The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 10 (January 2, 1939)
A Tapu Isle of Birds — Hauturu And Its Inhabitants — Old Maori Memories
[All Rights Reserved.]
“If I might be a sea-dove, I'd fly across the main
To the pleasant Isle of Aves, to look at it once again.”
It was in the grey-and-rose dawn that our little Nautilus lay-to off the Island one summer morning of long ago, and we pulled over the long ground-swell in the dinghy and watched our chance between the seas to jump ashore on the rugged boulder bank, where rocks rolled and crunched upon each other with every in-send of the surf. But even before we dropped into the dinghy we heard the birds, above the growling noises of the coast. The tui and the bell-bird were chanting away at morning song—I suppose hundreds of them—in the pohutukawa trees and the manuka thickets that fringed the shore.
The sun had not yet shown himself over the sea-rim; a long blanket of mist swathed the mountain tops, and the air was raw and damp; but every bird in the Maori groves was piping and gurgling and bell-ringing. They were all around us when we landed, fluttering and hopping about the branches, some of them sucking the honey from the flowers, hanging to the twigs—often upside down—others seeming to give all their energies to the morning's music. It was an entrancing hour—a dawntime pleasure that I have recaptured in part many times since, but only once in such overwhelming measure, and that was in a deep valley among the forest ranges of the Urewera Country. What pen can reproduce the enchantment of such moments? Sometimes a New Zealand poet comes near it, as in Satchell's rime of a bell-bird's song:
“Oh, hush! Oh, hear! A goblin chime;
The dew-drop trembles on the branch;
A solo sweet, a scattered rhyme,
A golden avalanche.”
Sometimes a musician attempts to reproduce it. But what flute, what pipe, what human voice can faithfully give us even those three deep, rich, dropping notes of the tui, “the essence of pure sound,” that the Northern Maoris interpret as “Pa-re-ro”?
But here we are under the Christmas-trees of Hauturu Island, otherwise the Little Barrier, high-peaked, densely-timbered, walled with dark cliffs of volcanic rock, dissected by gorges and gullies, with high steep ridges rising between like green-garmented ribs. Here, fifteen miles from the mainland, moated by the ocean, harbourless, bayless, wooded as it was a thousand years ago, fog-draped, surf-washed—here is the most secure of all New Zealand's many island homes set apart as national refuge-places for the native birds. It is, one is free to fancy, the Garden of Eden all over again, without the Serpent—at any rate, an Eden for the Maori birds, and in particular for those members of the bush bird-family that are too quickly disappearing from the mainland before the direct attacks of animal pests and the indirect, but even more deadly, destroying march of the settler and the bushfeller.
You can see from the Auckland hills the faint blue summit of Hauturu, like a serrated whaleback, the loftiest island in the waters of the Hauraki; it looks a place of faerydom from afar, a shadow of an island. Nearer, it looms blue-black of colour, even grim of contour; it looks a palisaded hold, this bold steep-to isle, and it is fortunate for the birds that it is so rough and forbidding of approach. You find it different when you land, but—supposing you have official sanction to visit it—the difficulty is to make that landing. We were weather-bound in Little Omaha Cove for two days before a favourable slant and comparatively smooth seas gave us the chance that morning, wn Eden of birds; though there is no serpent, it is not without its curses—the pakeha rat and the wild cat—and, I suppose there were such prowling creatures even in Paradise. Isle of Aves—yes, and pleasanter even than the Last Buccaneer's beside the Spanish Main, for those tropic birds may be gorgeous of plumage, but they are unmusical, croaking things by comparison with our sober-coated tui and bellbird, and the little riroriro of Alan Mulgan's praise, the grey warbler, whose plaintive yet cheery trill always seems only half-finished—
“So much of beauty all around,
But none more dear
Than this small hidden bird's sweet sound,
Following the changing pageant of the year
With daily note, half joy and half regret.”
The Home of Ngati-Wai.
There were more than birds to interest one on Hauturu in those days. There was the Maori life, soon to vanish for ever from this isle of beauty and legend. It was in 1895, and a little Maori hapu, the Ngati-Wai, still lived on the island. My old coastwise-sailor acquaintance, Tenetahi, and his wife, Rahui te Kiri—as good a sailorman as himself—were the principal people of the few families who composed the owning hapu. We visited them in their homes, where the Government custodian now has his house on the flat at the foot of the forested hills. This place was renowned for its sweet potatoes, which grew to perfection in the good warm soil formed by the decomposition of the volcanic rocks. Around the whares were those kumara gardens, the maize and tobacco plots, and the peach trees. The cultivation patches were fenced in with manuka; the pig-proof fences were crossed by rustic stiles.
