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Station Life in New Zealand

Letter XVII. My First and Last Experience of “Camping Out.”

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Letter XVII. My First and Last Experience of “Camping Out.”

I have nothing to tell you this mail, except of a rather ridiculous expedition which we made last week, and which involved our spending the whole night on the top of the highest hill on our run. You will probably wonder what put such an idea into our heads, so I must preface my account by a little explanation. Whenever I meet any people who came here in the very early days of the colony—only sixteen years ago, after all!—I delight in persuading them to tell me about their adventures and hardships during those primitive times, and these narratives have the greatest fascination for me, as they always end happily. No one ever seems to have died of his miseries, or even to have suffered seriously in any way from them, so I find the greatest delight in listening to the stories of the Pilgrims. I envy them dreadfully for having gone through so page 125 much with such spirit and cheerfulness, and ever since I came here I have regretted that the rapid advance of civilization in New Zealand precludes the possibility of being really uncomfortable; this makes me feel like an impostor, for I am convinced that my English friends think of me with the deepest pity, as of one cut off from the refinements and comforts of life, whereas I really am surrounded by every necessary, and many of its luxuries, and there is no reason but that of expense why one should not have all of these.

One class of narratives is peculiarly attractive to me. I like to hear of benighted or belated travellers when they have had to “camp out,” as it is technically called; and have lived in constant hope of meeting with an adventure which would give me a similar experience. But I am gradually becoming convinced that this is almost impossible by fair means, so I have been trying for some time past to excite in the breasts of our home party and of our nearest neighbours an ardent desire to see the sun rise from the top of “Flagpole,” a hill 3,000 feet above the level of the sea, and only a: couple of miles from the house. As soon as they were sufficiently enthusiastic on the subject, I broached my favourite project of our all going up there over-night, and camping out on the highest peak. Strange to say, the plan did not meet with any opposition, even from F——, who has had to camp out many a winter’s night, and with whom, therefore, page 126 the novelty may be said to have worn off. Two gentlemen of the proposed party were “new chums” like myself, and were strongly in favour of a little roughing; new-chums always are, I observe. F—— hesitated a little about giving a final consent on the score of its being rather too late in the year, and talked of a postponement till next summer, but we would not listen to such an idea; so he ended by entering so heartily into it, that when at last the happy day and hour came, an untoward shower had not the least effect in discouraging him.

There was a great bustle about the little homestead on that eventful Tuesday afternoon. Two very steady old horses were saddled, one for me and the other for one of the “new chums,” who was not supposed to be in good form for a long walk, owing to a weak knee. Everything which we thought we could possibly want was heaped on and around us after we had mounted; the rest of the gentlemen, four in number, walked, and we reached the first stage of our expedition in about an hour. Here we dismounted, as the horses could go no further in safety. The first thing done was to see to their comfort and security; the saddles were carefully deposited under a large flax-bush in case of rain, and the long tether ropes were arranged so as to ensure plenty of good feed and water for both horses, without the possibility of the ropes becoming entangled in each other or in anything else. Then came a time of great excitement and laughing and talking, for all the “swags” page 127 had to be packed and apportioned for the very long and steep ascent before us.

And now I must tell you exactly what we took up. A pair of large double blankets to make the tent of,—that was one swag, and a very unwieldy one it was, strapped knapsack fashion, with straps of flax-leaves, on the back, and the bearer’s coat and waistcoat fastened on the top of the whole. The next load consisted of one small single blanket for my sole use, inside of which was packed a cold leg of lamb. I carried the luncheon basket, also strapped on my shoulders, filled with two large bottles of cream, some tea and sugar, and, I think, teaspoons. It looked a very insignificant load by the side of the others, but I assure you I found it frightfully heavy long before I had gone half-way up the hill. The rest distributed among them a couple of large heavy axes, a small coil of rope, some bread, a cake, tin plates and pannikins, knives and forks, and a fine pigeon-pie. Concerning this pie there were two abominable propositions; one was to leave it behind, and the other was to eat it then and there: both of these suggestions were, however, indignantly rejected. I must not forget to say we included in the commissariat department two bottles of whisky, and a tiny bottle of essence of lemon, for the manufacture of toddy. We never see a real lemon, except two or three times a year when a ship arrives from the Fiji islands, and then they are sixpence or a shilling apiece. All these things were divided into two large heavy “swags,” and to poor page 128 F—— was assigned the heaviest and most difficult load of all—the water. He must have suffered great anxiety all the way, for if any accident had happened to his load, he would have had to go back again to refill his big kettle; this he carried in his hand, whilst a large tin vessel with a screw lid over its mouth was strapped on his back also full of water, but he was particularly charged not to let a drop escape from the spout of the kettle; and I may mention here, that though he took a long time about it, for he could not go as straight up the hill as we did, he reached the top with the kettle full to the brim—the other vessel was of course quite safe. All these packings and repackings, and the comfortable adjustment of the “swags,” occupied a long time, so it was past five when we began our climb, and half-past six when we reached the top of the hill, and getting so rapidly dark that we had to hurry our preparations for the night, though we were all so breathless that a “spell” (do you know that means rest?) would have been most acceptable. The ascent was very steep, and there were no sheep-tracks to guide us; our way lay through thick high flax-bushes, and we never could have got on without their help. I started with a stick, but soon threw it aside and pulled myself up by the flax, hand over hand. Of course I had to stop every now and then to rest, and once I chose the same flax-bush where three young wild pigs had retired for the night, having first made themselves the most beautiful bed of tussock grass bitten into page 129 short lengths; the tussocks are very much scattered here, so it must have been an afternoon’s work for them; but the shepherds say these wild pigs make themselves a fresh bed every night.

