19th century travel

Mr Nixon’s tiger trophy

Mr Nixon's tiger trophy

Museum Visitor Experience Creator, Clare McNamara, chooses a tiger skin rug as her item to talk about.  So why would a professed animal lover and caregiver to two black female kittens – Tuff Titty and one whose name keeps changing (Wonder Woman/My Little Pony/Witch) but answers to anything really – choose a once majestic feline which ended its days as a floor covering?  “It’s the Year of the Tiger … and there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild in the whole world,” says Clare.

The World Wildlife Fund also says that three sub-species of tiger have become extinct since 1940 and a fourth one, the South China tiger, hasn’t been seen in the wild in 25 years.  “We are moving to a stage where we might be living in a world without them,” says Clare.  And here we were, looking at a tiger skin on the floor of the museum.

Clare says it’s a female Bengal tiger, shot in 1930, and further research suggests it was dispatched by a chap called Arthur Challoner Nixon in India. Nixon, who was a member of the locally famous Sedgebrook Nixons, bagged another big cat during his long sojourn in the sub-continent. He also bagged a wife and married her in India before bringing her home to Wanganui.

Richard Bourne, chairman of the Wanganui Collegiate School Museum Trust, delved a little deeper and says that Arthur attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1905-1908.  He was also a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers during the Great War and served both at sea and in Mesopotamia.  After the war he became manager of the Delhi Electric Supply and Traction Company, based in India. In 1926 he married Ella, daughter of W Plumley and they had two sons. Arthur Nixon was awarded the OBE in 1946.

That information does not tell us much more about the tiger skin but it does give it a human perspective. Times have certainly changed. Killing a tiger now is an occasion for shame; then, it was a masculine rite of passage for those who could afford the trip and the accoutrements. Big game hunters were heroes, of sorts, pitting themselves – and a high-powered rifle – against regal beasts in foreign lands.  Values were different in the closing stages of the British Empire and while we have been taught to abhor the senseless killing of endangered species we would be wrong to impose today’s standards on yesterday’s inhabitants. Besides, in 1930 when Mr Nixon shot his tiger, they were probably neither endangered nor desirable.

Here endeth the lesson.

The hide is in remarkably good condition, considering its age, and the head once received the best attention from a skilled taxidermist. The face is frozen in a permanent snarl and looks incredibly life-like. There is some minor damage to the edges of the ears but, otherwise, it seems to have weathered the past 80 years quite well. The museum received the skin in 1969, the year Arthur Nixon died.

So there we were, gazing on this splendid trophy skin, feeling a little sad that its life ended the way it did and yet admiring the beauty of the beast and the skill of those who were able to preserve it so well. Even the claws are still intact, fearsome utensils that they are.

Clare, who has obviously done some homework, says the markings on a tiger’s head are the same as the Chinese written character for king. That’s either coincidence or a pictograph which didn’t evolve further. One wonders.  I also learned that the tiger’s stripes create a skin-cooling mechanism as well as providing convenient camouflage.

The museum visitor experience creator did profess some admiration for the tiger skin rug and seemed to suggest her cats would one day look rather good, similarly tanned and presented.

Clare says Mr Nixon’s tiger will be on display, “sometime in the not too distant future.”

Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.

Rhine of the Antipodes

The houseboat  'Makere' moored at Marae Kōwhai on the Whanganui River.

The houseboat ‘Makere’ moored at Marae Kōwhai on the Whanganui River.

The Whanganui River has always enchanted those who have travelled its winding waters. Tangata whenua (people of the land) hold the river sacred and express their relationship with it in the saying: Ko te Maunga, Ko te Moana, Ko au te Awa, Ko te Awa, ko au; From the Mountain, To the Sea, I am the River, And the River is me. The later years of the nineteenth century opened up the Whanganui River to the rest of the world. Travelling for pleasure was fashionable and increasingly affordable. Tourists had explored and gloried in the long, winding Rhine that moves through the heart of Germany, with its towering precipices and picturesque castles. They had gasped at the Pyramids in Egypt and seen the Greek Parthenon. Now they started looking for other marvels.New Zealand with all its natural curiosities and exotic locations, such as the Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua, drew tourists from overseas in their thousands. The Whanganui River was marketed as the antipodes of the Rhine in Europe, its direct opposite on the other side of the world. New Zealanders also came from near and far to bask in its beauty, to picnic, to meander by canoe and to enjoy a pictorial paradise not seen by many before.

William Salt, his sister and a small party rowed down the river from Taumarunui, circa 1910.

William Salt, his sister and a small party rowed down the river from Taumarunui, circa 1910.

Visitors left a legacy of photographs and paintings to lure many more to Whanganui.  The photographs record a brief moment in history, but capture the magnificence and timelessness of the river.  North of Pīpīriki, ladders of vines that made Māori cliff top settlements accessible from the river were an exciting and awe inspiring subject for a photograph. Arawhata, the name of the area, actually means ladder. Variations on what was known as The Ladder Scene were created many times by different photographers and became a standard shot for publications and postcards.

The Drop Scene, taken early 20th century by FJ Denton

The Drop Scene, taken early 20th century by FJ Denton

Also upriver from Pīpīriki, voyagers come across what is known as The Drop Scene. There are several stories about how this place got its name. One is that the dramatic scenery looks like a theatre backdrop. Another is that as you look upriver through the gorge, an optical illusion gives the impression that the river is dropping away in front of you.

Alexander Hatrick, an astute and energetic businessman, built up a fleet of riverboats that were used for local freight and passenger transport and also for tourist travel.  He set up two hotels to support his river transport business and created a commercial kingdom on the Whanganui River.  In the busiest years Hatrick’s fleet was composed of 19 vessels, including paddle steamers and motorised canoes. The journey up the Whanganui River could be made in a pleasant three days. Hatrick linked up with Thomas Cook Travel, putting this region on the world map of scenic wonderland tours.