Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 15

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Picturesque New Zealand by David Paul Gooding
Chapter XV


CHAPTER XV

Two Beautiful Gorges—Pelorus Jack—The Marlborough Sounds

New Zealand has many beautiful river gorges, some that are well known to tourists, others that few travelers have seen. In the South Island are two gorges of which it is particularly proud. These are the Otira, providing an Alpine route between Canterbury and Westland, and the Buller, a gold-bearing stream running through Nelson for more than one hundred miles.

The Otira Gorge is short, lofty, and rugged, and in its best parts narrow. The Buller Gorge also is lofty, but it is not so rugged, and on the whole it is wider. The journey through the Otira is soon ended; through the Buller it is prolonged. Both are magnificent scenic routes, and observers differ as to which is supreme. The Otira is bolder, but the Buller has inspiring outlooks that the Otira lacks. All travelers through the Otira see the best part of the gorge, but not all who have traversed the Buller road are sure they have seen the best part of its foliaged course. A great many persons have not seen half the Buller Gorge, yet some of those whom I questioned did not hesitate to proclaim the superiority of the part they had seen over all the rest of the canyon.

In approaching the Otira Gorge from Christchurch my way led through the pleasant farms of Canterbury,

OTIRA GORGE, WEST COAST ROAD

into tussock hills, and high above the Waimakiriri River via the daylight-to-dark railway, which had sixteen tunnels in less than seven miles. Near the terminus of this road, Cass, the yellow dullness of the tussock met the dark-green beauty of the mountain bush.

At Cass the Otira coach road began. For several miles it followed the Waimakiriri Valley, which was flanked with forested mountains from four thousand to six thousand feet high, topped and streaked with slate-colored shingle. As is usual with streams of this character, the Waimakiriri claimed the whole of the valley's wide flat as its own, and having swept away all surface soil, it exposed broad areas of cobblestones and gravel which its waters never laved excepting in times of flood. Just beyond Bealey the Waimakiriri was forded; thereafter to Arthur's Pass, which overlooks the gorge at a height of three thousand feet, the road passed through the Bealey River Valley, bush clad and pretty, and in view of the tunnel then being bored for New Zealand's first trans-Alpine railroad.

The top of Arthur's Pass was not in itself a captivating vantage-point from which to view the Otira's charms, since it was overgrown with flax and tussock and strewn with boulders; but satisfying was its prospect. On its west was Mount Rolleston and its glacier; to the east were other high mountains; to the north, winding between barren-topped ranges, was the gorge. Shortly below the pass, on the north, the hardy flax intermingled with flowering shrubs, forming a tangle discouraging to mountain climbing. Then appeared trees that spread to the snow-line; and above them were unfruitful cliffs.

Now the road became steep and tortuous. Far below it raced the small and noisy Otira River, lashing itself into foam against its rocky obstructions. High above it ran a beautiful mixed forest, blooming with the rata's crimson and sheltering fern and moss and rambling creeper. And for miles, ever at a precipitous pitch, the road ran beside bluffs mantled by flax, fern, and shrub, and past flowering canyon walls blazing with patches of living red.

At Otira the coach-road terminated, and here began the railroad that runs a devious course through Westland to Greymouth, the largest seaport on the South Island's west coast, and northerly to Reefton, a mining town twenty-one miles from the Buller River. In Westland I found civilization in the rough. In this rainy country the train passed through embryonic settlements and vanishing forests, and past the disorder and desertion of old lumber camps and sawmill yards. Here was the primitive,—plodding ox, logs laboriously rolled to saws by hand, roads that were wretched, and comforts and conveniences that were few.

At Reefton I saw an astonishing number of hotels. When I had walked up Broadway, its main street, I was quite satisfied to accept the statement made to me by a Totara Flat minister, that this, the first New Zealand town to be lighted by electricity, was "the greatest town for hotels in the country." This is chiefly so because Reefton caters to the tourists coaching through the Buller Gorge.

From Lake Rotoiti, which is practically its source, to within a few miles of the important coal-exporting town of Westport, the Buller River courses between mountains from three thousand to nearly five thousand feet high. For thirty-three miles from the lake it has an average fall of forty-four feet per mile, and it has so many rapids and shallows that it probably never will be made navigable.

Near its junction with the Inangahua River the Buller's attractiveness, when I saw it, had been lessened by clearings; but the loss of forest was partly compensated for by tree-adorned sandstone cliffs. In places this formation, purple-stained and draped with foliage, rose hundreds of feet near the river; at other points it formed the walls of distant mountains.

Two miles below the Inangahua Junction the river made one of its large bends and left the road well inland. For about four miles it was hidden by a wide, swampy flat; next it appeared in beautiful form at the base of vertical wood bluffs. Here as elsewhere along the Buller, excepting where it had been destroyed, a mixed bush climbed to the tops of the mountains.

Above the Junction the gorge's beauty had been despoiled for long distances by clearings; but there still were many fine scenes, notably near Lyell. To the traveler northward-bound, this dilapidated mining town is the portal to what many persons enthusiastically acclaim to be the finest part of the Buller Gorge. For seven or eight miles beyond Lyell the coach road was hundreds of feet above the river, and for much of this distance it passed through forests.

Here the gorge was seen as from a hill top, and there was an absence of that restricted feeling experienced in narrower canyons. Midst the song of birds and the scent of flowers, here was the cool breath of moss-carpeted creek channels darkened by tree and fern; there were distant views of verdurous mountains and infrequent glimpses of the river, murmuring, roaring, eddying in its rocky prison far below.

