I had an offer to join Dibbs Jones on a gold-prospecting expedition into the mountains. It was called ‘fossicking’. This coincided with a day when I felt it was a poor life disappearing into a hole in the ground just after the sun had risen on a fine spring morning. I went off fossicking with Dibbs into the bush.
We were eight hours from the nearest other human being, an eight-hour foot slog through the bush, carrying all our food and gear. Dibbs went to an abandoned hut, built by some gold diggers years before. Dibbs’s speciality was crevices, and we set to work washing the pay dirt in the river. We shovelled the gravel into long boxes with ‘riffles’, small pieces of wood across them, which stopped the heavy gold when the pay dirt was washed through the box by the river. When we got down to rock bottom we worked into the crevice with a pick to find the gold which had sunk there.
New Zealand Administrative Map Photo Gallery
Dibbs was said to be able to smell gold, but, if so, the scent was not strong. Once, however, I thought he had smelt some out. I had been off to the store to get food. I used to go off for the supplies by myself for several reasons, one being that I could hump much more than Dibbs. I made the eight-hour trip with 100 lbs on my back with only one halt. Really it was better not to stop; with that load it was hard to get going again. I packed the stores into a sugar sack, with straps made of green flax leaves from the bottom corners of the sack to pass over the shoulder blades to a point in the middle of the sack. Success depended on getting the load high up on one’s shoulders. Secondly, although I could pack so much more than Dibbs, he was more skilful with a shovel and could produce twice as much pay dirt for panning off as I could. The last reason for my going was that Dibbs always went on a bender when he reached ‘civilisation and once was away for ten days.
I had my first experience of solitude while Dibbs was away on this extended binge. The bush was lovely, but seemed sad and lonely. The beautiful silvery notes dropped one by one by the bell birds and tuis became the most monotonous and lonely sound after I had been alone for a few days. My thinking got slower, until it seemed to be done word by word with long periods between. Solitude had a strong effect on me at twenty I think I needed more to do. During the day, digging in the river, there was the urge of gambling fever, the gnawing hope of striking it rich. It was at night, after cooking the meal, that loneliness took charge. Once I heard a kiwi call.
We were short of stores, and while Dibbs was away so long I got very hungry. One day I went into the bush and shot a kaka. By scratching a stone on the edge of a tin matchbox to imitate their harsh squawk I attracted a dozen of these birds down to a tree. They flew in and out of the tree and round it, making a frightful din. Now I am sorry I shot that interesting bird, but then I was glad. It was good to eat and I was hungry.
We cooked in our big iron camp oven. In order to bake ‘damper’, which is unleavened bread, we used to hang the oven high above the log fire and pile hot ashes on the lid.
During six months we won enough gold to pay for our food. The biggest nugget we found was 9 dwt or 3/8 oz. Afterwards I made a ring out of it for a girlfriend.
One day, when I got back with stores, feeling hot and exhausted, I came into the hut to find Dibbs sitting by the door. I was annoyed that he was not out working in the river while I had been struggling through the bush. ‘Oh, I don’t have to go into the river to get gold, he said jauntily. He had found a tin of gold that had been cached underneath the hut. All the gold and the colours were rusty, so that it must have been there for a long time. Unless he had dumped it there himself, I thought that he must have smelt it.