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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 5 (August 2, 1937)

Ways of the North — Life In The Cabin Country

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Ways of the North
Life In The Cabin Country

Russell I knew; tourists and stuffed swordfish; and Keri-Keri, which has more charm, but is rendered fantastic by ex-tropical civil servants of massive build skipping about its plantations in Baden Powell shorts, discussing tung oil. But Whangaroa—so far as one can see, nobody knows about Whangaroa. Nobody goes there; well, one swordfisherman did, some years ago, and was instantly bitten by a centipede. In Whangaroa, centipedes grow to a lusty length of ten inches, living in the great pink pile beneath the timbermill which is known to the Maoris as “That Sawdust.” In “That Sawdust” flourish Maori cabins and patches of Indian corn, canna lilies and wild ginger. Nobody seemed to mind the centipedes—except me, I minded the thought of them very much indeed, though the only one I actually saw was pickled in alcohol, and kept in a large glass jar on the counter of the store at Saies. Just another little idea of a tourist attraction.

Of course I'm exaggerating when I say nobody goes there; there are a sprinkling of summer cottages, round the harbour that is dark as greenstone and shaped like a heart. Quite handsome yachts and launches fuss in and out, and parties save up for a day's swordfishing—four guineas the day, and once you start out, no matter how seasick you are, no matter how much you may long to commit your soul as well as your dinner to the deep, it's against the canons of the swordfishers to put back, either for man or for woman. The strong survive and drink beer; the weak lie on the decks and moan. Half the secret of successful swordfishing is an unlimited capacity for swallowing down beer in grilling sunshine, without getting sunstroke.

The cabins should be drawn to be believed, but the theory behind their architecture is this. Get hold of some unpainted boards, bore a few holes (to allow easy ingress and egress of bugs, very plentiful in this district), and form into a narrow oblong. Leave nails sticking out—the cabin-dweller will like something on which to tear his pants. Add a tiny tin chimney, but put mason-bees inside it—they will live there very comfortably, and this also prevents the cabin-dweller from indulging in beefsteak orgies—he can't use his fire, and his kerosene stove upsets if he balances anything larger than a baby kettle over it. To give individuality to this bijou residence, supply sliding wooden panels instead of glass windows, and erect the whole cabin on stilts; long stilts; insecure stilts; stilts wobbling above the mangroves.

You mayn't believe in the existence of such a residence, but I ought to know. I lived alone in one for nearly a month, on the long spur where once Bishop Pompallier had his old mission station. No ghost of those pious days remains, except, forlorn in the scrub, two old carved totara tombstones, tipped on their backs, their inscriptions still quite legible. And there are also the castor oil plants, rather pretty, reputed to have been planted by the Bishop himself. If he did it, I say it was an unsportsmanlike way of civilising the heathen—this castor oil—but the bluish-green serrated leaves are handsome enough, and blended well with my ancient pohutukawas, whose rheumaticky grey limbs spread wide over the lip of foam just a few yards below my stilts.

And the cabin windows (not the sliding wood ones, at the sides, but the front one, which was real glass), was painted with a beautiful sea and sky in the cool autumn mornings. Just opposite lay Peach Island, which saw the Boyd float burning past in the sinful old days. Old men and women in Whangaroa still carry walking-sticks from the Boyd—not many made from her actual timbers, but more from the cargo of hardwood she was carrying when the Maoris attacked her. I've seen grapeshot, too, and odds and ends, and hair-raising tales which somehow blend peacefully enough into the background of this old world.

(Govt. Tourist Photo.) Whangaroa—A gem of New Zealand's Northland, showing St. Paul's rock in the background.

(Govt. Tourist Photo.)
Whangaroa—A gem of New Zealand's Northland, showing St. Paul's rock in the background.

