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Sir Donald Maclean

Chapter XIII — Through the Manawatu Gorge — A Canoe Passage Up the Rapids

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Chapter XIII
Through the Manawatu Gorge
A Canoe Passage Up the Rapids

The motorist, gliding smoothly along the highway cut from the steep mountain side on the south bank of the Manawatu River in the famous gorge, sees a swift discoloured stream tearing over the rocks below on its way from east to west. His passage of the ravine takes only a few minutes. So, too, the train traveller, on the opposite or Ruahine Ranges side of the defile—a true mountain pass—has a glimpse of broken water and whirlpools, with scraggily-wooded precipices rising above. The adjective “famous” applies to the past; we have so many more wonderful defiles now made easy of access by motor highway. Still, it is wild enough in flood time, when the ill-protected butt ends of the mountains are streaming with water and when the glen has a touch of savagery with that powerful yellow river, charged with soil and rocks from the banks, tearing along perhaps twenty feet above its normal level. Deforestation on range and plain aggravates the damage done by these floods. Then, remember that there was a time when the river itself was the only highway between the east and west sides of the mountain backbone, and when the long dugout canoe of the Maori was the only means of transit there. That was in the days when the forest richly clothed the pass and the plains, when river and bush were alike unspoiled.

I take this animated narrative of a canoe expedition through the Manawatu Gorge in December 1850, from one of Sir Donald Maclean's MS. diaries. Maclean was on his page 56 way from Wellington to Hawke's Bay, then a purely Maori region, to make the first purchases of land for settlement under instructions from the Governor, Sir George Grey. A friend of his, Dr. Reed, was the only other pakeha in the party of about thirty Maoris, some of whom were Maclean's canoe men; the rest had come from the Manawatu and the Rangitikei to give a kind of moral support to “Te Makarini” in his negotiations with the Ngati-Kahungunu tribe. The expedition, in three large canoes, started from Moutoa, near the mouth of the Manawatu, on 3 December. The first day's work was mostly paddling, then the canoeists took to the toko, the pole, most of the way.

The diary proceeds:

“December 5 1850.–The wind and the diligence of our spirited canoe crews got us up to the waha of the apiti [the mouth of the gorge] at 1 p.m., when we dined. The range on the left bank gradually closes down to the river, till you reach the apiti, when the country changes from a moderately tame scene to a wild alpine appearance, with white foaming rapids and streams rolling down the hills with such violent force as if they would resist the efforts of man to pass them. The natives of a country, however, will not be impeded by such barriers—their persevering efforts overcome all natural obstacles. Our first party having emptied the canoe of luggage, are now in the white foaming surf of a mountain torrent, poling up with savage fierceness, while others are up to the armpits, quite naked, hauling with all their might against the stream and screaming loudly for victory over the river that seems to rage with increasing violence.

“One canoe has just passed the danger and a general shout from all who were pulling seems ample satisfaction for their dexterous efforts. The next is now determined not to be laughed at, and with all their might they dash into the foam, the pole men of the first canoe coming back to their assistance. A strong tug and a long tug! Poor fellows!—just touch and go and she will do it! No! Yes, she will! There comes the help—now! One strong pull and one long pull! No—not yet! The water resists. Into the water, lads! Over she goes, some of the helpers struggling to gain the shore among the heavy boulders and rocks.

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“The last canoe now comes. Beautiful, my hearties! Pull and she goes! Heave away, my jolly boys—pull again! Now back for the loads. You have all conquered the water's furious rage! Well done, boys, well done! … New Zealanders, in your own mountain glens … you are a fine, animated, happy, cheerful, persevering race! Far from me would it be to wish that the blessings of civilisation should extinguish your race as I extinguished your claims to these wild mountain ranges of your ancestors….

“At the gorge Dr. Reed was looking on intently, with great glee, singing with zest, and shouting ‘Hurrah, my boys! That reminds one of the Chinese junks on the Yangtse-kiang! Go it, lads! There starts the old queen-long live her Majesty, the Queen of Rangitikei! Into the water, old woman and cheer on your loyal subjects!’”

The “Queen of Rangitikei” was the wife of Hori Kingi, the chief of Rangitikei. Her canoe crew were all women, six of them, and they slipped out of their few clothes and into the water as naked as the men for that glorious struggle with the rapids that the young Scots official and his friend Reed enjoyed so much from the dry footing on the bank.

Donald Maclean noted in his diary that the gorge was called Te Au-nui-o-Tonga (“The Great Current of the South”). Apparently it might also have been called “Te Hau nui o Tonga” (“The Great Wind of the South”), judging from Maclean's description of the gale which often blows through that funnel in the mountains: “The wind passes through the gorge with all the fierceness of a December day at home (Scotland) that would unroof houses, root up trees and cast the forlorn sailor to look for shelter on some castaway shore. The hills on each side are cleft, lofty and high; with rata trees opening up their blossoms, and the rich green line of fern brake, and the tui, with chirping and nimbleness, the tenant of the groves. It is like a halfway house to Paradise!”

That was eighty-nine years ago. It is a sadly spoiled avenue to Paradise to-day!