The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 10 (January 1, 1936)
On the Road to Anywhere — A Matter of Pipis and Kowhai. — Part V
The Maori mind does not, and in my opinion will not, function along accepted lines. I know a woman who lived for many years in the wilds of the Urewera country. She was particularly struck by the proud and forbidding appearance of a large white boulder, perched on a nearby mountaintop exactly as though a pterodactyl, passing by, had halted on the wing and laid an egg at this surprising altitude. As time went on, she grew convinced that the white rock had an especial significance for the Maoris too. Gently but firmly, she commenced to pump. Gentlier but ever more firmly, they shied off the topic. At the end of five years or so, her interest in the white rock had reached a morbid pitch, and precisely at that time, an old gentleman in a blue shirt, a billycock hat and very little else, whom she had sustained at the back door with cups of tea, decided that now she could be inaugurated into the secret of the white rock. (For the interest of the pakeha woman in the white rock was by now a source of amused contempt to the Maoris throughout the district.)
The old gentleman did the thing in style. “You are now one of us,” he said grandly, “Know, then, this is what befell.”
The lady panted a little, but unobtrusively.
“On a certain day,” said the old gentleman, “a giant, who lived at a near distance to the sea-coast, became enraged, though not with any justice, over the actions of a giant who at that time was living under yonder mountain.” (Here ensued a description of the relations of the second giant with the first giant's sister, a bit Biblical for our purposes: and anyhow, as the old gentleman pointed out, the whole thing was a misunderstanding—romance, if you like, but not Reno. However, Giant Number One was a sceptic: “Aüe,” stated the old gentleman, pessimistically, “seizing the white rock like a tooth, which grew then on the sea-shore, he flung it at the head of the giant in our mountain. This he missed, striking the mountain, wherever since the white rock has dwelt. Aüe, aüe.” (Pronounced “'Ow, 'Ow,” and signifying “Tut, tut,” or, “What a pity.”) After this, he looked her darkly in the eye, and what on earth could she do but echo feebly, “'Ow, 'Ow?”
In much the same way, when halfway up the Wanganui River you come upon that interesting and delightful little spot, Pipiriki, it may astonish you to find that the place is so named because once upon a time, on his deathbed, a chieftain ate an extraordinary number of pipis there. It must have been a marathon banquet, the corpse, so to speak, assisting in and starring at his own funeral feast: none the less, to those unacquainted with Maori custom, it may seem surprising that the feat was commemorated. But that's nothing. Look at Kamo, up in Whangatei. Kamo means “Eyelash.” Whose eyelash? When and where and how? Was it that a chieftain here fell in love with the silken lash of some dark-eyed damsel, or merely that an eyelash got in his eye, and, feeling peeved about it. he decided that the happening should be immortalised?
This may seem a digression, and verily, so it is. All the same, when approaching Wanganui, my strong advice both to New Zealander and tourist is to remember that here, just under the surface, is Maori world— Maori talk, Maori custom, Maori charm. You won't get the best out of Wanganui if you eliminate the Maori from your quest.
After which grandmotherly little bit of psychology, let us revert (happily) to Marton Junction, which is the Main Trunk connection for Wanganui, and contains, at a rough guess, more newsboys, cups of tea and large ham sandwiches to the square inch than any place else in the world. Of the two major Main Trunk junctions, Marton always looks to me the more human and inviting, it is full of bustle; the station officials, Redcaps and Lost Luggage Lords and vociferous terrier dogs, all do their best to encourage you, being imbued with the spirit of adventure. It is a place of setting forth.
A little orchard, whiter than alabaster with its freight of blossoms: toe-toe plumes bending down to dip their cream feathers into a wide steel-grey sweep of river: trying to learn to row, in a backwater, with a million bullfrogs solemnly expressing their souls to a papery wisp of a new moon: an old Maori woman sitting on my doorstep, with her black shawl over her head and a fearful little black clay pipe between her superb teeth: eating an unbelievably large and potent beefsteak, plus onions, at “Tony's” on a cold night: staggering to a vertical position: sitting down and eating more (in company with newspaper reporters), when Tony produced roasted wild duck …
Perhaps that's Wanganui. But on the other land, there is that ancient bronze fountain (it was exhumed in Rome somewhere, and has the grave and yet taunting loveliness kept by no other medium except weathered and battered bronze), standing darkish golden-green in the white sunlit entrance of the Sargent Art Gallery. You will like this Art Gallery, overcoming a first impulse to dislike it, because its whiteness, its pillars, its spacious system of halls, and the manner in which it takes and holds the sunlight are so very alien to New Zealand that at first glimpse, it looks theatrical. But it has achieved nobility, and will last. Its extraordinary effectiveness is not only effective… I can visualise now, between the white straight lines of an inner door, glowing yellow, and a dark, angry Eastern face: that is the painting of a Jewish girl at a well. There is some Burne-Jones work here, unfinished for the most part, and thus escaping from the look of sameness which characterises the perfected auburn locks, heavy mouths and long eyes of the dreamer-artist's choice. One lissome Burne-Jones drawing in the Sargent Gallery has escaped from a red thicket of fairy tale… There are lovely little bits of painting on ivory, smooth, flowery, finished with love and grace of those blessed days when Art and Craft were self-respecting brothers.
