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Of the other island groups that I visited during that exquisite Norfolk Island, the wicked unknown New Hebrides - I have told elsewhere. But before the great P. & O. liner carried me away from Sydney on the well- known track across the seas to England and home, I had a journey through New Zealand that was second to nothing in the world, for pure enjoyment, but the unsurpassable Islands themselves.
New Zealand is not yet fully opened up - that was what the geography books said in my school days. The saying like most geography-book information, slipped through my mind easily, and did not create any marked impression. The marked impression came later when I went half round the world to see New Zealand, and discovered that I could not take train to just anywhere I chose. It seemed incredible, in a country as highly civilized as France or Germany, that coaches - not the ornamental tourist brand, run as an accompaniment to railways, but real Early Victorian coaches, with "no frills on them" of any sort or kind - were the only means of transit, save boats, to a great part of the famous hot lake and river district of the North Island. One could go to Rotorua, the most remarkable collection of geysers and not lakes, direct by rail from Auckland. but the lovely Wanganui River, the beautiful up-country bush, and whole duchies of hot-water and mud-volcano land, could only be "done" by coach and boat.
This made the journey more interesting, on the whole, though it was a little amazing at first to leave the railway far behind and strike out right into the early nineteenth century. One should have worn side-curls, a spencer, and a poke bonnet, instead of the ordinary tourist coat and skirt and useful straw hat, to feel quite in character with the mud-splashed coach, its six insides, two outsides, and four struggling, straining horses; the days of wind and shower, the hurried meals eaten at lonely little wayside inns, and the nights spent in strange barrack-like, barn-like places, where the stable was of more importance than the house, and every one always arose and fled like a ghost at the early dawn of day. But first, after the railway town and railway hotel were left behind, came Wanganui River, a whole day of it; nearly sixty miles of exquisite loveliness, viewed in perfect comfort from the canopied deck of a river steamer. The Wanganui has been called New Zealand's Rhine, but it no more resembles the Rhine than it resembles a garden-party or an ostrich farm. It has nothing whatever in common with Germany's great historic river but its beauty; and the beauty of the Wanganui is of an order very far indeed removed from that of the ancient castle-crowned streams of Europe, which are strewn with records of dead and decaying sons of human life. Solitude, stillness, absolute, deathly loneliness are the keynotes of Wanganui scenery. Shut in by fold on fold of great green mountain peaks scarp on scarp of fern-wreathed precipice, one can almost
fancy that the swift little paddle-steamer is churning her way for the first time into solitude never seen of man. Now and then a Maori dug-out canoe, long and thin and upturned at the ends, may be sighted riding under the willows, or gliding down-stream to the swift paddle-strokes of its dusky-faced occupant. At rare intervals, too, the spell of silent loneliness is broken by the sight of some tiny river-side settlement perched on a great green height - half a dozen wooden houses, and a tin-roofed church: the whole being labelled with some extraordinarily pretentious name. One of our passengers that day got in at London, and went on to Jerusalem; another was booked from Nazareth to Athens!
All New Zealanders are not Maoris, despite the hazy ideas as to colour which exist at home. There is a little trifle of nine hundred thousand full- blooded white settlers, to compare with the few thousand native Maoris still left, in the land they once owned from sea to sea. Still, the Maori in New Zealand is an unmistakable fact, and a most picturesque fact into the bargain. To see a family taking deck passage on the boat - handsome dark- eyed women, with rosy cheeks in spite of their olive skins, and beautifully waved black hair; bright elfish little children; dogs and cats and a sack or two for luggage - in an interesting spot in the day's experience, especially when some patronising passenger accustomed to "natives" in other countries, gets one of the delightful set-downs the Maori can give so effectively. For all their shapeless clothing and heavy blankets, hatless heads and tattooed lips and chins, the New Zealand Maoris are very much "all there"; and when the patronising saloon passenger struts up to one, and remarks: "Tenakoe (good-day), Polly! You got ums nicely little fellow there, eh?" "Polly" will probably reply in excellent English: "My name happens to be Te Rangi, not Polly; and as for the child you are referring to, I believe it belongs to the lady in the yellow plaid sitting aft!"
