Spear and spade
The solitary gum digger had few requirements. The most important equipment was a gum spear and spade. The spear was a pointed steel rod fitted with a spade handle, for probing the ground to find gum. Experienced diggers came to know the feel of hitting gum. Diggers often dug up wood by mistake, but a later invention called the ‘joker’ – a wire coil wrapped around the spear tip – allowed them to collect and examine small particles of any object the spear hit.
The spade, known as a Skelton, was a cross between a spade and an axe. Strongly constructed, it had a hand-forged steel blade, steel straps that were riveted to the ash handle and extended halfway up it, and foot treads. The angle of the blade to the handle varied, so diggers could choose one that suited their height and way of working. They often had to cut through stumps, buried wood and living roots, so the blade was regularly sharpened with a file. A hard-working digger went through two or three spades a year.
Most gumfields were open scrubland dominated by mānuka. For those who worked and lived there, the tree they remembered was not kauri – it was mānuka, with its distinctive smell and white flowers.
Diggers also used a bucket and a pīkau (a backpack made from a grain sack) to store the day’s haul. Gum was also kept in Māori flax kete (baskets). Diggers would carry lunch and some tea for a brew-up, in a billy or wrapped in newspaper.
At the end of the day, they headed back to their shacks – but their work was not done. After dinner they cleaned the gum, using a knife to scrape away the outer weathered rind, often encrusted with soil. This tedious task took up many evenings and wet days.
Gum from living trees
By the 1890s, it was getting harder to find gum in the ground. Some diggers began collecting gum from around the base of living trees, and using ropes to climb to the forks where gum was often found.
They also started cutting trees to make them bleed gum. They made V-shaped cuts called ‘taps’ in the trunk, returning months later to get the gum. Collectors used spikes on their boots and two long iron hooks to scale the tall trunks – in much the same way that ice climbers today scale frozen waterfalls with ice axes and crampons. The collectors carried ropes to get back down from the giant trees, which could be up to 50 metres high. It was dangerous work, and lives were lost. One story tells of some loggers finding a rope at the base of a large kauri. They felled the tree, and among the branches found the skeleton of a gum collector who must have climbed the tree and then dropped his rope.
At first, bled gum was seen as a ready new supply, although of poorer quality. However, it was soon clear that the practice was killing trees, and in 1905 it was banned in all state forests.