The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 12 (April 1, 1930)
Pictures of New Zealand Life
The Old Beach Fort
All sorts of vague legands have grown up around the ruined stone fort on Paremata beach, at the entrance to Porirua Harbour; you can see it from the railway as you approach the Paremata bridge, sixteen miles out of Wellington City. Here are some facts about “Paremata Fortress,” as it was rather grandiloquently styled in despatches eighty-odd years ago. It was major's command in 1846–47, including the posts of Jackson's Ferry and the lately captured pa at Paua-taha-nui. The British officer-in-charge had about 300 men under him. The stone redoubt was finished in 1847, and although greatly damaged by the earthquake of 1848, remained garrisoned until the early ‘Fifties. Not far away from the post “Barney” Rhodes, the trader, had a store where the soldier, the whaler, the settler and the Maori could obtain anything in reason, from “B.P. Rum” and “Best Case Gin” to shawls, calico, pilot coats, tobacco and shoes.
The ruins consist of a considerable portion of the lower walls of the fort, which was a solidly built structure of large stones, with an admixture of red bricks, firmly cemented with a mortar of sand and seashells. The walls still standing are two feet in thickness, about eight to ten feet in height. The building measures about 60 feet by 40 feet, and a stout wall divides it into two sections, which in turn were sub-divided into a number of rooms. Formerly this stone redoubt was surrounded by a stockade, which enclosed also a guard-room, a small hospital for troops, and whares which were occupied by some of the detachments. All traces of this stockade, however, have vanished. The site of this olden scene of military life is now part of a farm, and the ruined walls are a shelter for shivering sheep on the days when the blustering westerlies blow in across the sandshoals at Porirua's entrance. In the days of its youth there were some lively scenes on the Paua-taha-nui inlet, when Lieut. McKillop's gunboat (oars), gave fight to Rangihaeata's war canoes.
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Ngaere, Old and New.
Just about where Eltham town now stands, on the Taranaki Railway line, was a one-time famous Maori retreat and food-foraging place, the Ngaere swamp. Old Maori hands have told me about the glorious times they had there in the days when all this part of the country was an untrimmed, unfenced, undrained wilderness. It was a vast marsh with lagoons and slow-running water-courses and an island-like peninsula running into it. Once, when the Hauhaus were on the run before Colonel Whitmore's troops, the pursuers crossed the quaking bog by means of fascines made by saplings tied with supplejack; and now and again some of these old-time fascines are unearthed by dairy-farmers and drain-diggers, who wonder how the deuce they got there. It was a great place for wild duck and other water-fowl and for eels, that Ngaere swamp, and the Ngati-Ruanui tribesfolk camped there for weeks every year, catching and smoke-drying huge quantities of page 42 eels and snaring ducks and that now almost extinct beautiful bird, the kotuku, or white heron; it was capital eating, says Hone. The tawhara fruit, too, which grows in the great bunches of astelia in the tree-forks, was especially plentiful, and the summer time hunt for it was a great picnic. Sometimes a forager would get lost in that maze of swamps and belts of bush, and to guide these hunters back to the island camp a pu-tatara, a kind of wooden bugle, would be sounded as evening came on, to guide the rovers home.
Nowadays the face of the country is completely transformed. The ancient swamps are the richest of dairying land; Queen Cow reigns where once millions of eels crawled in the bogs; the barnyard fowl is the wild duck's successor.
It is a phase of nation-making and wealth-making that many other parts of New Zealand can show too, as instance the Hauraki Plains and the great Rangitikei levels.
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In the preface to a lately-published collection of New Zealand short stories, the compiler made the remarkable statement in his preface that this country is lacking in much of the elements of romance and adventure. New Zealand has had no frontiersmen, he declared; it has no epic of struggle against mighty forces, and settlement was a prosaic business. No past, in fact nothing of the kind to stimulate the writer. It was an astonishing statement to come from the pen of a New Zealander, or an Australian for that matter. As a writer in an Auckland paper has truly commented, this Dominion is the very last country to which such a remark could apply.
Our pioneer days, our old bush life, our bush wars, our breaking-in period, surely produced a few frontiersmen! I knew some hundreds of them in my time—and I don't admit that I am yet in “the sere and yellow leaf.”
As for that “epic struggle,” a few thousands had all the epic they wanted in that breaking-period, those years of fighting, that era of golddigging and wild adventuring. No doubt a shopkeeper on Lambton Quay or a bank clerk in Queen Street would have voted life unexciting, but the man who carried a loaded rifle slung across his shoulders as he ploughed his little farm on the danger-line, and the women who nightly carried their babies in to the nearest blockhouse redoubt on the frontier, for fear of Maori raids in the midnight hours—none of those would have considered the times prosaic.
The development of New Zealand has been swift, but it was mighty tough going sometimes. Our pioneer railway route-finders had some hectic days in the outback. And if the page 43 Yankee touch is required, we have even had our frontier renegades, our gun-runners, and our rum-runners, bootleggers too—only they didn't call them that down this way.
The Last Ride.
They had some curious ways, those old-timers whose memories we revere in N.Z. For example, the public exhibition they made of poor devils about to be hanged. The p.d.'s deserved all they got, no doubt, but the Authorities rubbed it in hard. A venerable lady up north, still living, told me of a spectacle she witnessed in Auckland in her childhood. She saw a manacled criminal taken through the town in a cart from the gaol in Queen Street to the jetty in Official Bay, where he was put on board a boat with an armed crew. He was sitting on his coffin in the cart, and when he was transhipped to the boat the coffin was put on board alongside him. He was a man condemned to die for the murder of a family at the North Shore. They took him to the scene of the murder—he had burned down the house to hide his crime—and they hanged him there. The great idea was, no doubt, to strike terror into the hearts of the evil-disposed, and make them think twice about picking and stealing and so on. But what a catch nowadays it would be for the “movies”!
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Some Aucklanders, who love to stroll along the busy waterfront, have been regretting the absence of the water melon boats this season. For many years a small cutter-yacht from Whangaparaoa, out on the Hauraki Gulf coast, used to tie up at one of the wharves and retail over the side the cargo of melons and pumpkins and other garden products.
In earlier times the Maori canoes and boats from Waiheke Island were the melon-carriers. The garden-stuff yacht's absence is accounted for by the fact that the crop was quite a failure this year—cause, unseasonable, and unreasonable weather.
Water melons, I fancy, were grown far more generally in past years than they are to-day. Everywhere in the North, on a farm or in a Maori village, you could be sure of being offered a delicious helping of it, or a whole melon, if you felt that way, and in the hot weather it certainly was most acceptable. But never have I been more grateful for a water melon (taste inherited from small-boy days on the old farm) than on a certain sea voyage long ago to the South Sea Islands. It was nasty knockabout weather for the first few days out from New Zealand, and I didn't feel at all friendly disposed towards pea-soup and corned beef. But as it happened, the steward had laid in a lot of water melons just before leaving port, and for a week I lived on them. They may not have been particularly nourishing, but they were just the thing for a precarious interior in a big jobbly sea.page 44