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Forest Lore of the Maori

How the Maori ascended Trees; Ladders and Modes of Climbing

How the Maori ascended Trees; Ladders and Modes of Climbing

We have seen that the Maori obtained a considerable part of his food supply from the head of Rehua, that is to say from the branched heads of forest trees. As some of those trees attain a height of 100 ft. and even more, it would appear that the Maori must have been a fairly expert climber in the days when he had to keep his eyes constantly turned on the food-gauge. We will now see how the fowler ascended the trees, large and small, on which he set his bird snares, handled his long bird spears, or collected certain berries. In comparatively few cases did he find such trees that could be easily ascended without the help of some form of ladder. Occasionally a tree, such as rata and tawhero (Metrosideros robusta and Weinmannia racemosa) would be found well provided with low set page 217branches, or growing at such an angle that one could easily ascend it, often assisted by a profuse growth of epiphytes. When a tree has to be ascended frequently it is advisable to make the ascent a fairly easy one.

It may be said that the Maori employed three methods in his tree-climbing activities, namely the piki, topeke, and rou. The first of these terms denotes ordinary climbing, using no adventitious aid, but assisted merely by branches or epiphytic growth; the second term describes a 'swarming' process aided by a topeke or foot-loop, and the rou method means reliance on some rude form of ladder. The first of these methods assuredly needs no explanation, but the second is now unknown in this land of Aotea, for the Maori has long abandoned it. This foot-loop should have been well known here in the past, for I have collected seven names for it, viz., topeke, tapeke, toeke, toropeke, tātnāeke, tāpārenga and mekameka; of these the first four are allied forms, the first is perhaps the best known, the second is that employed in the Matatua district, the fifth and sixth were given by Kahungunu folk, and the last by a Whanganui man. This foot-loop could be used with or without the hand-cord, the climber clasping the tree trunk with his arms. Trees of small girth could be 'swarmed' up by an active youth or young man without using any cord, at least for some distance; trees of greater girth might be ascended by using the footloop and clasping the trunk with the arms, and still larger ones might be clambered up by means of using the hand-cord and footloop. In the case of trees over a certain size, however, these cords are of no service; the trunks are too large to be properly gripped by shackled feet, and the manipulation of the hand-cord becomes difficult; the latter would be most useful in the case of symmetrical trunks, branchless and lacking epiphytic growth. In the case of large trees where these cord aids were of no service, there the rou came into use and did yeoman service.

In using the foot-loop it was necessary to regulate the length of cord between the two loops according to the diameter of the tree to be ascended. A foot was inserted in each end of the looped cord, and the aim of the climber was not to grip the tree trunk with his knees, but to so open them out as to bring the soles of his feet against the trunk, then the confining effect of the foot-loop enabled him to obtain sufficient leverage to raise his body, such body movement being assisted by the gripping lift of his arms, or arms and handcord combined. Having so raised his body the climber would then draw up his legs and take a fresh grip with them after which he would rapidly take a fresh arm grip higher up; if page 218using a hand-cord he would flick it upward with a quick arm movement, and so he gradually ascended. Toropeke is the only name given me for the hand-cord, but it was also given as a term for the foot-loop; there was probably a special name for the hand-cord in former times. But, whatsoever the dexterity of the Maori fowler may have been, ever he played with death during his tree-climbing exploits, and when engaged in setting snares or collecting berries at the extreme ends of branches, and so he sought to implant the quality of caution in his young folk by quoting such wise saws as the following:—

He toa piki rakau he kai na te pakiaka—A tree climbing expert shall be food for roots—sooner or later the sure-footed one will omit or fail in some precautionary measure, and then …. ko te Po tē hokia a taiao (The spirit world from which none return to the upper world of life). Again, we have the following distichous saying:—

He mamore rakau e taea te topeke ake, he mamore moana e kore e taea. This reminds us that a bare, branchless tree may be climbed, by means of a foot-loop, but that one cannot assail with impunity the bare, placid looking ocean.

