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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 3 (July 1, 1930)

The Bush Explorers — Story of the Stratford Main Trunk Railway Route

page 42

The Bush Explorers
Story of the Stratford Main Trunk Railway Route

In this article the writer gives a narrative of an official exploring tour in 1892 along the proposed route of the North Island Main Trunk railway from South Auckland to Taranaki, linking up the two provinces, which at that time were quite isolated from each other. This route was discarded in favour of the present Central route, via Taumarunui, Waimarino and Taihape, but it is now being completed as a necessary connection between Auckland and Taranaki. The writer describes the King Country as it was nearly forty years ago, before white settlement had transformed the face of the great Rohepotae territory.

Old King Country Days

Our jumping-off place that summer morning of long ago was Te Kuiti, a rough shop those days, when it was the Head of the Line, and when the big beyond of the Rohepotae lay wrapped in mystery to all but the Maori owners of the soil and the surveyors, and the tough men of the out-of-doors whose business it was to skirmish ahead of settlement and make the first roads and railways.

Not an acre of King Country land had passed into white farmers' hands, not a pakeha homestead redeemed the wastes of fern and manuka southward of the Puniu River, the old Aukati or boundary between pakeha and Maori. Except for the thin line of the Main Trunk rail pushed a little way into the open fern country from the Waikato side—and that only by sufferance of the tattooed lords of the land, headed by the huge-framed imperious, kingly-looking Wahanui (the “power behind the Maori throne” we called him), the Rohepotae still lay purely Maori. Otorohanga and Te Kuiti were the Ngati-Maniapoto headquarters, and there we used to see the chiefs whose names were writ large in its story of the Kingite wars, swart old heroes who eschewed the trousers of the paleface and stalked free-limbed in blanket and waist-shawl.

Now the white man was coming, and presently his iron rail and his locomotive would make the trail that was to cut through the mana of the Maori. Just now it was the transition period; the pakeha settler was climbing over the wall. We were some of those pakehas, and it was our business to help blaze the way. The “battle of the routes” was on. Aucklanders were mostly in favour of making the railway to Taranaki. Wellington wanted the Central route—the present line. There was a huge gap to fill, right down to Marton. The middle portion of the Main Trunk of to-day was a blank on the map, so far as rail and road were concerned.

There were nine of us who fell in that morning at Harry Tanner's little bush store and accommodation house in Te Kuiti, and each, according to his judgment, picked out a horse from the mob of Maori-bred animals that the packer brought along. We saddled up for the three days' ride to the Big Bush, where the horse trail ended and the long march on foot began. First, there was the Boss, Charles Wilson Hursthouse—called by the Maoris “Wirihana”—the District Surveyor, of whom more later; there was another surveyor, and there was a Minister of the Crown, that gentlest mannered of politicians, quiet, lovable Alfred Jerome Cadman, at that time holding the portfolio of Native Affairs, and later Minister for Railways; there were two Auckland members of Parliament—Frank Lawry and Jackson Palmer; there was a stalwart member of the Auckland Railway League; a chainman-bushman-guide by the name of Julian; Puhi, the Maori packer and axeman; and the narrator, the most youthful of the squad, but used from small-boy days to riding about this Maori country.

Stratford was a hundred and thirty miles away. Our job was to traverse the intervening country, all but unknown, in order to judge of page 43 its suitability for settlement and railroading; and my own special business was to report on it for an Auckland paper.

Into the Ongarue.

Behold us, then, two days later, a sufficiently rough-looking band, mounted on our sturdy Maori ponies, trailing in single file down the mountain side from the Poro-o-tarao, and opening up a wide, wild prospect of green forests and blue ranges, far-spreading valleys, and silver river peeps, with great rugged kopje-like crags of volcanic rock building a skyline on the south. No wheel roads then, in ’Ninety-two; the only way was a horse track. Below us lay the valley of the Ongarue; we had crossed the divide from the Mokau head waters, and all the streams we saw and forded thenceforth went to swell the Wanganui River.

