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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (October 2, 1933)

The Trail of Adventure — Exploring the North Island Main Trunk Railway Route. — The Pioneer Surveyors And The Maoris. — Part I. — The Pathfinders

page 41

The Trail of Adventure
Exploring the North Island Main Trunk Railway Route.
The Pioneer Surveyors And The Maoris.
Part I.
The Pathfinders.

Fifty years ago, when the first reconnaissance survey was made of the present route of the Main Trunk Railway through the heart of the North Island of New Zealand, that great territory, the King Country, was entirely under Maori rule. The mana of the Maori King, Tawhiao, and his chiefs extended from the then head of the Auckland line at Te Awamutu southward to the Upper Wanganui and the Ruapehu plateau. Pakeha intrusion was forbidden, and some of the tribes threatened to shoot all white trespassers. It was under those difficult conditions that the exploration of the Central route was carried through as described in this narrative.

Mr. John H. Rochfort, pioneer explorer and surveyor.

Mr. John H. Rochfort, pioneer explorer and surveyor.

The Old Frontier of Waikato, the border defined by the Puniu and Waipa Rivers, the green farms, the homesteads, the townships, the blockhouses and redoubts on one side and the fern and flax wastes and wooded hills of the King Country on the other, was a place where one saw many an adventurous pioneer in the days of one's boyhood. Two of the figures of the real romance, heroic figures in youthful eyes, who came into Kihikihi settlement from the Maori country every now and again (in 1884–5 they had their headquarters in that township) were Charles Wilson Hursthouse and John Rochfort, Government surveyors engaged in the exploration and laying-out of the long-talked of railway line through the Rohepotae. Physically, they fitted the work, those well-seasoned men of the long trail where they blazed the way for the rail-builders who were to come after. Hursthouse, whom I came to know very well in after years, was the perfect frontiersman—tall, lean, hard and muscular, whiskered, a shrewdly humorous glint in his keen eyes, his gait a long easy stride. In his early forties then, he had already had more than twenty years of military and surveying experience; a good shot, but as he always declared, a man of peace. Cool, diplomatic, of consummate experience in Maori ways, and possessing a thorough knowledge of the Maori tongue, he was the first man to whom the Government authorities turned when they required an intermediary in disputes with the still suspicious and inimical tribes of the King Country and Taranaki. Yet, even Hursthouse—the “Wirihana” of the Maoris—for all his patience, tact and influence with them came to grief on one awkward occasion in that momentous year 1883, a day's ride south of our frontier river. That incident (to be related presently) occurred a few months before he and Rochfort became associated in their survey work in the northern part of the King Country.

John Rochfort, who was considerably Hursthouse's senior, was an even more experienced bushman and pathfinder. Unlike the long-limbed “Wirihana,” he was, in my recollection of him, a man of middle stature. He impressed one as very strong and wiry of physique; his shoulders were somewhat bowed with many years of swagcarrying. He had been an explorer in the South Island long before his King Country days; he had carried his heavy pikau on long and arduous journeys through the savage and all but foodless wilderness of Westland. Many a narrow escape from death by drowning in the torrents of the Coast were his; he was wise in all the practical lore of forest and river. He always carried a heavier load than any man in his party; a 50lb. page 42 pikau, he used to say, was only just enough to steady a man in fording a river.

This was the hard-trained forelooper whom the Public Works authorities at Wellington chose to make the first engineering reconnaissance of the Main Trunk line route between Marton and Te Awamutu, through the all but unknown country still under the conservative rule of the Maori King, or rather of his council of advisers, consisting of the rangatiras who will figure a good deal in this narrative, whom I may describe as “The Big Three,” the Chiefs Wahanui, Taonui and Rewi Maniapoto. Rochfort did not possess Hursthouse's knowledge of the Maori, but he was patient and of dogged courage. He would never accept defeat; and on this great survey he was no sooner baffled in one direction than he was ready to attack the problem from another angle, and in the end he won through and successfully pioneered the route.

Hursthouse and the Fanatic Prophet.

While Rochfort was preparing to begin his search for a route from the southern end of the long gap between the railheads, Wilson Hursthouse set out from the frontier for a journey to the Mokau, by way of Te Kuiti (then better known as Tokangamutu), making a reconnaissance of the country in view of the projected railway or road from the Waikato to Taranaki. He was accompanied by an assistant surveyor, Mr. Newsham, and escorted by a party of Ngati-Maniapoto men under several of their chiefs, by arrangement with the Native Minister, Mr. Bryce, who had been promised by Wahanui and the other high chiefs that the surveyors would be permitted to carry out their routescouting missions.

However, the Government officers had reckoned without a certain Bad Man of the frontier, a kind of Mad Mullah of the King Country, the prophet Mahuki, otherwise known as Manu-kura (“Red Bird”). Mahuki hated the Pakeha tribe, and he determined to stop this survey and all surveys, and all forms of Pakeha intrusion. The kai-ruri, the surveyor, was the wedge which presently would split asunder the land of the Maori.

