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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 3 (July 2, 1928)

The Romance of the Rail — A Descriptive and Historical Story of the North Island Main Trunk Railway

page 38

The Romance of the Rail
A Descriptive and Historical Story of the North Island Main Trunk Railway


Sacred Taupiri Mountain.

It [the Sacred Taupiri Mountain] is a maunga-hikonga-uira, a lightning peak of omen. If lightning were seen flashing downward immediately above the mountain, the spectacle was taken to portend the death of some notable man or woman of the tribe, or some other impending misfortune. Another peak of lightning omen is Pirongia Mountain. Thunder-storms and earth-quakes were phenomena of dread portent, and the rolling of thunder along the ranges and the quivering of the earth were supposed to accompany the deaths of high chiefs. This belief was embodied in a grand dirge we heard here at Taupiri in 1894, when three thouand Maoris gathered for the great tangihanga, or funeral ceremonies, over King Tawhiao, the son of Potatau, the first Maori King. This was the last of the great ceremonies of this kind carried out with all the ancient forms and observations. I made this translation of the death-song chanted by a thousand voices as the King's body was borne to the marae, or meeting-place, to the accompaniment of a great war-dance and volleys of rifle-fire and the explosion of dynamite charges like minute-guns on the summit of the burial-hill:—

An Old-Time King Country Village. Te Kumi, on the Manga-o-Kewa River, near Te Kuiti. (From a picture in 1883).

An Old-Time King Country Village.
Te Kumi, on the Manga-o-Kewa River, near Te Kuiti. (From a picture in 1883).

I hear the thunder crashing,
Rumbling o'er me in the sky,
Heaven's sign for the mighty dead;
The Taniwha leaps forth from his cave.
Alas! Alas! Alas! My grief!
From Mokau unto Tamaki
The earthquake shakes the land;
The moon has disappeared;
The stars fall from the sky.
‘Tis Waikato arising from the deep.
Alas! Alas! Alas! My woe!

The thrilling refrain of each verse, “Aué, aué, aué! Te mamae i au!” was chanted with a heart-piercing intensity of feeling, and the great chorus rang far across the river.

“Taniwha (literally water-monster or dragon) in this chant means a high chief; “Waikato-taniwha-rau,” or “Waikato of a hundred dragons,” a favourite proverbial expression for the river and the tribe, refers to the many powerful warrior chiefs of the clan.

Recollections of those classic ceremonials on the old camping-ground between Taupiri Station and the river bring up poetic memories, too, of this sacred plain of Tangirau, the Place of Many Wailings, at the mountain's foot. An ancient lament preserves the name:—

I saw the lightning glare
Above the peak of Taupiri;
There the thousands of thy people sleep—
They sleep upon the plain of Tangirau.

Big Canoes of Natives.

Memories, also, of the grand canoeing days. Happily the long dug-out canoe that fits in so well with these riverscapes is still numerous in Waikato's waters. I remember seeing fully fifty canoes of all kinds and sizes moored in the back-water of the Managawhara, which wanders into the Waikato at Taupiri, and alongside the bank in the main stream. This was at the great “wake” over King Tawhiao's body. Canoes 60ft. or 70ft. long, with a beam amidships of 4ft. or 5ft., are still to be seen here. Away down the river at Waahi lies the historic page 39 “Tahere-tikitiki,” a specimen of the decorated war-canoe, quite 80ft. in length. We used to see her manned by fifty men, kneeling two abreast, in great paddling races.

What pictures there must have been in the days when scores of war-canoes came sweeping along this great curve of waterway, the captains chants ringing like battle songs as the dripping blades flashed in the sun and dipped and flashed again! Sometimes when a number of the larger canoes are manned for races at the great annual holiday at Ngaruawahia, we may endeavour to recapture some idea of the perfect frenzy of old time that possessed the rival crews in a real war-canoe contest.

