The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 2 (May 1, 1939)
Canoeing in Wild Waters Up the Manganui-a-te-Ao
An Inland Voyage Ninety Years Ago
The high canoe chant of the canoe captains rang like war cries along the Wanganui in the misty morning of a July day in 1849, when Donald Maclean and Richard Taylor began this visitation cruise. “A fine grey dusky morning,” Mr. Maclean wrote in his diary, “packed, washed and started up the river at a quarter to eight. The banks on each side presented a grand picture of high cliffs, overhung with vegetation from dark brown to verdant green to the highest trees; and from the highest trees to the smallest shrubs, with overhanging plants on the most desirable exposures for their growth. In the foreground, at some of the bends, the sun pierced through the mist, and reflected on our splashing paddles, as each canoe in front pressed up against the force of the fresh, our own natives eagerly singing their shrill canoe songs, and happy with the prospect of arriving in good time at Hikurangi, a populous pa on the river. A little racing between the canoes enlivened them; and the females distinguished by their mild voices, even in the thick mist, where their bodies were concealed, gave the scene a romantic charm that is peculiar to New Zeland. The simplicity of the natives, and their kind attention and courteous treatment of travellers makes such journeys as this most agreeable.”
The Rev. Richard Taylor and his friend, the Government Agent and Land Purchase Commissioner, Donald Maclean, frequently joined forces in Wanganui River expeditions. On this occasion they were bound to a far-up tribe in a remote and wild country seldom visited. Maclean's Ms. notes tell the story: Some pigeon and other game were killed by the chief Kawana's son, who was in Kingi Hori's canoe, where the Union Jack was erected, and the greenstone mere, the emblem of chieftainship, was conspicuously placed in the chief's belt; that the pakehas might see that while he respected the Queen's emblem of sovereignty (the flag) by having it in his canoe, he did not neglect those of his own nation.
The first night was spent at the pretty kainga of Hikurangi. There more Maoris joined them for a great church assembly or hui which was to greet the missionary away up the Manganui-a-te-Ao, which Mr. Maclean wished to see.
“Leaving in the morning, we were much amused by the chattering set up by the ladies who were not accompanying their husbands to the hui. They collected on the bank below their pa, just above our canoe. Some of the men were apparently indifferent to what passed among the fair sex; but they were not insensible of the treasures they were leaving behind them, however much they might appear to neglect them when in their presence. Ladies, however agreeable their company in other parts of the world, are not permitted to join us in our canoe. The women, determined as usual, to have the ascendancy, had taken a canoe of their own, poled and paddled by themselves, a few old grey-headed men, and a tribe of young boys, who are always ready for any extraordinary service or exploit that may chance to cast up. A party of these young chiefs are squatted on the house-tops to watch our movements, as we sweep up against the stream.
The Merry Hearts.
“We reached Pipiriki at 2 p.m., after a pleasant pull, the weather proving more favourable than we had expected since we left the mouth of the Wanganui.
“What a cheerful, happy race the page 15 New Zealanders are! Their wants are easily supplied, and their cares comparatively few. Even if they have a large family of children, each inherits his land and property, and is independent, having, as increasing numbers may require, the hunting grounds and forests to fall back upon; and in this part of the colony, little fear of coming in contact with civilized men.
“An elderly native told me that rewha-rewha, that raging disease so destructive to the New Zealanders, prevailed when he was about five years old. He remembers the numbers that used to be buried indiscriminately in one hole; when the disease ravaged this populous part of New Zealand. This circumstance brings the date of the disease to a late period, later than I had officially noticed, by some ten years.
“We rest, to-night, at a house built for the Rev. Richard Taylor; which is comfortable and convenient, enabling us to enjoy our reading and writing, with the aid of a table; which cannot be found in tent-travelling, or, as yet, at the native villages.
“Thursday, 14th July, 1849.—A fine morning. Refreshed by sleep, but rather disturbed by dreams and premonitions during the night. How far they may be considered of any import, or not, I have not yet decided as fully as I should wish.
“Last night I got a knock on the forehead, above the left eye-brow, against the centre-pole that supported the house, having come to the kitchen to look for some firewood. It drew some blood, and this was observed by the natives in the morning. They seemed anxious about the consequences of this slight scar; and asked me if they would knock down the post, house, and all, as utu for the injury I sustained; or if, in accordance with their custom, I should claim the land; or if they should cleave posts and dig some land to designate where this accident befel me. All our canoe boys said this morning, ‘Let us have some utu for your injury; or let us show that it requires some notice.’ This is a custom among the natives, to claim the land where an accident befalls any of their chiefs, especially if blood is drawn on the spot.
At the Canoe-Head.
“We had a strong pull up the river; and about two o'clock in the afternoon entered the branch called the Manganui-a-te-Ao, where the rapids are very numerous and difficult to ascend. Our natives fought the rapids admirably; and as evening was setting in, we got to Te Arero, a fort on a high hill. The numerous canoes on the river, the white foam on the rapids; the industrious groups of men, women, and children, with dogs, pigs, and cats made up the motley crowd that were passing to Pehi's meeting; discussing religion, feasting, politics, land; and for all a little change and excitement.
“About 100 canoes are hauled up at this place. The owners are scattered in happy groups, like so many gipsies, around the pa. The landing of the canoes, the passing of natives in the shallows of the river, with their long poles over their shoulders, and happy greetings, though shivering at the time with cold, was a picture of great interest to us, who viewed them to great advantage in the deep glen where we were camped.
“We slept at Te Arero, where Pehi's lands commence, and where he is considered to be a large claimant of a country in which he is not likely to be disturbed during the present generation.
A Savage Bit of Country.