Then retreat in good order to the shabby (externally) old Museum, and see things from the other world… little bone flutes made from pieces of human thigh-bone (Tutanekei's friend, softly, softly calling Hinemoa over the lake waters with his flute), carved boxes for huia feathers, carved boxes for cosmetics … they were such great dandies, the young men and women of Maori world.
Somewhere in between the Sargent Art Gallery and the carved boxes, you can see a community which plays excellent bridge for sixpenny points, hunts and rides and flourishes at Hunt Balls (Wanganui women dress beautifully), and makes cross-stitch sampler patterns with autumn crocus and magnificent tawny chrysanthemums, in big gardens whose glades shelter karaka trees, and kuku, the metallic-winged, plump-bosomed old wild pigeon. As a community, the Wanganui people are more civilised than those of most New Zealand cities: by civilised, I mean hospitable, funny, interested in one another, keen on doing things together, passionate about rivalries, argumentative. They ignore very little. The really big city is a bleaker thing than any cave-dwelling.
But the river. You can't come to Wanganui without traversing its river (though myself, I could very nearly have come just for the satisfaction of seeing a slim and graceful archdeacon knock spots off everyone else at a game of lacrosse.)
Going up the river is complex nowadays only for those who loathe getting out of bed early in the morning. You must, you know. The little ferry steamer's siren shrieks mournfully when-everything's still grey-veiled and icy cold. Let there be no mistake about it. Wanganui River, in the early morning, is so cold that without rugs you are lost, physically.
The Maoris bundle on board the little boat, all brown face and blue chin-tattoo, expressive dark eyes and clay pipe. Usually they bring pigs. The pigs, tied up in fish-nets (it's no use asking me why, I'm simply giving you the facts), recline in the stern of the boat, and shriek blue murder from beginning to end. As a matter of fact, this isn't disconcerting, but amusing. Then the soft babble of unknown speech… Maoris in Wanganui, both old and young, are extraordinarily handsome. The full-blooded Maori woman of middle age has a solid fineness like a sailing-ship's figurehead. The half-caste girl in her 'teens is a wild lovely creature, with twinkling bronze legs, like a deer's. There are deer up in the riverbank forests, you can see them now and again between the trees—red deer, and the fallow fellows whose spottiness we used to love in our Zoo days, a long time ago.
The Mail-Bag Collie is an individuality with a plumed tail. The plumed tail is a help, of course, but even without it he would be a splendid and sagacious creature. Year in, year out, he comes down to the river's edge to page 38 page 39 collect the mail (which is distributed by the simple means of being thrown ashore in bags). He barks, circles his tail in thanks, picks up the mail bag, trots out of sight among the russet osiers…
Little people of a not-much-changing world. The Maori woman whose twins, their fat bronze cheeks reposing on a spotless white pillow, were Plunket. She was so proud about it. The native farms are all along the river, until you come to the exquisite ferny tangle some few miles below Pipiriki, where nothing lives any more but the gliding shadows in the water. These river-farms are unbelievably steep, and to get the cream down to the company which handles it (on a co-operative basis, I believe) the Maoris have to be up at two in the morning. Their cattle must have legs like mountain goats. But a company manager who bought their cream told me how, within a few years of the fencing and subdivision of their land, these farmers had paid back their debts, kept their machinery a picture, and were drawing reasonable cream cheques. I always remember the Maori river farmers when listening to the wise discourse on the impracticability, or the unwillingness to labour, of the Maori race.
Through the green fans of the trees, you catch a glimpse of the comparatively new, but beautiful motoring road which heads for Tongariro. Here, too, echoes back the laughter and whistling of the Maori people. You can see a lad ride down to the water's edge, with the head of a wild pig grinning hideously from his saddlebow.
But look among the riverbank willows for the drawn-up canoes… not just the large and expensive redochred kind, once used for fighting and now mostly in the museums, but the humble little one-man affairs, hollowed from the single log, and polished shiny as amber straws with the years and years of slipping through the river waters. They are not painted, and decay is upon them. But they are so shapely and beautiful. I hate to think of the Wanganui without them.
