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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 10 (January 1, 1938.)

Up the Mokau — The Story of a Canoe Voyage

page 13

Up the Mokau
The Story of a Canoe Voyage

Four Days with Paddle and “Pole.

We made two starts from the punt-side landing-place at Mokau Heads before we finally got away on our long-projected canoe cruise to the head of navigable waters on that great bush stream. The first canoe we tried, after my pakeha companion and I arranged for two Maori mates and a waka for the inland voyage was dubiously low of freeboard when we had stowed our gear and ourselves aboard. The old man Taniora, grey and tattooed veteran of the Hauhau wars, who had come to see us off, looked it over and condemned it. “It won't do,” he said. “You'll be swamped at the first rapid.” Our mates Piko and Hauraki, too, had their doubts, after we had pushed off. So we put back, and Hauraki crossed to his own landing-place and returned with a more substantial and river-worthy craft. This was a new canoe, cut out of a rimu log the previous winter, thirty feet long and four feet beam amidships. Heavy yet, too new in fact. Really, as we discovered, it would have needed six paddles at least to get a move on her, or it. We worked our passage that cruise. But you could stand on her gunwale, almost, without capsizing her. That's the craft for the rapids of the Mokau.

We set out at last, four of us, with our blankets and camp gear and axe, a billy and a frying-pan, a stock of tea and sugar, bacon and sundry hard tack. Our point of departure was the spot where the Maoris gathered in 1869 when the Government steamer Luna, commanded by Captain Fairchild, stopped long enough off the Heads to fire some shells into the Hauhau villages. Old Taniora Wharauroa was there then. He saw us off with the cheerful prediction that we might safely climb every taheke—the rapids—if we were careful, until we came to the Panirau, but that at that notorious spot we would be sure to come to grief. “Haere ra!” he said, with a grin; “farewell; and I'll come down and catch you, maybe, as you go drifting past to sea!”

Piko, lean, muscular, black-bearded and saturnine of visage, had the bow-paddle; Hauraki, round-faced and big-bodied, happy and good-natured, squatted in the stern with his steering-paddle. (We found that Hauraki preferred steering because he could doze sometimes in the calm reaches, while we three paddled like warriors, Piko setting the pace. But when we came to a rapid Hauraki slumbered no more; he was a tower of strength.)

Above us on the left, where the road went up to Mokau's township was the tapu burial-hill Puke-Kiwi, where Wetere te Rerenga lay; he and his brother Te Rangituataka were the last of the great chiefs of Mokau. There was a price on Wetere's head until the amnesty of 1883, because of his share in the Pukearuhe or White Cliffs massacre. But he was a good Maori after his lights, and he made his people work. In Wetere's life-time the Ngati-Maniapoto resident here cultivated largely and industriously, and in the summer time the beach-side was covered with great stages of fish, drying in the sun. The Mokau mouth was a famous place for netting fish with the long flax-seine—the “Kupenga - a - Taramainuku” of Maori proverb and song. But as old Taniora put it: “The industrious days have gone, and so have the great chiefs who ruled their tribes well. We are but a remnant now, and I and all of us here are insignificant—we are but as the torori that grows in my garden yonder.”

On the beach we had seen the smoothly-polished rock, shaped like a dumbbell, that was reputed to have been the ancestral canoe Tainui's anchor. It was the stone to which the canoe was moored here; it was far too large and heavy, of course, to have been carried in the canoe. “It is our mauri [talisman],” said Hauraki; “it holds the fish here, otherwise they would desert this river-mouth. When I was young we never failed to take the first mullet or kahawai we caught when we were out fishing in our canoes and offer it with a prayer to the atua. the god who sent us the fish. We laid those offerings on the tapu sandbank, between the Stone of Power and the Heads, the holy place Te Naunau. But now no one makes offerings and first-fruits. We are like the pakeha; we don't trouble about the tapu now.”

