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Hero Stories of New Zealand

Ears in the Forest

page 180

Ears in the Forest

THE railway and the quick-change town-building which followed the iron line have so transformed Taumarunui that it is not easy to discover the old camp grounds and locate the scenes of an era when this alluvial flat at the meeting of the rivers, was the most secluded Maori settlement in the North Island. By reason of that remoteness and seclusion, at the head of canoe navigation of the Wanganui, it was also a refuge place of broken men and council-place and camp of plotting and preparation for raid and war. When last I was in Taumarunui, I looked for that wooded ridge below which we once camped, where Rochfort the surveyor's stilt-legged pataka, or storehouse, stood. Springs of water oozed from the hillside where the rimu trees grew, and formed a runnel through a maize patch. Now the railway runs through the old maize ground, the levels are covered with the shops and dwellings and churches of a modern town. I looked, too, for the “Scouts' Hill.” It was not without some casting about that it was possible to pick the ridge slope where the two Government Maori scouts from South Taupo spied on Te Kooti and his Hauhaus, back in 1869. The story as it comes to mind now was told me first by Captain G. A. Preece, N.Z.C., who commanded the Maori Contingent from which these two plucky fellows volunteered.

After the fight at Te Porere, away inland yonder on the tussock plain at the foot of the Tongariro Range, the rebel leader Te Kooti and his surviving followers disappeared in the great forest that then covered all page 181 this high upper valley of the Wanganui River. Te Kooti lost thirty-seven men at Te Porere and suffered a wound himself, and he was in no condition to resume fighting at once. So the commander of the Government forces, Lieut.-Colonel Thomas McDonnell, was naturally anxious to discover his whereabouts and deal with him finally before he had time to recruit his Hauhau band. McDonnell consulted Captain Preece (then lieutenant in charge of the Arawa Maori auxiliaries) and parties were sent out in various directions to scout the bush. Preece and others were of opinion that the rebel chief had taken refuge at Taumarunui or thereabouts, and was resting there and making arrangements to renew the campaign in the heart of the island.

Preece, at Te Poutu camp, on the shore of Lake Roto-a-Ira, discussed the scouting operations with some of his trusted Maoris, and told them he believed the fugitives had made for the head of navigation of the Wanganui, at Taumarunui or Maraekowhai. He asked for men who would be willing to undertake the decidedly dangerous mission of scouting over the plain and through the bush to Taumarunui.

Two young men of the Ngati-Tuara sub-tribe, of Rotorua, immediately volunteered. Their names were Te Honiana and Wiremu. They were given their instructions, to get as close as possible to the village at Taumarunui, ascertain whether Te Kooti was there, and endeavour to learn his plans and movements.

Armed each with a carbine, revolver and tomahawk, and a good supply of ammunition, and carrying light swags of rations, the two scouts travelled across the Porere and Waimarino plain by night. They traversed page 182 the great forest to the westward by day, and after a tramp of forty miles—a very cautious march along the bush trail, never knowing when they might encounter the enemy—they camped near the edge of the bush above the junction of the Wanganui and Ongarue Rivers at Taumarunui.

With the first streaks of dawn, very carefully, leaving no trail that would betray their presence, the two daring fellows crept along the hill, as close as possible to the main village on the flat. Te Kooti was there, with his men and women followers.

A dark green curtain of bush covered the hills that rimmed the sheltered basin of the Taumarunui waters-meet. On the ridge where the two scouts crouched the forest extended almost to the foot of the hill close to the outer huts of the kainga. Honiana and Wiremu, after a consultation, unloaded their carbines, a precaution against accidental discharge when they were crawling through the dense undergrowth. Their holstered revolvers they kept loaded. With the utmost care they worked slowly down through the close cover of ferns that matted the ground until they were half-way down the slope, where, peering out, they could see the village square and the large thatched meeting-whare in which Te Kooti and his followers were housed.

The sun was shining into the valley when the scouts took up their dangerous spy-place. Presently the people were out on the marae for the morning meal. The village women and girls came from the cooking ovens bearing steaming baskets of food, and set them on the mats before the men; they came with a swinging, half-dancing page 183 kind of gait, swaying their hips as they advanced, while the leading dame chanted a song.

“I wish they would bring us some of that good hot pork and potatoes,” whispered Wiremu to his comrade. “It makes my mouth water.”