So Mahuki and his band of “Angels,” swooping down on the Government party on the hill track above the flat where the present town of Te Kuiti stands, engaged in a furious fight with stirrup-irons—both parties were mounted—and sticks and fists with the surveyors and their escort. The Government escort, outnumbered, were overpowered—fortunately Mahuki had forbidden his men to carry firearms, otherwise murder would have been done—and the two white men, with a Maori assistant, were taken down to Te Kumi, Mahuki's headquarters village on the bank of the Manga-okewa stream, a short distance from Te Kuiti. The present railway passes close to the site of this village of the Hauhau prophet.

Imprisoned at Te Kumi.

There, fastened up with bullock chains to the central post of the house, their hands bound, bruised, starved and thirsty, plagued by mosquitos which they could not brush away, the surveyors suffered a cruel imprisonment for two days and nights, until they were rescued by Ngati-Maniapoto men and by Te Kooti, the old rebel who had recently made peace with the Government, and who wished to demonstrate his friendship in recognition of the amnesty for war-time offences.

In their imprisonment they expected to be killed by the Hauhaus, who were yelling around the whare and chanting their wild hymns. Hursthouse had finally worked his hands free and picked up a length of chain to defend himself. Hardy campaigner though he was, he “fairly broke down and wept,” as he said himself, when rescue came.

The Capture of Mahuki.

Ngati-Maniapoto escorted Hursthouse and Newsham to the frontier township of Alexandra (now Pirongia), on the Waipa; and there, a few days later, the mad prophet Mahuki and more than a score of his hard-riding Angels were laid by the heels when they rode in threatening to loot and burn the place. The Armed Constabulary and the Te Awamutu troop of Waikato Cavalry were waiting for them, and presently the Hauhaus of Te Kumi were on their way in the Pakeha train from Te Awamutu to Mt. Eden gaol.

As for Hursthouse, he was soon back on the survey work, with particular reference to the likely connection with Stratford along approximately the present route traversed by the railway from the Ohura Valley, a vast forest wilderness that still lay wild and lone nine years later when a party of us tramped and camped through it, with Hursthouse himself at the head, spying out the goodness or otherwise of the land for railroad and settlement.

John Rochfort Begins His Survey.

Turn now to the difficult and oftentimes perilous task which John Rochfort found ahead of him, and which he completed after many months of severe travel and survey examination and Maori anti-Pakeha demonstrations and threats and, on occasion, of ball cartridge fired over his head.

Mr. Rochfort, in his report to the Engineer-in-Charge, North Island, after describing the route he explored, narrated his adventures with the Maoris through whose tribal lands he travelled with his party. He commenced work at Marton, at the southern end of the route, on June 26, 1883, and after about a fortnight's exploration, during which it rained almost incessantly, arrived at Ngaurukehu. At Turanga rere, on the plateau at the base of Mt. Ruapehu, he met the first Maoris, and although they wanted to detain him until a general meeting page 43 of the people was held, the opposition was feeble, and he went on. At Karioi he was stopped by some armed Maoris, occupying part of the Rangataua block (Government land), who declared that Adamson, employed by him on this work, had sold land on behalf of his wife—Nika Waiata (“who by the way, is a great warrior,” he wrote)—to the extent of three thousand acres more than belonged to her. (The man he mentioned was Tom Adamson, a bold frontier figure of those days. He had been a scout in the Maori wars, he marched with Major Kepa's Wanganui Contingent, and he was often called Kepa's Pakeha-Maori. He was a big, hardy fellow, and he always travelled barefooted and wore semi-Maori costume.)

Threatened with Death.

The explorer was told that if he went on he would be shot. He soon found out that Adamson's presence in the party (as guide and chainman) only added fuel to the fire, so he discharged him.

Finding that Kepa was the head of affairs, he decided to go down to the Wanganui district and interview him. This he did, travelling by way of Hales’ Track, and being delayed somewhat by snow, for it was the middle of winter. He found Kepa at Upokongaro. The Wanganui fighting chief at once said: “I will support you, and held you with five hundred men if necessary, for I consider a railway will be for the good of my people.”

Reassured by these friendly words from Kepa, Rochfort returned to the interior, carrying letters from the chief to Pita te Rahui and to some of the principal chiefs of the Manganui-a-te-ao Country, men who were thoroughgoing Hauhaus and opposed to the Pakeha and all his works. After a long discussion at Rangataua, Pita and the others at last allowed the surveyor to go on, and eventually joined him as workers, cutting the line through their district. In the end they became very anxious for the line to proceed.

In the Hands of a Hostile Tribe.

Passing through the site of the present station at Ohakune, he went on along a bush track to Ruakaka, the principal settlement on the Manganui-a-te-ao, which he and his party were able to reach on horseback. He was detained there, and his theodolite and other surveying gear were seized. He was told that he must stay until Kepa was communicated with, and presently the party were marched by the Hauhaus to Papatupu, some two miles above the confluence of the river with the Wanganui.

