Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 33, September 1989

The chief Te Hira has been overruled by his counsellors, and has reluctantly consented to the sale of a portion of his territory. Already he is disgusted with the advent of the pakeha, and talks of retiring with his principal adherents to some wilder solitude. But his sister, Mere Kuru, who holds equal dignity with himself, seems disposed to change her ancient habits. She is said to be even welcoming the new order of things, and is qualifying herself to become a leader of modern Maori fashionable society. She rules a large kainga, situated on the Ohinemuri Creek, about midway between Cashell's and Paeroa, the two new landing places for the goldfield.

At the latter place we disembark, and proceed at once to the warden's camp, which is not far off. It is a scene of glorious confusion. Round about the tent of the official, with its flag, are grouped sundry other tents, huts, whares, breakwinds of every conceivable kind and of every possible material. It is dark now, as evening has descended, and the numerous camp-fires make a lurid light to heighten the wildness of the scene. Crowds of men are grouped about them, eating, drinking, singing, shouting or talking noisily of the everlasting subject - gold.

Through the camp we pick our way, stumbling over stumps and roots and boulders, splashing into deep mud and mire, visiting every fire, and asking for the whereabouts of our chums. We begin to think we shall never find them amid the confusion of the wild disorderly camp, and have some thoughts of applying for hospitality at the next fire.

At length one man, whom we have asked, replies to our questions. "Do you mean a pretty sort of chap, looking like a dancing-man or a barber, and a big, red-headed Irisher with him for a mate? They're over yonder camped in Fern-tree Gully. Got some horses with 'em; yes."

We thought this must refer to Dandy Jack and O'Gaygun, so we stumbled down the little dell and found that our surmise was right. We were quickly welcomed and supplied with supper.

Our friends had erected a rude breakwind of poles and fern-fronds sufficient to shelter our party from the rain while we slept, should there be any. A huge fire blazed in front of it; while not far off, and well in view, the horses were tethered. They were secured in far more than the ordinary fashion, with headstalls and lariats and hobbles. Dandy Jack said there was momentary fear of their being stolen by miners anxious to use them on the momentous morrow, and it was even thought necessary for one of us to keep watch over them all night, which duty we performed by turns. There was little fear of anything else being plundered; indeed, next day we left our swag exposed on the ground without anything being taken. But horses meant odds in the coming lottery, and the most honest men were willing, just at that excited moment, to annex temporarily the first they came across.

At length morning comes, bringing with it the eventful day, the 3rd of March, 1875, which is to see the opening of the new field. From earliest dawn the camp is astir, and as the sun climbs the sky so does the intense hubbub increase. Oh for an artist's brush to delineate that scene! Pen and ink are far too feeble.

Men move about like swarming bees, eagerly talking and shouting with all and sundry. Groups are gathered here and there, with eyes one minute glancing anxiously towards the Warden's tent, the next moment looking out towards the wooded plain as it swims in the morning sunshine, towards the towering hills in the distance. A break in the outline of the range shows the situation of the gorge - the spot where the prospectors' claim is known to be - the goal of every hope today.

No one dares to leave his horse now for an instant. Those who have any for the most part remain mounted, like ourselves, restlessly circling about the camp. Every man that could beg, borrow or steal it, appears to have got a riding beast of some sort. A few are even bestriding bullocks, judging, probably, that in the general scrimmage and stampede even those ungainly steeds will distance men on foot.

We are all equipped with everything immediately necessary, and are ready for the start. A tumultuous assemblage it is that is now moving in a perfect frenzy of excitement about the warden's tent. A concourse of men - rough men and gentlemen, blackguards and honest, young and old, ragged and spruce, grave and gay - but all fevered to their heart's core with the burning fury of the gold digger.

Amid the throng there move a few Maoris from the neighbouring kainga - queer old tattooed worthies, half dressed in European rags, half draped in frowzy blankets. These are stolid, disdainful; they have come to see the pakeha in his mad state. And there are others, younger men, smiling and chattering, evidently anxious to get excited too, could they only understand what all the fuss is about. Yet there is a contemptuous air about them, a kind of pity for the curious insanity that is rife among the pakeha around them.