There, under the peach-trees, I talked with a wonderful ancient relic of the cannibal days, the venerable warrior Paratene te Manu, grim, black-tattooed, spear-scarred. His life-story would have filled a book. His memory went back to the days of Hongi; in his youth he had voyaged in Ngapuhi war-canoes many times along the coast, even as far away as the Mahia Peninsula, shooting and tomahawking and eating “long-pig.” He was a youthful musketeer in Hongi's army that conquered the Tamaki isthmus and all the Hauraki shores in the early Eighteen-twenties. Later he followed Hongi's warrior lieutenant and successor, Te Wera, in many a raid.
The ancient man—he must have been over ninety years of age, he said he was a hundred—was not happy at the prospect of exile from his island home. He had to leave a few months after my visit, for the Government was clearing everything out but the birds—the Ngati-Wai had sold the island to the Crown—but I have always thought it was a pity he could not have been left there to finish his days, among his peaches and his kumara, the tui and the bell-bird.
Our small steam-yacht, the Nautilus, on the trip to the Island in 1895, took officials from Auckland to serve summonses to shift on the die-hards who had repented them of the bargain forced on them by the Government. The venerable Paratene was found sunning himself in front of his wharé. The bent, tattooed old fellow regarded his summons with great aversion. He would not touch it, so it was laid on the ground at his feet, after the Crown Native interpreter had translated it, and he picked up a manuka stake and war-danced feebly around the objectionable blue paper, making jabs at it as if he were spearing a foe. “Go to your Court!” he cried. “I won't go to your Court! This is my island, and I'll never leave it. I shall die on my island!” Then he threw down his stick, having sufficiently exhibited his defiance, and, with a change of tone, made request “Ho mai te tupeka.” He got his tobacco, squatted down at his door, lit up and was happy.
The poor old boy couldn't do the birds much harm; indeed it was not the Maoris who slaughtered the rare species on Hauturu, but mercenary pakehas, who were paid for the work by collectors who called themselves scientists. At least half the interest of the island lay in its Maori life. However, evicted Paratene was; he died at Whangaruru, on the mainland, a few months later. Tenetahi, too, and his wife Rahui te Kiri, were cleared off, and I have always thought that the manner of their clearance was not altogether fair, and that the question of compensation should have been readjusted. Tenetahi was a sailor and a scow-owner, a real old sea-dog. Well, I remember his round, merry face and his rolling walk—and his sturdy wife, too; Rahui was a first-rate sailorman herself. The pair of them, with a tattooed old Maori seaman named Te Maré, and a brace of boys ran their centreboard schooner, the Ida, carrying kauri logs in to the Auckland mills.
All Alone on Hauturu.
There was a succession of Government custodians, and the Tourist Dept. took over the charge of the sanctuary. Once there was a pitiful tragedy. A friend of mine, in the Tourist Department of those days, Robert Hunter-Blair, and his newly-made wife were the only people on the island. The husband was taken ill and died in a few hours. The young widow, a frail Scottish lass, waited vainly for assistance, then she contrived heroically to give her dead burial alongside the house, and remained in her solitude for some days until the Government steamer chanced to call on her round of lighthouses and State sanctuaries. It was as in the old Scots ballad, “He Slew My Knight”:
I sewed his sheet, making my mane;
I watched the corpse, myself alane;
I watched his body night and day;
No living creature came that way.
I took his body on my back,
And whiles I gaed and whiles I sat;
I digged a grave and laid him in,
And happ'd him with the sod sae green.
On Kapiti Island, too, a one-time custodian, J. L. Bennett, is buried. He lies beside his wife in a beautiful nook on the eastern shore. The bell-bird and the tui that they loved make music all day long over their sleeping heads.
“When Men Were Stones.”
The story of Hauturu (the name means a fair and steady wind) in Maori tradition goes back several centuries, and many a time it was a rendezvous for war-canoes in the days when every Maori tribe's hand was against its neighbours. For generations it was the home and refuge place of the Ngati-Wai, who—as was solemnly sworn to by the ancient Paratene te Manu in the Native Land Court in Auckland in 1886—had occupied the island from a period “when men were stones.” The Judge dryly remarked of this legendary era that it was “a period unknown to the Court and to modern science”; nevertheless, Ngati-Wai were awarded possession of the island as against the other claimants, the Ngati-Whatua tribe of the mainland. Our present-day landing-place was not safe for canoes, but on the western side of the flat there is a cut in the boulder bank where a passage was made to haul the long war-craft up safely beyond reach of the surf. Pomare, the Bay of Islands chief, whose pa at Otuihu was destroyed by British troops in 1845, once occupied Hauturu; and in the early days of colonisation he seems to have offered the place to an Auckland man, in return for a schooner. But he reckoned without his Ngati-Wai, the tangata-whenua, who decidedly objected to parting with their ancient home. It was a strange, solitary spot that surf-girt home, yet Ngati-Wai loved it as the Western Highlander loved his lone shieling on the misty island.
