The Waitaki is up!" was the news we received in Oamaru. This river had to be crossed on our journey northward into the province of Canterbury. Word came that it was barely fordable, a hot wind having melted the snows on the Ranges, and swollen the mountain torrents. This river is 120 miles long, and has its source in the Southern Alps, not far from Mount Cook, 13,000 feet high, and the monarch of New Zealand mountains. The Waitaki is the boundary-line between Scotch Otago and English Canterbury, so that "Both sides of the Waitaki " may come to be as suggestive a phrase as " Baith sides o' the Tweed."
A drive of fourteen miles brought us to the river, where we waited three hours, watching through a glass one or two houses on the opposite shore, about a mile off. At length a boat approached. The head ferryman, who was trying to discover a ford for the coach, came slowly across on horseback. He was a Norwegian named Muller—a big-built giant of a man, with a long red beard, flannel shirt, and tweed trousers. By his orders the luggage was taken out of the coach and put into the boat. Then, after my father, my mother, and my two sisters had taken their places, they were safely rowed across.
The coach was not equally fortunate. Our driver, though sustained greatly by a dram he had taken at a cottage, was in great terror of the water, a brother of his having not long before been drowned whilst crossing an Otago river. Had it not been that my cousin and I went on the box as company, he would assuredly have thrown up the reins. It was certainly far from pleasant to see the grey current rolling past us at six knots an hour, and know that next minute we were to trust ourselves to its uncertain depths. The Norwegian was mounted on a bare-backed white horse, so as to be ready any moment for a swim. Gideon cracked his whip, and we splashed in, the rear being brought up by Robert and James on the saddle-horses. The coach gave a severe pitch, and a substantial wave came over the box-seat. The two on horseback had a bad time of it. James, who rode a black pony, was every moment expecting to be carried away; but he got at last under the lee of the large horse, and felt safer. Muller tied a rope to the leading horses, to guide us round some awkward places—a proceeding which kept us continually on the alert; for once or twice he turned us sharply on the " lock" of the coach, and we felt the vehicle lifting for an overturn in the river. Another shingle-spit was gained, and Miller again peered about for a ford, but the bottom was lost a few feet from the edge. We drove in at random, the Norwegian keeping close alongside our leading horses. All at once his white horse sank to the belly, and in a second the coach had crashed down into the deep water. We had gone but a few yards farther when Miller suddenly threw up the leading-rope into the air, flung his hand back warningly, and sank with an ominous plunge, almost at our feet into an unknown depth of water. Horse and rider were swept before our terrified gaze away down the river. Clutching the bridle firmly in his left hand, the ferryman made a lunge with his right, caught the mane and held grimly on, while the horse swam strongly and brought him at last to a small point of land. The coach had been arrested on the brink of a hidden terrace. We trembled for the slightest movement of the horses ; but luckily they stood like statues despite the water surging up violently against their sides. Miller made his appearance again, all dripping but hopeful, and got us out of our predicament by a sharp turn of the coach—telling us afterwards, in proof of the shifting nature of the channel, that he had crossed easily at this very place only the day before. When we arrived on the shore we found an hour had been occupied in fording, an experience that cost us thirty shillings. The Norwegian told us he had been ten years at this, had been swept off that same old white horse many and many a time, and had frequently to swim for his life. We would advise no one with weak nerves to ford a swollen river in New Zealand. A few days after, a number of passengers were fording this same Waitaki, when their coach upset and a " female magician " was drowned. We afterwards saw in the Christchurch cemetery, many graves of persons who had perished while crossing rivers. The inscriptions, which came home to us in all their force, included such texts as " A horse is counted but a vain thing to save a man."
Cobb's Coach! page 115
THIS adventure was succeeded by a journey of twelve miles through pastoral country. There are some large " runs " in this neighbourhood. A story is told of a squatter who, in a towering passion, ordered one of his men to leave—"Away off at once ! " cried he; "get off my run this minute!" " What!" exclaimed the object of his wrath, calmly pulling out his watch, —this minute ! Why, I couldn't do it if I were to rush at a break-neck pace for three hours on end !" We reached Waimate, our first experience of a Canterbury township—a collection of neat cottages, painted a light salmon-colour. Next day we travelled to Timaru, where we said good-bye to our genial driver Gideon. It subsequently transpired that he made "something handsome " out of his return journey to Dunedin, as he picked up a batch of Chinamen on the road and brought them into town—or rather to the outskirts; for, as he said, " I wasn't a-going to be seen drivin' home with a lot o' Chinese diggers!"
