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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 1 (May 1, 1929)

The Long Rib — Story of the Tauranga-Taneatua Railway — Scenes and Episodes on the Matata Beach Road

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The Long Rib
Story of the Tauranga-Taneatua Railway
Scenes and Episodes on the Matata Beach Road

The story of human endeavour and adventure that so often forms half the interest of beautiful landscapes is not absent from the railway route through the Bay of Plenty. The very names of stations bring back to the New Zealander, who knows the story of the coast, memories of heroic struggle, of thrilling episodes in which brown man and white confronted each other.

This fruitful, peaceful countryside, where the railway is the artery that vitalises the farmer's business, wore a very different face less than three generations ago. Men still living in those parts can tell of the day when they lived in parapeted and stockaded forts, and fought their enemies along the track where the rails now run; of the years when British gunboats threw shot and shell on to the beach that is now part of the route to Taneatua. But to most travellers along this pleasant Bay of Plenty this lore of the past is still an unopened book once Tauranga, with its oft-told story of the Gate Pa battle, is left behind.

From Maunganui, that bold rocky gatepost to Tauranga Harbour—Te Maunga, “The Mount,” is the railway station at its foot—you will see a long sea-strand stretching far away eastward, with its ever advancing and retreating line of sunlit surf. In the distance the green bluff and tableland of Maketu break the even glistening line of the beach; then beyond again it stretches into the soft blue haze of faraway. That sea-beach was once upon a time the only road. “We had a good beach,” is a phrase that frequently occurs in a MS., diary of the very early Seventies given me by a veteran colonial officer, a captain of Maori Constabulary. It means that the tide suited for the horseback journey and for the numerous river crossings. The ride from Tauranga to Opotiki usually took two days. The first day's ride took the horsemen as far as Matata; that afternoon's journey was along the famous sands of the Maramarua and Kaokaoroa, where the newly constructed railway line runs to-day.

Green Walls of Otamarakau.

Curving inland from “The Mount,” the rail-line is laid through as sightly and fertile a countryside as can be seen anywhere in New Zealand. It is a land of many small farms and many families, this region centring on Te Puke town. Dairy farms and maize paddocks and orchards; comfortable looking homesteads, a friendly, hospitable looking country, Paengaroa, with its cows and its potatoes and maize; on to Pongakawa, with its slow-gliding river that was Hongi Hika's war canoe route to the Arawa country on his invasion a hundred odd years ago. Then the line, curving seaward again, passes near a wonderful monument to the military engineering genius and communal industry of the Maori, the great walled pa called Otamarakau.

If I were looking for a lovely site for a seaside home and had my pick of coastwise look-outs, I think I should choose this immemorial Maori fortress. A dark little river glides below and empties itself in the vast blue Bay, underneath a buttress-like salient, cliffy and tree-crowned, that must have been the citadel of the entrenched town. Huge earthworks, all grown with grass and fern and flax, enclose the site of the headquarters of the ancient Waitaha tribe. The outer ditch is wide and deep; the wall is twenty feet high in places. Within the works there is a broad level space of several acres, where the olden village stood. Nowadays the Maori owners grow their potatoes and maize and kumara and tobacco on this beautiful hilltop. There are large karaka trees, planted probably centuries ago, and underneath these broad-branched trees there are flat stones on which the Maori children of to-day, like generations of children before them, spread and opened the karaka drupes. That is Otamarakau to-day, a place saturated with tradition. The name is good; it signifies the place of youthful warriors; in pakeha colloquial phrase we might translate it freely as “Young Son-of-a-Gun.” And don't forget, in pronouncing it, to put the accent where it belongs, on the “ra.”

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The Battle-Beach of 'Sixty-four.

Yonder, at the mouth of the Waitahanui, there was the thunderous sound of battle between Government Maoris and rebels one day in April, 1864. A great war-party of East Coast men, attempting to fight their way through to the Waikato to join the tribes under the Maori King against the British army under General Cameron, had left a fleet of large canoes lying on the beach where the river goes out below the Otamarakau bluff. The Arawa warriors, who were fighting in the cause of the white Queen, drove them back along the beach from Maketu and seized the war canoes, while the owners were trying to launch them through the surf.

The March of Progress. New and old Tauranga.

The March of Progress.
New and old Tauranga.

Next day (April 28, 1864) the battle was continued along the beach to Matata. Our rail line now follows exactly the route taken by the retreating Kingites, five or six hundred of them, fighting a hard rearguard action with the pursuing Arawa. This broad belt of smooth beach and low sandhills, extending to the mouth of the Awa-a-te-Atua at Matata (it is a locked lagoon now, and the Rangitaiki River goes to sea by a new cut some miles further on) is called the Kaokaoroa, which means the “Long Rib.” It curves slightly like a glistening hoeroa, the long broadsword-like bone weapon made from a rib of the whale. There were cultivations of kumara and taro and maize here and there along this sun-warmed rib between cliffs and sea.