Later came the pakeha coastwise smuggler, who found the unfrequented part of the south-west corner of Hauturu, despite the awkward landing, a convenient and safe hiding place for un-Customed liquor and tobacco.
The Bush and the Birds.
Hauturu is just a deeply cut-up mountain range, five and a-half miles long and between. three and four miles in width—a trifle smaller than famous Norfolk Island, but infinitely more broken. Away in there towards the craggy island-top, well-named Herekohu, the peak to which the fog clings closely, are the secure haunts of the shyest and most rare of birds, the hihi, tihe, or tiora, called by pakehas the stitch-bird, and the tieke or saddleback. Kiwi, too, are in there; but they often come down near the home of man these halcyon times.
There is a great contrast between this island and Kapiti. Hauturu is primeval, unspoiled. Kapiti is a once half-ruined place, only just rescued in time; and splendidly regenerated by the Lands Department and its excellent custodians.
All about the flat at the landing-place, and all around the coast, the grand old Christmas-tree grows, and every tree is a scene of joyous bird-life at this time of the year. There is a place around the coast, Pohutukawa Flat, a terrace several miles from the homestead; there the forest creatures have a honeyed paradise when the trees put out their oriflammes of blossom. Quite fifty birds, chiefly tui and korimako, have been counted on a single pohutukawa tree—fluttering from branch to branch, thrusting their beaks into the flowers for the honey, chattering and chanting bursts of song, the tui for sheer mischief teasing and chasing the bellbird, and being itself chased by the kaka parrot, uttering its harsh, high cry. The little parrakeet, or kakariki—two varieties, the red-fronted and the orange-fronted—flits about the honey tree.
Here, too, in the seaward groves, that far-travelling migrant, the pipiwharauroa, or shining cuckoo, comes to rest in the spring of the year, after its long flight from the tropics, and the ear is rejoiced with its high, clear notes—which the Maori interprets as “Ku-i, Ku-i, whiti-whiti ora, tio-o.” You hear it close to the towns, as well as in the heart of the Maori wilds. I have heard its sweet, shrill whistle alike in remote sanctuaries and in such places as the bluegum plantation alongside the Rotorua railway station.
There is plenty of room for exploration about the flat, with its curious boulder bank thrown up by ages of sea-pounding, and on the hills that rise steeply from the old garden-levels. Up in the mountains that rise into peaks of from 2,000 to 2,400 feet, and along the precipitous coast of this 7,000 acre island—where most of the acres stand on end—it is scrambling, rather than foot-climbing. The island is all sharp ridge and deep gorge, and looking down into the shadowy depths of some of those gulches where the big rata and tawa and kauri in whole groves grow on incredible slants, you wonder how you are going to reach the other side, and wish for some kind of flying machine.
High up on the mountain ridges three kinds of petrels, or mutton-birds, the taiko, titi, and oii of the Maoris, have their nesting places in the earth and under the roots of the big trees. The late Hugh Boscawen (of the Lands and Survey Department in Auckland), who did a lot of exploration on Hauturu, used to say of the mutton-bird that “it tastes something like the smell of a blown-out oil lamp.”
One of the natural-history treasures of the place is the tuatara lizard, which, as on the other off-shore islands, lives in the mutton-birds’ burrows. Another is the pupurangi, the large land snail; I £ und a shell of unusual size on the hills just above the old wharé. There is a remarkable shrub, seldom found on the mainland, the parapara (Pisonia Brunonia), which entraps not only myriads of insects but sometimes small birds, by means of a glutinous fluid similar to bird-lime, which exudes from the flowers and leaves.
Sweets for the Singers.
The late Robert Nelson, Government Custodian of the Island for many years, gave some very pleasant word-pictures of the bird life in his reports. It is very much the same to-day under Mr. Hargreaves, the Custodian for the Tourist Department. Here is a June scene at the kitchen door, as described by Mr. Nelson:
“It is not unusual to see thirty or forty tuis and bellbirds waiting when the door is opened in the early morning, and as many sitting on the trees near at hand. Mrs. Nelson gives them the house scraps and left-over porridge page 20 page 21 and milk, of which they are very fond. It is amusing to see them flying after her and gathering around her as she empties the food in the dishes. They are very tame; they even land on our shoulders, and a few come into the kitchen, and on to the table, while we are at our meals. Some of them stay about the house the whole day, while others fly into the bush, but are here again the following morning. They sit around the rim of the dishes, under the trees, feeding all together. They like sugar in their porridge.”
