Wednesday, August 24, 2016

James Mackenzie (3) Slow Pursuit

The other odd thing about the James Mackenzie story is the behaviour of the John Sidebottom, the overseer of The Levels station. His letter to the Rhodes Brothers in Christchurch is the main source of information. What stands out in this letter is how incredibly slow he was to try to purse the stolen sheep. It was almost as if he wanted them to get away.

The sheep were grazing in Taiko. The land was not fenced at the time, so they would be put into an enclosure at night, and let them out to graze each morning. The usual practice was for two men to watch the sheep during the day and camp in a hut at night.

The theft of the sheep was reported by a Maori boy called Seventeen. It seems that he was not sleeping at the enclosure with the sheep that night, or he would have been disturbed when they were stolen. Perhaps he had gone back to the outpost at Cave for a meal and sleep and found the sheep missing when he returned early in the morning.

Sidebottom records that Seventeen came to him at Cave on Thursday morning, where he was paring the feet of sheep with footrot. Seventeen reported the sheep were gone and had been tracked to Campbell’s hut, at the foot of Mount Misery. This was really useful information, as it meant that sheep had not gone towards Timaru, or down the valley to where the Taiko stream joins the Pareora River at the foot of Mount Horrible, which would have been an easier way to go.

I presume that Sidebottom heard about the theft some time later in the morning, but he did not bother to search for the sheep that day. This is odd, because the loss of a thousand sheep was a more serious problem, whereas a bit of footrot could easily wait.

More important, he had a horse and knew where the sheep had gone. At Cave, he was much close to their destination. He could have ridden over the Cave Hill at its low point and ridden down the valley where the Cave-Pareora Road travels and be in Cannington in a few hours. By climbing up on the hills, he would have been able to see across the valley and discover where the sheep has gone. Had he taken this action, he would have probably have discovered them before nightfall.

Even if the thieves had been driving the sheep most of the night and next day, they would not only have been able to get far into Cannington. They had to drive the sheep about 7 km from Taiko, where the sheep were camped, into Limestone Valley at the foot of the hill (a direct route was blocked by a limestone cliff). They then had to drive them up over the hill north of Mount Misery and down the other side.

Getting down off the hill would have taken them at least three or four hours. I remember when my father assisted with mustering sheep at Braeval. We could watch the sheep coming down the hill from our home on the other side of the valley. It would take several hours for the flock to all come down, and that was with a good track and sheep that knew they were going to good pasture on the flatland.

The sheep would hardly have been off the hill by that time that Sidebottom heard about the theft later in the morning. However, he did nothing until the next day.

On Firday morning, Sidebottom set out with Seventeen and Taiko and they tracked the sheep over the hill and down towards the Pareora River. By nightfall, they had arrived at bush of the Upper Pareora Gorge.

I am surprised that Sidebottom had travelled such a short distance. The sheep had travelled the same route on the previous day. Sidebottom had a horse, and even if his Maori boys were on foot, they should have been able to move much faster than the stolen flock.

A thousand sheep would leave a lot of droppings and wool on bushes, so tracking them would be quite easy. So by Friday night he should have been able to catch the stolen flock, if he had been going hard all day.

On Saturday, they tracked the tracked the sheep up into Mawaro to a branch of the Tengawai River. He must have been quite close to the sheep, but Sidebottom stopped tracking and rode back to Cave to get more supplies. He had all of Thursday to prepare, so it is odd that he had run out of supplies after only one day on the pursuit.

While at Cave, Sidebottom sent back to Levels Station for more help. I am not sure why he had not done this on Thursday, because this delay allowed the sheep to travel further. By the end of Saturday, they would have been well up into the Waratah Valley. Reading his account and understanding the distance he had to travel, it seemed like he was doing his best to let the sheep escape.

On Sunday, they continued tracking the sheep, but Sidebottom deliberately delayed progress in the afternoon by sending the Maori boy Taiko to look for the men who were coming to help. Taiko took the horse, which would have delayed the speed of the tracking. He arrived back at sunset without the men.

As the end of the day, Sidebottom finally caught up with the sheep and discovered Mackenzie at the bottom of a hill watching them while preparing a meal. He captured Mackenzie and recovered the sheep. Although visibility was affected by fog, he immediately began driving the sheep through the night towards home (Mackenzie escaped during the night).

The next day they arrived back at Cave, having covered a distance of 25 miles over rough country. Driving them all through the night and into the next day without giving them a rest seemed an odd action for a man charged with caring for the sheep.

The contrast in speed is astounding. When chasing the sheep, he took several days to travel from Cave to the Mackenzie Pass. When driving the sheep home, he was able to cover the distance during one night and part of the next day. If he had shown the same zeal on the outward journey, he would have quickly caught the sheep.

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