The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June 1, 1939)
Pictures from Lakeland — Roto-A-Ira
Between green graceful Pihanga and the scarred and massive buttresses of Mount Tongariro lies Roto-a-Ira, Iridescent Water, a great flat shining jewel cupped in the bowl of the broken hills.
You skirt its tranquil bays as you pass by on the main highway from Lake Taupo to the Chateau and National Park. Its shores are belted by white sand and lichened boulders, by manuka thickets and rose and crimson snowberries, by levels starred with strange alpine flowers and coloured with the golden tussock of the upland country.
Four mountains keep sentinel over Roto-a-Ira. To the south rise the three Great Ones, rugged Tongariro, and the grim scarred cone of the holy mountain Ngauruhoe; Raupehu lifting shining silver battlements nine thousand feet into the blue of the mountain skies. North of the lake shores stands proud shapely Pihanga.
Many, many years ago, long before the coming of the white man … so the Maori will tell you … there were five mountains round about Roto-a-Ira. The fifth surpassed them all in beauty; he was Taranaki, that perfect cone which we to-day call Egmont. Over the fair green lady Pihanga, Taranaki and Tongariro fought, and Taranaki was forced to flee from his ancient seat. His path drew the deep furrow where the Wanganui river now runs, and from the mouth of the Wanganui he fled up the coast, knee-deep in the Tasman, until he reached the spot where he stands to-day, lonely and beautiful in his banishment, above the rich greenlands of Taranaki.
But Pihanga, like a true woman, was pleased to accept the attentions of the victor, and Tongariro wrapped her in soft arms of cloud as the sign of his love. Even to-day, when the south wind blows the long streamers of vapour from Tongariro's warm springs down upon the lake and the green foot of Pihanga, the Maori says … “See! The Great Ones send greeting as in days of old!”
Roto-a-Ira is a strange spot, aloof, wrapped in a web of legend and mystery, a last citadel of the old, old days when the gods walked the earth as men. Its still blue reaches where the silverbellied strong-jawed mountain fish leap are not for the pakeha angler with his feathery flies, and slender cane rods, and singing reels of silk. He may covet them, but they are forbidden him. The lake, and the gem-like waters of Roto-Pounamu lying beyond, are a Maori fishing reserve.
One of the strangest creatures in the world makes its home in the waters of Roto-a-Ira. It is the koaro, or blind fish. It appears in the lake at certain seasons, blind, its eyes covered by a film which gradually disappears. The Maori believes that this curious creature travels through subterranean channels from the deep cold crater lakes of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, where it breeds.
The villages of Otukou and Poutu, lying near the lake, are very old, they go back, almost, to the very dawn of Maori history. Under the shadow of the mountains, you may yet see that blasted region Te Rangi Po, the Place of Heaven's Curse, where the sacred fire of Ngauruhoe fell upon the old, old battlefield which the pakeha to-day calls the Gobi Desert.
Poutu was the scene of Tamatea's resting place, after his portage from the head-waters of the Wanganui River. The tale of this famous journey of Tamatea's is a great saga, fit to be sung by the camp-fires of many a generation of Maori to come.
Tamatea was captain of the great Taki-timu canoe upon its journey from Hawaiki. He was a man driven by the fire of the explorer; he could never be still; he must for ever be seeking roads by which no man had travelled. From the mouth of the Wanganui he began his journey, passing up that great waterway beyond the reaches known to the canoemen of the river settlements, plunging into dark gorges and canyons, braving rocks and whirlpools, and the great taniwha which haunt the lonely river caverns. Three stretches of rapids, boiling down in snowy turmoil over a rock-hewn staircase, Tamatea and his men surmounted by a terrific overland portage. At last, upon the third level, the grand sight of the rolling mountain plains belted with golden tussock and bush gorges, sweeping up in dignity to the three purple peaks capped and crowned with sunlit snow, broke upon Tamatea's gaze.
The river was small now; its bed narrow and rocky, plunging through boulder-strewn purple defiles. The food was failing, and the little band of adventurers must press on, for they could not turn back. Overland, foot by foot, they dragged their unwiedly vessel toward the waters of Taupo that glimmered like a mirage so many miles away. On they struggled through the bleak inhospitable mountain country, weak, starving, their feet bleeding from the stones, and their shoulders from the chafing ropes. Surely it must have seemed like a miracle to that small page 55 desperate band to come upon the shining waters of Roto-a-Ira, the white shores and the green cultivations, and the kindness of the hospitable people of Poutu.
Here Tamatea and his men rested, and then pursued their journey by the Poutu river, which is the spillway on the eastern shore where the waters of Roto-a-Ira find outlet to the lower levels of Taupo Lake.
Only a few miles farther on, the Poutu joins the snow-fed waters of the Tongariro, flowing ice-cold from the mountains, and chants of gratitude must have arisen from Tamatea and his canoe-men as their vessel glided swiftly upon the jade-green current toward the shining sea of Taupo.
The village of Otukou is famous, in late days, as the scene of Te Kooti's last fight. Fit setting it was, under the shadow of the mountains, for farewell engagement of the grim old rebel.
There is a tale, too, and a rather dreadful one, of a band of cannibal highwaymen who were wont to lurk in a cave overlooking the foot-track from Otukou to Taupo. Their habit was to spring out upon solitary wayfarers, and club them to death, and drag the bodies into the cave to prepare for their horrid feastings.
It seems strange, passing through these old grim storied lands to come upon Chateau Tongariro, set like a white jewel against the blue shoulder of snowy-crowned Ruapehu. Here, four thousand feet above sea-level, in the barbarically-beautiful setting of this upland country of jade and silver lake waters, of snow and tussock and mighty mountains, you may enjoy all the amenities of modern civilised life. Here is central heating, electricity, telephones, hot and cold running water, facilities to enjoy every sport from golf to deerstalking. Here you may dine to the music of a Continental orchestra, and dance upon a modern ballroom floor while the mountains gleam beyond the windows in cold white splendour in the starlight.
Here, when the snow lies upon the ground, the scene takes on the fantastic beauty of a Swiss setting. The crisp blue shadows cross the white levels, the trees bear a brilliant frosting; up the blue snow tracks to the ski-ing grounds go a procession of picturesque trousered figures with pointed skis over shoulders. Here, upon the sacred slopes where the high priest Ngatoro-i-Rangi and his vassals once trod, is an alpine playground, ringing with gaiety and laughter, bright with the contrast of sunshine on dazzling snow and the deep over-arching blue of the mountain skies. It is the most exhilarating sport in the world, this, the singing whisper of the steeltipped skis upon the hard-packed snow, the wild rush of the clear cold air, the flurry of snow particles and the flicker of the white slopes leaping past. To jump is the most exciting of all … the first swift rush, and the soaring, the dropping down like a bird with folded wings to the blue-scored white field so far below is as near as a human being can come to unaided flying.
Perhaps you may hear the ghostsound of Te Kooti's bugle floating faint and far through the evening air, as that grim old rebel walks his war-trails again, and his warriors take their spears in their right hands and rise from their uneasy graves. Perhaps the highwaymen of Otukou may waylay you; perhaps you may meet the ghost of Taukai and the ghost of his little dog, who slew more than one hundred warriors by the old Poutu outlet, as vengeance for an act of treachery. Perhaps you may hear the straining breaths and the stumbling footfalls of Tamatea and his despairing men.
It is a colourful pageant of phantom figures that marches over these upland trails. Sleep on, Roto-a-Ira, in your opal-set loveliness between the mountain lovers of old. The roads may skirt your shores, and the pakeha tourist pass you by, but he will never penetrate your ageold mystery and loneliness.page 56