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Tales from Tawa: A Tale Of The Waitaki

…He rubbed his chin, looked at me, smiled and said, “Well then, Robert, perhaps it’s time you did a man's work. I’m sending Charlie into Oamaru tomorrow, to look after some business for me; it would be a good opportunity for you to take his place on a trial basis. If you do a good job, you can be Charlie’s permanent partner.”

I was delighted. I could just see myself mounted on my horse, Squire, yelling instructions to Merry, my dog, as we herded animals into the water. I’d be a proper cowboy….

But young Robert’s first day of helping at the Waitaki ferry crossing almost ended in disaster.

Eve-Marie Wilson tells a tale from the pioneer days of New Zealand. This incident was recorded in the diary of the great-grandfather of Eve-Marie’s husband Brian.

I came into the world on 6 October 1852, the first of Ann and Henry Wilson’s children to be born in New Zealand. The previous year, they had emigrated from England, with my brother Charlie and sister Julia, to Christchurch on the country’s southern island. On their arrival they became servants to a man named Bridge and it was in his house I was born.

On leaving Mr Bridge’s service they settled on some land about a mile from Christchurch. Here they built a cob cottage for us to live in, before clearing the rest of the land of bush and starting up a small farm.

In 1860 the Government granted Papa a license to set up and run an accommodation house and ferry service across the Waitaki River, almost 200 miles south of Christchurch. Eight of us made the journey to the area where the ferry was to be established; Mama, Papa, Charlie, my younger brother Henry, Julia’s husband, Arthur, whose wagon we had borrowed, myself and two elderly neighbours named Aitken who had been employed to work for us. Once the accommodation house had been built and the ferry was up and running, Arthur returned to Christchurch. The rest of us were allotted responsibilities. Mama, and Mrs Aitken ran the accommodation house; Charlie was responsible for fording animals across the river, while Papa and Mr Aitken saw to operating the ferry itself. As there weren’t any schools established in the area, Henry and I were made responsible for tending the vegetable garden, caring for our animals and ensuring there was an adequate supply of firewood.

I soon became bored and pleaded with Papa to be allowed to help Charlie down at the river. I was told I was too young, but I kept on asking. “Ask me again once you’ve turn twelve,” Papa replied in an attempt to keep me quiet.

This is exactly what I did. On my twelfth birthday, I once again begged Papa to be allowed to help Charlie. “I’m twelve years old now,” I reminded him. With fingers crossed, I waited for his answer.

He rubbed his chin, looked at me, smiled and said, “Well then, Robert, perhaps it’s time you did a man's work. I’m sending Charlie into Oamaru tomorrow, to look after some business for me; it would be a good opportunity for you to take his place on a trial basis. If you do a good job, you can be Charlie’s permanent partner.”

I was delighted. I could just see myself mounted on my horse, Squire, yelling instructions to Merry, my dog, as we herded animals into the water. I’d be a proper cowboy.

Eager to prove myself to Papa, I was down at the river bright and early the next morning. It was not long before a cloud of dust on the Canterbury side of the river heralded a team of six draught horses pulling a dray laden with bales of wool. While father and the men loaded the wool into the boat, I unharnessed the horses then herded them towards the water. I’d seen Charlie do this many times and it had looked easy. One word from him and the animals obediently entered the river and swam across. On this occasion neither my yelling nor Merry’s barking could persuade them to do so.

“Into the water with you,” I yelled, as I brought my whip down across the hides of the six stubborn horses. Merry continued to bark and snap at their heels, but still they resisted. I could sense Papa watching me. I yelled at the animals again.

“It’s probably a little deep for them. Try driving them in further down stream,” yelled Papa, who was busy taking the wheels off the dray before he loaded it into the boat.
Taking Papa’s advice, I steered the horses to where the water was shallower. This time I had no trouble, but rather than swimming straight to the opposite shore, they clambered onto a gravel spit halfway across. They stopped there a moment. I could hardly believe my eyes, as they started to swim back the way they had come!

“Oh no you don’t!” I yelled as I rode Squire into the water to head them off.

The sight of me cracking my whip in the air, as I rode full force towards them, caused the terrified animals to turn and swim directly to the Otago side of the river.

My task successfully completed, I turned back to see if I could help Papa with the dray. I’d only just started to move, when something in the water startled Squire. He let out a loud whinny. As he reared, I held tightly to the reins. I thought I’d managed to bring him under control, but he lost his footing, stumbled and threw me head first into the water. Stunned, I lay where I was for a moment. Squire, however, righted himself, swam for the shore, and galloped off to join the draught horses. I tried to stand, but I was knocked off my feet. The current was swift and it started to drag me down stream. Each time I tried to right myself I was knocked over. “Help me!” I called, as I was dragged towards the deepest part of the river.

Mama who’d been watching the activity from an upstairs window of our house rushed to the banks of the river. “Robert!” she screamed as she raced along, her long skirt flapping against her legs. “Help, somebody! Help! Robert’s drowning! Save him! Save him!”

Papa, midstream on the boat, could do nothing but watch helplessly as I was swept further and further down stream.

“Don’t try and get up,” called one of the men who’d come across the river with the wool bales, to await the arrival of the horses, “I’m coming to help you.” Quick as lightening, he made a flying leap for Squire as he came galloping past. He landed astride. He wheeled Squire into the river. Leaning out, he grabbed me up in front of him and headed back to where Mama was waiting. As she hustled me towards the house to dry off and change my clothes, I could hear Papa telling the man who had rescued me, “There aren’t words enough to thank you properly for saving Robert’s life. The least I can do is offer my ferry services free of charge.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said the man. “There’s no need to stay to reassemble and load the dray. I’m sure you’d rather be with your son at the moment.”

“It looks as though I’ll be gardening and chopping wood forever now,” I said to Mama. I tried to hold back the tears as my dream of being a cowboy crumbled around me.

“Don’t be so downhearted, Robert. You are alive and that is what is important.” She saw my tears and added, “I’ll talk to your Papa and see what I can do.”

What good would that do? I knew Papa to be a difficult man to please and I had lost him the drayman’s fee; money he could ill afford to lose.

When Papa entered the house, I looked at my feet and mumbled, “I’m sorry, I made such a hash of things.”

I could hardly believe my ears when I heard him say, “Nonsense, Robert you did a good job getting those stubborn beasts across the river. The fact that your horse stumbled is no fault of yours. Accidents happen. From now on I expect to see you down at the river bright and early every day.”

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