A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 8

Taking up the Run — Hut within the Boundary — Land Regulations — Race to Christ Church — Contest for Priority of Application — Successful issue — Winds and their Effects — Their conflicting Currents — Sheep crossing the River.

There was a little hut on my run built by another person, and tenanted by his shepherd. G— had an application for 5,000 acres in the same block of country with mine, and as the boundaries were uncertain until the whole was surveyed, and the runs definitely marked out on the Government maps, he had placed his hut upon a spot that turned out eventually not to belong to him. I had waited to see how the land was allotted before I took it up. Knowing the country well, and finding it allotted to my satisfaction, I made my bargain on the same day that the question was settled. I took a tracing from the Government map up with me, and we arrived on the run about a fortnight after the allotment. It was necessary for me to wait for this, or I might have made the same mistake which G— had done. His hut was placed where it was now of no use to him whatever, but on the very site on which I had myself intended to build. It is beyond all possibility of doubt upon my run; but G— is a very difficult man to deal with, and I have had a hard task to get rid of him. To allow him to remain where he was was not to be thought of: but I was perfectly ready to pay him for his hut (such as it is) and his yard. Knowing him to be at P-‘s, I set the men to their contract, and went down next day to see him and to offer him any compensation for the loss of his hut which a third party might arrange. I could do nothing with him; he threatened fiercely, and would hear no reason. My only remedy was to go down to Christ Church at once and buy the freehold of the site from the Government.

The Canterbury regulations concerning the purchase of waste lands from the Crown are among the very best existing. They are all free to any purchaser with the exception of a few Government reserves for certain public purposes, as railway-township reserves, and so forth. Every run-holder has a pre-emptive right over 250 acres round his homestead, and 50 acres round any other buildings he may have upon his run. He must register this right, or it is of no avail. By this means he is secured from an enemy buying up his homestead without his previous knowledge. Whoever wishes to purchase a sheep farmer’s homestead must first give him a considerable notice, and then can only buy if the occupant refuses to do so at the price of 2 pounds an acre. Of course the occupant would not refuse, and the thing is consequently never attempted. All the rest, however, of any man’s run is open to purchase at the rate of 2 pounds per acre. This price is sufficient to prevent monopoly, and yet not high enough to interfere with the small capitalist. The sheep farmer cannot buy up his run and stand in the way of the development of the country, and at the same time he is secured from the loss of it through others buying, because the price is too high to make it worth a man’s while to do so when so much better investments are still open. On the plains, however, many run-holders are becoming seriously uneasy even at the present price, and blocks of 1000 acres are frequently bought with a view to their being fenced in and laid down in English grasses. In the back country this has not yet commenced, nor is it likely to do so for many years.

But to return. Firstly, G— had not registered any pre-emptive right, and, secondly, if he had it would have been worthless, because his hut was situated on my run and not on his own. I was sure that he had not bought the freehold; I was also certain that he meant to buy it. So, well knowing there was not a moment to lose, I went towards Christ Church the same afternoon, and supped at a shepherd’s hut three miles lower down, and intended to travel quietly all night.

The Ashburton, however, was heavily freshed, and the night was pitch dark. After crossing and re-crossing it four times I was afraid to go on, and camping down, waited for daylight. Resuming my journey with early dawn, I had not gone far when, happening to turn round, I saw a man on horseback about a quarter of a mile behind me. I knew at once that this was G-, and letting him come up with me, we rode for some miles together, each of us of course well aware of the other’s intentions, but too politic to squabble about them when squabbling was no manner of use. It was then early on the Wednesday morning, and the Board sat on the following day. A book is kept at the Land–Office called the application-book, in which anyone who has business with the Board enters his name, and his case is attended to in the order in which his name stands. The race between G— and myself was as to who should first get his name down in this book, and secure the ownership of the hut by purchasing the freehold of twenty acres round it. We had nearly a hundred miles to ride; the office closed at four in the afternoon, and I knew that G— could not possibly be in time for that day; I had therefore till ten o’clock on the following morning; that is to say, about twenty-four hours from the time we parted company. Knowing that I could be in town by that time, I took it easily, and halted for breakfast at the first station we came to. G— went on, and I saw him no more.