The straight cliffs of sandstone, glistening white in the play of sunshine, were fringed for miles with pohutukawa trees, twisty of trunk and branch, leaning out seaward, a crown of dark foliage for this glittering wall. Little streams of clear water issued from cliff chines and flowed into the sea or lost themselves in the sand. The picture is just the same to-day, except that the cultivations on the sand-belt have disappeared.

A Running Fight.

All that day the battle raged along the sands towards Matata. Altogether there must have been a thousand Maoris engaged in that vigorous argument as to the right of way. There were a few pakehas with the Arawa force, men of the Colonial Defence Force and Forest Rangers, under young Captain Tom McDonnell, but the issue was fought out chiefly by the Maori warriors. The Arawa chiefs were Te Pokiha Taranui (well known in after years as Major Fox, of Maketu), the veteran Tohi te Ururangi, and a dozen others, representing all sections of the tribe from Maketu to Tarawera. The firearms used were mostly old Tower flint-lock muskets and double and singlebarrel shot-guns. Nearly every man, too, had a tomahawk in his belt, and many used weapons of stone, the handy mere, for despatching the foe; and there were taiaha users too, active fellows skilled in the art of fence and attack with a most shapely and well-balanced weapon. There was not a rifle in the whole bare-legged army. The crashing bangs of heavily-loaded guns and muskets in independent firing, sometimes in thunderous volleys, sounded all day along the sands, and page 22 to any spectator on the cliffs the moving clouds of smoke marked the passage of the running fight eastward towards the Awa-a-te-Atua mouth.

The enemy from the East Coast made desperate efforts to stay the pursuit. They had left half their flotilla of war canoes in the river at Matata, and if these wakas were seized they would be cut off and cut up.

They were between the Arawa and the deep sea. Two days before this they had had a taste of British naval artillery. Two warships, H.M.S. “Falcon” and the colonial gunboat “Sandfly,” had shelled them as they ran along the beach, and a heavy shell from the “Falcon,” steaming close in to the coast, had killed several men of the Whakatohea tribe (from Opotiki) in a group at the mouth of the Waeheke stream, near Pukehina.

Profitable Utilisation of Pumice Land. Afforestation Progress on the Pumice Plateau in the Bay of Plenty.

Profitable Utilisation of Pumice Land.
Afforestation Progress on the Pumice Plateau in the Bay of Plenty.

The Last Stand.

Falling back along the Kaokaoroa, the East Coast warriors made their final stand at the Puakowhai Stream, which we cross about a mile and a half before the Matata station is reached. It flows down from a tree-shadowed cut in the cliffs and winds out among the little sand-dunes. Small plantations of maize and kumara fringe the watercourse. About four hundred of the enemy resisted the Arawa advance here, taking cover under the low bank; others crouched in reserve.

The Ngati-Awa (from Whakatane) and the Opotiki warriors fired heavy volleys from their double-barreled guns, but the Arawa, advancing in quick rushes after the volleys, got up within thirty feet of them.

The Man with the Taiaha.

Then, a daring chief — his name deserves record. Paora Pahupahu—armed only with a taiaha, dashed furiously at the Kingites' line, and, regardless of shots, cut and thrust at them with such fierce lightning impetuosity that he cut a way through, followed by some of his men. This human wedge in the line broke the foe's stand; in a few moments the whole body turned and ran, seeking another cover. But they did not find another spot so suitable for a stand as the Pua-kowhai.

About this time the Arawa lost their highest and most venerated chief, the white-haired warrior Tohi te Ururangi. The old man was standing on a low hillock of sand near the sea, directing the movements of his men, and shouting and pointing with his taiaha, when a bullet laid him low. But his battle was won. The invaders' only thought now was how to escape. One canny fellow from Opotiki, the chief Hira te Popo, spied a convenient gully in the cliffs, and led his own section of the war party into it, and so inland out of further trouble. The rest ran for Matata. Men dropped dead or wounded all along the way. The pursuers killed several fighting men of the Whakatohea on the sandhills very close to where the Matata railway station stands to-day. That was the end of a perfect day so far as the Arawa were concerned. They had killed quite fifty of their foes in the running fight.

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The Widow's Revenge.

There was grief to come for the Arawa that evening, however. The victory was dashed by the death of their chief, Tohi, soon after he had been carried to the bank of the Pua-kowhai. His widow, Mata, assuaged her sorrow by a sacrifice quite in the good old manner.