After the meal the whole of the people in the kainga, squatting in a half-moon formation in the marae, where a Hauhau war-flag of red and black flew from a pole, were addressed by Te Kooti and the Wanganui chiefs. The war leader had been wounded in the hand at the Porere fight and his arm was in a black-cloth sling. Old Topine te Mamaku was there, the great warrior chief of the Upper Wanganui; he had fought the British troops in Wellington's little war more than twenty years previously. There had been early morning prayers and chantings in the big whare; and there was another Hauhau service on the marae presently. Te Kooti was the priest and exhorted the people, and the Psalms of David rose in high fervent volume and the solemn music rang and echoed from wall to wall of the valley. The scouts listened with the utmost intentness to the speeches that followed; they strained their ears to catch the import of the conference. They heard Te Kooti declare that his God would yet give him complete victory over the pakeha. He would march to Waikato, and he would thereafter attack Tauranga or Rotorua. The route of march was discussed. There was a speaker from the Upper Waikato, a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe. He invited Te Kooti to bring his war-party to the Ngati-Raukawa country, Whakamara and Waotu and Tapapa. So much the spies made out on the first day of their listening. In the evening there were page 184 more religious chantings, and there were speeches and songs in the crowded meeting-house.

The scouts made a scanty meal of the hard biscuit they had carried in their swags from McDonnell's camp. Their drink was cold water from a hillside spring. It was a cold night in their fireless camp; they took turns at sentry watch till daylight came.

All that second day of their spying Honiana and Wiremu listened to the Hauhau speeches and chants and watched for signs of a forward movement. They could see some of the men making up cartridges to fill their hamanu or ammunition holders. More people arrived from down-river by canoe; they were received with songs of welcome and waving of shawls and blankets as they marched on to the assembly ground.

For one thing the scouts were thankful. They had been in dread lest some of the village dogs would scent them out where they lay in hiding and rouse the village youth to a pig-hunt. But no kuri came prowling in their direction. Once indeed they did greatly fear detection. They saw two men leave the flat and climb the ridge in their direction along a track that led to the east, the trail towards Waimarino. The Hauhaus passed their hiding-place so closely that they could hear them talking to each other as they climbed this hill. The men went on to an open fern hill—the elevation on which the Taumarunui Hospital stands to-day—and there remained till nightfall. They were scouts, or rather sentries, watching the trail.

The spies talked in low tones. They decided that it was time to be going. They had heard sufficient to justify their conclusion that Te Kooti would very soon page 185 be on the move again, and this time by way of the western side of Lake Taupo, through the Tuhua country, where he was likely to gather recruits, and so on to the Ngati-Raukawa territory. All Ngati-Raukawa in the King Country and at Tapapa—which is midway between the Waikato at Waotu and the Tauranga district—were Hauhaus, and in their country the rebel chieftain would find stout support.

So in the midnight hours the scouts left their secret bed among the ferns and the mangémangé and crept cautiously out to the Waimarino track. They listened intently awhile as they looked down on the sleeping village, then padded swift-footed along the narrow trail, joyful at the thought of their news for the Colonel.

“What a pity we couldn't have shot him!” was their one regret.

Both men believed they could have picked off Te Kooti from their ambush. But that was not their present duty; moreover, whether they killed the rebel chief or not, it would have been suicide for themselves. Though they could have fought a running fight along the back trail, in the end it would have been the tomahawk. But Te Kooti never knew how near he walked to death as he paced to and fro on Taumarunui marae addressing his magic words to the faithful.

Two days later Te Honiana and Wiremu, weary, famished but intensely elated, trudged into the redoubt camp at Poutu and reported to their young pakeha captain. Preece took them immediately to Colonel McDonnell. First a tot of commissariat rum—the only decent nourishment in the camp, Preece said—and then Te Honiana reported the outcome of the mission. He described page 186 what they had seen and heard. They believed that Te Kooti would in a few days be on the march through the Tuhua country, making for Tapapa, and also probably for Rotorua, where he would fall upon the Arawa, whom he hated.

McDonnell was so pleased with this information—all of which presently proved correct—that he presented the scouts with the Government carbines which had been issued to them for the expedition, in place of the cumbrous long Enfield rifles.

This, it seems to me, was in the nature of an anti-climax. They certainly deserved something more than that after all their breath-taking perils. It was a meagre reward for a deed of extreme skill and prudence conjoined to daring. Soldiers have received V.C.'s for services of less value. But Te Honiana and Wiremu were quite content with those handy new carbines which they need not return to store when the war was over. They would be just the thing for pig-hunting.