The first thing to be done was to pitch the tent on the little flat at the very top of the hill: it was a very primitive affair; two of the thinnest and longest pieces of totara, with which Flagpole is strewed, we used for poles, fastening another piece lengthwise to these upright sticks as a roof-tree: this frame was then covered with the large double blanket, whose ends were kept down on the ground by a row of the heaviest stones to be found. The rope we had brought up served to tie the poles together at the top, and to fasten the blanket on them; but as soon as the tent had reached this stage, it was discovered that the wind blew through it from end to end, and that it afforded very little protection. We also found it much colder at the top of this hill than in our valley; so under these circumstances it became necessary to appropriate my solitary blanket to block up one end of the tent and make it more comfortable for the whole party. It was very little shelter before this was done. The next step was to collect wood for a fire, which was not difficult, for at some distant time the whole of the hill must have been covered by a forest of totara trees; it has apparently been destroyed by fire, for the huge trunks and branches which still strew the steep sides are charred and half burnt. It is a beautiful wood, with a strong aromatic page 130 odour, and blazed and crackled splendidly in the clear, cool evening air, as we piled up a huge bonfire, and put the kettle on to boil. It was quite dusk by this time, so the gentlemen worked hard at collecting a great supply of wood, as the night promised to be a very cold one, whilst I remained to watch the kettle, full of that precious liquid poor F—— had carried up with such care, and to prevent the wekas from carrying off our supper, which I had arranged just inside the tent. In this latter task I was nobly assisted by my little black terrier Dick, of whose sad fate I must tell you later.

By eight o’clock a noble pile of firewood had been collected, and we were very tired and hungry; so we all crept inside the tent, which did not afford very spacious accommodation, and began our supper. At this point of the entertainment everybody voted it a great success; although the wind was slowly rising and blowing from a cold point, and our blanket-tent did not afford the perfect warmth and shelter we had fondly credited it with. The gentlemen began to button up their coats. I had only a light serge jacket on, so I coaxed Dick to sit at my back and keep it warm; for, whilst our faces were roasted by the huge beacon-fire, there was a keen and icy draught behind us. The hot tea was a great comfort, and we enjoyed it thoroughly, and after it was over the gentlemen lit their pipes, and I told them a story: presently we had glees, but by ten o’clock there was no concealing the fact that we were all very sleepy page 131 indeed; however, we still loudly declared that camping out was the most delightful experiment. F—— and another gentleman (that kind and most good-natured Mr. U——, who lives with us) went outside the tent, armed with knives, and cut all the tussocks they could feel in the darkness, to make me a bed after the fashion of the pigs; they brought in several armfuls, and the warmest corner in the tent was heaped with them; I had my luncheon-basket for a pillow, and announced that I had turned in and was very comfortable, and that camping out was charming; the gentlemen were still cheery, though sleepy; and the last thing I remember was seeing preparations being made for what a Frenchman of my acquaintance always will call a “grogs.” When I awoke, I thought I must have slept several hours. Though the fire was blazing grandly, the cold was intense: I was so stiff I could hardly move; all my limbs ached dreadfully, and my sensations altogether were new and very disagreeable. I sat up with great difficulty and many groans, and looked round: two figures were coiled up, like huge dogs, near me; two more, moody and sulky, were smoking by the fire; with their knees drawn up to their noses and their hands in their pockets, collars well up round their throats— statues of cold and disgust. To my inquiries about the hour, the answer, given in tones of the deepest despondency, was “Only eleven o’clock, and the sun doesn’t rise till six, and its going to be the coldest night we’ve had this year.” The speaker added, “If it wasn’t so dark page 132 that we’d break our necks on the way, we might go home.”

Here was a pretty end to our amusement. I slowly let myself down again, and tried to go to sleep, but that relief was at an end for the night; the ground seemed to grow harder every moment, or, at all events, I ached more, and the wind certainly blew higher and keener. Dick proved himself a most selfish doggie; he would creep round to leeward of me, whilst I wanted. him to let me get leeward of him, but he would not consent to this arrangement. Whenever I heard a deeper moan or sigh than usual, I whispered an inquiry as to the hour, but the usual reply, in the most cynical voice, was, “Oh, you need not whisper, nobody is asleep.” I heard one plaintive murmur “Think of all our warm beds, and of our coming up here from choice.” I must say I felt dreadfully ashamed of myself for my plan; it was impossible to express my contrition and remorse, for, always excepting Mr. U——, they were all too cross to be spoken to. It certainly was a weary, long night. About one o’clock I pretended to want some hot tea, and the preparation for that got through half an hour, and it warmed us a little; but everybody still was deeply dejected, not to say morose. After an interval of only two hours more of thorough and intense wretchedness we had a “grogs,” but there was no attempt at conviviality—subdued savageness was the prevailing state of mind. I tried to infuse a little hope into the party, by suggestions of a speedy termi- page 133 -nation to our misery, but my own private opinion was that we should all be laid up for weeks to come with illness. I allotted to myself in this imaginary distribution of ills a severe rheumatic fever; oh! how I ached, and I felt as if I never could be warm again. The fire was no use; except to afford occupation in putting on wood; it roasted a little bit of you at a time, and that bit suffered doubly from the cold when it was obliged to take its share of exposure to the wind. I cannot say whether the proverb is true of other nights, but this particular night, certainly, was both darkest and coldest just before dawn.

