The majesty of the mountains—The great
Canterbury Plains —Ashburton, a city of the plains—Then
and now— The Rangitata River—Progress of settlement—Timaru
—The surf—The olden time—The city of to-day—A
triumph of engineering skill—The giant mole—Its construction—The engineer's
description of the work—An old chum—"Once a mate always a
mate''—Calling the roll—A vivid contrast.
On a bitterly cold morning, and under a dense
heavy pall of leaden cloud, we start on our journey
across the great Canterbury Plains towards Timaru and
The plains are composed chiefly of shingle, with
a scant herbage of tussock grass. Here and there,
alongside the line, are young plantations of English oak
and Australian blue gum. Stubble fields, hedged in by long
rows of gorse, stretch away on either hand for miles.
Already (May) the winter ploughing has begun in places.
The majestic range of the snowy Alps bounds the great
plain to the right. What a burnished splendour! what a
dazzling glory! as the sun bursts through the pall
of cloud ! Could anything be more beautiful than these
eternal solitudes of snow? The absolute purity—peace—rest.
What an emblem of the soul's repose after purification
from life's mire and unrest! The rattle of the train hurts
and jars. It is so incongruous with that pure holy majesty
of the pinnacled snow. Little wonder that mountaineers
are generally reverent and religious.
Now we cross the rapid Rakaia over a very long
wooden bridge. At every country town in the South
Island among the most prominent features are the great
granaries and stores of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company.
They seem to be ubiquitous. The company provide
weighbridges and platforms for their customers at all the large stations
free of charge. The neat churches, too, are a constant
feature. Here is a malthouse; there a flour or saw-mill.
Here again is a granary; there is a woolshed.
Seed-cleaning machinery is of frequent occurrence; so too
are steam ploughs, traction engines, reaping machines.
Indeed, all the most modern forms of agricultural labour-saving
appliances are common sights. The faces we see are ruddy
and fresh and brimful of intelligence. Corn-ricks and
farmhouses stud the plains.
Through the Rakaia Gorge we get a peep beyond
the snowy barrier into the inner mountainous
country. The gorge discloses ever a grander succession of
snowy peaks and glistening glaciers. A region untrodden by
human foot, and sacred to the sway of nature's mightiest
activities. It is a sealed workshop, where Titanic forces
are ceaselessly at play.
Now, far ahead, the white buildings of Ashburton
gleam in the sun. It is verily a City of the Plains.
We find it a busy, thriving centre of a populous
farming district. There are numerous plantations of blue
gum, and the town itself is very scattered and
rural-looking. Poplars are prominent; and, indeed, this
regard to tree adornment is a very pleasing feature of all
New Zealand towns. Would it were so in New South Wales.
Twenty years ago I rode through Ashburton.
It was then a bullock-teamster's camp. There was a
"bush pub" and a blacksmith's shop and a police hut. These
constituted the township then.
Now, look around ! See the tall brick chimneys,
the gas-works, the wide streets well lined with
spacious shops and public buildings, hotels, churches,
institutes, and even a theatre. Handsomely laid-out reserves and
well-wooded parks, enormous wool and grain stores, coach
factories, wool factories, butter and cheese factories ;
public library. I may well rub my eyes! It seems all a
dream to me, that memory of the lumbering bullock
team, ploughing its weary way over shifting shingle and
through boggy hollows.
Across the sprawling river, where many a
footsore bullock has been swept down to sea in the
gone-by times; and many a swagsman has found a watery
grave; we now spin gaily along over another very long
wooden bridge—past gardens, nurseries, farms, plantations,
hay-ricks, and threshing-mills, we dash. Mile after mile is left behind,
till at Ealing, some seventy miles from Christchurch, we dip towards
the bed of the fierce Rangitata, which we cross by another of the
characteristic timber viaducts. The milky water,
treacherous and swift, comes dashing down from its snowy
source amid the glaciers, carrying its rolling burden of
shingle with it. The bridge is protected by flanking
buttresses running up stream. These are simply wooden
coffer-dams filled with shingle and boulders. What a wild
waste of shingle bars and drifted wrack fills the valley!
