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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 5 (September 1, 1928)

The Romance of the Rail

page 36

The Romance of the Rail


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

Otorohanga and its Stories.

At Otorohanga we used to see the thatched whare in which Robert Barlow captured Winiata, the murderer. This was an incident of 1882 which greatly excited the King Country Maoris. Winiata had killed a white man at Epsom near Auckland, and had taken refuge in the King Country. There he lived for some years with a Government reward of £500 on his head. Barlow, a herculean half-caste, undertook to capture him and deliver him up to justice. He pretended to be a pig-buyer, and in his house he made Winiata drunk. It is said he got a Waikato chemist to put an opiate in the rum bottle. He tied him across a led horse, after taking a revolver from him, and in the night rode away with him to Kihikihi, a distance of some twenty miles. Early in the morning he handed his prisoner over to the police in the Kihikihi Redoubt after a desperate struggle on the road in the township, for Winiata had recovered his senses. The murderer was convicted and hanged, and Barlow received his reward. It was a really daring deed, for Winiata was protected by Kingites, and there were many who would have shot Barlow had they overtaken him on that night ride to the border. Barlow bought a farm at Mangere with the money, but he did not live long to enjoy its possession. A big powerful man, he wasted away and died, and all the Maoris believed that he had been bewitched—makutu'd—by some King Country tohunga in revenge for the capture of Winiata.

Wonderful Cave Country.

Here we are in the heart of the always wonderful limestone-cavern country. As you travel southward or westward you see boldly beautiful, often fantastic, landscape formations. Some of these limestone cliffs, bluffs, and ruined castles were turned to military account by the olden Maori. Near Mahoenui there is a limestone bridge spanning a deep narrow canyon, with a crystal-clear stream flowing along a smooth white channel; and at each end of this wonderful bridge there is an ancient fort, all bush-grown now. About Te Kuiti, Oparure, the Manga-o-Kewa, Piopio, the valley of the Mokau, and the country between these places and Marokopa and Kawhia, on the Tasman Sea coast, there are innumerable places where openings to mysterious caves are seen, and exploration of these is revealing new wonders every year. Travellers to-day are able to see the principal caves with speed and comfort. From the railway-line at Hangatiki one goes by automobile in a few minutes to the Waitomo, the first-discovered of these caverns, with its fairy hall of glow-worms. Near it are the Ruakuri and Aranui Caves.

Old Kingite Camps.

Te Kuiti (126 miles), the principal town in the King Country, is a scene of busy pakeha-Maori life, a town with large business premises and with many attractive homes set on the surrounding gentle hills. Predominantly a farming-country centre, it is also a place of some picturesque Native life. These Ngati-Maniapoto people are now blending with the white population, and a very handsome blend indeed is the King Country half-caste and quarter-caste. Many of these tall, dark-eyed, chin-tattooed women of the Rohepotae are veritable daughters of the gods. The name of the town is historic; it is a contraction of “Te Kuititanga,” meaning “the narrowing-in,” in allusion to the conquest of the more northern parts of the Maori country in 1864. The original settlement there was Tokangamutu, a short distance to the south of the present town, on the banks of the Manga-o-kewa, a tributary of the Waipa. Here was King Tawhiao's headquarters for many years after the war, and here also for some time lived Te Kooti, the celebrated rebel chieftain.

The large carved meeting-house that now stands in the town (on our right just after leaving the railway-station) was originally built for Te Kooti in 1878, and it was his sacred prayer-house for some time. Wood-carvers from many tribes combined in the work of making the figures of famous ancestors. A curious little carving shows the chief Maniapoto in his stalactite cave, Te Ana-uriuri, page 37 near Te Kuiti. The name of the large tribal house, “Te Tokanganui-a-Noho,” is a story in itself. It means “The large food-basket of the stay-at-homes.”

The Tunnel in the Bush.

For twenty miles we climb steadily, passing farms in various stages of cultivation, and here and there a sawmill, into the rough hilly country of the ranges that separate the Waipa and Mokau head streams from those of the Wanganui River system. At Poro-o-Tarao (altitude 1,128ft., 146 miles from Auckland) we pass through the dividing range by a tunnel nearly three-quarters of a mile in length and emerge on the mountain-side that looks down on the upper Ongarue Valley. From here it is a downhill run of nearly thirty miles to Taumarunui, a descent of 650ft.