At last, to our deep joy, and after many false alarms, we really all agreed that there was a faint streak of grey in the east. My first impulse was to set off home, and I believe I tried to get up expressing some such intention, but F—— recalled me to myself by saying, in great surprise, “Are you not going to stop and see the sun rise?” I had quite forgotten that this was the avowed object of the expedition, but I was far too stiff to walk a yard, so I was obliged to wait to see what effect the sunrise would have on my frozen limbs, for I could not think of any higher motive. Presently some one called out “There’s the sea,” and so it was, as distinct as though it were not fifty miles off; none of us had seen it since we landed; to all of us it is associated with the idea of going home some day: whilst we were feasting our eyes on it a golden line seemed drawn on its horizon; it spread and spread, and as all the water became flooded with page 134 a light and glory which hardly seemed to belong to this world, the blessed sun came up to restore us all to life and warmth again. In a moment, in less than a moment, all our little privations and sufferings vanished as if they had never existed, or existed only to be laughed at. Who could think of their “Ego” in such a glorious presence, and with such a panorama before them? I did not know which side to turn to first. Behind me rose a giant forest in the far hills to the west—a deep shadow for miles, till the dark outline of the pines stood out against the dazzling snow of the mountains behind it; here the sky was still sheltering the flying night, and the white outlines looked ghostly against the dull neutral tints, though every peak was sharply and clearly defined; then I turned round to see before me such a glow of light and beauty! For an immense distance I could see the vast Canterbury plains; to the left the Waimakiriri river, flowing in many streams, “like a tangled bunch of silver ribbons” (as Mr. Butler calls it in his charming book on New Zealand), down to the sea; beyond its banks the sun shone on the windows of the houses at Oxford, thirty miles off as the crow would fly, and threw its dense bush into strong relief against the yellow plains. The Port Hills took the most lovely lights and shadows as we gazed on them; beyond them lay the hills of Akaroa, beautiful beyond the power of words to describe. Christchurch looked quite a large place from the great extent of ground it appeared to cover. We looked on page 135 to the south: there was a slight haze over the great Ellesmere Lake, the water of which is quite fresh, though only separated from the sea by a slight bar of sand; the high banks of the Rakaia made a deep dark line extending right back into the mountains, and beyond it we could see the Rangitata faintly gleaming in the distance; between us and the coast were green patches and tiny homesteads, but still few and far between; close under our feet, and looking like a thread beneath the shadow of the mountain, ran the Selwyn in a narrow gorge, and on its bank stood the shepherd’s hut that I have told you once afforded us such a good luncheon; it looked a mere toy, as if it came out of a child’s box of playthings, and yet so snug for all its lonely position. On the other hand lay our own little home, with the faint wreath of smoke stealing up through the calm air (for the wind had dropped at sunrise). Here and there we saw strings of sheep going down from their high camping-grounds to feed on the sunny slopes and in the warm valleys. Every moment added to our delight and enjoyment; but unfortunately it was a sort of happiness which one can neither speak of at the time, nor write about afterwards: silence is its most expressive language. Whilst I was drinking in all the glory and beauty before me, some of the others had been busy striking the tent, repacking the loads, very much lighter without the provisions; and we had one more excellent cup of tea before abandoning the encampment to the wekas, who must have break- page 136 fasted splendidly that morning. Our last act was to collect all the stones we could move into a huge cairn, which was built round a tall pole of totara; on the summit of this we tied securely, with flax, the largest and strongest pocket-handkerchief, and then, after one look round to the west—now as glowing and bright as the radiant east—we set off homewards about seven o’clock; but it was long before we reached the place where we left the horses, for the gentlemen began rolling huge rocks down the sides of the hills and watching them crashing and thundering into the valleys, sometimes striking another rock and then bounding high into the air. They were all as eager and excited as schoolboys, and I could not go on and leave them, lest I should get below them and be crushed under a small stone of twenty tons or so. I was therefore forced to keep well above them all the time. At last we reached the spur where the horses were tethered, re-saddled and loaded them, and arrived quite safely at home, just in time for baths and breakfast. I was amused to see that no one seemed to remember or allude to the miseries and aches of that long cold night; all were full of professions of enjoyment. But I noticed that the day was unusually quiet; the gentlemen preferred a bask in the verandah to any other amusement, and I have reason to believe they indulged in a good many naps.