The stream runs now in myriads of silvery threads ; but in
flood-time what a mad surging rush of foaming water
is here ! It is then fully two miles across and resistless
in its might.
The snowy peaks are now shrouding themselves
in misty mantles, as if to protect their hoarded
crystals from the Sun-god's seductive touch. The plains
below are bathed in sunshine, but far out to seaward,
Heaven's murky battalions are gathering, and the air is
hushed and still, as if presaging an impending storm.
At Orari, with its snug farms, and belts of
plantations, the train disgorges a vulture-like crowd of
betting-men. A little ramshackle erection, which local
pride has dignified with the title of grand stand,
decorated with bits of bunting, sufficiently discloses the
attraction which has brought the jackals hither.
Betting and gambling blights the kingly sport
here, as it does so much all over the colonies. The
degrading influence of the betting-ring lowers the moral
tone of the country, and vast sums are withdrawn from
legitimate uses to keep in luxury a set of unscrupulous
parasites who batten on industry and clog the wheels of
On we hurry through a
splendid farming district Past Winchester, with its neat villas and trim
gardens ; past Temuka, with its handsome white-spired church and Gothic
schools, its well- stocked farms and plethoric corn-yards; past Arowhenua,
with its Maori village, and another mountain stream brawling over its bed of
shingle. On, with accelerated speed, through magnificently cultivated farms,
rich swaths of stubble, and ample evidences on every hand of rural wealth
and thriving settlement. I have rounded sheep over every mile of this
country in the olden time, when there was little else but flax, raupo,
tussock, wild pig, and unbroken ground. Verily the times have changed—and
happily. Men are surely better than wild pig, and smiling farms than lonely
I am fairly lost in delighted wonder, and we are
glad when the train rolls into Timaru, and we get
housed in the comfortable Grosvenor Hotel, and find time
to draw breath, and try to realize the infinite alterations which have taken
place in twenty years of busy colonial life.
* * * * * *
Time has indeed made many
changes here. When I last visited Timaru, I sailed up from Lyttelton, in a
small coasting tub of a steamer. There was a terrific ground swell off the
open beach of shingle, and the breakers rolled their curling crests
landwards with a roar and crash like thunder. All landing, both cargo and
passengers, was done in huge unwieldy surf-boats. And it was a very rare
experience, indeed, to get ashore with a dry skin. The boats—big and heavy
as they were—were not unfrequently tossed aloft like chips, and sent rolling
up on the shingle, bottom upward like so much driftwood. Lives were not
unfrequently lost and goods often sacrificed.
The village boasted then of only a few shops,
one or two warehouses along the beach, and less
than half a dozen inferior hotels. The Timaru
Herald of that date was published in a very small
weatherboard hut, quite detached, and perched on a waste
hillock overlooking the ocean. The very hill itself has
now disappeared, to make room for the railway, and the
Herald is much more suitably housed. At that time the
streets were fearfully and wonderfully made. Bullock
teams might be stuck up in the main streets until
the townspeople came to the assistance of the teamster to
dig them out. All the houses were of wood, and were set
down very much at random. When the annual races were held,
the young bloods and station hands "from all the region
round about," "The boys" from the Mackenzie country,
the sawyers from the Waimate, the half-breeds and
"cockatoos" from Temuka and the Arowhenua Bush, and all
the "flotsam and jetsam" from every accommodation-house
within a radius of fifty miles used to come into town, and
for a lively week or two high saturnalia used to be held.
At that time Timaru had the reputation of
being the fastest, most racketty, riotous township
in the South Island. Verily, I could a tale disclose of
some of the mad, harebrained escapades of "the boys" that
would scarcely be believed in these more prosaic,
steady-paced, and orderly latter- days. It certainly was a
rough time, and a rough place then. But now, how changed !