I feared that our applications would be simultaneous, or that we should have an indecorous scuffle for the book in the Land Office itself. In this case, there would only have remained the unsatisfactory alternative of drawing lots for precedence. There was nothing for it but to go on, and see how matters would turn up. Before midday, and whilst still sixty miles from town, my horse knocked-up completely, and would not go another step. G-‘s horse, only two months before, had gone a hundred miles in less than fifteen hours, and was now pitted against mine, which was thoroughly done-up. Rather anticipating this, I had determined on keeping the tracks, thus passing stations where I might have a chance of getting a fresh mount. G— took a short cut, saving fully ten miles in distance, but travelling over a very stony country, with no track. A track is a great comfort to a horse.

I shall never forget my relief when, at a station where I had already received great kindness, I obtained the loan of a horse that had been taken up that morning from a three-months’ spell. No greater service could, at the time, have been rendered me, and I felt that I had indeed met with a friend in need.

The prospect was now brilliant, save that the Rakaia was said to be very heavily freshed. Fearing I might have to swim for it, I left my watch at M-‘s, and went on with the satisfactory reflection that, at any rate, if I could not cross, G— could not do so either. To my delight, however, the river was very low, and I forded it without the smallest difficulty a little before sunset. A few hours afterwards, down it came. I heard that G— was an hour ahead of me, but this was of no consequence. Riding ten miles farther, and now only twenty-five miles from Christ Church, I called at an accommodation-house, and heard that G— was within, so went on, and determined to camp and rest my horse. The night was again intensely dark, and it soon came on to rain so heavily that there was nothing for it but to start again for the next accommodation-house, twelve miles from town. I slept there a few hours, and by seven o’clock next morning was in Christ Church. So was G-. We could neither of us do anything till the Land Office opened at ten o’clock. At twenty minutes before ten I repaired thither, expecting to find G— in waiting, and anticipating a row. If it came to fists, I should get the worst of it — that was a moral certainty — and I really half-feared something of the kind. To my surprise, the office-doors were open — all the rooms were open — and on reaching that in which the application-book was kept, I found it already upon the table. I opened it with trembling fingers, and saw my adversary’s name written in bold handwriting, defying me, as it were, to do my worst.

The clock, as the clerk was ready to witness, was twenty minutes before ten. I learnt from him also that G— had written his name down about half an hour. This was all right. My course was to wait till after ten, write my name, and oppose G-‘s application as having been entered unduly, and before office-hours. I have no doubt that I should have succeeded in gaining my point in this way, but a much easier victory was in store for me.

Running my eye through the list of names, to my great surprise I saw my own among them. It had been entered by my solicitor, on another matter of business, the previous day, but it stood next below G-‘s. G-‘s name, then, had clearly been inserted unfairly, out of due order. The whole thing was made clear to the Commissioners of the Waste Lands, and I need not say that I effected my purchase without difficulty. A few weeks afterwards, allowing him for his hut and yard, I bought G— out entirely. I will now return to the Rangitata.

There is a large flat on either side of it, sloping very gently down to the river-bed proper, which is from one to two miles across. The one flat belongs to me, and that on the north bank to another. The river is very easily crossed, as it flows in a great many channels; in a fresh, therefore, it is still often fordable. We found it exceedingly low, as the preceding cold had frozen up the sources, whilst the nor’-wester that followed was of short duration, and unaccompanied with the hot tropical rain which causes the freshes. The nor’-westers are vulgarly supposed to cause freshes simply by melting the snow upon the back ranges. We, however, and all who live near the great range, and see the nor’-wester while still among the snowy ranges, know for certain that the river does not rise more than two or three inches, nor lose its beautiful milky blue colour, unless the wind be accompanied with rain upon the great range — rain extending sometimes as low down as the commencement of the plains. These rains are warm and heavy, and make the feed beautifully green.

The nor’-westers are a very remarkable feature in the climate of this settlement. They are excessively violent, sometimes shaking the very house; hot, dry, from having already poured out their moisture, and enervating like the Italian sirocco. The fact seems to be, that the nor’-west winds come heated from the tropics, and charged with moisture from the ocean, and this is precipitated by the ice-fields of the mountains in deluges of rain, chiefly on the western side, but occasionally extending some distance to the east. They blow from two or three hours to as many days, and if they last any length of time, are generally succeeded by a sudden change to sou’-west — the cold, rainy, or snowy wind. We catch the nor’-west in full force, but are sheltered from the sou’-west, which, with us, is a quiet wind, accompanied with gentle drizzling but cold rain, and, in the winter, snow.