We rode down into the Ongarue Valley, winding through the tall fern and groves of tawa and rimu, down into the gravel of that divinely clear Maramataha, a tributary stream cascading past the little Maori village of Waimeha from the tableland of the Maraeroa; that way lay the vast unknown West Taupo country.

We cantered over the pumice flats, now and again fording the bright river and skirting Maori cultivations of potatoes and maize on the sheltered terraces.

From the Ongarue, at Te Kawakawa—just about where Ongarue railway station stands to-day, we turned off sharply to the west, between two mighty green hills; and then south-west-ward ho! for the Taranaki bush and Stratford a hundred miles away.

Behold the Ohura!

From a hilltop, where our horse track cork-screwed through tall fern and bright green bushes of tupakihi with its clusters of black tutu berries, we had our first look-out over the Ohura Valley, and the seemingly interminable forest, a “boundless contiguity of shade” that stretched from the shadowy undulations below almost to the base of Mount Egmont, over the ranges and far away. A huge and shaggy and lonely land it was. No green field, no fence, no house or even tent, no smoke of settlers' burning-off fire, gave civilised touch to the silent expanse. Valley and hill and glinting stream and dark solemn forest lay bathed in soft blue haze, mysterious, unpeopled; as untouched by man, it seemed to me gazing over it there, as it might have been a thousand years ago.

The Stratford Main Trunk Railway. (Rly. Publicity photo.) The entrance to No. 3 tunnel (4,000ft. in length) between Mangaone and Mangatete, 53 miles from Stratford.

The Stratford Main Trunk Railway.
(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The entrance to No. 3 tunnel (4,000ft. in length) between Mangaone and Mangatete, 53 miles from Stratford.

“Take a good look at the Ohura,” said “Wirihana,” turning in his saddle; “this is the last bird's-eye view you'll get of it.”

And this was true, for in the days that followed we had no such comprehensive eye-sweep page 44 of the promised land. We were in the tall timber, and not even a climb to a rata top would have given us a commanding view of the huge jumble of wooded ranges that lay around our trail.

The last day of our three days' ride we spent skirting by a bush road the dark, slow-moving Ohura. We camped in the open, getting out of our blankets regretfully in the cold and foggy dawn. We passed three deserted Maori camps of thatch and ferntree trunk, at Makara, Nihoniho and Toitoi. Then it was pikau and footslog through the roadless forest.

The Horses That Went Mad.

There was a curious and painful adventure on our last day's ride. Our track just wide enough for single file travel, entered a thicket of the native ongaonga or stinging-nettle, the urtica ferox of the botanists. It grew ten or twelve feet high, and the fine hair-like prickles on the underside of the leaves brushed us as we rode through. Our hands smarted and tingled; the stinging spines even penetrated trouser legs and set up an intense pain and irritation. One of our party was in a high fever as a result of it, and we had to halt for half a day till he recovered. (Puhi chrisened him “Ongaonga Palmer” in memory of the day). But our poor horses suffered most. The prickles caught them wither-high, and their foreparts and legs presently swelled as if they had been attacked by a swarm of bees. We had to unsaddle some of them. The two packhorses absolutely went mad, and they performed some strange evolutions and even revolutions. One horse in its delirium of agony tried to climb a tree. The other dashed madly off and plunged into a creek; it went head under and drowned itself. If ever there was a suicide of an animal, this was one. Another horse bolted into the bush and disappeared; long afterwards we heard that it had been found dead, killed in its crazy scrambles.

(To be concluded.)

Our Bread and Butter.

Traffic is the bread and butter of the railway family; every employee should be a business-getter, for his own success and for the happiness of those dependent upon him.—President L. A. Downs, Illinois Central Railroad, U.S.A.

One of the Big Works on the Stratford Main Trunk Railway (Rly. Publicity photo.) A large filling (90ft. from base to rail level) between tunnels Nos. 1 and 2, fifty miles from Stratford.

One of the Big Works on the Stratford Main Trunk Railway
(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A large filling (90ft. from base to rail level) between tunnels Nos. 1 and 2, fifty miles from Stratford.