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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 11 (March 1, 1929)

Songs And Folk Lore And Mountain Beauty

Songs And Folk Lore And Mountain Beauty

“The sentinel volcano stands alone. Sunrise is the moment to see him when his summit, sheeted with snow, is tinged with the crimson of morning and touched by clouds streaming past in the wind. Lucky is the eye that thus beholds Egmont, for he is a cloud-gatherer who does not show his face every day or to every gazer.”—The Hon. William Pember Reeves.

(By James Cowan.)

A Japanese traveller came to New Zealand lately, and the first place he made enquiries about was Mount Egmont, the Taranaki of our Maoris. He had heard that its beauty rivalled that of his own sacred mountain. And he was anxious to know from what point it could best be viewed.

The Japanese visitor had the soul of an artist and a poet, like so many of his countrymen. A grand mountain was a place to be approached with care, and something like reverence, so that it could come upon the vision for the first time in fitting surroundings, and from an aspect that would bring out to the full its beauty and majesty.

Such a mountain as Taranaki is not a mere pile of upheaved rock and earth, it carries to the imagination an impression of life and force, and especially so when one remembers its volcanic origin.

I shall always be glad that my first view of Taranaki mountain was unspoiled by a commonplace foreground. We had been eight days travelling through the King Country and the North Taranaki bush, carrying our swags over the rough trail—it was not even a horse track— that is now the Stratford railway connection route. On the ninth day we were mounted on horses, sent in to the head of the bush road to meet us, and up to within thirty miles of Stratford it was then all dense forest. All at once, as we came to the top of the saddle at Makahu, I saw a snow peak glittering in the mid-day sun, framed between the lofty trees; rising up, up in a glorious flashing cone; it was startling. I had never seen Taranaki before, and there was no thought of the mountain in my mind at the moment, so that it came as a surprise and a wonder; much as it would to a sailor sighting it for the first time some dawn a hundred miles out at sea.

Egmont's Rival in the Philippines.

An American traveller told a New Zealand interviewer lately that in his opinion Taranaki's seow-capped cone was more beautiful than Japan's Fujiyama, and that it had a better setting. It has been the fashion to liken Egmont to the Japanese holy mountain, and it is satisfying therefore to know that our lovely peak is the finer of the two.

But there is another peak in the Northern Hemisphere that more closely approaches our Taranaki snow peak's symmetry of figure. That mountain is an active volcano, Mount Mayon, in Southern Luzon, Philippine Islands. News came recently from Manilla that Mayon was in eruption, and that its lava flow had done much damage to the inhabited country on its lower slopes and around its base. Mayon was described by A. Henry Savage Lander in one of his books on Eastern travel as the most beautiful mountain he had ever seen; “Fujiyama,” he said, “sinks into perfect insignificance by contrast.” Mr. Landor's photograph of the volcano supports his praise. The peak goes grandly swelling up to a narrow crater summit just in the manner of Egmont, and curiously its altitude is only fifteen feet greater than that of our noble “Father of Taranaki” (Mayon 8,275ft., Egmont 8,260ft.). In one respect Mayon's outline is more shapely than Egmont's; its sides are unbroken page 35 by subsidiary lava peaks like Rangitoto (Fantham's Peak) on the southern slope of Egmont.

But Mayon lacks the crowning glory of snow, the “parawai ma,” as the Maoris have it in a song in praise of Taranaki's beauty—the pure-white robe of the finest flax. Mayon rises from near the sea, as Egmont does, but it is in the tropics, snow does not fall there, and so it never presents the picture of glittering icy beauty that Taranaki gives us. And, moreover, our New Zealand mountain, fire-builded but extinct for long ages, is a far more comfortable neighbour and overlord than fuming lava-spitting Mayon of the Philippines.

“Whose sun-bright summit mingles with the Sky.”—Campbell. An inspiring view of Mt. Egmont from Kaponga.

“Whose sun-bright summit mingles with the Sky.”—Campbell.
An inspiring view of Mt. Egmont from Kaponga.

A Red Indian legend, according to some American folk-lorists, declares that Mount Shasta was the first mountain made by the Creator, and that as the result of the extreme care taken in its building it was the pattern on which all other mountains were built. But the New Zealander may with greater justice claim that it is really his Taranaki which is the master-piece of all snow-capped peaks. It is far more graceful and shapely than even Shasta.

Early Estimates of Height.

Taranaki's height, 8,260ft., seems greater because of its isolation from all other mountains. Captain Cook, who discovered it in 1770, and named it after the Earl of Egmont, First Lord of the Admiralty, described it as “of a prodigious height,” but did not record any measurement. Dr. Forster, on Cook's second voyage, in 1773, estimated its height at 14,760 feet. Marion du Fresne, who named it Mascarin Peak, after his frigate, calculated that it was about as high as the Peak of Teneriffe. Bellingshausen, the Russian admiral, sighted it in 1820; one of his navigating officers recorded its height as 9,947 feet, and another as 8,232 feet—the nearest of any shot at its altitude.

There is no mountain in New Zealand that sends forth to the sea so many rivers and rills. A pioneer surveyor of Taranaki once told me that there were exactly 360 streams flowing down through the circular mountain reserve, one for every degree of the circle.

Their Mountain God.

The Maori of old perfectly well understood the protective value of the forests and the life and fertility that its streams carried into the plains. There is a chant that was sung with tremendous patriotic fire and vigour at the great gathering at Manawapou, in South Taranaki, when the Maori Land League was established over seventy years ago. It begins with the passionate declaration, “Taranaki shall not be cast away to the pakeha,” and it likens the many shining rivers to the source of life, the fertilising fluid of mankind.