But I fear Hauraki doth protest too much; for only an hour before we left the beach, when he showed me the enchanted log called “Te Kauri” (it is not a kauri but a totara), which lies there, the log which used to sail along the coast, between here and Kawhia, working wizardry as it went, he was careful to take the pipe out of his mouth and hold it behind his back as he approached, for fear of offending the tapu. And he would not touch the magic tree, but stood off and bade us mark that axe-cut in its side and beware, for the young man who made the cut in impious defiance of the tapu. died the very next day. His body was found here on the beach close to the vengeful tree!

(Photo. by R. J. Gowan.) Mokau Heads, looking south. Mt. Egmont in the distance, fifty miles away.

(Photo. by R. J. Gowan.) Mokau Heads, looking south. Mt. Egmont in the distance, fifty miles away.

Up with the Tide.

The first bend shuts off the heads, and we are well into the Mokau, the page 14 young flood-tide helping us along, for the river is tidal for some miles, until the first swift runs are met. The river winds in generous curves round woody hills. We open up long, calm reaches as we dig in our sharpbladed manuka paddles and send our dug-out swirling along the quiet river. The water is brown, just the hue for a perfect mirror. Ranges green and ranges blue rise above the river, all forested to the skyline. Soon the timber grows tall. Rata, rimu, and kahikatea trees, tawhero and tawa, crowd to the river bank; their forks are hung with bunchy astelias and the flax-like leaves of the kiekie. A deserted clearing, an old Maori settlement, here and there, a little break in the woods. The river is amazingly sinuous, a succession of S's; I don't know of a more crooked waterway. But the curves and loops add to the charm of the voyage, though they give us more work—and every bend and reach holds a new beauty.

Here is a silent Maori cultivation and village-site, the old kainga of Oika, gone back to the wilds, overgrown with a thicket of young forest and ferns. Let the traveller come here and see the fern trees, the feathery canopy of the ponga and the korau or mamaku, upheld by lofty, slender pillars, each as graceful as the trunk of a tropical coco-palm. Just round Oika, and we paddle up a long glimmer-glass, walled on either side by a soft wall of foliage that dips in the water, concealing every vestige of earth and rock and swelling up in fold after fold of blue-green forest. Every tree, every fern-frond, is painted on the glassy floor. This indeed is the wai-whakaata. the “looking-glass water” of Maori song. There is a frequent whirr of wings in the air, and the deep flute notes and the liquid chuckles of the Iui come in echoing melody from the deeps of the bush.

The Perfect Paddle.

The heaviness of our waka Maori sets us longing for the Canadian cedar or the Indian birchbark, though I know that nothing but a solid dug-out like ours would survive the Mokau snags. The steady dip of our four paddles goes on mile after mile. Harder work than rowing this, for all the strain comes on the shoulders and arms; there is no leg-work to help, as with an oar. The shoulders and back, in place of rowlocks, are the fulcrum. But there is the advantage that we face ahead and can see where we are going; and there is something in the very feel of a paddle that makes the toil a pleasure. A well-made Maori hoe is a beautiful thing. Mine is perfectly balanced, with just the right crook of the handle and the right—very slight—degree of elasticity in the blade. It is a wide-bladed paddle of hill-manuka, with the markings and veinings in its grain that the Maoris call pipi-wharauroa, because they remind them of the plumage of the shining cuckoo.

Little stories of old Maori days came from Piko and Hauraki, as we worked leisurely along. Often enquiry as to a place-name brought out some war-tale, some incident of the cannibal or the missionary era, sometimes a song or a local proverbial expression. At the nightly camp-fire such stories were amplified, and many a chant and many a poetic or barbaric tradition was noted down from the lips of men whose lives from childhood had been passed on the river and in the wild woods.

The Tainui mooring-stone, Mokau Heads. (This sacred relic has been removed to the tribal burial-place at Maniaroa, north of the Heads.)

The Tainui mooring-stone, Mokau Heads. (This sacred relic has been removed to the tribal burial-place at Maniaroa, north of the Heads.)

A deserted sawmill fifteen miles from Mokau township was our camping-place for the first night. Our long canoe swung to the sucking current at the landing-place. The morepork called to us, all night long, as was fitting considering the name of this lonely spot—Puke-ruru, which means “The Hill of the Bush-owl.”