And now the wished-for hour approaches. A rude table is rigged up in front of the Warden's tent, at which clerks take their places. Two or three of the Armed Constabulary are visible, ostensibly to keep order, which it would take more than all the Force to do. A riotous throng of horse-men and foot-men wrestle and struggle for front places near the table. Apparently, two or three thousand men are waiting eagerly for the word to start.

Then the warden steps forth, looking grave and dignified in his official coat and cap. He is the only calm person present, and is received with vociferous acclamation by the crowd. He holds in his hand a roll of papers, which he proceeds at once to open, mounting a convenient stump by way of rostrum. Then he begins to read - the Riot Act, one would say, looking at the seething, roaring mob around. In fact, it is the Proclamation of the Ohinemuri Goldfield under the Mining Act of the colonial Legislature. But no one can hear a word.

Presently the reading is done, the Warden lifts his cap with a smile, announcing that the field is open. A tumult of cheering breaks forth, and everyone rushes at the clerk's table, and, fighting and struggling for precedence, dumps down his one-pound note for the "miner's right," which is his licence and authority to dig for gold within the limits of the field.

I cannot describe that fierce conflict round the table and tent - it is all confusion in my mind. It is a wild jumble of warring words and furiously struggling shoulders and elbows, arms and legs. Somehow we get our licences early, mainly owing, I think, to the stalwart proportions and weighty muscles of the Little 'Un and O'Gaygun. Out of the plunging crowd we fight and tear our way, duly armed with our "authorities". As does every one, so do we - namely, fling ourselves on our horses' backs, and ride headlong across the country in the direction of the gorge.

What a race that is! No run with a pack of English foxhounds could compare with it. Never a fox-hunter had dared to ride as we rode that day, across a country so rough and shaggy. For our incitement is greater than ever fox-hunter had; for it is a frantic chase for wealth with all the madness of gambling thrown into it. It is a race whose prize is gold!

There is no road, of course. Our way lies across the country, jungled with fern, and scrub, and bush. The ground is broken with abrupt descents and short but rugged rises. There are streams and marshes to be plunged through or jumped over; there are devious twists and turns to be made to avoid insurmountable obstacles. Scarce is there a track to show the way - merely the faintest indication of one, cut through the wood by the surveyor's gang. And we have six miles and more to make, riding with frantic eagerness and reckless speed, conscious that two thousand men have entered for the race, and that only a few can win.

Thoroughly well mounted, and accustomed from our cattle-driving experiences to such rough riding as this, we four chums do justice to the start we managed to get. Not more than a score or so are ahead of us, and some of them we are overhauling. There are dozens of casualties, of course. As we gallop along I see a man and a horse go down on the steep side of a gully. They roll over together, and together flounder at the bottom. The unlucky rider screams with pain, for his legs and ribs are broken. He calls to us to help him. We hesitate a moment; but the gold fever is on us, and we hurry on. At such a time humanity is dead, even in the most honourable breast. It is like a battle.

Again Dandy Jack and O'Gaygun are in front of me. Before them rides a regular Thames miner, bestriding a lean and weedy horse of very poor quality. It is easy to see, too, that he is not accustomed to the saddle, though he is urging his beast to its utmost, and doing all he knows to get on. We are coursing along the side of a slope, with dense manuka jungle above and below us, and only a rough narrow way through it. The miner's horse ahead stumbles and trips, grows frightened, and becomes unmanageable, turning broadside on in the narrow path and blocking it.

I hear Dandy Jack and O'Gaygun shout in warning, but the miner has no time to get out of their way. Riding abreast they charge down upon him, utterly regardless of the consequences. Over go horse and man beneath the shock of their rushing steeds; and, a moment later, my nag leaps over the fallen and follows at their heels.

Oh, the rush and fury of that ride! My head still swims as I think of it. All sense of care is gone, all thought of risk or accident banished. A wild mad excitement surges through every vein, and boils up within my brain. I only know that hundreds are hurrying after me, while before me there is a dazzle and glitter of gold. Who heeds the fallen, the vanquished, the beaten in the race? Who cares for peril to life or limb? There is but one idea the mind can hold - "Press on!"

