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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 4 (August 1, 1928)

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

page 26

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

The Maori Defence Works.

After his experience at Rangiriri General Cameron would not risk another frontal assault; so, after some artillery practice and rifle sniping, Cameron made a strategic movement by night to the Maoris’ rear. Crossing the Mangapiko River—that dark, slow stream we presently meet on our southward course—he marched a column through Te Awamutu village and mission station and captured Rangiaowhia, the great source of food-supply of the garrison. The pretty village there was the scene of a lively fight, and there was another between it and Te Awamutu on the following day, when the British troops routed the Maoris at the point of the bayonet.

Building the Main Trunk Line. A view of the Raurimu Spiral as it was twenty years ago.

Building the Main Trunk Line.
A view of the Raurimu Spiral as it was twenty years ago.

Paterangi being now untenable, the garrison deserted it, and the next fight was the final event of the Waikato War, the siege of Orakau. One of the Imperial officers who inspected the earthworks at Paterangi after the evacuation declared that the system of redoubts and trenches was stronger than the famous Redan at the Crimea.

A Mission Church of Bishop Selwyn.

Te Awamutu Town (the name signifies the head of canoe navigation) is, like Hamilton, a mile away from the Main Trunk line. The traveller who has the time might well stop over here and see something of this little metropolis of the Waipa district, and of the beautiful farming lands around it, the garden country of the Waikato. It is quite a model town for its size, well proportioned to the needs of the good agricultural region of which it is the business centre. The pride of the place is the pretty English church, in its old-fashioned burying-ground by the side of the willow-walled Manga-o-Hoi Stream It is an histori building, one of the first of Bishop Selwyn's Maori mission churches, dating back to 1854, when the Rev. John Morgan was the missionary of the Waipa country. Maoris worshipped here before the war and the conquest, when Te Awamutu was an oasis of civilisation in these parts. At the old mission station, in its great groves across the road, Sir John Gorst had his headquarters in the early “sixties,” when he was Government Commissioner in the Waikato, until the Kingites summarily suppressed his little pro-Government newspaper, the Pihoihoi Mokemoke, and evicted him from the Maori country. Rewi Maniapoto and his fellow-chiefs had a short way with propaganda they considered objectionable. A current story was that they used the lead type to mould into bullets, which they fired at the troops. The fact is, however, that they took scrupulous care to return the printing press and type to the Government; it was packed up and sent down the Waipa and Waikato by canoe.

page 27

Crossing the Frontier River.

A mile south of Te Awamutu Station the railway crosses the Puniu River. An insignificant stream this, almost hidden by weeping willows. Unless you keep a lookout for it you may cross without noticing it. But it is worth a glance and more, for it was, and still is, a river of great political importance. This quiet river, meandering down westward to join the Waipa, is the northern boundary of the Rohepotae, or King Country. It was the olden line of demarcation between the Waikato and Ngati-Maniapoto tribes; it was made the southern limit of fighting and land confiscation when the Government conquered the Waikato; it was for twenty years after the war the frontier beyond which the Queen's writ did not run; and the frontier where trespass by white men was more than once punished with bullet and tomahawk. In 1884, a year before the first sod of the railway line south of the river was turned, Puniu was proclaimed the northern boundary line of the Rohepotae no-license district, a huge “dry” territory that takes in the whole King Country. The pact made between the Government and the Maori chiefs of that day still holds good. It was agreed that no intoxicating liquor should be sold in the King Country, and so you must not forget that you may not legally buy a drink anywhere between Te Awamutu and Taihape—a matter of 166 miles—on the Main Trunk, or Pipiriki if you go down the Wanganui River, or Urenui if you go by the coast road to Taranaki.

The northern part of the Wellington Provincial District. From the highest part of the Main Trunk line (South and east of Mt. Ruapehu) the railway descends into the fertile Rangitikei Valley and out on to the beautiful agricultural and pastoral lands of the Manawatu.

The northern part of the Wellington Provincial District. From the highest part of the Main Trunk line (South and east of Mt. Ruapehu) the railway descends into the fertile Rangitikei Valley and out on to the beautiful agricultural and pastoral lands of the Manawatu.

The “Rohepotae,” the Maori name for this territory, means literally a circular boundary like the rim of a hat. It was first applied to the country in the early “eighties” when the great Wahanui and his fellow-chiefs resolved that no sales or leases of land to the white man should be made within the district from the Puniu and Kawhia Harbour southward to the White Cliffs (Taranaki) and the Upper Wanganui. The term “King Country was given in the “sixties,” after the defeated Waikato and their allies under King Tawhiao had retired to the south side of the Puniu. Tawhiao's headquarters for many years was Tokangamutu (the present Te Kuiti); then Hikurangi, a beautiful spur of Pironga Mountain; Te Kopua; and, lastly, Whatiwhatihoe, on the Waipa River.

It was seventeen years before the King and his men laid down their guns in token of final peacemaking. It was not until 1888 that the Waikato in a body at last left the King Country borders, where they had lived on their allies, and returned in a flotilla of canoes, a picturesque tribeflitting, to what was left to them of their olden homes on the west side of the Lower Waikato.

Transformation of the “King Country.”