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The passionate love of the Maori for their “matua,” their parent, as they called Egmont, was embodied in a great war song chanted on a certain historic occasion on Moturoa beach at New Plymouth, and sung to this day at tribal gatherings. “Draw near to us Taranaki!” the warriors chanted as they stretched forth their guns and tomahawks to the mountain in response to their chieftain's call. “Draw close to us, close to our hearts, that we may embrace thee, that we may clasp thee ever to our hearts!” It makes a tremendous chorus, this “Nukunuku mai, nekeneke mai, ki taku tauaro, kikini, kikini a-i!”

“Round its breast the rolling clouds are spread ….”—Goldsmith. Taranaki's world-famed Mountain from another angle.

“Round its breast the rolling clouds are spread ….”—Goldsmith.
Taranaki's world-famed Mountain from another angle.

There is a beautiful chant of a softer kind, the song of admiration and love for the ancestral mountain, as recited to me long ago by the venerable lady MéAréeA Ngamai o te Wharepouri; she sleeps the long sleep overshadowed by the mountain she adored. It likens the snowy peak to a white and spotless flax garment, the parawai:—

“Enchanting to the eye
Art thou, O Taranaki;
Clothed in thy snowy garment.
O mountain gloriously arrayed
In white and spotless cloak,
With fringe of patterned taniko,
A robe of radiant beauty!

You cloud that wreaths thy lofty brow
Is a mourning chaplet,
A band of kawakawa leaves.
Emblem of sorrow for the dead,
Love circlet for the vanished ones
That we shall see no more.”

The reference here is to a small round dark cloud that sometimes rests on the mountain top. The Maoris call this the pare or head-wreath of Taranaki, A wreath of kawakawa or koromiko leaves is an emblem of mourning for the dead; the cloud on the mountain is a portent of death or a token of sympathy with mourners at the tangi. The mountain weeps with her children that live on the plains below.

The Earth Spirit Personified.

The primitive cult of animism, the personification of mountains, rocks, trees and other natural objects is illustrated by many a legend of Taranaki. The old people's minds are full page 37 of such poetic traditions. Pakeha chronicles, too, preserve some early days' incidents showing that the natives regarded the mountain as in a sense, alive, a mountain god. A party of explorers returning from Egmont some seventy or eighty years ago encountered on Stony River an armed body of natives who were on the look-out for them. The pakehas had made a collection of stones and plants from the mountain. These were taken from them, the Maoris saying angrily that the white men had stolen the hair from their sacred ancestor's head. A number of the natives went back to restore the rocks and plants to the mountain, and the pakehas were detained until they returned. It was proposed by some of them that the white men should be taken back and left on the mountain—presumably after being knocked on the head—to appease the spirit of Taranaki whom they had desecrated.

“… Bellbird in the leafy deep where the ratas twine.”—Kipling. Egmont from the Stratford Mountain House, shewing a portion of the Government Forest Reserve.

“… Bellbird in the leafy deep where the ratas twine.”—Kipling.
Egmont from the Stratford Mountain House, shewing a portion of the Government Forest Reserve.

It was scarcely surprising to those who knew something of the Maori adoration of Taranaki Mountain, that the Maoris of the province recently put forward a claim for its return by the Government to the Taranaki tribes. The right, or otherwise, of their claims need not be discussed here, but it is peculiarly interesting that the ancient title of the Maori to the sacred mountain should have been reasserted.

The great beauty and dignity of the mountainscape are closely linked to poetic tradition. Centuries of song and legend have woven a rich garment of folk lore and song about the lone and glorious peak.

Mountain, Forest, and Rainfall.

The white settler of Taranaki, too, has come to love the grand old mountain. His affection is perhaps of the more practical kind, as voiced by a member of the Egmont County Council recently. Roused to indignation by the report that some holiday-makers from New Plymouth were in the habit of setting fire to big rata trees on the mountain slopes—just to see by the column of smoke how far they had been, when they came out again—this member said: “The people of Taranaki should realise that the forest on the mountain sides is like gold to them; it is responsible for the rainfall.”

Perhaps he would have put it more accurately had he said it was responsible for the conservation of the rainfall, but the broad fact remains— page 38 it is to the mountain and its forests that Taranaki province owes its fertility and wealth.

The Perfect View.

The point remains to be discussed, where can one obtain the finest picture of Taranaki peak? The visitor from Japan would find an embarrassing plenty of viewpoints. There is the easiest look-out place of all for the visitor to New Plymouth, the top of Marsland Hill, but one cannot from there see Egmont clear of the lower ranges and hills. Many a day I have looked on Egmont from all angles, and from every point of the compass.

Once, riding along the coast road from Hawera to Opunake and so on to New Plymouth, I thought that the most splendid view was from the Waimate Plains as one approached Manaia town. From near the old Maori village of Parihaka, too, it is a noble picture in form and colouring, with its green forest foreground.

“Old Egmont Crowns the Land.”

But I think the perfect look-out point is from the Meremere hills, a few miles to the east of Hawera town.

There, through a framing of forest, the eye ranges across the wide saucer of plain—townships, farmhouses, mist-filled gorges, grassy fields, woodlands, to the wide mountain base, forest-blue, smoke-blue, swelling with symmetrical deliberation into a supernal wedge of white, sharp-etched against the heavens, old Egmont, the crown and glory of the land.

In The Sunny Waikato. (Photo, Elsie K. Morton.) Swirling waters at Arapuni and the skeleton trees of an ancient sunken forest.

In The Sunny Waikato.
(Photo, Elsie K. Morton.) Swirling waters at Arapuni and the skeleton trees of an ancient sunken forest.