In passing through the Buller Gorge the traveler bound for Cook Strait abandons the coach at Kohatu and there entrains for Nelson, the popular resort of Blind Bay. In one respect Nelson is the most celebrated town in New Zealand. It has, I was told, "the prettiest girls in the country," and "seven women to every man." This last claim seemed so improbable that I asked the secretary of Nelson's Chamber of Commerce about it. From him I learned that the census returns furnished me were padded. "There is still a dearth of ladies to go round," said Secretary Hampson, although he admitted that Nelson has a larger proportion of women than many other parts of New Zealand.

About forty miles northeast of Nelson is the remarkable French Pass, navigated by steamers running between Nelson and Wellington. This narrow, picturesque channel lies between the mainland of the South Island

BULLER GORGE, HAWK'S CRAG

and D'Urville Island; and here tidal waters from Cook Strait swirl and eddy as if the ocean were pouring through a fissure into the earth.

But it is not this for which the pass is most noted. It owes its celebrity mainly to Pelorus Jack, the "pilot fish." Generations ago Jack disported about the bows of Maori canoes en route from Pelorus Sound to the pass. To-day, as he has been for twenty years, he is the gamboling pilot-companion of steamers en route to and from the pass on the east. Through the pass he does not venture. On these steamers every passenger looks for Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus), and when he does not appear there is keen disappointment aboard.

In New Zealand "Pelorus Jack" are magic words. Everybody who knows Jack's history is interested in him; everybody likes to read about him. He is often in the public eye, and the public press has given him many a line. Several times he has been reported dead, but obituary notices notwithstanding, he still lives, and he has lived, says one old Maori chief, for fully two hundred and seventy-five years.

Sometimes the dolphin takes a vacation for two or three weeks, and it is then his human friends wonder if the ocean of oblivion has claimed him. Since 1904 Jack and all other animals of his kind in Cook Strait—and he appears to be the only cetacean of his species there—have been protected by an Order in Council. But Death the indiscriminator will not grant him a protective order, and so, some day, on a Marlborough beach, perhaps, there will be washed ashore the inert bulk of a fourteen-foot blue-white grampus, and Pelorus Jack's last obituary will then be written.

When Jack is on duty, he always dives and swims round the prows of steamers as if he were showing them the way or wished to play with them. At these times he is likely to be seen anywhere between the pass and the Chetwode Islands, off the mouth of Pelorus Sound. Sometimes when the tourist traffic is heavy he is off duty for a few hours. Knowing this, we who were on the Pateena, outward-bound from Nelson, could only hope that Jack would act as our pilot on our way to Picton.

For once the steerage deck proved to be a popular place with first-class passengers; for once steerage passengers had an advantage over first-cabin occupants, for on the Pateena steerage quarters were forward, and it was there that Kaikaiawaro could be seen best. Before the steamer was out of the pass the bow rail was crowded with passengers, who were willing to stand in the cold, cutting wind until they were chilled and their eyes watery, just to see a Grampus griseus. It was a remarkable tribute to a grampus. At this lookout Jack was almost the sole theme.

"He bounces," explained a woman who had seen him on a previous trip.

"There he is!" excitedly exclaimed another voice.

But it was only a white gull. For a half-hour we discussed Jack, but still he did not appear.

"I am afraid he's turning us down," spoke a woman as we neared Clay Point.

So it seemed. Other white gulls raised our hopes as they rode distant waves, and as quickly dashed them by rising on the wing.

An hour elapsed, and still we shivered, and strained our eyes until they pained us. As we neared the Chetwodes our hopes were lowered like a thermometer in a blizzard; for we were told that if Jack did not appear before we were abreast of them, we should not be likely to see him at all.

"Do show yourself," we thought in unison.

But not a fin was thrust above the sea. The Chetwodes were on our port bow; now they were at our stern; still Jack we did not sight. The passengers abandoned their vigil and returned disappointed to warmer quarters aft—disappointed because a grampus would not come to meet them!

And why wouldn't the dolphin meet them? Probably because he had piloted the Pateena on the morning of this same day as it was en route to Nelson.

Between Nelson and Wellington lies the maze of waterways known as the Marlborough Sounds. Here, where a ragged peninsula thrusts itself well north of the southern extremity of the North Island, is the most broken part of the Dominion. It is a gouged-out land; a land excavated as with giant fingers; a land wonderfully indented with beautiful bays and inlets, coves and narrow channels; a land of many islands and near-islands, of long, slender, and crooked extensions, of sharp points and narrow isthmuses. Here, where inlet succeeds inlet until in places they resemble rows of dock basins, is one of New Zealand's finest and most popular pleasure resorts. Here, with more than five hundred miles of shore-line, are Pelorus and Queen Charlotte Sounds. In them abound fish of many kinds, and they are the rendezvous of scores of pleasure craft.

The Marlborough Sounds are very different from the fiords of Southland. They reflect no lofty snow-clad peaks, no mighty granite parapets, no falls matching those of Milford Sound. Overlooking them primeval beauty has been marred by the destruction of large areas of forest, and the adjoining hills, which reach their highest elevation in Mount Stokes (3951 feet), are largely pastoral runs.

Of the two principal sounds Pelorus is the more beautiful, its waters being bluer, its shores more wooded, less abrupt, and freer of fern. It also is the larger, its length being thirty-four miles and that of its shore-line three hundred and fifty miles.

Queen Charlotte Sound, twenty miles from the mouth of Pelorus, is deeper and darker than Pelorus, and has a more pastoral appearance. As in Pelorus, long before the steamer reaches the sound's head Cook Strait is lost to view; and here, too, as in the western sound, vessels can safely anchor close to the coast in many places. At Picton, twenty-five miles from the sound's entrance, my steamer passed within a few yards of the shore.