alexandria, the next
township, we find sluicing on a small scale still being
practised. A substantial dredge is at work in the river
bed itself, and the mud-laden Manuherikia rolls down
its tribute to swell the swift Molyneux.
The country here presents a
picture of chaotic desolation. The rocks are crumbling and
rotting. Everything looks ruinous. Sand and withered
thistle-stalks seem the prevailing products of the
place, and there does not seem even enough herbage to
support a rabbit. In fact, we see numbers of dead ones
near the road, and the great convoys of gulls are the only
live animals we see.
It is a treat from this
desolate region to come upon a well-cultivated,
well-populated settlement known as Spear Grass Flat. It is
also called Bald Hill Flat, but as Bald Hill is covered with great
brown bunches of spear-grass, all but a spot on the
crown, the origin of the names is not far to seek. On the
right the Old Man Range lies, gleaming white with drifted
snow. Round one farmstead we count over thirty great
stacks. The wheat grown here took the second prize at the
Here another curious freak of
bird nature came under our observation. A massive carcase
had been slung up by the butcher of the settlement,
and perched on it were dozens of twittering
sparrows and tom-tits tearing away at the flesh and
regaling themselves right royally. I had often heard the
expression, "A tom-tit on a round of beef," as an
illustration of an unequal match in size, but here was the
real thing itself.
At Gorge Creek we dip into
the valley down a slippery, muddy decline, very trying to
the poor horses, and change teams at the top of the next
rise. The last sixteen miles into Roxburgh is
through rocky country and is done in the dark. At Coal
Creek Flat there are some famous orchards. The fruit
fetches high prices in Dunedin. Grapes are grown under glass, and it is
amazing to see so little attention paid to such an
industry, since more than three-fourths of the fruit
consumed in the colony comes from abroad.
Flitting lights, twinkling
and moving down below near the stream, and others shining
with a steady glow, now apprise us that Roxburgh is in
sight. The lights by the river are those of the
night shift of miners, busy sluicing their wash-dirt while the river is low.
Roxburgh is our resting-place for the night, and cold and
weary we alight, and are glad of the welcome dinner
and warm fire which are awaiting us.