The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 2 (June 1, 1929.)
Over The Mamaku Plateau — Landscape and Story on the Rotorua Bush Line
The unique physical features of the Mamaku tableland and its important historical associations, afford ample material for the descriptive art of the interpreter. Few have a greater knowledge of the country than Mr. James Cowan, and fewer still have his gifts of vivid picturisation.
I suppose that few travellers to Rotorua by the daily trains are aware of the geographical and geological significance of the high country they cross; fewer still who have heard anything of the history and tradition that belong to the district.
The section in my mind is the much-dissected tableland known as Mamaku, to which the railway ascends from the Matamata-Patetere Plains and bounded on the Rotorua side by the party-wooded slopes near Tarukenga and the Ngongotaha Mountain. This plateau, of volcanic origin, some ten miles wide where the train crosses it, is part of the Hautere Range, which extends from the back-country of Tauranga in a great sweep to the Patetere country; its southernmost section ends abruptly in the lofty wall of Horohoro, which looks from the Taupo road a true table mountain. All this territory, thickly forested before the pakeha rail-builders and setters came, is coated with pumice, and it is remarkable for its lack of running water. It is seamed everywhere with deep, steep-sided gorges and gullies, but these natural cuts in the pumice are usually dry. It is only on the edges of the central plateau where the tablelands slant to the plains that the head-streams of the rivers issue from the underworld.
The place-name Mamuku, as will be explained presently, is of quite modern origin. The general name for the broken plateau where it sweeps up from the north and east is Hautere, a famous name in Maori story. A glory of all this high bush country is the abundance of ferns, but above all of the tete-kura or heruheru, the crepe fern, popularly called Prince-of-Wales' feather, botanical name, todea superba. The forest floor, in its untouched state, is covered in many parts with this beauty of the bush in such a soft, clinging jungle that it is difficult to force one's way through it. There is a native proverbial saying used especially by the Coast tribes, and those on the plains, in reference to these forests: “E kore koe e puta i nga tete-kura o Hautere.” It means, “You will never be able to penetrate the thick ferns of Hautere (which cover the bush tracks).” There is an inner meaning, an allusion to the human element. “You will never be able to fight your way through the enemies that infest your path, the wild tribes of the bush.”
Remnants of the Great Woods.
The railway traveller sees something of those ferny glories, and the eye is solaced by the varied tints of green that softly paint the wooded country through which the train climbs from Ngatira and Arahiwi to the Mamaku Station, 1,888 feet, the highest point on the Rotorua railway. The mountain rimu or red-pine, is the principal large tree in this forest; there are rata, too, of great size. But the bush, rich as it is, the only bit of indigenous forest on the line, is only a tattered fragment of the grand forest through which the way for the line was cut, nearly forty years ago.
The native forest in those days was regarded more as an encumbrance than anything else; the great idea was to cut it out and burn what could not be milled. It was only with difficulty that the powers of State were persuaded to save a fringe of it along the rail line.
The Builders of the Line.
The forest, what there is of it, and the numerous sudden gulches in the pumice highlands, are the distinguishing features of the run as far as Tarukenga, where the train pulls up for a minute or two before descending to the shores of Rotorua Lake that glimmers soft-blue eight hundred feet below. These dry ravines gave the engineers and contractors for page 26 the line-building much trouble in the early Nineties. These two heavy sections, Ngatira to the top of the plateau and thence to Tarukenga, were let to two big contracting firms, Dan Fallon & Sons, and John McLean & Sons, and they carried through their jobs well, with Maori labour working side by side with European. The standard wage for navvies in those times was seven shillings per day—which went as far as double the money goes to-day. Mr. Neil McLean, now living in Wellington, personally supervised his firm's work on the section from Mamaku to Tarukenga. In 1893 he had about 170 men building the permanent way. There were some huge works for those times—rock cuttings nearly seventy feet deep, and embankments of close on a hundred feet.
The Gulches in the Bush.
Te Toto, Te Uhi, Manurewa; those are the more remarkable of the ravines that your train crosses so easily to-day, and that gave the rail-builders such brain and muscle work in the pioneer years.
Te Toto—sinister name; it means a place of bloodshed. Along this ravine the scattered Hauhaus ran, wildly seeking a place where they could climb to safety, back in 1867, when the Government forces chased them out of the Arawa country.