Tree-climbers were in the habit of repeating a simple form of words as a form of charm, and this formula was supposed to render their task an easy one, or at any rate to render it less arduous. At the same time those who ascended by means of clasping the trunk did not trust everything to the gods, they carefully scanned and manipulated their appliances, and also donned a form of breast pad styled a papauma, to serve as a protection when hugging the rough-skinned offspring of Tane-mahuta.

The use of the foot-loop in the tree climbing obtained also at Tahiti, as will be seen from the following extract from the Narrative of the Voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle:—"Putting a strip of bark between his feet, he threw off his shirt, and jumped at the tree, catching the trunk with his feet and hands at the same moment, then moving his hands alternately, and his feet by short jumps, the band of bark assisting their hold on the slender trunk, in a few seconds he was at the top of a tree seventy feet in height, quite straight and perpendicular, and tapering in size from a foot to six inches in diameter."

I am by no means sure that my Maori informants were quite reliable concerning the details of foot-loop climbing, a practice long discarded. They seemed to believe that the feet were just slipped into either end of the loop. The account of the Tahitian method given above is slovenly and explains nothing. I have never page 219seen this method practised in New Zealand, and I doubt if my informants had. In the interesting journal of Captain D. Porter of the U.S. frigate Essex that writer describes the use of the footloop at the Marquesas group as witnessed early in last century; he wrote as follows: "As the cocoa-nuts become ripe, they are carefully collected from the tree, which is ascended by means of a slip of strong bark, with which they make their feet fast a little above the ankles, leaving them about a foot asunder. They then grasp the tree with their arms, feet, and knees, and the strip of bark resting on the rough projections of the bark of the tree, prevents them from slipping down. In this manner, by alternately shifting their feet and hands, they ascend with great apparent ease and rapidity the highest tree." This account from an eye-witness should be correct, though it does not agree with what I gathered in two particulars, namely the close-gripping knees and the confining band being above the ankle.

There was another danger that might at any time overtake tree climbers, and that was the appearance of enemies beneath a tree on which some hapless woodsman was snaring or spearing birds, or perchance gathering berries. When Te Ata o Rehua of Ngai Tai was engaged in spearing birds among the branches of a tree on the Whitikau block, he chanced to glance downward and so espied Te Parata of Te Panenehu endeavouring to spear him. On seeing that his act was observed Parata withdrew his spear, and nothing more occurred, at that time. But he was foolish enough to boast that, had he slain Te Ata, he would have potted his flesh in a calabash as a dainty food for himself. Te Ata then called upon Mauke and others to assist him, and the party sought out Te Parata and despatched him to the spirit world.

When Ngati Pukeko advanced to attack Tuhoe at Te Hika they encountered a party of them bird-snaring in the forest, and considered themselves highly fortunate in espying one Rangi-kawhetui spearing pigeons in a tree-top. They called to him to come down, and he did so, and endeavoured to escape, but was caught and slain, as also were four others.

There is a deep hole in the Waiapu river named Te Kopua a Noni (The Deep Pool of Te Noni), so named after one Te Noni, a fore-bear of the local native folk. This ancestor was engaged in spearing pigeons in the head of a white pine tree that stood on the river bank, when a raiding party of enemies came along and saw on the ground some birds that Noni had slain. Looking up the raiders saw the fowler, and commanded him to come down, which Te Noni promptly declined to do, thinking himself safer in the tree-top, whereupon the page 220raiders set about felling the tree. Te Noni called out to them: "If the tree falls away from the river I will escape, but if it falls into the river then I am surely lost." The tree fellers then resolved to so fell the tree that it would fall into the deep pool, and it did so fall, the same being Te Noni's fervent wish. He survived the shock and escaped, jeering at the baffled raiders after the manner Maori. This tale is related with much gusto by natives, but looks somewhat improbable; the felling of a pine tree was a serious and very slow task in pre-European times, apart from the question of the miraculous escape.