At the end of the day comes an hotel, standing on a wooded cliff above the river, and looking down upon a long lovely stretch of winding water and high-piled forest. The night is spent here, and in the morning comes the coach, with its team of four fine satin-skinned bays, its many-coated driver, its portmanteaux on the roof, mysterious little parcels in the "boot." and confidential letters in coachman's hat, for all the world like something in Charles Dickens. There is no bugle and no guard, and the coach itself is a high long-legged, spidery thing enough, not even painted red, and though it is "Merry Christmas" time, it is a warm summer day, with some prospect of thundery rain, but not the fainted of any typical Dickenesque Christmas weather. Still, the sentiment is there, so one may as well make the most of it.
All day, muddy roads and straining horses; all day, a long pull up-hill, half the day rain in the wet lovely bush, starring and sparkling the exquisite tree ferns, those fine ladies of the forest; crystal-dropping the thick coat of ferns that tapestries the tall cliffs, shutting in our road. Beneath the wheel curve innumerable black-green gorges, deep and dark as Hades, gurgling in their mysterious depths with unseen full-throated streams and half- glimpsed waterfalls. About and above us rises the impenetrable "bush" -
tall green trees, feathery, cedary, ferny, flowery, set as close together as the spires of moss on a velvet-cushioned stone, shutting out half the sky; marking off an unmistakable frontier between the territory of still unconquered Nature and the regions wrested from her wings across the valleys; the merry mournfultui flutes "piercing sweet by the river," undisturbed by our rattling wheels. There are wild creatures in plenty, further back in the bush - wild boars, wild cattle, wild cats, and "dingoes" or dogs - all originally escaped from civilisation, but now as wild as their own savage ancestors. The feathery bracken, that carpets all the banks by the wayside, was, and indeed still is, a staple food of the Maoris. Its young roots are excellent eating, being rather like asparagus, and reasonably nourishing when nothing better can be had - and often furnished a "colourable imitation" of China tea, to the benighted bush-wanderer run out of the genuine leaf. This bush about us is all Maori land. Maoris alone can find their way easily and safely through its pathless mysteries. No, thee is no avoiding the Maori, anywhere in the North Island!
Dinner, warm and grateful and unspeakably comforting, is met with at a little inn in a little settlement whose name (of course) begins with Wai. The towns in North New Zealand that do not being with Wai begin with Roto. There are a few others, but they hardly count. We are all amazingly cheerful when we issue forth warmed and fed; and the cold wind that is beginning to blow down from the icy mountain peaks just out of sight, is encountered without any British-tourist grumbling. The driver explains that the wind ought not to be so cold - never is in December (the New Zealand June); but somehow, this is "a most exceptional season," and there has been a lot of rain and cold that they don't generally have. Across twelve thousand miles of sea my mind leaps back to home; I feel the raspy air of the English spring nipping my face, and hear the familiar music of the sweet old English lie about the weather. It is a dear home-like lie, and makes me feel that New Zealand is indeed what it claims to be - the Britain of the Southern Cross.
The effect of dinner is wearing off, and the insides are saying things about the weather that make a lonely wanderer like myself long to clasp the speakers warmly by the hand - because they sound so English. Now I understand what puzzled me a good deal at first - the difference between the Americanised, Continentalised Australians and the perfectly British New Zealander. The Briton cannot retain his peculiar characteristic in a climate like that of Australia; deprived of his natural and national grumble about the changeable weather, he is like a dog without a bark - is windy and showery, given to casting autumn in the lap of spring and throwing winter into the warm, unexpecting arms of summer. So the Briton of the South, settled among his familiar weather "samples," remains like the Briton of the North; and the travelling Englishman or Englishwoman, visiting New Zealand, feels more entirely at home than in any other quarter of the globe. It is only fair to New Zealand, however, to add that the average summer, beginning in December, is at worst very much warmer and pleasanter than the English spring or winter, and at best, a season of real delight.
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