At that bush village of the anti-Pake ha faction, a Hauhau tribe called Patu-tokotoko, there were about eighty Maoris assembled. He was kept there, virtually a prisoner, for the next two or three days. He gave in his report the names of the principal men of the Hauhaus—Taumata, Te Kuru Kaanga, Te Peehi, Winiata te Kakai, Manurewa, Turehu, Raukawa, Te Aurere,
Mr. C. W. Hursthouse. One of the King Country railway route pioneer surveyors. Mr. Hursthouse (died 1911) had a very adventurous life as Government surveyor, and became Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges. This photo, was taken in 1883.

Mr. C. W. Hursthouse.
One of the King Country railway route pioneer surveyors. Mr. Hursthouse (died 1911) had a very adventurous life as Government surveyor, and became Chief Engineer of Roads and Bridges. This photo, was taken in 1883.

Huriwaka, Te Whaiti, Niko, and Kaiatua. (Most of these, it may be added to the surveyor's story, were warriors who had fought against the Government in the wars; Te Peehi Hitaua was the highest in rank, a fine specimen of a stalwart fighting man.) Some of the speakers at the korero in the village were friendly. The strongest in opposition to the survey was the old chief Taumata, who said that if Rochfort had been taken prisoner on his land he would have cut all the surveyor's belongings up into small pieces and made slaves of all the party. Eventually letters were written to Kepa, and to Mr. Woon (Government Maori Agent at Wanganui) and to Rochfort himself, stating that if he returned to the work of carrying through the survey he would be turned back and his Maoris killed, and if he came a third time he would be killed.

Taumata urged keeping the party prisoners, but Te Peehi and others were more moderate, and said if Rochfort could bring letters of approval from Tawhiao, the Maori King, or from the great Wahanui, the principal chief of the King Country, he would not be obstructed further.

Down the Wanganui.

Then the meeting appointed seven chiefs to paddle the surveyor down the Wanganui River to see Kepa and discuss the trouble. His instruments remained in the possession of an old page 44 chief. After a canoe voyage of two and a half days, calling at the principal kaingas on the way, the party reached Upokongaro. Rochfort noted that the riverside villages carried a large population, and that the Maoris about Hiruharama (Jerusalem) owned many sheep, cattle and horses. At that large settlement there was a Catholic Mission; Sister Maria Joseph (afterwards so well known in Wellington as Mother Mary Joseph Aubert) was there engaged in the mission work, besides other members of the Church.

After an inconclusive meeting between his captors and Kepa, Rochfort decided to return to Wellington to seek the advice of the Native Minister. Kepa had a conference with the Minister, promising assistance, and the result was that Rochfort returned to Wanganui and went up the river to Ranana, Kepa's headquarters, where a large meeting was held. Several of the up-river chiefs were there, and agreed to the continuance of the survey, but it was considered necessary to send a strong force of Kepa's men with Rochfort.

Return with a Maori Escort.

Accordingly, when he started on the voyage up the river, on September 26, the expedition consisted of six canoe crews, totalling thirtyone people (including six women). Paddling and poling up the strong river, the expedition, which was armed, reached Papatupu, where some eighty Maoris were assembled awaiting them. The Hauhaus gave Rochfort and his escort a very unfriendly reception. The angry korero lasted for several days, and at last ended with the Hauhaus leaving the meeting-house in a body and going up the Manganui-a-te-ao to another village, Te Papa.

(Photo. M. A. Brennan.) The Makohine viaduct, one of the great engineering works on the North Island Main Trunk Line.

(Photo. M. A. Brennan.)
The Makohine viaduct, one of the great engineering works on the North Island Main Trunk Line.

A Messenger in Peril.

Next day Rochfort and his party followed them up, and when within about two miles of the village a messenger, Ruakawa, was sent to report that the Government men were coming. The Hauhaus regarded this man as a seceder and a spy, so they decided to shoot him. Some time elapsed before a man could be found to carry out the shooting. At last one volunteered, and seizing a gun went towards the door of the council-house, but before he could reach the spot where Raukawa was sitting several of his fellow-tribesmen stopped him, and the messenger was reprieved. Raukawa was allowed to return to the surveyor's party next morning. He said that he had found the Hauhaus busy making cartridges, but that after a night's talk they agreed to meet Rochfort and his friends.

A Threatening Salute.

Accordingly the Government party went on to Te Papa. As they approached they saw that a white flag was flying on a pole in the village. The travellers were met by a war-party of twenty-five men, who fired two volleys of ball cartridge over their heads. The guncrash and whistling of the bullets overhead were the ominous prelude to more very angry talk. The Hauhaus were determined to keep the white man out of their territory. Two or three days of futile discussions; the Hauhaus forced Rochfort to return the way he had come, practically at the muzzles of their double-barrel guns. At last he decided that there was nothing for it but to return to Wanganui. The expedition therefore manned the canoes again and paddled downriver to Wanganui town.