Timaru has grown into a city. Solid blocks of
stately shops, warehouses, and offices now line the
principal streets. The hotels are quite up to metropolitan
form. The very hills, as I have said, have been levelled,
and stately churches, a theatre, convent, schools, banks,
mills, a massive post and telegraph office, and countless
cosy homes and handsome villas now stud the slopes where I
have erstwhile seen the peaceful sheep quietly browsing
among the tussocks.
When I first recollect the place, the
postmistress has been heard to say to the young telegraph
clerk: "I hear you had a telegram through this afternoon ;
why didn't you tell me?" Yes, in the primitive time the
advent of a telegram was quite an incident. Now in the
palatial post- office the service is conducted by an army
of clerks and messengers. The hospital is really a
magnificent stone building, and second to none I have yet
seen in the colony. A great part of the bleak hill, on
which stood the Royal Hotel, has been cut away to form the
railway-station and shunting-yards, and quite, a large area has been
reclaimed from the relentless surf.
Now, had any one twenty years ago told me
that those shifting masses of shingle, those
travelling acres of rattling roaring boulders could be
arrested, and that the fury of those terrific surges and
angry waves could be tamed, I would have laughed the idea
to scorn as the vain imagining of a foolish visionary. And
yet the seemingly impossible has been accomplished.
Timaru, owing to the genius and skill of Mr.
Goodall, her harbour engineer, can now lay claim to
being a safe port, and big steamers and stately ships can
lie close alongside her wharves and discharge their passengers and cargo in
ease and safety. How has this been accomplished?
If we saunter down to the beach and look
around at the massive blocks of concrete, we will
see how the fury of the angry surf has been defied, and
how man's genius and perseverance has completely conquered some of the
mightiest forces in nature.
The long-reaching pier, or breakwater, is indeed
a triumph of constructive skill. The problem of
forming a secure harbour on the face of an open coast, is
difficult in any case ; but when to the usual difficulties
have to be added
"The long wash of Australasian seas,"
as the billows of the Pacific
come thundering in on the strand of shifting shingle, which makes the New
Zealand coast one of the most baffling and unpromising sites in the world
for engineering operations, the immense arduousness of the task which Mr.
Goodall had before him, will be recognized at a glance. Does it not say
much for the energy and pluck and public spirit of the community which had
set its heart on having a secure harbour, in defiance of shingly drift, and
roaring surf, and all the antagonism of wind and wave and treacherous coast
combined? Verily, the lesson of such courage, and resolution, and inventive
resource might well be applied by more highly favoured communities nearer
Fortunately, material for the
manufacture of concrete blocks was plentiful and handy. The shingle was
forced to become the instrument of its own subjection. Vast wooden tanks
were formed along the beach, and cement and shingle were shovelled into
these, and in time the embracing wood was knocked asunder, and giant blocks
of concrete stood revealed. Some of these weighed upward of thirty tons. An
enormous travelling crane was then moved up, and the block was gripped in
its Titanic clutch, and slowly carried outwards and dropped into its
assigned position. The whole was then cemented together by more concrete. In
vain might the angry surges dash against that callous mass. In vain might
the shifting shingle with a snaky hiss, seethe and toss around the
unyielding block. Bit by bit the solid rampart grew, side by side the mighty
blocks showed a firm immovable front to the baffled waves. It boots not to
tell of the numberless contrivances brought to bear on the task by the
cunning skill of the engineer. Amid interruptions and partial breaks and a
ceaseless war with the forces of nature, that properly viewed, completely
eclipses the fabled battles of classic mythology, the good
work went steadily on; and
now, after the lapse of so many years, as I stood on the broad massive
immovable rampart, listening to the hungry surge as it rushed impotently
against the majestic buttress of the protecting pier—as I saw the sheltered
ships idly rocking in calm security, and remembered the surf-boats and
tossing cockleshell of a steamer of the former times—I felt indeed that
here was a triumph worthy of the age —a prodigy of beneficent achievement
that sheds a lustre on the name of humanity.