The nor’-wester is first descried on the river-bed. Through the door of my hut, from which the snowy range is visible, at our early breakfast, I see a lovely summer’s morning, breathlessly quiet, and intensely hot. Suddenly a little cloud of dust is driven down the river-bed a mile and a half off; it increases, till one would think the river was on fire, and that the opposite mountains were obscured by volumes of smoke. Still it is calm with us. By and by, as the day increases, the wind gathers strength, and, extending beyond the river-bed, gives the flats on either side a benefit; then it catches the downs, and generally blows hard till four or five o’clock, when it calms down, and is followed by a cool and tranquil night, delightful to every sense. If, however, the wind does not cease, and it has been raining up the gorges, there will be a fresh; and, if the rain has come down any distance from the main range, it will be a heavy fresh; while if there has been a clap or two of thunder (a very rare occurrence), it will be a fresh in which the river will not be fordable. The floods come and go with great rapidity. The river will begin to rise a very few hours after the rain commences, and will generally have subsided to its former level about forty-eight hours after the rain has ceased.

As we generally come in for the tail-end of the nor’-western rains, so we sometimes, though less frequently, get that of the sou’-west winds also. The sou’-west rain comes to us up the river through the lower gorge, and is consequently sou’-east rain with us, owing to the direction of the valley. But it is always called sou’-west if it comes from the southward at all. In fact, there are only three recognised winds, the north-west, the north-east, and the south-west, and I never recollect perceiving the wind to be in any other quarter, saving from local causes. The north-east is most prevalent in summer, and blows with delightful freshness during the greater part of the day, often rendering the hottest weather very pleasant.

It is curious to watch the battle between the north-west and south-east wind, as we often see it. For some days, perhaps, the upper gorges may have been obscured with dark and surging clouds, and the snowy ranges hidden from view. Suddenly the mountains at the lower end of the valley become banked-up with clouds, and the sand begins to blow up the river-bed some miles below, while it is still blowing down with us. The southerly “burster,” as it is called, gradually creeps up, and at last drives the other off the field. A few chilly puffs, then a great one, and in a minute or two the air becomes cold, even in the height of summer. Indeed, I have seen snow fall on the 12th of January. It was not much, but the air was as cold as in mid-winter.

The force of the south-west wind is here broken by the front ranges, and on these it often leaves its rain or snow, while we are quite exempt from either. We frequently hear both of more rain and of more snow on the plains than we have had, though my hut is at an elevation of 1840 feet above the level of the sea. On the plains, it will often blow for forty-eight hours, accompanied by torrents of pelting, pitiless rain, and is sometimes so violent, that there is hardly any possibility of making headway against it. Sheep race before it as hard as they can go helter-skelter, leaving their lambs behind them to shift for themselves. There is no shelter on the plains, and, unless stopped by the shepherds, they will drive from one river to the next. The shepherds, therefore, have a hard time of it, for they must be out till the wind goes down; and the worse the weather the more absolutely necessary it is that they should be with the sheep. Different flocks not unfrequently join during these gales, and the nuisance to both the owners is very great.

In the back country, sheep can always find shelter in the gullies, or under the lee of the mountain.

We have here been singularly favoured with regard to snow this last winter, for whereas I was absolutely detained by the snow upon the plains on my way from Christ Church, because my horse would have had nothing to eat had I gone on, when I arrived at home I found they had been all astonishment as to what could possibly have been keeping me so long away.

The nor’-westers sometimes blow even in mid-winter, but are most frequent in spring and summer, sometimes continuing for a fortnight together.

During a nor’-wester, the sand on the river-bed is blinding, filling eyes, nose, and ears, and stinging sharply every exposed part. I lately had the felicity of getting a small mob of sheep into the river-bed (with a view of crossing them on to my own country) whilst this wind was blowing. There were only between seven and eight hundred, and as we were three, with two dogs, we expected to be able to put them through ourselves. We did so through the two first considerable streams, and then could not get them to move on any farther. As they paused, I will take the opportunity to digress and describe the process of putting sheep across a river.

