Topic: Invincible by Tony Walsh

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A Tony Walsh entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition

Archived version here.

It was December 1961 and the end of the school year was rapidly approaching.  I wanted the glory of being able to take home to Whangarei some pork or venison for Christmas.

Ned couldn’t get away and warned me to be wary.

“The river’s high already and the weather’s iffy. It won’t take a great deal of rain to bring her up into a fully fledged flood.”

Young, silly, overconfident – ‘I can look after myself’ – I arranged to borrow a horse from Charlie Rangi at Whakarae. I’d take on the Wai Iti for the weekend.

Friday being the last day of the term we finished early. Keen as mustard I threw my gear into the old Ford Consul and roared off up the valley to Whakarae. Charlie was home and after a mug of tea we caught the horse and threw on the saddle and pikau of gear. The weather certainly didn’t look too promising. In fact a few spots splattered down as I launched myself into the saddle, rifle across my shoulders.

Bem Arohana stood outside his nikau whare as I rode by.

“Keep an eye on the sky, boy. She don’t look too hot.”

 The first river crossing down below the settlement is where the Wai Iti and the Tauranga flow together to become the Waimana. The level was higher than normal but nothing to write home about. Once over the river I heeled my horse into a jig-jog across the grassy flats to put some distance behind me before I made camp in decent hunting country.  A peal of thunder drew my attention to a massive build up of ominous blue-black cloud above the ranges ahead. A sudden shower created craters in the river’s surface.

I pressed on.

A narrow rocky gorge necessitated leaving the river’s flow for a traverse of a bush terrace via a well worn horse track before returning to the Wai Iti further upstream. By now the rain was a steady downpour, saturating stuff, cold too but nothing deters a good keen hunter.

I pressed on.

The river all too obviously began to cloud. Twigs and leaves drifted down the current.  Warning signals passed through my mind and were dismissed. After all another half hour or so and I would reach the more open terrain where the ridges peeled back from the river. There I intended making camp.

Shivering, I pressed on.

Again the rocky sides pressed in on the river’s course enclosing its waters in an angry torment. The deafening thunder and lowering clouds threatened the lonely dishevelled hunter on his now trembling horse. The deepening icy crossings were taking their toll.

We pressed on.

From a deep and bouldered traverse my horse climbed on to a narrow ledge of upturned crumbling rock strata which the horses never liked, forcing them to pick their way cautiously.  At the upstream end of this it was a plunge into an upstream swim against the current. Bravely my steed made the effort with me holding onto his mane and swimming beside him.

The rapidly approaching thunderstorm drove a surge of water before it. Three quarters of the way across my horse was swept around and downstream with me hanging on grimly, rifle still slung across my shoulder. At the end of the long reach we grounded. With darkness closing in and my belongings saturated, I gave in to the elements and made for home.

 The river crossings now were ever deeper, the water murky, the bottom unseen. Driftwood sledged the current. Normally shingled, the splash was now a downstream swim to where the horse track left the river’s course. With me on his back the climb from the pool onto the trail was just too much for my weary mount. I dismounted and scrambled ashore. With my bush knife I dug a slope to the track and then hauling on the reins assisted my steed to ‘dry’ land.

The ridge traverse loomed before me. Evening had closed in together with the depths of my thunderstorm. I felt for the track with my feet rather than seeing ahead as I led my bone-tired horse over the hillside. Up a steep pinch we scrambled together and as my horse lunged forward my pikau caught on a branch and was torn in two. With numb, blue fingers I somehow poked holes in the sacking with my sharpening steel and used the baling twine which had held it on the saddle to sew it together.

We soldiered on.

Heads down into the weather and over the ridge we were once more onto the open grassy flats and the easier going. I mounted again. We walked the grazing land where earlier we had trotted both of us conserving energy for the last dangerous swim at the confluence I knew lay ahead.

The roar of the conjoined waters was daunting to say the least, but home and shelter beckoned from the faint lights of Whakarae homes on the hillside across this terrifying splurge of water.

I tied my boots together by their laces and fastened my rifle to the saddle.

Together we took the plunge.

Immediately the swift waters caught us and swept us away downstream, my horse swimming desperately diagonally across the torrent with me hanging onto his mane for grim death and it was close. No sound was ever sweeter than his hooves striking bottom close to the far bank. He needed no urging now.

We were home. We had made it.

 

About the author:

Tony Walsh has been married for 44 years with five children and seven grandchildren. Most of his working life was spent as a teacher and a school principal, during which he spent a great deal of time hunting and trout fishing in the wild. Since his retirement and as his legs got slower, he now fly fishes the rivers, tying his own flies. He published The Black Singlet Brigade with XLibris in 2013, an essential read for any bush adventurer, actual or vicarious. Tony presently edits the local Trout Fishing Club monthly magazine. Now retired, he lives, writes and resides by a trout stream. He describes this as Heaven on earth.

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/5QBZ-XHR6

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