Mr. Goodall, in his own modest way, thus writes
me regarding the great work which will henceforth
be associated with his name:—
"It had always been the wish of many of the
leading residents of Timaru and neighbourhood to
construct a safe harbour for Timaru, the hindrance to
which seemed to be in the great force of the waves and the
large quantity of shingle travelling on the coast. An
experimental groin was constructed by Mr. Balfour, and
reports were obtained from many leading English and
colonial engineers. The experimental work was first buried
in shingle, then washed away shortly after it was
constructed; and the reports of the engineers were
directly opposed to building a solid structure from the
shore. The Harbour Board were not satisfied, and, as a
last resource, called for competitive plans for a. harbour
scheme. That of the present writer was chosen, and was
approved of by a Government commission. This scheme
proposed to construct a solid breakwater of concrete
blocks thirty-six feet wide, reaching to half-tide in
height; then capped with a monolithic concrete block of
about five hundred tons in weight. This wall was to
extend to about 1000 feet from low watermark in a north-east direction, and
then turn in a northerly direction 700 feet or 800 feet;
it was to be six feet above high water spring
tides, and would have twenty feet of water at spring low
tides at the extremity. The work was started and
succeeded, withstood the force of the waves, and was not
swallowed up by the travelling shingle, which was swept
back by the backwash of the waves. This backwash is caused
by the reflection of the waves from the face of the mole; it
sweeps back the approaching shingle, or retards its
advance, and by its action the shingle line adjacent to
the breakwater has been stationary for the last four
years. When the works were carried out 1000 feet, its
success was so self-evident that the Harbour Board
determined to extend the mole another 400 feet, and the
cant to the north to 200 feet, and also to strengthen the
section. It is also proposed to build a mole from the
shore on the north towards the extremity of the cant, and
so produce a nearly enclosed harbour. The area of
this harbour will be 180 acres, and when completed,
will be perfect and commodious. Now, although only a small
portion of the cant has been built, along with the
straight mole from the shore, accommodation gained is already invaluable.
Vessels of 1000 tons can anchor to the lee of the
breakwater in perfect safety, can also come alongside the
wharf attached to the breakwater, and load and unload with
perfect ease and great dispatch, even when there is a
heavy sea running and breaking over the breakwater. All
this has not been obtained without some trouble, for at times the angry
seas have knocked about the concrete blocks as if
they were of wood, and on one occasion threw down 100 feet
in length of the mole, distributing the blocks over the
bottom to forty feet from the line of works. This portion
of the work had not been capped with the monolithic block,
which would have bound all together. It is notable
in this work that whatever has been finished with
the coping, has in no instance ever given way or subsided,
in spite of the many violent seas that are so prevalent.
The concrete blocks used, weigh about thirty tons each,
and are placed in position with perfect ease and
expedition by a large travelling steam crane that has been tested to
forty-five tons. This crane weighs 120 tons, and is worked
by one man. There are two of these cranes in the
works. They were both manufactured in the colony.
The works will cost, when the present contract
is completed, extending over 180 feet further,
210,000/. The Board are applying to Parliament for another
loan, 100,000/., for prosecuting the works ; but this will
not complete the works as designed.
The success of this work has tempted Napier, in
the North Island, to try a similar scheme, the con-
. ditions of sea and travelling shingle in the two coasts
being almost identical. During last session of Parliament,
powers were obtained for 300,0001. for the works, and a
start has already been made."
* * * * * *
To resume my personal narrative.
At fitful intervals during my world-wide
wanderings, I had now and again heard a scrap of news
about some of my old companions of the long ago Timaru
life. Of the kindly group which used to sit round the
table in the old station, in the peaceful and prosperous
squatting days, how many had gone down under the waters of
oblivion. Of the rollicking old hands that used to applaud
my songs in the vast shadowy woolshed, when the
busy day was at an end, and the flickering light
from tallow pots with some blazing rags in them, cast a
Rembrandt-like glare on the swarthy faces around, how many
had "pegged out" in the game of life! How few survived !
Thus I pondered as I idly strolled down the street, when
suddenly I bethought me that one of the old station hands
had found an anchorage in Timaru, and was now reported to be a
wealthy burgess and a well-to-do livery-stable keeper.