The first thing is to carefully secure a spot fitted for the purpose, for which the principal requisites are: first, that the current set for the opposite bank, so that the sheep will be carried towards it. Sheep cannot swim against a strong current, and if the stream be flowing evenly down mid-channel, they will be carried down a long way before they land; if, however, it sets at all towards the side from which they started, they will probably be landed by the stream on that same side. Therefore the current should flow towards the opposite bank. Secondly, there must be a good landing-place for the sheep. A spot must not be selected where the current sweeps underneath a hollow bank of gravel or a perpendicular wall of shingle; the bank on to which the sheep are to land must shelve, no matter how steeply, provided it does not rise perpendicularly out of the water. Thirdly, a good place must be chosen for putting them in; the water must not become deep all at once, or the sheep won’t face it. It must be shallow at the commencement, so that they may have got too far to recede before they find their mistake. Fourthly, there should be no tutu in the immediate vicinity of either the place where the sheep are put into the river or that on to which they are to come out; for, in spite of your most frantic endeavours, you will be very liable to get some sheep tuted. These requisites being secured, the depth of the water is, of course, a matter of no moment; the narrowness of the stream being a point of far greater importance. These rivers abound in places combining every requisite.

The sheep being mobbed up together near the spot where they are intended to enter the water, the best plan is to split off a small number, say a hundred or hundred and fifty (a larger mob would be less easily managed), dog them, bark at them yourself furiously, beat them, spread out arms and legs to prevent their escaping, and raise all the unpleasant din about their ears that you possibly can. In spite of all that you can do they will very likely break through you and make back; if so, persevere as before, and in about ten minutes a single sheep will be seen eyeing the opposite bank, and evidently meditating an attempt to gain it. Pause a moment that you interrupt not a consummation so devoutly to be wished; the sheep bounds forward with three or four jumps into midstream, is carried down, and thence on to the opposite bank; immediately that one sheep has entered, let one man get into the river below them, and splash water up at them to keep them from working lower and lower down the stream and getting into a bad place; let another be bringing up the remainder of the mob, so that they may have come up before the whole of the leading body are over; if this be done they will cross in a string of their own accord, and there will be no more trouble from the moment when the first sheep entered the water.

If the sheep are obstinate and will not take the water, it is a good plan to haul one or two over first, pulling them through by the near hind leg; these will often entice the others, or a few lambs will encourage their mothers to come over to them, unless indeed they immediately swim back to their mothers: the first was the plan we adopted.

As I said, our sheep were got across the first two streams without much difficulty; then they became completely silly. The awful wind, so high that we could scarcely hear ourselves talk, the blinding sand, the cold glacier water, rendered more chilling by the strong wind, which, contrary to custom, was very cold, all combined to make them quite stupid; the little lambs stuck up their backs and shut their eyes and looked very shaky on their legs, while the bigger ones and the ewes would do nothing but turn round and stare at us. Our dogs knocked-up completely, and we ourselves were somewhat tired and hungry, partly from night-watching and partly from having fasted since early dawn, whereas it was now four o’clock. Still we must get the sheep over somehow, for a heavy fresh was evidently about to come down; the river was yet low, and could we get them over before dark they would be at home. I rode home to fetch assistance and food; these arriving, by our united efforts we got them over every stream, save the last, before eight o’clock, and then it became quite dark, and we left them. The wind changed from very cold to very hot — it literally blew hot and cold in the same breath. Rain came down in torrents, six claps of thunder (thunder is very rare here) followed in succession about midnight, and very uneasy we all were. Next morning, before daybreak, we were by the river side; the fresh had come down, and we crossed over to the sheep with difficulty, finding them up to their bellies in water huddled up in a mob together. We shifted them on to one of the numerous islands, where they were secure, and had plenty of feed, and with great difficulty recrossed, the river having greatly risen since we had got upon its bed. In two days’ time it had gone down sufficiently to allow of our getting the sheep over, and we did so without the loss of a single one.

I hardly know why I have introduced this into an account of a trip with a bullock dray; it is, however, a colonial incident, such as might happen any day. In a life of continual excitement one thinks very little of these things. They may, however, serve to give English readers a glimpse of some of the numerous incidents which, constantly occurring in one shape or other, render the life of a colonist not only endurable, but actually pleasant.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31