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Sir Donald Maclean

Chapter XII — Through the Great Forest — The Story of a Bush Journey

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Chapter XII
Through the Great Forest
The Story of a Bush Journey

The destruction of forest has so altered the face of the country that it is difficult to find a large area of unspoiled bush in any part of the North Island. Even mountain ranges, the ribs of the land, that should never have been touched by the settler, have been stripped of the protecting garment of trees and ferns and left bare and exposed to the assault of the rains. But there was a time when the bush was thought to be everlasting. No one imagined fifty or sixty years ago that there would come a timber famine in Taranaki, or that the South Auckland ranges would be ruined in beauty and in usefulness as water supply sources by the joint efforts of bush-settler and sawmiller. However, this is not a dissertation on our wasteful forest clearance, but a narrative by Donald Maclean of a great bush journey in the days when the forest in the heart of the North Island was unspoiled and was the home of myriads of native birds, which provided food for the Maori bushmen and yet never diminished in numbers.

On 30 April 1850, Mr. Maclean set out from New Plymouth on an expedition across country to the Upper Wanganui River. On this journey he decided to follow an old native war track, the Taumatamahoe route, from the Waitara to the Upper Wanganui River, penetrating a rugged bush country with a few small primitive villages His Maori party numbered fourteen and a young pakeha, William King (son of Captain King, of New Plymouth) accompanied him.

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The trail first led past Pukerangiora, the famous old fortress of the Taranaki people overlooking the winding Waitara River. I take up Maclean's MS. account of his travels at his first bush camp beyond Pukerangiora.

“I am writing this journal,” Mr. Maclean wrote, “under a large tree, marked and lettered by some natives who passed here in 1849. The notes of the kaka, the tui and smaller birds in the forest, with the rustling of the trees, the shining of the sun and the murmur of the Mangahewa stream give pleasure to the scene where we are camped. There is something very pleasant in camping with Maoris. All are engaged. Some are lighting fires, others breaking wood, others getting fern for a bed and pitching a tent; some are seated by a blazing fire comfortably smoking their pipes; the rest are lying down, fatigued, to await the opening of the food oven, or employed mending their clothes, after the tearing of the bush. The sound of the axe is rather cheerful in the wilderness.

“The young boys (three) are delighted that the day's journey is over. They eye the oven with an anxious look. There is a native with two large pieces of nikau heart or pith, which would feed three men, and which has been procured in a few minutes. Hinau berries are most plentiful. The oven is being opened; it contains a large quantity of harore, or wild mushrooms. This, with pure water from the streams, would of itself be a good hermit's feast. Eels and kokopu are found in the river.”

Next day the party climbed the Reinga-o-Kari, a steep, narrow ridge with a precipice on each side. The scenery was grand and wild. Far below the Waitara River flowed through the winding glen.

On the following day the party embarked in four canoes to pole up the Waitara. “A very agreeable trip through thickly wooded country,” Maclean wrote. “At Tautara, a village on the bank, the party was hospitably entertained by the people, with abundance of taro, potatoes and bush pigeon. This was the Ngati-Maru country, a place of retreat in war-time. The Waitara has a deeper and more navigable channel here.

“On the banks, overgrown with high fern and lovely page 53 grass, here and there are old stunted rimu and tawai (beech) trees, with their shattered and leafless boughs, evidence that they had stood the rage of many winter storms and torrents of water. They were already old when the grey-bearded chiefs of the present day used to spear and snare birds on their branches, now covered with long white beardy filaments of moss, giving a venerable gravity to the trees.

“There is a beautiful song that I heard here showing that the natives have an idea that the winds come out of their treasuries, and are under restraints that can be attuned by an invisible deity, hitherto unknown to them. This song is used also to make peace; moreover to show that the tribes were not to be raised like the winds, to cause storms, strifes, and wars; but to sink all their animosity till they should be frozen as the hoar frost.”

On 6 May 1850, after leaving the Waitara, the party reached a small clearing in the midst of the forest with a few thatched huts, where the Maoris went to snare birds. “This is a beautiful spot, after leaving the dense forest,” Maclean wrote. “There is a lovely stream, fern and grass, with hundreds of birds keeping us company in our solitude.”

“May 7.–After a good breakfast of Captain King's well cured ham and bacon from New Plymouth, we passed through a rough woody country where we caught a fine fat kiwi. From the Makahu stream we ascended Waiparuwhanga, a very steep slippery climb. We caught a second kiwi. We travelled about twenty miles to-day.

“May 8.–A pretty allusion was made to-day to the mist representing the approach of strangers; and the dissolution of the mist indicated their close approach. A cloud of mist hanging over the Kainga is the sign of strangers coming. The chief of the district knows by the mist that strangers are travelling over the Taumatamahoe, or the other large hills or mountains of his country.”

The olden Maori tracks often kept to the high ridges, a precaution against surprise by enemies. The Taumatamahoe range, which was now ascended by the travellers, was a famous trail of the cannibal war days, when travellers page 54 were constantly on the alert against some likely foe. This was a greatly broken country, ranges beyond ranges, half hidden in the mists. Of the route and camp here Mr. Maclean recorded:

“The track became so steep that it can only be ascended by ropes and ladders of rough bush-vine construction. Camped early in the afternoon to cook our kiwi and wild pigs. Our encampment is a beautiful spot; the sun's rays shine through a large tree, having the appearance of a lovely decorated crown. Next morning we ascended the road above the Whangamomona (a river nearly the size of the Waitara) by the native ladder repaired by our Maoris yesterday.”

The party now descended to the Upper Wanganui River from the broken ranges. They reached a little village called Matai-whetu (“Gaze at the Stars”), romantically situated on a flat between high misty ranges at the junction of the Tangarakau and Wanganui Rivers. As they arrived there, after their rough bush journey of ten days they were received with loud cries and chants of welcome from the women.

Early next day the canoe voyage down the Wanganui was begun. “On getting into our canoe we met two canoes of people coming to see us at Matai-whetu; other people came marching down the steep slopes below the mist-enfolded ranges.” They carried great fronds of tree ferns to wave a farewell to the travellers and the sight reminded Maclean of the famous scene in “Macbeth,” in which the branch-bearing army advancing seemed to the doomed man to fulfil the prophecy about Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.