Away then I hurried to King's stables. There
sure enough, with, I could almost have sworn, the
same Glengarry cap, though hair and whiskers were now
frosted and grizzled—there stood old Jim King, the "orra
man" of the station in my younger days. Jim was a douce
shrewd ploughman from, I think, Donside, and many a day he
and I had pushed and pulled the heavy cross-cut saw, or
wielded axe and maul together in the Otaio bush in the
Jim's astonishment when I greeted him by
name was very amusing. He did not recognize me; but
remembered me when I asked after the young cadet he had
known so long ago. My interview with poor Jim was worth
all the pilgrimage, and before I left Timaru he brought
most of the surviving friends of my early days to see me.
Ah me! these meetings in after life; are they
not full of pathos ? What a record of deaths and
failures, as we call up the muster roll which memory
How essentially colonial, too, these chance
meetings. How quickly the comradeship is formed.
How soon, may be, to be sundered, and yet "once a mate
always a mate" in the colonies. We had not seen each other
for over twenty years, and yet the old bush, the
wool-shed, the whare, with its idle group of
Crimean-shirted, black-bearded stockmen, shepherds,
bullock-puncher, horse-breakers, fencers, and general rousetabouts, as they
used to muster on the quiet Sunday, all came back to us ;
and as naturally, as if no time had since elapsed, big
with changes to both of us, we reverted to the old days ;
and long- forgotten names and incidents came to our lips,
as eager query and rejoinder passed between us.
"Old Donald; you remember him?"
"Oh, man; poor old beggar, he's still alive;
but over eighty. Living with so-and-so."
"And old Jack, the bullock-driver?"
"Oh, he went to the diggings. I lost sight of
"And George A?"
"Went to Australia. I hear from him
"What became of Harry?"
"Man; he went all to the bad. Broke his neck
one night coming home from a spree."
And so we called the roll. Some were drowned.
Some lost sight of. Very, very few had been
prosperous. Many were dead. Some had left the country. How
strange it all seemed to recall the past, and for the
moment feel as if all the busy years had not been, and
that we were shapely, active youngsters once again.
Alas! I saw that poor Jim was a cripple on
one leg from a fall, and he surveyed the uncompromising rotundity of
my substantial middle age, and we felt that
Limbs grow auld, and hair grows grey,
However young the heart may be.
There is good hunting round about Timaru.
Three packs of beagles are kept. The hares are
enormous in size, and the jumping is good. There are a
fine set of hearty fellows in the Timaru district; and,'
for a change from the sweltering heat of New South Wales
in summer time, a month or two's residence in Timaru would
In a street leading up from the post-office is a
monolith, which is sure to be pointed out to the
visitor. It is commemorative of a gallant act of British
daring and generous self-sacrifice, and is worthy to be
recorded. On the tablets, which face three sides of the
pillar, you read:
This Monument is raised to
commemorate the generous and noble self-sacrifice of those
who gladly encountered the peril of death in the
heroic endeavour to save their
fellow-men on Sunday, the 14th May, 1882, when the City of
Perth and the Benvenuc were wrecked at Timaru.
" Greater love hath no man than this
That a man lay down his life for his friends."
From the other tablets one learns that nine of
the noble, self-sacrificing band perished, including
Mills, the harbour-master, and Blacklock and
Gardener, first and second mates of the City of Perth.
Timaru altogether was an intense surprise to
me. I could scarcely realize the changes. The
village had become a city. Nothing more forcibly brought
home to me the marvellous progression of the age in which
we live, and the resistless vitality and boundless
resources of our race.
And what a contrast—to turn from the thronging
streets, the crowded pier, the hum of commerce, and din of
busy industries, and lift one's eyes to the calm white
crests of the Eternal Hills. There they stood, ever the
same, solemn and majestic in their changelessness. They
blazed up their burnished pinnacles like pyres of flame
in the still air, amid their drapery of mists, and
trailing wreaths of cloudlets, and the intense vividness of their
immaculate whiteness, is the memory of Timaru that is now
most indelibly fixed on my mind.