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Fairy Folk Tales of the Maori

Chapter II — The Fairy Folk of Ngongotaha Mountain

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Chapter II
The Fairy Folk of Ngongotaha Mountain

My old Arawa friend Te Matehaere, one-time guerrilla soldier and bush-scout, lives in a very beautiful and romantic spot, the ancient ditched and parapeted fortress Weriweri, overlooking the soft blue expanse of Rotorua Lake. Weriweri pa was built by Matehaere's great ancestor Ihenga five centuries ago, and there within the entrenched lines the old warrior lives today, growing his potatoes and kumara and maize, enjoying the fruit and shade of his orchard trees; gazing out over the calm and lovely lake; crooning the love-chants of his youth and the songs of the fairy tribe with whom his forefather made friends in the dim and wonderful past.

Yonder to the south of Weriweri, lifting steeply from the plain in fern-hung scarps, is the fairy mountain Ngongotaha, and about that peak of his forefather's Matehaere has many a curious story. His description of the fairy folk as handed down page 34 through the generations from Ihenga is the most circumstantial account of the Patu-paiarehe that I have yet heard from Maori lips.

“Long ago,” said Te Matehaere, “the summit of yon mountain Ngongotaha, the peak-top called Te Tuahu a te Atua (“The Altar of the God”) was the chief home of the fairy people of this country. The name of that tribe of Patu-paiarehe was Ngati-Rua, and the chiefs of that tribe in the days of my ancestor Ihenga were Tuehu, Te Rangitamai, Tongakohu, and Rotokohu. The people were very numerous; there were a thousand or perhaps many more on Ngongotaha. They were an iwi atua (a god-like race, a people of supernatural powers). In appearance some of them were very much like the Maori people of today; others resembled the pakeha race. The colour of most of them was kiri puwhero (reddish skins), and their hair had the red or golden tinge which we call uru-kehu. Some had black eyes, some blue like fair-skinned Europeans. They were about the same height as ourselves. Some of their women were very beautiful, very fair of complexion, with shining fair hair. They page 35 wore chiefly the flax garments called pakerangi, dyed a red colour; they also wore the rough mats pora and pureke. In disposition they were peaceful; they were not a war-loving, angry people. Their food consisted of the products of the forest, and they also came down to this Lake Rotorua to catch inanga (whitebait.) There was one curious characteristic of these Patu-paiarehe; they had a great dread of the steam that rose from cooked food. In the evenings, when the Maori people living at Te Raho-o-te-Rangipiere and other places near the fairy abodes opened their cooking-ovens, all the Patu-paiarehe retired to their houses immediately they saw the clouds of vapour rising, and shut themselves up; they were afraid of the mamaoa—the steam.

“The Patu-paiarehe of Ngongotaha had no water supply close to their pa; the mountain is a very dry place, at any rate near the summit, the sacred Tuahu a te Atua. So the women had to come a long way to draw their supplies from a spring under the northern cliffs, near the side of the Kauae spur—the ancient sacred burial place of the Ngati-Whakaue tribe—whence they carried water up the mountain in page 36 taha (gourd calabashes). And there it was, upon the slopes of the fairy mountain, that my ancestor Ihenga met a woman of the Patu-paiarehe, when he first explored these parts nearly twenty generations ago.

“When Ihenga came to the bank of the stream now called the Ngongotaha,” the old legend-keeper continued, “he beheld a curl of smoke rising near the summit of the great mountain looming dark-blue above him. Maybe the smoke he saw was but a fairy mist. He left his wife on the shore of the lake to await his return, and ascended the mountain to discover what people dwelt there. As he climbed he had to press his way through thick fern on the lower slopes of the mountain before he came to the forest. There was much new fern springing up, and the fine pollen from this entered his mouth and nostrils and produced an intense thirst. He looked for a spring of water or a stream whereat he might drink, but found none. He toiled upward, and when he came near the top of the peak he came all suddenly on the home of the Patu-paiarehe. He gazed marvelling on those strange people, whom he came to know well in after-time. He was able to page 37 converse with them for their language was very like his own. He asked for water, and a beautiful young woman gave him a drink out of a calabash. Hence the name which Ihenga afterwards gave to the mountain, a combination of the words ngongo, to drink—also the wooden mouthpiece of the drinking-vessel—and taha, a calabash. The fairy people pressed around him in great curiosity, touching him, feeling him all over and asking innumerable questions. At last he became alarmed, thinking perhaps that they might kill and eat him, and he turned and broke through them and fled down the mountain side. The Patu-paiarehe tribe chased him, but he far outstripped all of them except the young beauty who had given him the drink of water. She wished to catch the stranger and make him her husband. She cast away most of her garments in order to run the faster, and Ihenga, looking back as he raced down the rough mountain side, perceived that he would quickly be caught. He knew now that the uncanny people were Patu-paiarehe and he knew also that if once the athletic fairy lady seized him and laid her spell upon him he would never see his Maori wife again.