Once all this country was heavily forested, mostly with kauri. One firm —Lane's, of the Sawdust—has milled fifteen million feet since the War, and milling is still in progress on the more distant hills. But the near-at-hand life of the old timber camps, where Maoris and whites bunked together in perfect equality, and men drank their tea out of huge earthenware bowls, the pannikin not yet having dawned on the horizon, has vanished away. There are relics; I saw ten of them, mild-eyed, great-horned, hauling cut manuka uphill from Campbell's place, their oddly shaped wooden yokes heavy on their necks. Bullocks are very wise. These would stop at a crack of the whip, without the ripe traditional bullocky curses, but at the shadow of a stranger they swerved, and were restless, trying to see out of the corners of their wrinkled eyes what foe was coming. Sometimes Mr. Campbell (whose bullocks have been as long engaged in hauling as any page 18

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veterans in the district), takes them deep into the woods—“the sacred deep forest of Tane,”—where green kauri is cut, and the day of their dignity returns.

If you live in Whangaroa, semi-aquatic habits are expected of you. You take your launch, or your little flat-bottomed speedboat, which tears along the water like a zipp fastener coming undone, and head for the Mushrooms—the queerly shaped, large-headed rocks tottering on the outskirts of the harbour. Or, when the tide is full and gleaming, your launch plunges bodily through the famous Hole in the Wall, and the females aboard shriek, while the males look self-consciously heroic. Or you seek out the recently-discovered caves, where all sorts of odd fish-hooks and trundled skulls have been unearthed. Central Otago's black cliffs and lionpelt of tussock have more grandeur, but I have never seen more fantastic rocks than the great black and iron-grey masses hurled up around Whangaroa. The artist who made them was a specialist in lightning sketch and caricature. There is a remarkable Napoleon Bonaparte, glaring at an almost perfect Duke of Wellington. There are gods and brutes—rock faces, frozen black. Also there is Taratara.

You start from in among the brambles and manuka, and the trail is good, but you dodge the little cabins, with their thready smoke and fluttering bright flags of maize, because the Maori people are not too fond of watching whites climb Taratara. The mountain is tapu, an ancient burying-place. There is a cave there, full of the dead. Its exact entrance is either hidden or forgotten, but in Whangaroa I met one old lady whose best friend had been inside. The way up, it is said, was by the roots of an overhanging tree, which has rotted away and fallen from the cliff-face, leaving the dead to sit secretly for ever. I can believe it; halfway up Taratara, which is neither of an enormous height nor a dangerous climb, but weirdly majestic, with its grey chimneys and steeples and its dying forest beneath, one could believe almost anything.

This bush has never been burned or felled. So great puriris scatter their little rosy apples on the leaf-mould, supplejacks writhe like giant serpents, and there are many nikau palms. It is the fantastic forest of which one reads in early journals, but which is seldom enough seen to-day. Peach trees have forced their way in amongst the tumult of the native growers, and their fruit rounds honey-yellow and falls untouched. Above, the rock is bare; great shelves give foot hold to a tiny golden moss, and nothing else. The wind snatches a scarf and hurls it away—perhaps to the lips of the tapu cave, for it cannot be seen again. Below, another part of the forest is strange as a valley of the moon, for all its trees are dead, bleached like silver, shining in the noon-day; rough Maori cattle graze the thin grass in this forlorn world, lifting their sullen heads and shaking their horns when they see us. “Tapu” they say.

All Whangaroa is full of the things remembered or half-forgotten. One old lady, Mrs. Sanderson, of the shells, (her collection is celebrated round about Auckland and the north, and many callers never think of visiting her without bringing her a new species of limpet, a green shell butterfly, an iridescent snail, or some papery beauty from the tropics), showed me a quaint treasure. Her late father knew that old Charles, Baron de Thierry whose career in New Zealand and elsewhere gave me material for a book. Charles, in his own papers, was always insisting upon himself as a musician—and in Mrs. Sanderson's Whangaroa house, which is seventy years old, if a day, I came across the visible proof of it—nothing less than the printed score of “The Waitemata Polka,” by Charles, Baron de Thierry. The Polka was played for me, then and there—and such a gay, sparkling little composition it seemed. So far as I know, there lies the one and only Baron de Thierry music sheet surviving in New Zealand. Waitemata should be quite proud of it, but I don't suppose Waitemata sets much store by the Polka, in these days of jazz ….

