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Our New Zealand Cousins
Chapter XV


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 at Roxburgh.

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.

At Macetown 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 witnessed.

The peaceful plough has now succeeded the eager pick and shovel, and several thatched farmcots are visible here and there through the mists.

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 amazing pass.

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 terrible view.

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 the scenery.

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 flesh.

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 clearing.

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 instinct.

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 the hawk.

"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.

Now the 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.

Cromwell, in common with mostly every town of any importance in New Zealand, can boast of one thing which Sydney with all her magnificence yet lacks.

"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 for ourselves.

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 Sydney Exhibition.

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.


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