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“In that moment he bethought him of a trick to stay the pursuit. He carried attached to his girdle a small putea or flax satchel, containing some kokowai, red ochre mixed with shark oil, which he used on occasions for painting his body. He opened this as he ran and smeared himself with it. Now, the fairy people are very dainty in some ways, as compared with the Maoris. The haunga or odour of the shark-oil so disgusted the young woman that she stopped and gave up the chase, and Ihenga rejoined his wife on the beach of the lake and told of his strange adventure.

“But later Ihenga became very friendly with the Patu-paiarehe, and dwelt quite near to them in his pa Whakaeke-tahuna, on the Waiteti stream, near the northern base of the fairy mountain; it is not far from the sacred stream to which you and I once went to see Ihenga's axe-polishing stone, the tapu Wai-oro-toki brook of which no man may drink and live.”

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

From an old couple, too, who lived by the Wai-o-whiro stream, near the base of Ngongotaha mountain, came poetic stories page 39 of the mountain Patu-paiarehe. They sometimes went out wild pig-hunting on the ferny slopes of Ngongotaha, and the husband sometimes hunted the kiwi in the depths of the bush, for his wife desired the feathers of that night-roving bird to stitch into the fine mats and kits which she wove so industriously. But nothing would induce either of them to go up that way on a foggy day, when the mists hung low on the sides of the Fairy Mountain. For then, said they, the Patu-paiarehe were abroad, and sometimes their ghostly voices could be heard, and it would perhaps not be good to meet them. Their mental attitude towards the mythical Patu-paiarehe seemed to be a mixture of fear and veneration, and, strangely, a little affection: exactly the feeling of the Irish peasant and the primitive Highlander, as revealed in Old World folk-lore tales. And they delighted in crooning the old, old fairy songs. One of these was a little fairy haka. Their ancestors, said they, had heard these dance songs chanted high up on the misty mountain on still, calm days when the fog enveloped the range. This is how the haka chant went:

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Horahia te marino,
Horahia i Rotorua;
Tukua te rangi mo te ruri,
Kia rerehu—i.
E hinawa—e!
Spread out below lies Rotorua Lake;
How calm and still it lies!
This is our day for dance and song.
How far the sound will travel!

“When Ihenga,” said the kiwi-hunter, “left this land and went on a journey of exploration through the Island with his followers, even to Waikato and Kaipara, the Patu-paiarehe sorrowed greatly, and sang songs of lamentation for their friend, who never returned to them. Some of the fairy people went in search of him and followed him all the way to the far North, and some of them found him at Moehau (Cape Colville), where that long and lofty headland runs out into the sea to meet Aotea, the Great Barrier Island; and there they stayed, and so to this day fairies are sometimes to be heard singing their songs far up on misty Moehau.”

Ae,” said the wife, Huhia, “but it was really the fire that drove most of the fairies away. There are some there still, as we know, but most of the tribe vanished when page 41 the Maoris, after Ihenga's day, set fire to the forests which covered the whole of Ngongotaha. These fires over-ran the range and, as you can see, destroyed the forests on the eastern and northern sides. And one of the fairy chiefs, named Tongakohu, left his abode on the mountain-top, and travelled away to Moehau and to Mount Pirongia, in the Waikato; and thus both those mountains became the haunts of the fairy people. And this is the farewell song which Tongakohu the Patu-paiarehe chanted as he wept over his beloved Ngongotaha—--”

And the tattooed old dame chanted a low, mournful song which I afterwards committed to my note-book, and now give in the Maori and in English:
E muri ahiahiNight's shadows fall;
Ka hara mai te arohaKeen sorrow eats my heart,
Ka ngau i ahau,Grief for the land I'm leaving,
Ki taku urunga tapu,For my sacred sleepingplace,
Ka mahue i ahauThe home-pillow I'm leaving,
I Ngongo' maungaOn Ngongo's lofty peak.
Ka tu kau noa ra.So lone my mountain stands,
Te Ahi-a-MahuikaSwept by the flames of Mahuika,page 42
Nana i tahu mai-i.I'm going far away,
Ka haere ai au ki Moehau,To the heights of Moehau,
Ki Pirongia ra e,to Pirongia,
I te urunga tapu e.To seek another home.
E Te Rotokohu e!O Rotokohu, leave me yet awhile,
Kia ata akiaki kia mihi ake auLet me farewell my forest shrine,
Ki taku tuahu ka mahue iho nei.The Tuahu I'm leaving.
He ra kotahi hoki e,Give me but one more day;
E noho i au;Just one more day and then I'll go,
Ka haere atu ai e,
Kaore e hoki mai, Na-a-i!And I'll return no more!

It was a Maori “Lochaber No More,” a lament for the ancestral shieling from which the old stock—not unlike the Highland crofters at the other end of the world—were evicted by the new lords of the land with axe and fire-brand.

“Yet there are still fairies in the fastnesses of Ngongotaha,” said Huhia. “On dim and cloudy days, and when the mists descend and envelope the mountain side, the thin voices of the Patu-paiarehe people may be heard, high up on the mountains, and also the music of their flutes, the putorino, sounding very sweet, like spirit music, through the fog.”