Early Hours on the River.

Up in the morning early, we are aboard again and under way, after a billy of hot tea and a meal of bacon and ship-biscuit and fried bread, before the sun has topped the eastern ranges. A long ribbony swathe of fog rising above the tree-tops marks the course of the curving river flowing so silently between its dark palisades of pines. The dip of our paddles, the low chant of Piko in the bows, and the occasional chink-chuk-choo of the tui in the bush, are the only sounds. Round a sharp bend, and wild ducks scutter up from our bows, with alarmed quacking and clacking. Ahead a high range is catching the sun through the haze, and the veil of morning makes it a mountain of faerie enchantment fit home for the Turehu and the Patu-paiarehe. the children of the mist. This morning paddle is a joy. The air is just cool enough, for the sun has not yet reached the water, although every hillside is lit by its rays, and every tree and every fern have their own colour values in the pearly light. The birds are out; pigeon and kaka and tui fly over our heads in search of their favourite breakfast trees.

The Little Unwanteds.

At about twenty miles the current becomes perceptibly swifter and the scenery increases in beauty, for the hills begin to close in, forested everywhere, and the river promises to become a gorge. Piko points with his paddle to two knob-like fern-covered rocks, jutting out from the trees on the cliffy southern bank, and says, “See, those are the Children of Tumaro.” The Maori legend is that more than a century ago a canoe-party of Ngati-Maniapoto men, paddling down the river, found two newly-born infants, twins, a boy and girl, lying exposed at the riverside beneath the rocks. They had been deserted—twins are unlucky, triplets a curse, in Maori belief—and as their parents could not be found, the chief of the party, a man named Tumaro, adopted them as his own and gave them the names of Te Kaka and Hineuru. Hence are these rocks called Ngamahanga-a-Tumaro (“The Twins of Tumaro”).

A Pakeha-Maori Story.

The sawmill down the river and a little coal-mine twenty miles from the Heads were the only breaks in the forest. The coal mine settlement on a shelf of land at Wai-ngarongaro (“Hidden Creek”) was a sylvan place all among its ferns and rata trees. Small steamers used to come up here and load at the staiths that were overhung by tropic-looking korau ferntrees. But the rapids made the upper parts of the river out of navigation bounds for them.

Unusual characters, original types we shall not see again, one met in these semi-primitive corners of New Zealand. At the little coal-mine camp I came across a man of whom I had heard some strange stories. He was an old bushman, with bowed back, deep-sunken furtive eyes and overhanging bushy brows. He had lived for forty years with the Maoris, ever since he deserted from the Colonial forces in the war-time (1865) and took to the page 15 blanket with a native wife. Like that other renegade I knew, Kimble Bent, who ran away from a British regiment after a flogging for offences against discipline, his place in Maoridom was that of a slave; the chief Wetere made him his taurekareka or servant. His name was David Cockburn. The Maoris called him “Rewi” (Davy). He told me something of his bush life. This now lonely waterway was lively enough in his day. He came up the Mokau once with a flotilla of five war-canoes, packed with Maoris of the Ngati-Tama tribe from south of the Mokau, bound for King Tawhiao's great camp at Tokangamutu, where the town of Te Kuiti now stands. The largest of the great carved canoes held forty or fifty men each. Those waka crews cut out the pace with paddle and pole; they went right up from Mokau Heads to Totoro, the head of canoe navigation, in one day. Good going that; forty-five miles and nearly two score rapids to climb. It took us four days of hard work.

The old pakeha-Maori died a few years after I met him, and he was laid beside his chief Wetere on Pukekiwi, that woody hill above the Mokau landing. In death, as in life, he was Wetere's attendant. But when the Maoris removed their chief's bones to the tribal cemetery at Maniaroa they did not trouble to shift the taurekareka Davy's. It wasn't worth while.

The Rapids.