“Next day (Friday, 15th July, 1849), it rained very heavily. We started at 9 a.m. for Otaki, on the Manganui-a-te-Ao, where the hui is assembled; and crossed a most hilly, dangerous, slippery road, up hill and down dale. The mist was hanging thickly over the cliffs, leaving a beautiful mountain scene to burst unappreciated on the eye, as we scrambled over cliffs that looked so precipitous that you seemed about to fall head-long into a horrid abyss. We arrived at Otaki about 2 p.m. after travelling a distance of six or seven miles from Te Arero.
“It is quite a politic act for an Agent of Government to be present at such meetings, to hear what is discussed among the Maoris, and to correct the erroneous impressions that gain ground amongst them respecting the proceedings and intentions of the Government. Such feasts or assemblies as these, under the direction of old and influential chiefs, are productive of great good; as they engross the native mind with the subject, and prevent worse feelings from gaining ground. They are naturally a people fond of change and excitement, and something to occupy the mind should be encouraged.
Plenty of Kai.
“Saturday, 16th July.—The display of food provided by the natives for this meeting is very grand. There are 1,200 kits of kumara, large baskets of taro, papa or bark cases of birds cooked and preserved, including tui, kaka, kiwi, and there are also eels. The birds are boiled in their own fat, and covered over with it; they will keep thus for three years. Pigeon, weka, duck, and whio (blue mountain duck) are also included in the papa, which are decorated with the feathers of the birds they hold. They look very well. Pigs and potatoes are abundant. In apportioning page 16 the food, the natives observe great decorum. The name of the tribe, and the place of residence, or either, is called out, and the portion of food for it is struck with a stick; and so on, for the several tribes present, or absent, to the end of the line of food; or for such of the guests desired to partake of the food. Food is seldom named or called for the chief individually; as that would, according to their old customs, render it sacred; it could only be eaten by him.
“This country is the most broken and unavailable that can be met with. It is a perfect jungle thrown up in such confusion, as if man's occupation of it was never intended, at least civilized man's, whose superior ability for subduing a country to his use would be fruitless in a place like this. All the eye surveys is horrid steeps and cliffs, with slippery hills and braes. Climbing over precipices, while holding on by the roots of trees, some of these decayed, is not an agreeable occupation, with heavy winter rains, when every false step you take may send you to eternity.
Land of Avalanches.
“Glencoe is considered to be a wild part of the Highlands of Scotland; but the scenery is much wilder here than there. Within the last two hours, from eight to ten at night, we have had seven avalanches (or land slips) on the opposite side of the river. Instantaneous and awful are the operations of nature, and how obvious they are in a mountainous country. I fear these avalanches endanger the navigation of our river; for to-morrow, if we are spared, our own position, should such movements become more general, does not appear altogether safe; as we are situated on a high overhanging rock, well-placed for defence in time of war; but how insignificant does such a natural defence prove, when under the operation of mysterious workings. Thousands of people in New Zealand have fallen victims to sudden avalanches. Five hundred people were sunk in one night on an island on the coast.
“Next day again (June 19th) was wet and stormy, with strong freshet on the river. It is quite tempting Providence to start in such weather. I feel that I should have remained at Otaki till to-day to have done more good for the Government.”
Maclean noted this with a shiver no doubt. But the party all set out to run the rapids, and they reached the Wanganui safely, and had a comfortable passage for the rest of the voyage. For the journey Maclean, through the Missionary, paid £110/-, also eleven shirts and some tobacco to the crew.
“It is satisfactory,” he wrote, “to have completed a journey, and seen so many natives at a season of the year when such journeys cannot be undertaken without great trouble. The Manganui-o-te-Ao is a dangerous river, and we had a narrow escape in coming down its rapid streams and torrents, overflowing with a heavy freshet; and so steep on both sides, that a person could neither climb up, or save himself in any way from drowning, or perishing in the frozen streams, on which the sun seldom reflects at this season of the year. We, however, got through in safety; but I shall be more cautious in future how I come along such dangerous places.”
* * *
Another Cruise, Paddle and Pole.
That was one of many canoe voyages up the great Wanganui made by Mr. Maclean, in his capacity as Government Agent, often as peacemaker. Of a cruise up to Pukehika in August, 1850, he wrote:—
“At 10 a.m. we left the town in a canoe manned by fifteen good stout natives, to go up the river. Te Rauparaha's son, Tamihana, accompanied us, on his first visit up the river. He seemed greatly delighted with the liberal arrangements and large reserves made for the Whanganui natives; also with the idea that we now sold back land to the natives at a moderate price. It rained very much, but the natives are of such amphibious habits, that they paddled up in a most happy and cheering strain, all the way to Parikino; where Mr. Park (the surveyor) and myself, after dining, are comfortably quartered.
“The scene presented here resembles the Holy Fair. People from all places are flocked together, in their fanciful dresses. It is hard to guess how much the simple New Zealanders are animated by Christian zeal, in attending these meetings; but it is certain that in a political view, if an Agent of Government is present, that they are attended with great good; as the native feeling is so easily ascertained; and explanations rendered, of the intentions of Government, so frequently misapprehended by an extremely jealous race. There are several hundred persons of all ranks and ages, assembled here, intent on their religious duties, probably as much as an equal number of our own country people here; and certainly quite as intent as they would be in devouring the food prepared for them, and enjoying the gossip and scandal of the women and idlers of the party.”
This sage young officer of the Government made comment in his notes that when the natives of the wild, broken interior country of the Wanganui could afford to feed 1,400 people for three days together, and have tons of food to spare afterwards, “how well might our British country-people manage to live, even in the wildest parts of New Zealand, and be much better off than in their present starved condition in the Old Land.”