Prior to giving some account of crude forms of ladders used by the Maori we may say that they occasionally had recourse to what we may call life-lines, for they resembled, in manner of use, the lines so termed by workers on dangerous precipitous places. Steep bluffs and cliffs blocking paths were formerly ascended by these means; such places were often named the Ara-taura (rope way); there is such an Ara-taura on the coast-line between Titahi and Owhariu. I remember such a life-line on the old Maori path up the steep Parininihi or White Cliffs, northern Taranaki, and the assistance that it was to be-swagged pedestrians in the distant 'seventies. Marshall, in his Narrative of Two Visits to New Zealand (1836) speaks of the curious means of approach to the Wai-mate pa, Taranaki, from the beach: "It was escaladed with comparative ease, the ascent being aided by a contrivance of the natives for facilitating their own passage up and down its almost perpendicular face, consisting of two plaited ropes, suspended from strong stakes driven into the crevices of the rock, and capable of bearing the weight of several persons at the same time." Occasionally the Maori formed an ara tiatia up a steep face by driving pegs into the ground, or rock crevices, these to serve as hand-holds. When forming the Galatea-Ruatahuna road up the Okahu gorge in 1896 we rigged life-lines for the workmen at the precipitous rock-cliffs at Nga Wahine-kai-awatea, whereupon the Maori folk of the district discarded the old name of the place and gave it the new and appropriate one of Taura-tukutuku (trailing ropes).

One of the simplest forms of ladders utilized by the Maori consisted merely of a pole lashed in a vertical position to a tree-trunk; this pole would be a sapling of, say 5 in. or 6 in. in diameter at the butt end, and possibly 3 in. at the upper end. It was set butt downwards against the trunk, and kept in position by means of aka (tough, pliant stems of climbing plants) ties which were passed round the trunk of the tree. These ties were the only foothold provided for the tree-sealer; they supplied the place of ladder rungs, but they were page 221 Fig. 7—Ladder. E. H. Atkison, del. page 222 spaced much further apart than are rungs or steps with us. These rude ladders, or rou, last for a number of years so fixed, though possibly the materials would be such that would rapidly decay if lying on the ground. When dealing with a lofty tree a series of poles, placed one above the other, were so secured to the trunk; they were hoisted up by two men standing on one of the upper ties of the last pole fixed, one on either side of such pole; a rope fastened to the upper part of the pole to be hoisted enabled them to accomplish the task. A certain amount of lap was the customary usage, and the lapped part was strongly lashed with vines. When hoisting up heavy green saplings for a ladder the two men would use a form of life-line, a cord passed round their bodies and secured by them to the pole in position or to one of its upper ties; this enabled the men to use both hands at their task. In some cases a short piece of wood was lashed in a diagonal position to the lower end of the sapling so hoisted, and so, during the hoisting process the butt of that sapling could be rested on any of the ties that secured the lower pole or poles, also on the uppermost one while it was being secured in its place.

Rou seems to be the genuine name of the above-described rude ladder, and I do not think that any Maori would term such contrivances teka or tekateka, terms that imply projection and so were applied to poles to which short cross-pieces were lashed to serve as steps, the terms teka, kaupeka, pae, and kaupae were all applied to steps of rude ladders, the first two to branch-base steps, the other two to horizontal rungs lashed on. Arawhata, arohata, arowhata and arahanga are words formerly used as names for a ladder; used in a general sense, they convey no hint of its make as do the terms tekateka, tauteka, and mekameka. It is evident that a form of ladder made by lashing cross-pieces to a single pole was formerly used, and this could well be termed a tekateka or ara tauteka. In 1769 Cook saw a ladder at the Bay of Islands of which he wrote: "The ladder consisted of steps fastened to a pole, but we found the ascent both difficult and dangerous." This ladder gave access to a fortified islet. The ara tautekateka of a fortified place mentioned at pp. 104-106 of vol. 20, Journal of the Polynesian Society would, I believe, be a ladder, and not palisades, as given at p. 106. One form of ara tauteka described to me was marked by a double system of lashing; short cross-pieces were lashed to a pole so as to project on either side, while to either end of this teka or tread was secured a short piece of cord that was fastened to the pole some little distance above, as shown in Fig. 8.

page 223

Fig. 8—Ara-tatika (ladder). E. H. Atkinson, del.

