Hero Stories of New Zealand
First over the Alps — The Epic of Raureka and the Greenstone
First over the Alps
The Epic of Raureka and the Greenstone
COLD and hunger, daily risk of death were the lot of the first explorers and gold-prospectors who penetrated the ravines and climbed the rocky ranges and forded the mad torrents of the Southern Alps and the mountain world where travellers now speed in smooth comfort from Canterbury to Westland by a wonderfully engineered railroad.
But long before the golden days of the Sixties, long before ever a pakeha foot pressed New Zealand soil, brown adventurers, clad in flax mats and shod with flax sandals, pressed up through these gale-swept mountain solitudes and descended on the West Coast in search of the most precious thing of their era, the pounamu or greenstone. And even before their day a Maori woman made the first crossing of the Southern Alps; she travelled east, from the Greenstone Coast to the plains that are now Canterbury.
This woman was Raureka (“Sweet Leaf”). She was a chieftainess of the Ngati-Wairangi tribe. This clan was kin to the Ngai-Tahu of the eastern parts of the South Island, but it had been isolated so long on the coast of Westland, near where the town of Hokitika stands to-day, that the eastern tribes scarcely knew of its existence. Raureka it was who first made known to the dwellers on the Canterbury Plains the treasure-country of the far West. I have heard the story related with true Maori wealth of detail by the old people of page 253 the Tainui and Meihana families at Arahura, and also by the last of the learned old men of Tuahiwi, in Canterbury.
In the heart of the Southern Alps, close to Mount Cook, there is an ice-peak which the map-makers have named Mount Raureka to memorize this long-gone explorer. It is on the dividing range, looking down upon the Hooker Glacier. It would have been more fitting, however, had they given the name to one of the mountains above Browning's Pass, far to the north of the Hooker, for it was there that Raureka made the crossing. Unlike the white pioneers, it was from the west that Raureka came, and it was in a curious way that the first Alpine trail-maker made known to the tribes of the plains the existence of the wild and mysterious land of Poutini, as the Maoris called the West Coast.
About two hundred and fifty years ago Raureka, as her descendants relate, left her village at Arahura, as the result of a quarrel with the people of her tribe, and with one companion, a slave named Kapakeha, wandered far up into the mountains at the head of Lake Kanieri. Quite accidentally the fugitives discovered a pass between the Alps that overlooked the head waters of the Arahura, and toiling on, high into the snow-powdered heights, shod with paraerae, or sandals of flax leaves, they crossed the divide. It was midsummer. They descended the valley of the Rakaia, and emerged on the Canterbury Plains. They trudged across the gently sloping prairie, a great lone land of tussock and cabbage trees, until they came to a place near where the town of Geraldine now stands. Here, exhausted page 254 and starving, they were found by a party of Ngai-Tahu men, who were out on the warpath. The wanderers were in sore straits for food. “Te Kopa a Raureka”—“the tiny food basket of Raureka”—is to this day a proverbial expression among the South Island Maoris, and is used when reference is made to the necessity for husbanding supplies lest starvation come with the winter.
Raureka's few handfuls of food were quite exhausted when the Ngai-Tahu discovered her. The starving couple were fed and given warm garments to replace their tattered mats, and at the camp fire Sweet-Leaf told her new friends about her home and people on the forest land beyond the snowy heights. She told of the greenstone—Te Ika-a-Poutini, or “The Fish of Poutini,” as it was called in native folk lore—which was to be had in plenty at Arahura, and she exhibited a small axe of pounamu which she had carried across the mountains. And she softly chanted a rhythmic song to herself as she chipped away with the little axe at a piece of kauru, the saccharine root of the ti-palm which she was scraping preparatory to cooking it. This is a translation I have made of the chant she crooned, a karakia or charm used by her people when felling forest trees and supposed to give additional efficacy to the woodman's axe and more strength to his brawny arms:—
I lay my sharp axe to the foot of the tree.
How it bites, O my sons,
How it sounds through the woods!
How keenly I long
For this tall child of Tane!
page 255 For Tane the Tree-God,
Towering so high—
Tane felled, prostrate, at my feet.
See how the chips fly from my axe!
Bared to the light of outer day
Are Tane's children,
Once pillared lofty in the forest shades,
Now stripped and prone,
On Tane's sacred day. *
While Raureka was telling her story, one Puhou, a warrior of the Ngai-Tahu, lay quietly listening but pretending to be asleep. He heard of the wonderful pounamu treasure, and he determined to steal secretly away and exploit this rich new land for himself.
In the morning the expedition continued to march northward across the tussock plain to Taumutu and Kaiapoi. The artful warrior contrived to secure charge of Raureka, and as he had to all appearances been asleep when the woman displayed her axe of pounamu no one suspected him when he announced that he and several of his companions intended to make a scouting detour and rejoin the main body further north. Out of sight, Puhou and his men travelled inland and ascended the valley of the Rakaia. He induced Raureka to pilot him across to Westland by the pass she had discovered. She gave him her little axe and taught him the magic “chopping song,” and, moreover, became his wife.page 256
The scouts made pararae, sandals of flax leaves, for the rough passage over the trackless range of rocks and snow, and by devious and perilous days, by mountain, flood and forest, they reached Raureka's home at Arahura. There they made friends with the Ngati-Wairangi and became possessed of much pounamu in the rough, and also in the form of weapons and ornaments. It was a treasure house of the Maoris, that camp on the bank of the Arahura.
Puhou explored the country as far north as the forestgirt lake named Te Kotuku-whakaoka (“The Darting Heron”), now known as Lake Brunner. Then he returned to Arahura, and he and his companions loaded themselves with all the greenstone they could carry, and set back over the range to the East Coast, skirting Lake Kanieri and crossing the mountains by Raureka's Pass.
They had been absent from the East Coast several months and it was summer when they emerged from the Rakaia Valley and kindled a great fire on a hill overlooking the homes of their tribe.
The Ngai-Tahu at once realised the truth. “Aue!” they said, “the cunning of that sleeper! He has outwitted us all. He has found the Fish-of-Poutini.”
And wearily but triumphantly Puhou and his greenstone-bearers marched into the village square, set down their heavy burdens, and exhibited their spoils of pounamu.
Te Whaiti, Whirinaki Valley, in the Urewera Country.
In 1869 Colonel Whitmore's right column, invading the Urewera Mountains from Fort Galatea (Rangitaiki),
advanced up this valley, on the way to Ruatahuna, joining there the left column which had fought its way
up the Whakatane Valley. In the middle distance is the ancient terraced hill-fort Umurakau. From a water-colour drawing by T. Ryan, 1890.
After several generations of fighting, peace was at last made between the East and West Coast people, cemented by the giving of a Ngati-Wairangi girl in marriage to Te Whatarangi, a chief of Kaiapoi. The peace was not a permanent one, for the pounamu-greed was on the outer tribes again, and in the early years of last century Tuhuru and other Kaiapoi chiefs ravaged the Poutini coast with Ngai-Tahu war parties. They all but exterminated the unfortunate Ngati-Wairangi and carried off their stores of the Maori jewel-stone; and it was Ngai-Tahu who sold the West Coast to the pakeha Government agents in 1864.
There are three passes at the head of the Rakaia waters—Browning's Pass (4,800 feet) above the source of the Wilberforce, a tributary of the Rakaia; Mathias Pass, and Whitcombe's Pass. These give access to the West Coast, but it is Browning's Pass, although the highest of the three, that Raureka discovered, as it is the most readily reached from the Arahura, by way of Lake Kanieri, and it was used for generations by the trans-Alpine Maori pilgrims and warriors.