The deeply-cut bed of the Rangitikei River near Mangaweka.

The deeply-cut bed of the Rangitikei River near Mangaweka.

The story of the making of this tunnel illustrates the curious methods of railway construction adopted in New Zealand forty years ago. The job of piercing the Poro-o-Tarao Range was carried out years before the rails had reached the place. The plan was that it should be ready by the time the line was laid up to it from the north; but it was finished and lay useless for some years while the rails crept slowly up to it. The work was done by contract, and the firm that carried it through had an almost insuperable task. Poro-o-Tarao was an unpeopled wilderness; there were no roads, and there was no access by water. A township of workers was established at its north end, and brickworks were set up; all other material had to be carted from the head of the line at the Puniu or from Te Kuiti, to which point canoes could come from the Waipa when the rivers were high. The carters had to make their own roads. At some of the steep hills, such as the notorious “Gentle Annie,” a little to the south of Te Kuiti, block and tackle and windlass were rigged up at the hilltop, so that when the teams could not haul their loads up the slippery slant the ropes could be hooked on and the windlass manned to help the horses. Winter haulage over this wild country was a business of tremendous difficulty. But the work went on, and the tunnel was completed before the trains ran south of Te Kuiti. It had its uses for some years as a road for horsemen and pack-animals bound for the southern parts of the King Country. We used to ride through it, and it was an uncomfortable experience to get a packhorse bogged in the stiff clay half-way through the black dripping hole in the hill.

The name Poro-o-Tarao is a reminder of the fact that the long-ago chief Tarao, who was mentioned in the story about Kawa Hill, once climbed this range on his way southward. He did not bring his tunneldigging genius into play here. “Poro” means butt end; posterior. The name preserves a little jest of the chief's followers as they climbed the steep range in single file after him.

In the Wanganui Watershed.

Now we descend into pumice land, on the banks of the hurrying Ongarue. In ages past this was a region of fiery furnaces. The rocky ranges on the east side of the valley are cast in significantly volcanic outlines. Vast showers of pumice sand were rained over the land, most probably from the craters about Lake Taupo, and as we travel towards Taumarunui we see whole cliffs of this pumice, washed down from the hills, and glittering like chalk in the sun. To the west the soil is better. That way goes the main road to the Ohura, the Tangarakau, and Whangamomona, the highway that emerges at Stratford, Taranaki. The branch railway by this route, that presently will link up the Main Trunk line with Taranaki, leaves our railroad at Okahukura, seven miles north of Taumarunui.

Running easily down this upper valley of the Ongarue one marks the sites of the old-time page 38 camps where a thousand men toiled on the railroad-building. It was a typical scene of nation-making, the breaking-in of the great wilderness to the uses of man. Navvies and rock-cutters from far parts of the world were gathered here, and their temporary townships of slab whares and canvas livened the bush clearings and the ferny river-terraces. Some of these line-makers’ camps bore romantic names reminiscent of America's Great West—“Carson City,” “Angel's Rest,” and so on—labelled in charcoal on a hut-front. Another legend was conspicuous in every camp: “Hopbeer Sold Here.” The King Country hop-beer of that era carried, from all reports, a most potent and agreeable “kick.”

Down below on the Ongarue brink there were some heavy cuttings in the rhyolite rock, and the roar of rackarock and dynamite explosions was frequent. Some of the co-operative workers had easier jobs, as when a stretch of pumice was encountered. One of these pumice cuttings at the Taringamutu revealed a bed of that soft volcanic deposit 40ft. deep, the wash-down of the ancient showers from the pumice-coated hills. Crystal-clear streams come in, nearly all on the east (our left hand); one of these is the beautiful Maramataha, flowing down with many a little rapid from the Maraeroa Plateau; all of these streams carry rainbow trout. The Ongarue is broken here and there by rapids and spray-washed rocky islets. From below the Onehunga Rapids, close by our rail-line, canoes can be taken right down to the mouth of the Wanganui, 150 miles away.

The Rangitikei River, near Mangaweka.

The Rangitikei River, near Mangaweka.

The Heart of the Island.