The face of the King Country to-day is wonderfully transformed. Once upon a time, when we used to ride for many miles on the south side of the Punui without seeing home of man, or any cultivation, only at far intervals a Maori settlement, the great countryside of hill and valley, plain, swamp and forest was a wide-extending waste. As we rode over such places as the Manukarere Plains we set mobs of wild horses madly galloping, and we startled many a fern-rooting page 28 wild pig. Every hill, large and small, was terraced and trenched in the lines of a fortified hold. Everywhere there were potato-pits in the fern, reminder of the day when all these delectable parts of the land were cultivated by a large population. A great silence was over the land; it lay in the transition stage; the Maoris had dwindled and the people were concentrated mostly about the large settlements like Te Kuiti and Otorohanga. Over yonder on the Waipa banks at Otewa the old rebel chieftain Te Kooti had his headquarters, a well-tended place with large areas of food crops. Here and there a patriarchal chief like grand old Hauauru (the “West Wind”), of Araikotore, encouraged his clan to grow wheat and oats beside the universal potato. But it was many a year before the white farmer got a footing in the Rohepotae. The railway preceded settlement; this Main Trunk line had reached Te Kuiti from the north before pakeha farming began across the border.

A Beautiful River Scene. The Gorge of the Wanganui River at Kakahi.

A Beautiful River Scene.
The Gorge of the Wanganui River at Kakahi.

Now the contrast. The hundreds of thousands of acres that forty years ago had not one white settler are supporting a large farming population and scores of town and village communities. Dairying, cattle raising, wool and mutton growing bring the country wealth. The white population many times outnumbers the Maori.

A Frontier of Volcanic Cones
Story Mountains of the Border.

Ancient volcanic cones that seem to form a line of sentries along this Aukati line, the old frontier, are a conspicuous landscape feature of the King Country border. Between the Maungatautari Range on the east and Pirongia's forested peak, 3,444 feet high, on the west, there is a series of cones and ranges of obvious volcanic origin, now clothed in fern and bush. The railway line runs between two of these heights a few miles south of the Puniu. On the left hand (east) is the gracefully moulded Kawa Hill; on the right rises Kakepuku Mountain, 1,400 ft. high, a long extinct volcano. Just after passing between these romantically shaped mountains the rails cross the reclaimed farm lands that once were great marshes, the Kawa Swamp, a famous place among the older Maori for tuna, or eels, and wild duck.

Kakepuku is a typical volcanic cone, of bold simplicity of outline, sweeping steeply down in classic lines of rest from a saucer-like crater summit. Its isolation from other heights gives it a character and dignity of its own, and it is not strange that the ancient Maori endowed it with godlike attributes and built poetic legends about it. Its sides are deeply scored with ravines, and remnants of the forests fill its higher gullies. Its neighbour, Kawa, is a wonderful little mountain, presenting on the side facing our railway and the rich pasture levels of the reclaimed swamp, a deep, ferny hollow, the ancient crater, and on the other flank, the eastern, a symmetrical-rounded breast carved by the ancient fort-builders in scarp after scarp of defensive works.

page 29

Love Myths of the Mountains.

In the folk-lore of the Maori these mountains are husband and wife. The Maori personified such boldly cut hills, and so Kakepuku, with its steep upthrust of shape is the male and rounded Kawa is the gently reclining female. To the south again is a minor mountain, the Puketarata Range on our left. This, say the old storytellers, is the rejected lover of Kawa. Here is the eternal triangle; and there was another lover, too, a volcano called Karewa, which once stood where the Kawa swampy lagoons shone like silver plates among the raupo reeds and flax. It is the legend of the Tongariro volcanic heights over again. Karewa fought Kakepuku for the love of Kawa, but was defeated with furious volleys of lava and hugh fiery rocks, and was compelled to flee. He retreated westward to Kawhia and into its ocean, and there he stands to this day, lone Karewa, called also Gannet Island, in the Tasman Sea, off Kawhia Heads. So Kakepuku won fair Kawa, and remains the overlord of this Waipa Valley.

A stirring tradition, too long to give here in full, tells of the siege of the fortified pa that once stood on Kawa's tattooed nipple of a hill. Tarao, the chief of the pa, realising that the fort must be captured, had a tunnel dug by which he and his people escaped one night under the very feet of their besiegers into the safety of the near forest, and so over the hills and far away. The ancient Maori was as skilful a digger as any modern warrior.

In Winter's Grip. Ohakune Junction, Main Trunk Line.

In Winter's Grip.
Ohakune Junction, Main Trunk Line.

Fairy folklore is associated with some of these mountains of the border. High up on Kakepuku there is a deep dingle of a valley, thickly wooded, which was in local belief a haunt of the fairy tribe, patu-paiarche. This part of the mountain, towards the summit, where there are the remains of two ancient trenched forts on the rim of the crater, is a State scenic reserve.

Pirongia Mountain yonder is the chief home of the fairies. Their favoured abode is Hihikiwi, the forested crest of the range. The people say that albinos—we used to see an albino woman at the Puniu—are the offspring of fairy men and Maori women.

Otorohanga (114 miles), a pakeha-Maori township on the Waipa River, at about the old-time head of canoe-nagivation, has a rather curious scrap of history and folk-belief embodied in its name. It means a small portion of food caused by supernatural means to last for a long journey. The story is that a warrior chief setting out from here for Taupo in ancient days had only a little provision (o) for the long route march, but by his prayer-charms he stretched it out (torohanga) so that it sufficed him until he reached his destination—a kind of Maori version of the widow's cruse of oil.

(To be continued.)