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HOME > Short Stories > Five Years in New Zealand 1859 to 1864 > CHAPTER XV.
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    Winter under the Southern Alps—Frost-bite—Seeking Sheep in the Snow—The Runaway.

In winter in these high latitudes, such as the Upper Rangitata, lying at the foot and immediately eastward of the great Alpine range behind which the winter sun dipped at 3 o\'clock in the afternoon, it was intensely cold, and instances of frost-bite were not uncommon. I recollect a poor young fellow, a bullock-driver on a neighbouring station, getting frost-bitten one night when he had lost his way in the snow. He knew nothing of it until he arrived at the station in the morning, when, on removing his boots his feet felt numb and dead, and no amount of rubbing had any effect in inducing a return of circulation. It soon transpired that his toes were frost-bitten. A messenger was despatched to the Ashburton in hope of finding a doctor, but in vain, and the lad was sent to Christchurch, 150 miles, in a covered dray. This, of course, took a considerable time, and when he arrived gangrene had set in, and both feet had to be amputated above the ankles.

When the snow falls in large quantities it becomes an anxious time for the sheep farmer, and if the flocks are not strong and healthy they are sure to suffer. In snowstorms, the sheep will seek the shelter of some hill or spur, collecting together on the lee side, and here they are sometimes drifted over, when if the snow does not remain beyond a certain period they are mostly safe. As the snow drifts over them the heat of their bodies keeps it melted within a certain area, while the freezing and increase of drift and falling snow continue above and beyond the circle. In this manner a compartment is formed underneath in which the animals live and, to some extent, move about. The existence of these habitations is discovered by the presence of small breathing holes on the surface leading from below like chimneys, and sheep will live in this manner for a fortnight or so. When they have eaten up all the grass and roots available they will feed on their own wool, which they tear off each other\'s backs, and chew for the grease contained in it.[Pg 81]

For a fortnight we had been completely snowed up at Mesopotamia. Upon the homestead flat the snow was four feet deep, through which we cut and kept clear a passage between the huts, and for fifty yards on one side to the creek, where through a hole in the ice we drew water for daily use. Fortunately we had abundance of food and a mob of sheep had previously been driven into one of the paddocks to be retained in case of emergency. The confined life was trying. We read, played cards, practised daily with the boxing gloves, and missed sorely the outdoor exercise. One day, however, we had a benefit of the latter which was a new experience to all of us.

The overseer was getting anxious about the sheep. Once or twice distant bleating had been heard, but for some days it had ceased, and as he wished to satisfy himself of the safety of his flocks, we decided to make a party and go in search of them.

When last seen, before the heavy snow began to fall, the flocks of ewes and lambs were two miles from the homestead on the lea of the great spur forming the north extremity of the run, and it was in this direction the bleating was heard.

We arranged our party as follows: Cook, Brabazon, and I, with two station hands, were to start early the following morning, while two men remained at the huts to be on the look out for us, and if we were late in returning they had orders to follow up in our snow trail and meet us.

We each dressed as lightly as possible, and provided ourselves with stout pine staffs to assist us in climbing and feeling our way over dangerous localities. Each of us carried a parcel of bread and meat, and a small flask of spirits was taken for use only in case of urgent necessity.

An expedition of this kind is always attended with danger. Travelling through deep snow is exceedingly tiring, and the glare and glistening from its surface tends to induce sleepiness. Many a man has lost his life from these causes combined when but a short distance from safety.

Seeking Sheep in the Snow

Seeking Sheep in the Snow.

We started in Indian file, the foremost man breaking the snow and the others placing their feet in his tracks. When the leader, whose work was naturally the heaviest, got tired, he stepped aside, and the next in file took up the breaking, while the former fell into the rear of all, which is, of course, the easiest.

Proceeding thus, we went on steadily for some hours, our route being by no means straight, as we had to utilise[Pg 82] our knowledge of the ground and avoid dangerous and suspicious places. The aspect of a piece of country considerably changes in surface appearance under a heavy covering of snow where deep and extensive drifts have formed.

Notwithstanding our deviations and undulating course, we made the summit of the great spur at midday. Such a scene as here opened out before us is difficult to describe. If it had been a flat plain with the usual domestic accessories there would be only a dreary circumscribed and more or less familiar picture, but here we were among the silent mountains untouched by the hand of man, in the clearest atmosphere in the universe, with magnificent and varying panoramas stretching away from us on every side. To the north we could see far into the upper gorge of the Rangitata, with its precipices and promontories receding point by point in bold outline to the towering peaks forty miles beyond, and below it the wide flats of the great river, with its broad bed and streams so rapid that they could not be frozen over. On the east the low undulating downs stretching away towards the plains, while westward they ran in huge spurs to the foot of the Alpine range, towering 13,000 feet above us. Turning southward was seen the lower gorge, with its hills almost meeting in huge precipitous spurs, with stretches of pine............
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