The shining river is still a line of demarcation, to a certain extent, between pakeha and Maori. Our train passes the military camp-ground at Hopu-hopu, the chief training place for the Territorials of the Auckland district. This is a permanent camp on a large scale, with an adequate area of land for manoeuvres and gunnery. On the opposite side of the smooth Waikato, polished as glass under this summer sun, are Maori cultivations, and we see now and again a brightly-garbed woman weeding her kumara-patch, now and again a single figure in the stern of a little kopapa plying a leisurely hoé, the broad-bladed paddle, making across-stream or up for the town and shops at Ngaruawahia.

The Southern King Country and the Central Plateau. (The most rugged and most beautiful section of the Main Trunk line is here mapped.)

The Southern King Country and the Central Plateau.
(The most rugged and most beautiful section of the Main Trunk line is here mapped.)

Memories of Ngaruawahia.

Now we go with a long whistle across the deep blue-green Waikato where it flows in swiftly from the left. On our right a bright green tongue of land, shaded with tall old English trees, and beyond the tongue-tip another river, a slower, darker, stream, gliding silently in to the main river. Just over that river, up climb the sudden ranges, blue and wooded in the distance; bush to the skyline. This waters-meet is Ngaruawahia, the delta and heart of Waikato.

The dark, slow river is the Waipa, one time a gunboat waterway like the Waikato, now a channel of navigation for power - launches, timber-craft, flax-carriers—a handy river road through a well-settled countryside where the dairy cow is queen. This is the land of fact cattle and sheep and butter-fat. The greatest dairy company in the world operates here and throughout the Waikato; its turnover runs into several millions a year.

The junction here once reminded Bishop Selwyn of the confluence of the Rhone with the Saone at Lyons—“the quiet Soane,” he wrote, “answering to the Walpa, the Rhone to the Waikato.” And, as if Waipa's sedative current had steadied down its big brother for good, the Waikato from here to the sea is a pattern of smooth, easy courteous deportment to all who embark on its waters. The fume and fury of its far-away upper waters is as a tale that has long ago been told and the pages closed.

The sound of the bugle and all the martial turmoil of a great camp livened Ngaruawahia back in the “sixties,” after the patriot Kingites had fallen back from this their thatched-whare page 40 capital and the British flag had replaced the Maori red-bordered national colour on the tall flagstaff in front of Tawhiao's council-house. This was the busiest place on the Waikato. A fleet of paddle-wheelers went steaming up the two rivers. Two more armoured iron gunboats came up—the “Rangiriri” and the “Koheroa”—with bulwarks and 'midships tower pierced for rifle-fire and guns at embrasures on the lower deck. There is a relic of the flotilla on this riverside esplanade to-day, one of the two iron roundhouses or turrets of the “Pioneer.” This was handed over to the town of Ngaruawahia as an historic monument on the annual regatta day in 1927 by the late Hon. Richard Bollard, then Minister of Internal Affairs, on behalf of the Government. The guncupola fittingly links up the storied little town with the fighting-days of its foundation.

The name Ngaruawahia is often misinterpreted. It does not mean “Meeting of the Waters”; which is rather a pity, because a Maori translation of such a term would fit it exactly. It means “The food-stores broken open,” a name which holds a tradition bearing upon the Maori custom of placing the housed-over pits of kumara (sweet potatoes) at the disposal of the guests on occasion of ceremonial visits.

Big Engineering on the Main Trunk Line. The picture shows the construction of the Makatote Viaduct—860 feet in length, and 260 feet above the stream.

Big Engineering on the Main Trunk Line.
The picture shows the construction of the Makatote Viaduct—860 feet in length, and 260 feet above the stream.

The Waikato—Waipa Plain.

Now we are fairly on the mid-Waikato plain, the most favoured land of mixed-farming enterprise, famed in the markets alike for its fat stock and its dairy produce. Ngaruawhaia is at the apex of a great triangle, the base of which extends from the ranges of Maungatautari, faint blue in the distance yonder to the south-east, away westward to Mount Pirongia and the Upper Valley of the Waipa.

