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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XII. My First Expedition

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Letter XII. My First Expedition.

This ought to be early spring, but the weather is really colder and more disagreeable than any which winter brought us; and, proverbially fickle as spring sunshine and showers are in England, ours is a far more capricious and trying season. Twice during this month have I been a victim to these sudden changes of climate; on the first occasion it was most fortunate that we had reached the shelter of a friendly and hospitable roof, for it was three days before we could re-cross the mountain-pass which lay between us and home. One beautiful spring morning F—— asked me if I would like to ride across the hills, and pay my first visit to some kind and old friends of his, who were among the earliest arrivals in the province, and who have made a lovely home for themselves at the foot of a great Bush on the other side of our range. I was delighted at the idea, for I have had very little opportunity of going about since we came here, owing page 76 to the short winter days and the amount of occupation at home consequent on a new establishment.

Directly after breakfast, the horses were caught and saddled, and we started in high spirits. As we rode up the long, sunny valley stretching away for miles at the back of the house, F—— pointed out to me, with all a sheep-farmer’s pride, the hundreds of pretty little curly-fleeced lambs skipping about the low hill-sides. After we passed our own boundary fence we came upon a very bad track,— this is the name by which all roads are called, and they do not deserve a better,—but it was the only path to our destination. The air was mild and balmy, and the sun shone brightly as we slowly picked our way across bogs and creeks, and up and down steep, slippery hill-sides; but just as we reached the lowest saddle of the range and prepared to descend, a cold wind met us. In an instant the sunshine was overclouded, and F——, pointing to a grey bank of cloud moving quickly towards us, said, “There is a tremendous sou’-wester coming up; we had better push on for shelter, or you’ll be drowned:” but, alas! at each step the road grew worse and worse; where it was level the ground was literally honeycombed with deep holes half full of water, and at last we came to a place where the horse had to descend a flight of stone steps, each step being extremely slippery and some way below the other; and at the bottom of this horrible staircase there was a wide jump to be taken, the spring being off the lowest step, and the jump upwards alighting on a steep bank up which the horses page 77 scrambled like cats. Getting wet through appeared to me a very minor evil compared to the dangers of such a road, but F—— urged me forward, with assurances that the horse knew the path perfectly well and could carry me at a gallop quite safely; but it was impossible to infuse sufficient courage into my drooping heart to induce me to go faster than a walk.

All this time the storm drew rapidly nearer, the wind blew in icy cold gusts, the hail came down in large stones, pelting our faces till they tingled again; it was nearly an hour before we rode up to the hospitable, ever-open porch door of Rockwood. I was immediately lifted off my saddle by kind and strong arms, and carried with frozen limbs and streaming habit into the kitchen, for I was as unfit for the drawing-room as my own water-spaniel. A blazing wood fire was hastily lighted in one of the bed-rooms, and thither the good hostess conveyed me. I emerged from that apartment the most extraordinary figure you ever saw. Imagine me arrayed in a short and very wide crinoline, over which was a bright-coloured linsey petticoat; an old pilot-coat for a jacket, huge carpet slippers on my feet, and my dripping hair hanging loose over my shoulders! I assure you, I looked like the portraits in books of travel, of the Tahitian women when they first assumed clothes; and the worst of it was, that I had to remain in this costume for three whole days. To return was impossible, the storm from the S.W. raged all that evening. When we opened our eyes next morning, snow was page 78 lying some inches deep, and still falling fast; there was no cessation for forty-eight hours, and then we had to give it time to thaw a little, so that it was Sunday morning before we started on our homeward ride. In the meantime, nothing could afford a greater contrast to the wild weather out of doors than the snug brightness within. Blazing logs of pine and black birch made every room warm and cheery; all day we chatted and amused ourselves in different ways (I learned to make a capital pudding, and acquainted myself with the mysteries of “junket”); in the evenings we had whist for an hour, and then either round games or songs. The young men of the house have nice voices and a great feeling for music, and some of the trios and glees went very well indeed. The only thing which spoilt my enjoyment was the constantly recurring remembrance of that terrible road. F—— tried to comfort me by assurances that the snow would have filled up the worst places so much that I should not see them, but, strange to say, I failed to derive any consolation from that idea; however, we accomplished the journey back safely, but with many slips and slides. As soon as we came on our own run, F—— began to look out for dead lambs, but fortunately there were not many for him to mourn over; they must have taken shelter under the low hills, to leeward of the storm.

The second ride was much longer, and if possible a more disagreeable one. It began just in the same way; we were again decoyed out by sunshine and page 79 soft air for a ride round the run, starting about half-past ten. The scenery was beautiful, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The track lay along our own boundary fence most of the way, and we had ridden about ten miles, when we stopped at one of our shepherds’ huts, technically called an out station, and accepted his offer of luncheon. He gave us capital tea, with an egg beaten up in it as a substitute for milk, cold mutton, bread, and a cake; the reason of these unwonted luxuries was that he kept fowls, and I was very jealous at seeing two broods of chickens out, whilst mine are still in the shell. This man is quite an artist, and the walls of his but were covered with bold pen-and-ink sketches, chiefly reminiscences of the hunting-field in England, or his own adventures “getting out” wild cattle on the Black Hills in the north of the province: he leads an extremely-solitary existence, his dogs being his only companions; his duties consist in riding daily a boundary down the gorge of the river, which he has to cross and re-cross many times: and he has to supply the home station and our house with mutton, killing four or five sheep a week. He is employed out of doors all day, but has plenty of time in the evenings for reading I found him well-informed and intelligent, and he expresses himself exceedingly well. We rested here an hour, and as we went outside and prepared to mount, F—— said, “I really believe there is another sou’-wester coming up,” and so there was: we could not go fast, for we were riding over a dry river-bed, composed page 80 entirely of loose large stones. Every few hundred yards we had to cross the river Selwyn, which was rising rapidly, as the storm had been raging in the mountains long before it reached us; on each side were high, steep hills, and in some places the river filled up the gorge entirely, and we had to ride in the water up to our saddle-girths. All this time the rain was coming down in sheets, but the wind grew colder and colder; at last the rain turned into snow, which speedily changed us and our horses into white moving figures. Eight long weary miles of this had we, only able to trot the last two, and those over very swampy ground. In your country a severe cold would probably have been the least evil of this escapade, but here no such consequence follow a good wetting; the houses are so little real protection from the weather, that you are forced to live as it were in the open air, whether you like it or not, and this hardens the constitution so much, that it is not easy to take cold from a little extra exposure. Men are apt to be careless and remain in their wet things, or stand before a fire till their clothes dry on them; and whenever I scold any one for being foolish, he always acknowledges that if he does but change when he comes into a house, he never catches cold from any amount of exposure to the severest weather.