When the morning milk was drained from the buckets into a can, the bell-birds were all around. They sat along the rim of the can, trying to drink the milk as it flowed in.
There, too, is the kaka parrot. When food is laid out, he gets the biggest share. He gets away with the crusts of bread, and he often hangs around the kitchen door when it is quite dark, or whiles away his waiting time by walking noisily about on the roof.
What a picture, in the season of ripe fruit, a hundred tui and korimako in a peach tree, singing their loudest and sweetest as they daintily and leisurely enjoyed their meals. They seemed always to have plenty of time for song.
In midsummer, as in the breeding season, the bush everywhere is ringing with the songs of the various species. “Their charming melodies are delightful to hear,” was a typical item in the monthly reports. “An hour in the bush, sitting listening to the birds, is worth far more than the finest concert in the city.”
And, per contra, a note on the pakeha-bird interlopers: “I am glad the imported birds are decreasing. Long may they stay off the island; they are a great pest.” Rats, too, are a curse to the bird-island; they have become too cunning to take the poison laid for them. Wild cats are more easily dealt with. The custodian shot many of them.
In March, when the peaches and figs in the garden are ripe, all the birds, Maori and pakeha congregate in the trees. A Nelsonian diary picture: “The starlings and blackbirds are taking the lion's share of the figs. They are not easily destroyed; they are too much awake, and discern danger all the time they are on the trees. By hiding in the centre of a bush near the fig-trees, I have been able to shoot fifteen in two days. The tui and bellbirds are all busy feeding on the figs, singing and screaming and chasing each other, when all at once quietness reigns. A blackbird makes its appearance and commands the whole tree. The report of the gun and the fallen dead bird do not seem to trouble or frighten the native birds, for in a few seconds the feasting and singing recommence.”
One season Mr. Nelson made a large scarecrow, which drove the foreign birds away. The Maori birds, of course, knew it wasn't meant for them.
The birds would very soon have taken all the grapes one year, when there was a very large crop on the vines, but the custodian's wife saved some for the household and for the winter supply of jelly by filling two cake-tins with the previous season's jelly and some fruit pulp, and setting it out on the paths. In a few minutes there were scores of birds jostling each other around the tins and feeding joyously. The news of the glorious kaikai seemed to have been broadcasted through the bush, for next day there were far greater numbers there, and before a week was out it looked as if every tui and every korimako on the island were gathered there for the feast. The moment one flew away its place was taken by another. Then the tui chased the bellbirds away, and the little fellows came dancing around, waiting an opportunity to get a place on the dish-rims; and there was a kind of queue sitting on the branches of a near-by apple-tree, waiting till the first table had finished.
The native robin, the toutouwai, is a tiny habitant of the bush that shows a pretty confidence in its human protector. It comes up quite close, and, like the fantail, will hop on to a stick if you hold it out. The garden-digger it regards as its benevolent friend, turning up worms for it, and by way of thanks-giving for its meal and its mate's, it rewards the spade-man with song.
White Kiwi, and the “Pinto.”
That rara avis, a white kiwi, came into the Hauturu story every once and again. The custodian “got a good look at it by the light of the full moon,” one night and several times afterwards. It seemed a kind of spirit bird, a forest ghost of the night. The Maoris would have tapu'd it thrice over. It is an albino bird caught in the Taupo country and taken to the island. Native folklore of the Tongariro-Taupo district invests white birds, whether tui or pigeon or kiwi, with an aura of sanctity, infringement of which brings dread penalties. “Should a man kill a white bird in these woods,” an old warrior of Ngati-Tuwharetoa told me, “he would be punished by the fairy gods of the mountains and the forests. Te Ririo, the atua of the mountains, would come for him and drag him into the wild lands, and if he survived to reach his home and people again, he would be demented, talking a strange tongue.”
This lone albino of Hauturu struck up acquaintance early with the brown kiwis. At any rate, one day Mr. Nelson, when travelling up a gully, saw a young vari-coloured kiwi; its head feathers were white, its back and breast brown, like the North Island species, its legs light yellow, and the hinder parts white. “It looked pretty,” he wrote in his report. And in the following year he reported again that the al-
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