There is a halt some few miles up the river. Here a tui sang with distracted fondness to his mate, who had concealed herself in a circle of kowhai trees. These rained down blossoms of a hot gold, like new-minted sovereigns. Thousands and thousands of blossoms, shining and falling, and the tui expostulating, “Oh, where are you? Where are you? Speak up, dear.” The Maoris say, “Spring comes with the red flame on the kowhais.” It is one of the two flowers that hold real warmth, anyhow. The other is the blossom of English gorse.
You sleep at Pipiriki first night up the Wanganui. There is a very excellent hotel—Pipiriki House a big white place, guarded by rowan trees and built on a rounded hill. Long before you get there, the river has abandoned any pretensions to civilisation, and is just its own glimmering self, the great interwoven fronds of the ferns perfectly mirrored in unmoving waters. The bush above makes reflected cliffs of deep purple, russet and green. You can see a tiny grey bird, not large enough to bend his wild fuschia twig, dart across the mirror. The world of reflections looks much more solid than the other one, and you long to step down into it.
There is a taniwha in the Wanganui River near Pipiriki, and if you want to be ceremonious, you can lay a green bough on his Offering Stone. Then perhaps the next morning, when you wake up and see the valleys threaded with a lace-fine blue mist, will be as lovely for you as it was for me..
Before saying goodbye to Pipiriki, one can slip back in an afternoon to Jerusalem, which is the little mission station built up in the very wilderness many years ago by the late Mother Mary Aubert and her French ladies.
Nothing but Maori is spoken at Jerusalem, except by the nuns. All the top of the hill is caught in a silvery cloud, where Mother Mary Aubert's cherry orchard takes its wild pleasure in blossoming to outshine its dark neighbours. Her little still-room, where she made medicines after the old Maori herbal prescriptions, is still there. We took aboard, going back from Jerusalem, a party of young Maoris whose canoe had broken down. They were dressed in all the colours of several rainbows, only gaudier, and they sang Alfred Hill's waiatas at us, in voices like throstles. All very gay. I like the Maori voice best unaccompanied. Since we can't have the little bone flutes, let us be thankful that a Maori can exist without a ukulele, The South Seas melody is so sticky.
I find it hard to describe the upper river journey, because, when you're actually experiencing it, continually your mind fastens on some relatively tiny detail… the swaying of a mamuk' frond in the reflected world, wild turkeys, with their shining copper breastplates, suddenly and unexpectedly gobbling from the riverbank, a glimpse of rotting red-ochred wood which was once an ancient battle pa, water gushing forth, heavy crystal, from the roof of a cavern whose mouth is ringed in a violet rainbow. River's end, from the Ladder Scene to that green place where the Houseboat used to lie, is more of a dream than anything else. You are glad of the occasional creak of a windlass (in summer, you have to be windlassed over shallow places). Yet if you should wake in the moonlight, or in a blue and misty morning, the place makes demands on you. You want to paint, or write… both of which are inadequate… or to listen, which mightn't be.page 40
The Archdeacon is still playing lacrosse when you get back to Wanganui. “Tony” heaps your plate up with golden circlets of fried onion, and you think, recklessly, “This is odoriferous, this is vulgar, but I like it.” An old Maori voice cries softly after you on the short walk from main street to river's edge. Likely she wants “Baccy.” She wears greenstone round her neck, a fine tiki against the black woollen gown. At Castlecliff, the sea-place, there are both lupins and lovers, and one of those notoriously honey-coloured moons. At St. John's Hill, there is little Virginia Lake with its sailing black swans, and among the yellow trees a cicala threads the afternoon with his tiny stitch of song. “I grew this apple from the pip,” proudly says an old gaffer, indicating a monstrous red and gold bulge about the size of a small melon. “How do you think my chrysanthemums will do at the flower show?” says the nice tweedy woman, slightly though unnecessarily on the defensive. Her Airedale cocks an ear to hear your reply. “Marton Junction! —All change here for Wanganui! yells the stentorian voice of a porter, perhaps an hour's journey away.
To rail at tobacco for thirty years and denounce smoking as a vice and then conclude that you've been “barking up the wrong tree” all the time! What a “right about face!” The late Professor Huxley, the eminent scientist, was an anti-tobaccoite for half his lifetime. One day a friend persuaded him to try a mild havana—and straightway he changed his tune! He found it delicious, and lived to admit “there's no more harm in a pipe of tobacco than there is in a cup of tea.” But tobacco varies in quality just as tea does. In both cases it's a wise plan to buy the best but not necessarily the most expensive. In the case of tobacco the best is the genuine “toasted” which though quite moderate in price is matchless for bouquet and unrivalled for purity. The nicotine it contains (common to all tobacco) is eliminated by toasting, and hence the harmlessness of the five famous brands—Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold.*