Te Uhi you cross further on, as you go down from Mamaku station to Tarukenga; the name means “The Chisel,” and indeed it looks as if some giant navvies of Maori fairydom had gouged it out, for pure devilment, to obstruct the pakeha line-makers. Its sides are precipitous, quite vertical in most places; it is eighty or a hundred feet deep; the cliff-tops are jungly with trees and creepers and ferns; “monkey-ropes”—aka vines of the Maori—trail over the edges. In the bottom of the ravine there should be a beautiful cascading stream, if this were not such a freakish bit of country.
Then, a little way before Tarukenga is reached, the train rumbles across the lower end of the Manurewa Gorge—the “Soaring Bird.” This name is an allusion to the often-observed habit of the tui, plentiful in these parts. When it is making for its nest, it soars into the air for a considerable height, then drops straight down to it like a diver. As for the name Tarukenga it means “Slaughter”; it holds a tale of battlefield and “long pig.”
The Name Mamaku, ex Kaponga.
People who know the New Zealand bush well have remarked on the curious fact that, although the principal station and township here are named Mamaku, not a single fern-tree of the kind called by the Maoris mamaku is to be seen anywhere about here. There are ferns and fern-trees in abundance, but not the korau or mamaku, the black fern-tree, the edible kind scientifically classed as cyathea medullaris. (Korau is properly the name of the tree; the term mamaku is applied to its pith, used for food.)
The explanation of this inappropriateness of nomenclature lies in the fact that the place was originally named, by the Maori explorers, Kaponga, in allusion to the abundance of the page 27 fern-tree so called, but the name was altered in modern times because there was already a township called Kaponga, in Taranaki. The alteration was made in the year 1890, when the Kaponga section of the railway line was under construction. The Taranaki Kaponga had a prior claim, and there was great confusion until the name Mamaku was officially adopted; letters and telegrams were continually going to the wrong place.
It would have been more fitting had the name Tuakura been substituted for Kaponga. This is the name of one of the common fern-trees—or tree-ferns—seen in these parts. It has fewer fronds than the others of the family; they spread out horizontally, with a slight drop at the tips; the general effect is that of an opened or flattened-out umbrella of leaves.
The Katote, too, is abundant in these parts; it is a fern-tree with very numerous fronds, inclining sharply upwards, some almost straight up; great bunches of grey, dead leaves, called by the Maoris “pahau,” or beard, hang down beneath the upspringing coronet of vigorous, green fronds. The most graceful of all is our Kaponga, its feathery frondage drooping from a long slender stem, often sideways leaning; the great leaves are a gleaming white under-neath, hence the popular name, silver fern-tree.
The Rata's Grip.
This side-excursion into the forests reminds me that those interested in our wonderful bush life are able to see, even from the train, an example of the rata climber at its tree-strangling work. Close to the right-hand (east) side of the rails as the train to Rotorua approaches the edge of the bush, after leaving Mamaku, there is a large rimu tree clasped in the embrace of the rata. The great vine clings closely to the trunk of the red-pine, and it has sent out strong lateral shoots, for all the world like murderous fingers clutching its victim. The tall rimu is still vigorous and beautiful, but its fate is certain, though it will be many a year deferred. The rata never lets go its steel-like strangle-hold.
The Trenches at Puraku.
Now a story of these slopes of the Okoheriki that go down towards Ngongotaha from the rail line where it emerges from the straggly borders of the bush.page 28
A little over a mile before the train glides down into Tarukenga station, a white-painted gate is passed on the right, or east side. Supposing one makes a stop-over at Tarukenga for a few hours between trains, this gate gives the stroller entry to the Crown land—waste land still when I saw it last—where the fern and tupekahi bushes grow thickly on this olden battlefield. A walk of two hundred yards down the fern slopes in the direction of some pine trees brings one to an historical spot that should be preserved as a national monument. It is the best existing example of military engineering in the last Maori Wars. I have explored scores of fortifications in New Zealand, but none of them possesses the special features that make this Puraku Pa so good a specimen of native defensive works adopted to modern needs. There are no conspicuous earth-works or terraces as in the ancient pas; nearly all the defences consisted of trenches, a most skilful example of Maori ingenuity in “digging in.”
A great war-party of Hauhaus invaded the Rotorua country in 1867. The warriors came from the Waikato, through the forest that our railway penetrates. Government forces, militia and Arawa allies drove them out, killing a score or more.