page 224

About seventy years ago an old pu korero or repository of learning explained that an old form of ladder, or arowhata as he termed it, was made by lashing kaupeka turanga waewae (foot-tread branches, or projections) to a tokotu or kauamo (pole), though kauamo as a name for a pole is new to me. Tekateka is a Whanganui term for a (?one-pole) ladder having cross-pieces lashed on. Williams' Maori Dictionary gives us tutira as meaning: "Cross-pieces lashed on a tree to enable a bird-snarer to ascend." Now a small tree might be so served, but no Maori would attempt to lash cross-pieces on to a trunk of any size without the assistance of a vertical pole; even in the case of a small tree the job would be more effective, and probably be completed sooner if the cross-pieces were secured to a supplementary pole. When the vine ties have been passed round tree trunk and pole, then the tie can be tightened and a cross-piece gripped tighter by a tight cross-binding between trunk and pole.

Brunner speaks of the ladders, or apologies for such, formerly used by the Westland natives when traversing their rugged coast-line: "The perpendicular cliff of Te Miko …. is 120 feet in height and its descent was first effected by a war party, the natives composing which let down a ladder made of the rata vines of the forest above. There are now two stages of ladders, made of pieces of the ropy rata, lashed together with flax, with steps at irregular distances …. Our baggage and the dog had to be hoisted up by a flax rope … The ladders are quite perpendicular." Heaphy descended the above-described ladders later on, and states that one was 15 ft. and the other 31 ft. in length, they were 'pieces of rata [vine] lashed together with flax, the steps being placed at irregular intervals.' This seems to have been a form of ladder more resembling our own, having two perpendiculars to which cross-pieces were attached; this form seems to have been used in pre-European times, and principally, so far as we can judge, at places where such a convenience was needed all the time, not merely for a particular season of the year. This means such places as one sees up the Whanganui river, where the river was the only highway, and where natives often gained their homes from that highway by means of ascending ladders secured on precipitous and even vertical cliffs. I have seen some of these cliff-clinging ladders, but they were far more numerous in earlier times. Of a place above Pipiriki where such cliffs are seen Wakefield wrote in the early 'forties: "In this part the only path to the settlement consists of a rude but strong ladder, consisting of trees and karewau, or supple-jack, reaching from the water to the top." A little later he wrote: "At length we reached the foot of one of the sky-scraping ladders which I have described, leading to the top of the cliff, here page 225 Fig. 9—Mekameka (ladder). E. H. Atkinson, del. page 226about 200 ft. high, while the river is not more than 40 yards broad. The natives clambered carelessly up, with heavy chests, and guns, and paddles, and my great dog in their arms, while I was ascending cautiously, step by step, with uncertain footing, and hands aching with the efforts which I made to clench hard the vibrating rounds of the ladder." It is quite evident that these were such ladders as ours are, two verticals and crosspieces; the latter would be lashed on. Wakefield was shown a place hard by where "two or three foolish old women had been smashed quite flat, having missed a step while going down in the dark to their canoes." Crawford also mentions having seen these ladders in the 'sixties; and when Donald McLean, later Sir Donald, descended the river in 1845 he recorded the following in his journal: "I was struck with the denseness of the population on the northern banks, the inaccessible situation of many of their pa [fortified villages], only to be approached by ladders up the steep sides of precipices."

In one case I heard a Whanganui native apply the name of rnekameka to a ladder constructed by lashing cross-pieces to two long aka or forest vines; these were used in scaling the cliffs of the canyon down which the Whanganui river flows. Of this rendering I have received no corroboration, but another native of that district applied the term to some form of knot or method of tying employed in olden times to prevent captives escaping; in recent times the Maori has applied the name to chains of European manufacture.

When fowlers or others wished to ascend a tree that gave them no assistance in the way of branches, lianes or epiphytic plants, it sometimes occurred that near at hand stood a tree that could be easily climbed, whereupon the active Maori would ascend the latter and then haul up to his point of vantage a pole with a hook at one end. This kōpāpā he would endeavour to hook on to a branch of the tree he wished to ascend; two such hooked-on poles, when properly secured, would provide a means of access to the head of the tree, after which this form of rou was quickly improved. Any poles, etc., etc., wanted for hiwi or the construction of platforms in tree-tops were hoisted up to the branches by means of cords.