9. On Working-oxen.
My lodging at Dannevirke is close to the railway-station, and my sitting-room window commands the main road leading to it. An especial object of interest to me is a dray with five or six yoke of oxen coming along with a load to the station or taking one from it, as these generally come from a long distance across the country, where in many places there are no made roads. And this incident serves forcibly to remind me of what once obtained (thirty or forty years ago) at Napier and the now settled districts of Hawke's Bay, with their present towns and boroughs, well-metalled roads, and bridges. Contemplating those oxen (generally twelve) in their ponderous dray, two things are highly prominent: (1.) The muddy state of the dray and its large high wheels, with the spaces between their spokes completely filled up level with the felloe with stiff hardened clay-mud securely fixed therein as if rammed, insomuch that it would be a difficult matter to dislodge any portion of it: This alone shows what kind of country they had some over or through, their tediously slow journey occupying in some cases several days. (2.) The calm and quiet demeanour and great docility of the oxen. There they patiently stand, alike in the hot sun, cold wind, or driving rain, one, two, or three hours, it may be, while the dray is being unloaded and reloaded with stores for the distant station. Sometimes, however, one of a yoked pair reclines on the ground, making it terribly disagreeable for its partner in the same unyielding and heavy yoke, now forcibly bowed down at
such a painful angle. But “all hands” alike are regularly “chewing the cud,” with half-closed, sleepy eyes, in a dreamy kind of way, which seems to alleviate their heavy lot, if not their toil, and often serves to remind me of the use of tobacco by civilized man, especially as formerly practised, and particularly by old sailors.
Moreover, in my writing this I am reminded of a Scandinavian settler here at Dannevirke who has adopted the novel mode of working two oxen in a light dray-like cart, completely harnessing them as if they were horses (the oxen yoked to their drays having no harness at all). Now, the having a bit in their mouths prevents the two poor animals from chewing the cud, and so these, being debarred from their natural habit, have no solace while standing still at loading or unloading, &c. I spoke more than once to the owner about it, pointing out the great natural difference between horses and cattle in the formation of their mouths, and their manner of eating, ruminating, &c.; but my doing so displeased him not a little. For my part, I cannot see that he gains anything by putting a bit into their mouths, as he does not use long reins—it can only serve for show. At the same time I should not omit to say that his two oxen look very well in condition, and are very docile. The harnessing of an ox or bullock within the shafts of a cart after the manner of a horse is not, however, wholly new in this colony, for I remember often seeing in the “forties” an ox so harnessed coming into Wellington with a settler and his family; but that had no cruel and irritating bit in its mouth.
But, of all the varied work and labour of oxen that I have ever seen, that of drawing out the large trunks of felled timber-trees through the thick, uncut, uncleared forest, without tracks, is to me the most astonishing. The incessant labour of both man (the driver) and beast is beyond all comparison—not to mention that of the faithful dog. At one time the pair of leaders, or the head or horn of an ox, at another the end of one of the yokes or the end of the log, gets jammed among the thick standing trees, and so “backing out” and clearing must take place before they can again move slowly on. Then, the multiplicity of words and of phrases used in all manner of tones (I don't mean swearing), and the discordant barking the dog, now on this side of the oxen and now on that—which somehow the patient animals seem to understand—at all events they mostly obey—is surprising. On one occasion, on witnessing a work of this kind in the dense forest, I asked the driver (a steady, hardworking, honest man, who was known to me) which he considered “required the most patience, the man or the ox.” He said he thought “both pretty nearly alike,” and I agreed with him.
I may here also mention that I have seen a curious lusus naturæ while in the bush district this year—indeed, two that were very similar: one was that of a black cow with a young white calf, and the other a white mare with a sucking foal wholly black, presenting such a remarkable contrast. Piebald horses, some of them most strangely coloured, are pretty common about Woodville.