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The First Ascent of Mount Ruapehu


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The volcanic mountains of Ruapehu, 9,175 feet, Tongariro, 6,458 feet, Ngauruhoe, 7,515 feet, are situated in the Tongariro National Park in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. The land that comprised the original park was a gift from an old-time Maori chief, named Te Heu Heu Herekeikei, a man of immense stature who maintained five wives and who resided at the village of Waihi on the shore of Lake Taupo. A land-slide buried the village and its occupants, but the tribe recovered the bones of their revered chief and placed them to rest in a wahi-tapu, or Maori sepulchre, on the slopes of Mount Tongariro.

The land, as land for agricultural or pastoral purposes, is of poor quality, comprising to a large extent ejecta from the volcanoes; from a scenic point of view, however, the mountains are very fine, and when in action, Ngauruhoe is awe-inspiring; they are also interesting to the geologist and the botanist. The Government has increased the area of the park by the inclusion of fairly considerable areas of Crown lands.

Mount Ruapehu has large glaciers on its east, west, and southern slopes, and these are the only permanent ice rivers in the North Island. The main one on the summit is nearly a mile in width. One of these glaciers, at an elevation of about 8,500 feet, is somewhat remarkable owing to its situation in an old crater, and from the fact that it contains a lakelet of sulphur-impregnated water which at times boils to such an extent that it emits clouds of steam and sometimes ejects mud. At other times its temperature is so low that hunks of ice float in it. This lakelet is circular in form, about 600 feet across, and its sides are over 100 feet in height. This semi-glacial thermal lake is believed to be one source of the Wangaehu River.

Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe are figuratively saturated with Maori lore.

These two mountains were regarded by the Maori as being particularly sacred, and access to them was denied to the white man for many years after his advent to New Zealand. The late J. C. Bidwill is said to have been the first European to ascend Ngauruhoe, on the second of March, 1839. He was accompanied by two Maoris who had come with him from Tauranga; the mountain was alive, and they were terrified at the rumblings and noises, but more particularly of its evil reputation, and declined to go nearer than a mile from its summit. Bidwill's ascent was made surreptitiously and thereby grievously offended the owners of the mountain. The Maoris declined to permit Dr. Dieffenbach to climb Tongariro in 1841, and at a later date, page break George French Angas, Sir George Grey, Governor, and the famous German geologist, Hochstetter, were refused permission to do so. At the time of Dieffenbach's visit, the paramount chief Te Heu Heu was down Wanganui way with his warriors, settling a little score preparatory to his becoming a Christian convert; before his departure he placed a strong measure of tapu on Mount Tongariro—a truly pagan act.

Mount Ngauruhoe is named after a slave of that name who accompanied his master, a great chief, on a journey of exploration to the south from the region of the hot lakes at Rotorua. Coming in sight of a high cone-shaped mountain capped with snow the chief decided to ascend it so as to satisfy his curiosity and to spy out the adjacent lands. Now snow was unknown to these adventurers, and its cold cramped their bare feet and caused their bodies to shiver and shake. The chief, in alarm, shouted to his sisters who resided on the burning island of Whakaari Motu, White Island, in the Bay of Plenty, a hundred miles away, to send him some fire at once. The sisters of the chief were much perturbed and immediately despatched two taniwha, named Pupa and Te Haeta, by a subterranean passage with fire for the relief of their distressed brother and his slave. The fire arrived and burst forth from the top of the mountain in time to warm and thereby save the life of the chief, but alas, too late to prevent the slave from perishing with the unaccustomed cold. The chief, therefore, named the mountain Ngauruhoe, in honour of his loyal slave. Ngauruhoe has continued burning ever since this tragic event, and as the two taniwha, in their haste, dropped fire on their journey, this accounts, according to the Maori, for the volcanic and thermal, activity along the line that extends from White Island to Ngauruhoe, which includes Mounts Edgecumbe and Tarawera, the thermal districts of Rotorua, Rotomahana, Waiotapu, Orakei-korako, Wairakei, Taupo, Tokaanu, and Mount Tongariro. There are two craters on Tongariro, Te Mari at 4,990 feet and the Red Crater at 6,140 feet. Far away to the west of Ruapehu stands a noble-looking isolated mountain, known to the Maori as Taranaki, but renamed by Cook, Egmont; it is 8,280 feet in height and like Fujiyama in form, with a base line of thirty-four miles in circumference.

The Maori has a legend to account for its “splendid isolation” :—It appears that at one time Taranaki stood “cheek by jowl” with Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro, on the sites now occupied by the twin lakes Nga-puna-o-tama. Now Tongariro was respectably married to a little mountain of 4,000 feet, named Pihanga; she was fair to look upon and of serious mien. Taranaki, having no wife, was at times exuberantly flirtatious and began frivolling with Pihanga, even going so far as to throw hot lava over her feet. Pihanga objected to this misbehaviour and complained to her husband; Tongariro was somewhat jealous of the handsome appearance of Taranaki, so Pihanga's complaint caused his wrath to rise and boil over; he rumbled, roared, shrieked and belched forth all sorts of molten muck on page break to Taranaki, ending up by giving him a hoist on his southern aspect that caused his projection into the clouds and propulsion eighty miles away; he dropped, fortunately for him, on the far distant edge of the fertile plains of Taranaki and just before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

There he stands alone, a monument to the power of Tongariro and an outcast from his family because of his own indiscretion and folly.

Mount Ruapehu is, by some scientists, regarded as being still alive, although not likely to erupt for many ages to come. Tongariro has occasional fits of activity, while Ngauruhoe has fairly regular outbursts, when it emits dense volumes of sulphur-laden vapour.

The flora in the vicinity of these mountains is fairly extensive, and comprises hard shrubs, veronica, celmisia, oleria, comprosma, gentiana, etc.

The native fauna is well represented in variety if not in numbers, and along with small birds embraces the kaka, kiwi, weka, titi, tui and kuku; of introduced animals there are wild horses on the plains and hares are plentiful; some axis deer were released on the foothills of Ruapehu, but they seem to have disappeared.

The Tongariro River is famous throughout the angling world for the large number of its huge rainbow trout.

The main trunk railway, from Wellington to Auckland, passes near to Ruapehu, and from one point both Ruapehu and the “disgraced” Taranaki can be seen at the same time.

Accommodation huts are now provided at the base of Ruapehu for the use of visitors, and ascents are made by large parties of men and women—winter sports are held on its lower slopes.

T. E. Donne.

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