We prosecuted our journey to Christchurch by " Cobb's coach." Inside the vehicle was a young lady barnacled over with bundles. The other passenger was an elderly gentleman with a red face and grey moustache—to all appearance a Crimean officer—who was called " the Doctor " by everybody we met. A few miles out we came to a public-house. The driver handed the reins to the farmer, then slowly toiled into the bar. Three minutes elapsed. Out he came, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. " What'll you have, Jack ? " said he to a man on the box " Oh, I don't know—I'll try a shandigaff." The Crimean gentleman emerged from the coach. " And what'll you take, Doctor ? " "Oh, a sherry 'll do me, thank you." After a while the driver and the doctor, followed by a foul-speeched swagman, returned from the bar. The driver goutily ascended to the box, rheumatically took the reins, serenely rilled his pipe, nodded in a careless way to a friend at the door, and commenced an enthralling stable conversation. The military doctor crawled into the coach, and the swagman, uttering threats at some one in the public-house, reeled out, pitched his blankets inside the coach, and took his seat beside them. The mail slowly jogged off once more. We passed by plantations of gum trees, rows of bright yellow stacks, corn fields hedged with gorse, green meadows, and a wide level plain far beyond—the grey road extending away ahead, till the unclouded sky came down like a bright blue blade, and severed it at the horizon. In time we reached Temuka, where the same drinking programme was gone through.
Drinking here is fostered by the appearance and number of the " hotels." " Hotel" sounds more respectable than " public- house." The bars are .opener, more numerous, and less clandestine-looking than at home. Colonial Bill, when he beckons his chum Tom to have a " nobbier" over the way, is only increasing his long-established fame for good-fellowship. The digger, when he leaves his lonely gully and comes down to civilisation, has a " blow-out" with his friends—so has the shepherd when he pockets his cheque for some months' work, and leaves for a while the solitude of a sheep-station. No company of average men assembles, but some one " shouts " or " stands " drinks all round. Mr. Black meets Mr. White, whom he has not seen for a whole week, and the consequence 'is a couple of " drinks." Jones has something particular to say to Robinson about the weather—they step " across the road." Smith settles an account with Brown, and "two nips of brandy " are immediately called for. "Nobblers" act as the receipt-stamps of business. It is but fair, however, to state that there is a considerable absence of staggering drunkenness. There is more of what we might call casual conviviality, but it cannot be said there is more intemperance in the colonies than in the mother-country.
A "Dog Watch." page 117
We stayed two days at Temuka and then caught the next coach, which left at eight in the morning. The track lay through a continuous sea of grass. Some passengers in the front part of the coach became extraordinarily happy, taking at frequent intervals a bottle out of a black bag. The jolly company established a "dog-watch," which meant that every dog met in with was to be the signal for a drink all round. The first seen was a boundary-dog chained to a break in a fence to prevent sheep straying from one run to another. It was a fierce, leaping, howling brute, with teeth like tusks and brown matted hair that flapped in long ragged strips over its back and over its eyes. It was fastened to a wooden kennel, and within the radius of its tether were red fleshy bones of sheep, a skull and half-crunched ribs, which the dog dragged rattling around with its chain as it wheeled and bounded furiously at the coach. Poor boundary-dogs, what a life they lead —no society, nothing but an occasional coach to remind them of the outside world. They are said even to bark at a passing shower by way of variety!
In the middle of the plains we drew up alongside a post on which was nailed what looked like a small writing-desk. The driver leant out, lifted the lid, took out a small leather bag and drove off'. It was a bush post-office—a very private letter-box belonging to some sheep-station. Then the horses as if by mutual consent, took it into their heads to "bolt." With vigorous gallop they careered along the plain. The team was guided off the road, and the frantic animals swept round in an immense circle on the plain. All fear and anxiety gave place at last to curiosity. " How long would they keep it up ?" For nearly a quarter of an hour they dragged the coach round and round ; but at the end of that time they sobered down to a smart trot, and all steaming and sweating, they were headed back to the road. A passenger was picked up—an open-faced young Irishman. " Ach! this country is no good," said he, " the best of the land's all taken up, and you can't get work when you want it—and little enough wages, too." Cross- examining him, we learned that he had been five weeks at harvesting and was £25 in pocket. " Troth, that's a fact," said he; "I cleared five pounds a week. You see I'm one of those chaps that's always grumbling, and don't know when they're well off." Leaving Ashburton, where we had dinner, we passed paddocks of green grass, marshalled round in military fashion with sentinel poplars, outside of which bristled like bayonets the fixed blades of the flax. Eighteen miles of dull plains, a thirty miles' night-ride on a railway, and we sighted the street-lamps of Christchurch.
David Kennedy By Marjory Kennedy Fraser, David Kennedy, 1887