Into the Chasm and a Horse-Poking Kerfuffle

A fellow adventurer and one of 12 loyal readers for this blog offered to take me out to a Dunedin classic – The Chasm. Only catch, we would be descending into its depths to discover what lies below the tourist’s viewing platform.

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Not being one to back away from a possibly bad idea, I of course agreed, and we set out along Highcliff Rd toward Sandymount, passing Nyhon’s track and it’s mysterious collapsed farm house. We parked up at the Sandymount car park, from which a magnificent view of Mount Charles and Allans Beach can be seen.

Mt Charles from the Sandymount car park
Mt Charles from the Sandymount car park

After admiring the view, it was time to pass through the macrocarpa tunnel which would take us through to the wild reaches of farthest Sandymount. Coming through here as a child I always imagined this as a magical portal taking me through to a mysterious fantasy land.

To the Chasm
The magic tunnel

The new world we entered was one of emerald grass and azure sky, with butterflies flitting from tussock to thistle. I recognised coppers, tussock ringlets and red admirals amongst the dancing insects.

Sandymount
My fantasy land

Passing beneath a macrocarpa soon brought us to a stile which lead us through a paddock toward the famous chasm. As we stood on the viewing platform and gazed down in to the abyss below I couldn’t help but squeak, “We’re going down there?

Into the Chasm
A daunting prospect

I was pleased to hear we would not be going directly down, but circling around the yawning chasm to a steep but slightly less sheer slope (note to fellow adventurers: if you must try this for yourself, please be extremely careful!).

Down to the depths
Down to the depths

I slid slowly down the slope on my butt between tussocks and a scattering of flax and other hardy cliff-side plants until I reached an outcrop I could clamber around to enter the Chasm.

The Chasm, Sandymount
The Chasm in all its daunting glory

We edged out on to the lip between chasm and sea, looking down it was a sheer drop to churning ocean. Turning inland, we made our way into the sunken floor of the Chasm and the sound of the surf became muted. Looking back, the distant waves and the dull sound had a lulling effect, like television static. Here we seemed isolated from everything.

But there was no time for a nap, because we had exploring to do!

From The Chasm to the sea
From The Chasm to the sea

We made our way into the far reaches of The Chasm, eventually encountering the rusted and scattered remains of a car, which some irresponsible soul had apparently pitched into the abyss some time ago.

Mangled car in the Chasm
That’ll buff out

After a decent look around the place, it was time to make our way out. But as we made our way back up the steep cliff face, I noticed some bare patches of clay. My entomological upbringing prompted me to look closer and sure enough I was rewarded with the sight of several Neocicindela laticincta, or as you might prefer: tiger beetles. With their distinctive yell0w-and-brown markings and fearsome jaws these speedy predators seem dangerous, but are thankfully harmless to humans.

Tiger beetle
Tiger beetle

Having safely escaped the depths of the Chasm we decided to take a detour and investigate a spot that is marked as a sheepyard on the 1901 map of the Peninsula, and as “Nyhon’s Farm” on the 1922 version.

I already mentioned this site while walking the Nyhon Track, as I tried to puzzle out exactly how the old route came by the name it still carries today. This block was owned by Daniel Nyhon and used as a sheep farm before that became the standard industry on the Peninsula. It was also part catalyst of a decade-long dispute that became known as “The Sandymount Feud”.

We eventually located our goal, an overgrown and disused sheep dip with a spectacular ocean view.

Nyhon's sheep dip
The sheep dip

The whole thing probably started with the Nyhons’ sheep wandering into the Young brothers’ property, which we are now meandering toward. To get there, we’ll have to pass back through my magic tunnel and into the real world again.

We had to retreat somewhat down the road from the car park in order to find our target patch of bush. The first sign of civilisation we discovered amongst the lupins and tall grass was a roofless stone shed that still contained the rusted skeleton of an automobile, though it was anyone’s guess how it got in there.

Ruin on the Young property
Garage?

Ducking beneath the foliage (and avoiding the native nettles), we discovered the collapsed remains of a fireplace…and several healthy potato plants. That, and the vibrantly flowering fuchsias were not the only indications that somebody’s garden once flourished here.

Flower at the Young homestead
Hidden flower

The Young brothers (John, Joseph and David, plus brother William who lived with their father at Portobello) by their own account, were innocently thinning turnips with the help of their father when James Joseph Nyhon and his brother Daniel arrived to, ahem, talk matters out. Somehow this devolved into a heated exchange which involved the Nyhons referencing the Young brothers’ “hangman father and murdering aunt” and the Youngs firing back that the Nyhons were Irish blankity-blanks. Eventually, James tied his horse to a nearby fence and went to fetch a fencing notice.

It was at this point that David Young Senior is alleged to have hit, poked or struck the poor horse, gashing it just above one eye and causing it to badly bleed.

Building on the Young property
Building cloaked in nettle

This was in December 1910, so you might hope that things would have cooled down by the beginning of the next year. But that wouldn’t make much of a story!

On the 12 January, James Joseph Nyhon allegedly assaulted Young Senior as he waited for a boat at the Broad Bay jetty and also at one point followed him around while wielding a shellelagh (a type of Irish club-like weapon).

Later in the month he got into a confrontation with John Young at Sandymount and again at the Burnside Cattle Yards, then in February John Young drove a cart through a flock of the Nyhons’ sheep near Highcliff School, to which our fiery Nyhon retaliated by throwing stones and shouting.

The result of all this was that in March the magistrate spent two full days of court time untangling the web of accusations between these two families. The magistrate dismissed most of the charges, but upheld one count of abusive language by John Young and the assault on Young Senior by James Joseph Nyhon. He bound both parties over to keep the peace, and that was the end of that.

Interior of Young house
Interior of hidden house

Just kidding! The Youngs then brought a charge of perjury against James Joseph Nyhon, accusing him of having lied about the horse-poking incident (the creature was tied to a barbed wire fence, after all). It was dismissed, but on the way home James met William John Townley, who had been called as a witness and whose daughter was married to John Young. They exchanged pleasantries, which landed John in court again for slander after he suggested that William was a habitual cattle thief. The claim was upheld and William was awarded £25 plus costs.

Two years of relative peace ensued before tensions boiled over again with another incident between William and James, this time somewhere in the vicinity of the Shiel Hill Tavern. Their stories varied wildly regarding who attacked whom, but the jury sided with William and he was awarded £200 with costs.

That seems to have been the last major flare-up of the feud, though ill-feeling still lingered in the neighbourhood – I have already mentioned a 1918 incident that was blamed on the dispute.

And all caused, apparently, by a few wandering sheep.

We thought it best to wander no more, lest we wake the sleeping ghosts of that century-old quarrel. So we withdrew from the secret place and embarked for home, hoping to navigate the Peninsula Road without meeting any hostilities.

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3 thoughts on “Into the Chasm and a Horse-Poking Kerfuffle

  1. Andrea

    Very interesting! Thank you for such a great read!

  2. Ian

    This is great. My best mate at school’s mother was Daphne Nyhon (maiden name) who I believe must have been a daughter of the Nyhon’s who farmed at Sandymount. We visited the area when my mate was last here a few years ago from the UK.

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