Up to the time of our cruise no boat of pakeha construction had ever floated above this place; from here to the river head all was rough and wild. The river now ran very swiftly over its snaggy bed, in a narrowed channel, and our arms began to ache, for it was well into the afternoon, as we edged the canoe up foot by foot. The first rapid was but a small taheke. We were soon up to the formidable Mangapohue. It was a down-curve of water ending in a line of foam where fallen trees obstruct its swift run. The river here was jammed and dammed with snags, and our canoe, borne back, nearly capsized on a slippery log and sent a wash of cold spray over us. But big Hauraki in the stern with a quick heave of his pole righted the waka. and with a long push all together she was soon on the crest of the little fall of bottle-green water.

“Puritia!” (“Hold her!”) cries Piko in the bow, and as he releases his pole Hauraki holds her firmly with his until Piko gets another long heave on. We are up in a few moments, and in smooth water, and poles are laid inboard and paddles come out again.

The trees overhang us here; we can touch them with our upraised paddles. At our next big rapid the water is too deep to pole, so we keep close in to the southern bank, where the clear-green current swirls past the base of a perpendicular cliff, where enormous old rata trees stand, their branches thick with mosses and lichens and bearded with hanging epiphytes. We lay down our paddles and haul our canoe along by gripping the low branches and digging our fingers into the crevices of the rocky wall, and clutching the kiekie that grew tenaciously just above the water level. The river in mid-channel foamed with tremendous fuss and froth over its cheveaux-de-frise of fallen trees, but here under the bank it is fairly smooth, though running very swiftly.

“Poaka, Poaka!”

We were paddling up a long smooth reach between two rapids, when we saw two black objects on the surface of the stream ahead of us. These were an old boar and his consort swimming across the river. The boar landed first, and, though we were close up, he turned and stood there champing his jaws and grunting defiantly at us until the sow scrambled safely up the bank. Then the loving couple turned and dived into the depths of the bush.

“You chivalrous old hog!” said my pakeha mate.

“Good feller that poaka for his missus,” said Piko.

But our pig-dog—no Maori travels without a hunting dog on such an expedition—if he heard these compliments, disregarded them. He ripped out a fearful howl, and flew overboard, swam ashore and bounded into the bush after the Captain Cooks. The futile chase led him up on to a mountain-top. We had to draw into the bank and patiently await his return.

(Photo. by W. E. Spencer.)On the Lower Mokau: the home of the fern-tree.“Other roads do some violence to Nature, and bring the traveller to stare at her, but the river steals into the scenery it traverses without intrusion, silently creating and adorning it, and is as free to come and go as the zephyr.” —Henry Thoreau (“A Week on the Concord and Merrimac”).

(Photo. by W. E. Spencer.)On the Lower Mokau: the home of the fern-tree.“Other roads do some violence to Nature, and bring the traveller to stare at her, but the river steals into the scenery it traverses without intrusion, silently creating and adorning it, and is as free to come and go as the zephyr.”Henry Thoreau (“A Week on the Concord and Merrimac”).

Waterfalls and Coal Cliffs.

Now we passed black, glistening walls of solid coal; dripping with water from the runlets above, and overhung with ferns and mosses and long weepers of flax-like habit. On both sides of the Mokau, these great seams occur, bisected by the river. There are huge coal measures, in this part of the Mokau; their extent is only imperfectly known as yet. A waterfall tumbled over a mossy cliff into the river. It was on the northern bank, and its spray sprinkled us as we paddled past; a panel of flashing white, set in a framing of dripping fern-trees. Its name, Hauraki said, was Te Mimi-a-Maroa; it preserved the memory of a chieftainess of long ago. One gathered that the lady so complimented must have been somewhat of a giantess; the waterfall was sixty or seventy feet high, we judged.

The Glory of Kahurangi.

That afternoon, after mounting a difficult rapid, poles were laid inboard, and with our four paddles going again, we swept into a long and lovely straight vista of deep water, the reach called by the natives Kahurangi. The beauty of the place calls forth expressions of admiration from even our dour boatman Piko. Indeed, the Maoris of old admired it, when they gave it this name, for the word signifies perfection, flawlessness; it is the term used to describe the most treasured (Continued on page 49)

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