When the Government troops entered the pa, they found it a marvel of ingenuity, and even to-day its deep trenches, with traverses and flanking bastions, remain almost intact. The double palisading was destroyed, but the Arawa fortunately did not take the trouble to fill in the trenches. There were two palisades, the pekerangi on the outside of the trench and the kiri-tangata (“the warrior's skin”) immediately inside. These stockades had been constructed of totara timber hauled from the near-by forest by the sledge track which wound up past the pa. The trench was about three feet wide with a depth of five feet. The interior of the work measured 80 paces in length by 45 paces at the widest part; most of this space was occupied by whares, low huts thatched with kaponga fern-tree fronds and sides and eaves protected by being earthed up for several feet. The earth floors of these huts were dug in a foot or two below the level of the ground. The trench, with its numerous traverses and covered ways, was essentially the same as our soldiers' trenches in France and Flanders in the Great War, but in one detail there is a difference. The pakeha engineer throws out the earth from the trench in front of his ditch to form a low parapet. The Maori cast the earth on the inner side, his rear, lest the bullets of the enemy, striking the loose soft soil should throw dirt in his eyes, confuse his aim, and perhaps temporarily blind him. The dug-out soil also formed a little parepare or parapet on the outer side of the main line of palisading, close against the back of which the bullet-proof whares were built. On the marae, the open space or parade ground, stood the niu, around which the Hauhaus marched chanting their Paimarire service. There was a low roughly built railing, a Hauhau altar rail around the foot of the mast; within this tapu space stood the tohunga, the priest of the war-party, who slowly revolved around the pole leading the chanting, as his followers marched in procession.
A Great Bush Chase.
Many years ago, standing inside the fern-grown earthwork, my good old friend and bush-travel mate Captain Gilbert Mair told me the story of Puraku and pointed out the scene of the fighting in which he shared. That story is far too full of incident to be told here, but the narrative of the pursuit which followed the capture of the pa I shall briefly give because it deals with those gorges which every now and again open out to the train passenger's eye.
Mair commanded the contingent of Arawa Maoris, friendlies, detailed to work round to the rear of the pa and cut off the retreat. The pa was attacked before they could quite get into position, and so all they could do was to chase the Hauhaus. The main body of the fugitives took flight up a long narrow gorge about two miles on the Waikato side of Tarukenga. The young chief, Hemana, and his party holding this ravine killed seven men, and several more were killed at various points on the line of flight, making twenty-two in all. Hemana and his Arawas had great difficulty in following up the swiftly-flying foe because of the rough country. In order to cross one of the gorges they had to travel along its top for nearly a mile before they found a practicable place of descent, and then they had to lower themselves down by aka vines. The train traveller to-day may imagine something of the formidable obstacles presented to the troops, and even the mobile and lightly-clad Maori.
Up the straight cliffy sides of the gulches the Hauhaus clambered by means of the trailing aka, some as thick and strong as ships hawsers. Hemana was so hot in chase of one man that the two, fugitive and pursuer, were both on the same aka together. The Hauhau, struggling desperately upward, was caught by his foeman, who gripped him in his arms and in page 30 the struggle they either lost their hold of the aka or the tree-vine gave way and they fell to the bottom, where Hemana killed his man.
Relics of the Hauhau war-party were still found within and about these fern-hidden ditches and mounds when I paced its lines with Captain Mair and sketched the trench—a broken gun-barrel of wide bore, apparently an old Tower musket, broken iron cooking pots or “go-ashores,” and fragments of human bone, a memento mori of Kihitu's warriors slain. There was the five-foot butt of a totara pole, said to be the remains of the sacred niu; it stood on a clear space near the north-west angle of the pa.
In the days of '67 hundreds of Hauhaus marched in procession round that tall flag-staff of Riki, the red war-god, chanting their savagely beautiful Karakia, the black-tattooed priest with upraised hands leading the service. Standing on this tapu storied spot, we may imagine something of that spectacle; see again the Pai-Marire warriors marching round and round, their hands thrown up in a frenzy of militant exaltation, eyes rolling, voices chanting the psalms of David so strangely turned to the purposes of Maori war. The rebel chorus, the volleys of musketry, the pakeha bugle call and the Hauhau war yells, the independent firing, the scattered irregular shots of the forest chase, all these we may conjure up again, but the only sounds we hear to-day are the trill of the little riroriro in the bushes and the bell-like anvil note and the flutey gurgle of the tui in the shadowy bush gorges. Now, too, the distant rumble of the train as the engine pants its way up the Mamaku ascent across the gulch of the old-time line of flight to Waikato. And the venerable Niu staff yonder—its smoothed-off butt is a rubbing-post for the Maori pigs rooting for a living in the bracken that spreads a blanket of peace over the Hau hau battle-ground.
The bell-birds in the magic woods—
Oh, harken to the 'witching strain:
It flows and fills in silver floods
And fills and flows again.
“All bright and glittering in the smokeless air …”—Wordsworth.