By-and-by, when our panting, foaming horses seem to be utterly giving out, responding to neither voice nor spur, bit nor whip, we find ourselves within the gorge. A splendid mountain scene is that, had we but time to look at it; but we have not. Our worn-out steeds carry us wearily up and along the steep hill-side, beneath and among the trees that cast their shadows all over the golden ground. Climbing, struggling, pressing ever onward, we pass the grim defile; and, in the wild and beautiful solitude of primeval nature, we find our goal.

Through the trees we spy a clearing, lying open and sunlit on the steep mountainside. A clearing it can hardly be called, for it is merely a space of some few acres where fallen, half-burnt trees lie prostrate, jumbled in extricable confusion with boulders, rocks, jutting crags, and broken mounds of fresh-turned soil and stone. A handkerchief upon a post; some newly-split and whitened stakes set here and there around the debris; the babble and vociferation of men - those who have got before us - around and about; all sufficiently proclaim that our raceis at an end, and that this before us is the prospectors' claim.

There is no time to be lost, for many behind us are coming on, and will be upon the ground a few minutes later. And more and more are coming, pressing onward from the rear with feverish ardour. We spring from our now useless steeds and hasten to select our ground. Above and on each side, nay, even immediately below the prospectors' claim, those lucky first ones are already pegging out their lawful areas. Depending on certain indications that a hasty glance reveals, and on advice that Dandy Jack has previously received in mysterious confidence from one of the prospectors, we pass below the ground already seized, and there, a little to the right, we proceed to set up the stakes, and to clear the ground that we claim as ours.

As we proceed to make the dispositions which secure to us what we have already named "O'Gaygun's Claim," the row and racket around rings fiercer over the mountainside. Every moment parties of men are arriving on the ground, and proceeding at once to map out rock and bush into squares and parallelograms, and to peg out their several claims. With the prospectors' claim for centre and nucleus, the area of the occupied ground every moment increases. Above, around, below, we are hemmed in by earth-hungry, gold seekers, each and all greedy as starved tigers for their prey.

Not without many disputes is the work accomplished. Oath and remonstrance, angry quarrelling and bandying of words, soon transform that peaceful fastness of nature into a pandemonium of humanity; and words give place to blows as boundaries are fixed and claims measured off. Fierce fights are waged over many an inch and yard of ground. The heated blood of the gold-seeker brooks little opposition, and I fear that even revolvers and knives are shown, if not used, between rival claimants.

Yet the hot fury of the rush subsides after a time, and each party proceeds to ascertain its lawful boundaries, and to reconcile divisions with its neighbours. Fires are built and camps formed, for no one dare leave his claim unoccupied; and preparations are made for a night more confused and uncomfortable than those previously spent at the warden's camp.

Next day the work begins. The Warden and his aids register the claims and their respective owners. Paries [parties? – E] are told off to cut and construct a road. Miners begin to build up huts and habitations, and to bring up from the river their swags, provisions and tools. Trees fall beneath the axe; rocks are shattered, and the ground disturbed with pick and spade; while pounding and panning, assaying and testing, go on vigorously. For no one knows exactly how the reefs will run, or where the richest stone will be found. Nor can that be more than conjectured until tunnelling has been carried to some depth. Most of the claims will prove abortive and valueless; only one or two, perhaps, will bring wealth to their owners. We work and hope.

* * *

Three months later, what have been the results and what are the prospects? I stand at the door of the rude hut we live in, and look abroad over the goldfield, pondering. It is evening - a memorable evening for us, as will presently appear. But we are depressed and down-spirited, for luck has not been with us. O'Gaygun's Claim is apparently one of the blankest of blanks in the lottery of the goldfield.

What a difference is apparent in the scene around from what it presented three months ago, when we rode here in wild excitement and hot haste! The grand and lonely gorge is now populous with life. Trees have been felled, and even their stumps have altogether disappeared over a great extent of ground. The wide hill-side has been riven, and torn, and excavated by pick and spade, and gaping tunnels yawn here and there. Houses and huts and tents have risen all around, and a rough young town now hangs upon the mountain's shoulder. Newness and rawness and crudity are prevailing features of the place; yet it does begin to look like the abode and work-shop of civilised men. Stores and hotels, primitive but encouraging, hang out their signs to view; and a road, rough but practicable, winds down across the lower ground to Paeroa, the river-landing place, where another township is being nursed into existence. Down below, a couple of crush-mills are already set up, and are hard at work, belching forth volumes of smoke, that almost hides from my view the turbid, muddy waters of the creek in the gully. The thunder and thud of the batteries, the jarring and whirring of machinery, the bustle and stir of active and unceasing toil, reverberate with noisy clamour among the rocks, and proclaim that this stronghold of wild nature has been captured and occupied by man.