The provincial metropolis of this wealthy well-settled territory is Hamilton, built on both sides of the Waikato, where the river comes down in dark, strong volume between high banks clothed from waterline to top in foliage and flowers, or terraced in green lawns and park spaces. The Main Trunk lines does not pass through Hamilton itself, but through Frankton Junction (85 miles), a mile from the heart of the town and from the river, where the branch line to the Thames Valley and Rotorua crosses the river by a lofty bridge. Hamilton is worth a stop-over on the train journey for the sake of seeing the most beautifully placed large inland town in the Dominion. It is a town of many garden graces as well as of big business. Beautiful homes stand among their groves and flowers on the sometimes cliff-like banks and the terraces above the noble river, sweeping down with the smooth unruffled face that disguises a power irresistible.

Military Settlements of Waikato.

Like every other town in the central Waikato country, it is an old military settlement, dating back to 1864. Each township from here to Kihikihi and Cambridge, on the old frontier-line grew up around a central redoubt, a rallying-place in case of alarm. There were frequent alarms and threatened raids in the more southern townships such as Alexandra (now Pirongia) and Kihikihi, and some of the settlers’ families took refuge in the redoubts until the state of tension was over.

The forces which first settled Hamilton and other districts in the great area of land confiscated from the defeated Maoris consisted of three regiments of military settlers recruited in New Zealand and Australia and called the Waikato Militia. Each man was allocated a free section of farming land and a town section. Privates were given 50 acres of rural land and a town acre, and other ranks in proportion; captains received 300 acres and field officers 400 acres. It was the Fourth Regiment of Waikato Militia that founded Hamilton. The place was originally a Maori village called Kirikiriroa, page 41 meaning a long stretch of gravel (at the riverside).

The first company of the settlers who established a permanent garrison here numbered 118 men of the Fourth, under Captain William Steele. They landed here from the colonial gunboat “Rangiriri” on 24th August, 1864. The first camp was on the eastern bank of the Waikato, near where the eastern end of the present traffic bridge is. The other regiments allotted Waikato land were the Second, who were settled at Alexandra, on the Waipa River, and at Kihikihi; the Third, who founded the town of Cambridge. The First were sent to Tauranga. Jackson's and Von Tempsky's Forest Rangers were also given land in the Waipa country. In all, the Government introduced about three thousand military settlers and their families into this conquered Waikato-Waipa region, and that was the nucleus of civilisation in the rich, well-tended, and beautiful Central Waikato country of to-day. The town that grew up on both sides of the river was named in memory of Captain Hamilton, of H.M.S. “Esk,” who was killed in the assault of the Gate Pa, Tauranga, on the 29th April, 1864.

Striking due southward now, the rails cross the long levels of the Rukuhia (literally, “Diving”),
A Canoe Parade on the Waikato River at Ngaruawahia.

A Canoe Parade on the Waikato River at Ngaruawahia.

once a vast quaking marsh with numerous small lagoons, haunt of wild-fowl and eels. When the line was constructed in the “eighties” the engineers had a most troublesome problem to solve in the Rukuhia. Enormous quantities of ballasting material were poured into the swamp in order to obtain a firm foundation for the rails, but the huge bog swallowed everything up and asked for more. It was believed a great subterranean lake existed beneath the surface of peat. Many months were occupied in satisfying the demand of this seemingly bottomless marsh for gravel and shingle.

The Maori Defence Works.

General Cameron's campaigning grounds of 1864 are traversed again as we approach Te Awamutu (100 miles). A little way to our right (west), when we pass the shallow Lake Ngaroto, is the site of the greatest system of entrenchments constructed by the Maoris in the wars. This is Paterangi, on a commanding hill, now closely farmed, about midway between our rail-line and the Waipa River. The defence lines were so strong and so skilfully constructed that Cameron's force was baffled for several weeks.

(To be continued.)