Among the prisoners taken was an Opotiki chief, Te Aporotanga. He was sitting there near the blazing camp fire, surrounded by armed men, while the widowed chieftainess wailed her lament for her warrior slain. Her farewell ended, she took a loaded gun from one of her men, and going up close to the captive, she cried: “Go you to the Reinga, a slave for my husband!” Then she shot him through the heart.

A Typical Farming Scene. Prosperous farming lands, North Island, New Zealand.

A Typical Farming Scene.
Prosperous farming lands, North Island, New Zealand.

Spoils to the Victors.

Most of the invaders got clean away in their big canoes, paddling for life along the creeks and lagoons to Whakatane. Some of those warrior crews had come from as far away as the East Cape. The Arawa had a glorious time looting Matata, and some of them permanently settled there. The Government ratified their conquest and rewarded their loyalty to the Queen, and so the Matata native lands are occupied to-day by the Ngati-Rangitihi clan of the Arawa.

So ends our battle story of 'Sixty-four, as told to me by some of the men who shared in the fight, Queenites and Kingites. A very few still survive at Rotorua and Maketu.

The rebels never ventured along the Kaokaoroa beach again. But the Long Rib was the war-path for the Government forces many a time after that day. Armed Constabulary from Tauranga marched by way of Matata on the long trail to the Urewera mountains. They marched shawl-kilted like the Maoris; they cursed the gruelling job of carrying back-breaking swags over heavy sand and along fern tracks. They compared themselves with “blanky packhorses,” as many a New Zealand soldier has done in another place since their day.

The Tattooed Cliff.

Turn to a more peaceful picture, one that endures to this day, and will for many a day after we are gone. This is the wonderful precipice face called by the Maoris Te Pari a Tamahuka, or “Tamahuka's Cliff.”

It is passed about two-and-a-half miles before you reach Matata station, or three miles from the township on the lagoon. The gleaming white face of sandstone, overhung by pohutukawa trees, curves inward in a great cirque, and it is fretted and tattooed from base to summit with all manner of markings, wrought in page 24 the soft rock by ages of weather, and by gale-driven sand acting as an eroding and carving agent.

There are coiling spirals, zig-zag patterns, weird faces, grotesque gargoyles, in fact there is no limit to the number and variety of curious nature-carvings you may see there, designs varied from time to time by stress of wind and rain and nature's sand-papering.

Along this sandy trail many generations ago came a Maori artist in wood-carving, a man named Tamahuka. He gazed on this strange cliff; he admired, as we may admire to-day, the contrast of deep-green pohutukawa foliage and crimson flower and white-glinting cliff, and he studied the patterns which the gods of the weather had wrought on the vertical face. From those markings he drew inspiration for his art-craft; he saw there the rape, the taniko, and many another design, and when he trudged eastward again he carried mental pictures with him that he introduced into his carving for his East Cape kinsfolk.

Pictures and Place Names.

The Matata railway station is half-a-mile out of the township, between a 300ft. vertical cliff and the sea. There is a good deal to interest one in this old Pakeha-Maori settlement, with its green slopes, its tree-groves, its native village with a fine carved house; out yonder, beyond the “lazy locked lagoon,” the surf-beaten sandhills, White Island's steam cloud ever on the horizon, and the Rurima Rocks, like the teeth of some gigantic mako-taniwha shark.

Three little streams, clear and rapid, flow through the township; they are the Wai-te-puru, the Waimeha, and the Waitarariki. On the long rampart of cliffs in the rear there are huge earthworks, long-silent homes of the ancient tribes. Great pohutukawa trees grow out of the trenches, and within the line of the parapets, as we can observe even from the railway.

There must have been a great population along all this pleasant, fruitful, fish-teeming coast, centuries ago.

Old Hapimana, of Matata village, told many a story of the olden days as we travelled along the Kaokaoroa one day. Old place-names, full of poetry and legend, came from his lips as we passed over the Long Rib battlefield and viewed the Pari-a-Tamahuka.

Yonder dark pool in the cliff-palisaded gully, where a stream swirled in pulsing eddies, awhile before coming out across our path, was the Rua-Taniwha, the “Dragon's Cave.” Puakowhai stream, already mentioned, is typical of many a nature-name; it was so called after the lovely blossoms of the kowhai, which made a golden glow on its waters in the spring of the year.

In The Stirring Days of 64. Tauranga, 1864, during Maori War, showing Military Encampment at Te Papa.

In The Stirring Days of 64.
Tauranga, 1864, during Maori War, showing Military Encampment at Te Papa.

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“The creature of thought scarce likes to tread On the delicate carpet so richly spread.…” A winter scene at the summit of Arthur's Pass, Midland Line, South Island, New Zealand.

“The creature of thought scarce likes to tread
On the delicate carpet so richly spread.…”

A winter scene at the summit of Arthur's Pass, Midland Line, South Island, New Zealand.