Taumarunui (175 miles) was not so long ago the most remote, most secluded corner of the North Island, the very wildest quarter of the King Country. Geographically and politically it was as important a place in Maoridom as it is to-day in the chain of our inland communications. It was a meeting-place of tribes; it was a great council-place and war-route in other days, and a starting point for long expeditions to the outer world by river and bush trail. Surrounded by wooded ranges, this quiet spot at the meeting of the waters is well described by its name, which means “Great shelter,” or “Place of abundant shade.” It remained untroubled by the restless tide of pakeha trade longer than other parts of the interior. In 1900, before the iron rail from the north had reached it, it was a Mairo kainga of the olden time, with but one solitary white man, Alexander Bell, who had settled here in 1874 and married a chief's daughter.

Mr. Bell was the people's trader and interpreter and general agent in any transactions with the pakeha. He had been soldier and sailor, and this quiet bush retreat seemed to him the most desirable nook in the world after his long wanderings. When I first met him in Taumarunui's thatched whare days, he lived in a neat little cottage of pit-sawn timber by an orchard on the Ongarue banks yonder, and he had a little trading-store. At the time of writing he was still living in a greatly transformed Taumarunui, lamenting the change which had come over the Maori valley.

The rise of Taumarunui from the Maori kainga stage to a modern well-furnished town has been more rapid than that of any other King Country centre. The alluvial flat at the junction of the Wanganui and Ongarue, where once we heard the tui's song as we wakened in our camp beneath the rimu-wooded hillside, and where potato and maize cultivations spread over the levels, each little field enclosed by a pig-proof fence of closely-wattled manuka, is now covered with the dwellings and business places and churches, gardens, and lawns of a busy and wealthy provincial town. Here travellers bound down the Wanganui River leave the railway and embark on shallow-draught craft, preferably a long Maori canoe with plank topsides or washboards, prolled by an oil-engine-driven page 39 screw. This solid dug-out canoe is the safest type of hull for the upper parts of this river of many rapids. The voyage from here to Pipiriki is eighty miles, and to Wanganui Town 139 miles.

The Last “Political Murder.”

Just to the east of the town, on the Matapuna Flat, is the place where the chief Ngatai and a party of seven Taumarunui men intercepted and shot a white man named William Moffat in the year 1880. This was the last of what may be termed political murders in the Maori country. The deed was rather in the nature of an execution than murder. Moffat had lived with the Maoris in this district during the wars and had made coarse gunpowder for them. His presence was not desired there when he attempted to return from the south in 1880. It was believed he was a land-buying agent and intended prospecting for gold. Wahanui, Rewi, and Taonui, the head chiefs of the Kingite party, sent instructions that he was to be killed if he attempted to evade the interdict against white trespassers in the Rohepotae, and as he persisted in coming to Taumarunui in spite of warnings he was shot. The Government made inquiries into the affair, but as the Kingite party was a law unto itself in the interior, and as it was made clear that it was on political grounds that the wandering pakeha was killed, the act was condoned. The Government of that day could scarcely do anything else without entering on another little war.

Seen From The Carriage Window. The road winding through the bush near the famous Raurimu Spiral, North Island Main Trunk Line.

Seen From The Carriage Window.
The road winding through the bush near the famous Raurimu Spiral, North Island Main Trunk Line.

Canyon, Forest, and Tussock Land.

Engines are changed at Taumarunui Station, and a powerful locomotive takes our train up into the forest country and the long winding pull to the Waimarino tableland, the western end of the great central plateau. We are in the land of heavy timber and large sawmills, and numerous clearings won by pioneer settlers from the heart of the bush. Here, covering the headwaters of the Wanganui, in a much-dissected region where a coating of pumice from the ancient volcanoes overlies the soil every-where, there are the largest tracts of totara and rimu (red-pine) timber in the Island. Much of this grand timber has been cut out, and grassy fields replace the dense rain forests.

It is needful that this bush-clearing should be carried on with a wise regard for the forest needs of the future and for the protection of the river-sources and river-navigation. Climatic and water-conservation reserves have been made in various places, and some fine areas of bush have rightly been preserved along our railway route from Taumarunui onward. This is the only part of the Main Trunk line on which the traveller gains some idea of the noble forest that once covered the interior of the Island, and it is essential from every point of view that no more within sight of the line should be destroyed.

(To be Continued)