And I heard of how Nene used to walk the streets of Russell, buttoned up in a magnificent seal-skin coat, with cap to match, and with Ruti, his wife, padding along at his side. And the story of how a French sailor's ghost haunts that house in Russell where Bishop Pompallier lived, because one came in the night and slew the French sailor, in an attic room … and the story sounded likely enough, as ghost-stories go, being told by one who had had plaster thrown at him, and cuddled down terrified under the bedclothes, even if he hadn't actually set eyes on the ghost. But I also heard of the little old woman of Maori fairytales, who is like our version of the ogress, and of the she taniwha who follows along by the rear of the dead. And a white-moustached Whangaroa resident told me how down at the point where his cottage stood, all the land had been owned by a chief, so well-tattooed that one couldn't put a pinpoint between his markings; and this chief would sometimes go a-fishing with the white man, and always caught twice as many fish, because there was a Maori way of weighting the fish-hook which cleverly prevented the fish from wriggling free.

(Govt. Tourist photo.) A glimpse of Whangaroa Harbour, North Island, New Zealand.

(Govt. Tourist photo.)
A glimpse of Whangaroa Harbour, North Island, New Zealand.

And if I wanted ghosts in the vicinity (apart from those of William Hayes and Hugh McKinnon, the right ful owners of the two old carved totara tombstones), I had only to go to the end of my spur of land, when the moon was in the sky, and see the tapu tree, whose severed limb thrust out like a maimed hand. There were several legends about this tree. One was that it had been a gibbet for hanging white malefactors who needed that little disservice. But I got at the right story after some pains.

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The bough was used for holding and drying out the skulls of the dead, who were placed there until the time had come for oiling them and conveying them away to the caves. This confirms an account I had read in a pre-Waitangi manuscript of tapu groves round about North, where the corpse of a dead man would be placed in the trees until such time as he was considered fit for the further treatment of oiling, washing, and dressing in his fine raiment. A gruesome tree, I suppose; but stolid enough now, and the whole point a strangely lovely place, either at sunset, or when the moon lay across its thin grass and thin stems of manuka. The sunsets over the mangrove swamps are like a great flight of flamingoes, and all night long one can hear the popping of little olive-brown bubbles, swelling up out of the mud and exploding like miniature musketry. And besides these, the terns cry in the night, with such shrill fishwife voices, especially at the turn of the tide, that they wake you up. And then you can lie no longer in bed, but wander out, and see against the starry silver the huge black shape of something that might be a taniwha … but it turns out to be merely a grazing black horse. The last patch of light has died down in “That Sawdust,” and the shrill Maori laughter, turned in with a freight of guitar-music, no longer comes over the harbour. We all live by lamplight, and I know that the people on the other side of the water watch my lamp turn up and down, which is somehow a friendly idea.

And by the way; almost none of us have baths. I mean the true cabin-dwellers. If I wished to be free of paspalum, the sticky grass which ruins one's “longs” inside a week, and is a mortal enemy to canvas shoes, I had to go outside, and scrub at a tap under a tank. The show bath of the Whangaroa district belongs to a Maori convent a few miles away, down the road towards Kaeo. It's a new building on a hilltop, where young Maori girls are being trained as nuns and nurses, while below olive-cheeked Maori kiddies attend school, or pile by the score into some unseemly old motor-car, and squeal with delight as the thing belches and jerks forward. The soil around is thin, heartbreaking, devitalised. To make themselves patches of gardens where they can grow kail and a flower or two, the nuns carry up richer earth from down in the valleys. But miraculously their little chapel, with its quiet flame, has white branches of flowers around the altar.

But it is the cabin-folk who are Whangaroa. To talk about the Maori without sentimentalising him is a difficult business; but it is a wonder to me that some of the north-travellers, who harp on poverty, hunger and dirt, haven't even noticed the ease and the grace of these people. One can't visit such cabins without being offered a farewell gift, even if it is only a corn-cob or a Maori kit; and as corncobs and a broken fishing-net seem to constitute the total capital of many such little homes, perhaps that irregular generosity, not fitting into our economic schemes, has its value somewhere and somehow. It is a poor house but a gracious one.