We four chums have not done well; indeed we have done very badly. We have prospected our claim in all directions, but without success, and are now sinking a tunnel deep into the hill-side, in hopes of striking the reef that ought, we think, to run in a certain direction from where its upper levels are being successfully quarried in the prospector's claim above us. We have stuck to the claim so far, urged by some fanciful belief not to give it up, and it bids fair to ruin us. Our funds are quite exhausted, and in another week we shall be compelled to give up the claim, to take work on wages here or at Grahamstown, and so raise means to get ourselves back to the Kaipara.

For the expenses have been great. What with buying provisions at frightful prices, buying implements and some bits of machinery, paying for the crushing of quartz that never yielded more than delusive traces of gold, and so on and so forth, our slender capital has melted away into nothingness. True, we have formed ourselves into a company, and have tried to sell some scrip. But the market is flooded with mining shares just now. Moreover, O'Gaygun's Claim is fast becoming the laughing-stock of the field. There are no believers in it except ourselves. Every other claim that proved as valueless as ours has long ago been abandoned; only we stick to our tunnel, driving at it with frantic energy.

Our life is harder here than in our shanty. We are all ill-provided, and have all the wet and mire and mud of the rainy season now to help make things more uncomfortable for us. Our food is coarse and not too plentiful - damper, tea, salt pork, potatoes, and not always all of those. Is it any wonder we are despondent?

As I stand there this evening, cogitating over the gloomy outlook, two of the others come out of the tunnel, bearing a sackful of stone between them. I see a new expression on their faces and eagerly turn to them.

"Something fresh?" "Hush! Not a word. Come into the house - quick!"

So says Dandy Jack to me, hoarsely and hurriedly. Alas, poor man! He is hardly a dandy at present, and even his complacent calm seems to have forsaken him at last.

In the hut we anxiously crowd together, examining the specimens just brought out of the mine. They are lumps of grey and dirty-white quartz, flecked with little spots and metallic yellow. Is it gold?

"Ah! it's just the same old story," growls O'Gaygun; "mica or pyrites, that's about all we've the luck to find - bad cess to them. All's not gold that glitters, boys; and there's precious little av the thrue stuff comin' our way."

"Shut up!" says Dandy Jack without moving, as he lies on his face near the fire, intently examining a piece of quartz -licking it with his tongue, scratching it with his nails, and hefting it in his palms. "There's many a rough, dirty stone that hides good gold within it. And," he adds, rising up, "we have got it this time. Boys, we've struck the reef!"

A few minutes later we were scouring down tothe battery, bearing samples of the precious stone; and before the camp had gone to rest that night a hubbub and excitement had spread through it, for it was the common topic of talk that rich stone had been discovered upon O'Gaygun's Claim.

Next day and next week we were besieged. Crowds wanted to see the claim; numbers wanted to buy shares in it, and would give hundreds and even thousands of pounds for them. We were elated, excited, conceited, madder than ever with our luck, that at last had come.

Well, eventually it proved that the find was but a "blind reef", a "pocket", a mere isolated dribble from the main continuous vein we had at first supposed we had struck. But it filled our pockets, giving us more wealth than we had ever before possessed. Had we been wiser, we might have made more money by selling the claim directly after the find; but we held on too long. However, we made a very pretty little pile - not a fortune exactly, but the nucleus of one; and finally we sold the claim for a good round sum to a joint-stock company.

* * *

The above was written by W Delisle Hay and first appeared in "Brighter Britain" in 1882. It was reprinted in "The New Zealand School Reader", which was prepared for the use in the Fifth and Sixth Standard classes under the direction of the Hon William Pember Reeves, then Minister of Education and published by the Government Printer in 1895. [see Journal 34 for comment: Ohinemuri Gold Rush - E]

Karangahake, before settlement, circa 1884.

Karangahake, before settlement, circa 1884.

Ohinemuri Gold Rush
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 33, September 1989
Karangahake, before settlement, circa 1884.