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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Last Stand of Te Amotu

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The Last Stand of Te Amotu.

THE forest called by the Maoris Tahuna, which covers the level land between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoehu, a belt of a little more than a mile, was a very lovely tract of woodland in the days before road-widening and timber working had robbed it of some of its tallest trees and destroyed its original quality of unspoiled beauty, a sanctuary of Tane-Mahuta. The winding road through it, the Ara-a-Hongi of cannibal days' story, was narrow and arched over by the leafy branches, matted with great bunches of flax-like kiekie and festooned with creepers and swinging lianas like ships' cables. Now it is less shady, more straightened out; the olden charm of cool forest depth has gone from the road itself, for motoring speedways inevitably demand sacrifice of beauty. But there is left much to please the eye, and Hongi's Track is one of the things that every visitor to Rotorua sees. The bush between the road and the great mountain wall of Matawhaura, that drops vertically into the east end of Lake Rotoiti, is untouched by the scenery improvers. The sacred matai tree Hinehopu, at whose hollow foot travellers of both races place leafy offerings, still stands beside the road, and that grand old patriarch of a tawa tree that spreads its branches over the avenue near the Rotoehu end of Hongi's Track has been spared. The historic associations, too, remain.

The authentic story of the track goes back over a hundred and twenty years, and the little stream called Taupo that runs through the bush to Rotoiti murmurs page 2 remote poetic legends to the Maori ear. Close by that clear forest brook there stands a battered white stone (on the right-hand side of the road as you go towards Rotoehu), and that ancient bit of weathered and shattered rock is a little shrine of heroic history. The passing traveller, always in a hurry, may not notice it. In the old days, when we were never in a hurry, we had time to observe these things, and to search out the tales of the past. This is the story of the warrior of the forest whom that stone commemorates, the tale of Te Amotu the brave, who laid down his life for his friends. The tale was told to me long ago on the spot by Te Wineti, the old chief of Ngati-Pikiao, as we sat on a mossy log by the stream.

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When Hongi Hika and his Ngapuhi army invaded the Rotorua country (the date was 1823), bringing their canoes up the Pongakawa River from the sea, the force divided when the head of the river was reached at Pari-whaiti, the cliff where the subterranean outflow from the east end of Rotoiti bursts forth and forms the source of the Pongakawa. Hongi, with most of his men, hauled the war canoes up through the bush and over the fern hills to Lake Rotoehu. This great labour occupied several hundreds of men for some days. In the meantime a smaller force under the chief Te Wera was dispatched from the riverhead to Rotoiti direct, to take the people there by surprise, and then await the canoe haulers, who, after crossing Rotoehu, would have to bend on the drag-ropes again and take the great dugout kauri craft across the forest levels to Rotoiti. Te Wera led his warriors through the bush on the west page 3 side of the Matawhaura Range and down to the lakeside at Otairoa, where there was a small stockaded village of the Ngati-Pikiao tribe; it was on the north side near that beautiful old pa called Puketapu, where huge pohutukawa trees grow in the ancient entrenchments. There Ngapuhi, most of whom were armed with newly acquired flintlock muskets, made a quick attack, shooting through the palisade and soon killing or capturing the few inhabitants.

There was at this juncture a chief of Ngati-Pikiao named Te Rakataha living at Tapuwae-haruru, the principal village of the tribe, on the long beach at the east end of Rotoiti. He and his people had, of course, not been without warning of the Ngapuhi invaders' arrival on the coast at Waihi, but they did not imagine, apparently, that the dreaded musketeers of the North were so close at hand. The first signal that they were even then on the shore of Rotoiti was the banging thunder of Te Wera's guns at Otairoa, the reports echoing in terrifying reverberations from the lofty precipices of Matawhaura. Te Rakataha's first thought was for his kinsfolk at Puta-atua, a small stockaded village on the lake shore between Otairoa and Matawhaura. The principal man there was the chief Te Amotu Takanawa.*

Te Rakataha at once launched a fast canoe, manning it with ten paddlers, all that were on the beach at the moment, and off they dashed to the rescue across the shining blue face of Tawhitinui, the wide eastern bay of Rotoiti.

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They reached Te Amo's beach just in time to get him and nine or ten of his people into the canoe—most of the inhabitants had gone in the only large canoe to Mokoia Island some days before for safety.

By this time Te Wera and many of his men had launched a canoe at the village they had captured and they appeared in chase the moment Te Rakataha had embarked his friends.

Now there was a desperate contest, both crews paddling with all their might for the beach at Tapuwae-haruru. Spray flew from the blades as the canoes tore through the smooth waters. The Ngapuhi men were the stronger in numbers and they were rapidly overtaking the Ngati-Pikiao when the first canoe touched the sands. Te Rakataha and Te Amotu Takanawa and their party, some twenty altogether, dashed on shore only a few moments ahead of their pursuers, and rushed for the shelter of the forest, to join their friends at Rotoehu. Their foes had been too busy with the paddles thus far to give them a shot, but now some of the musketeers fired on them, without effect.

There were several women and children among the fugitives. These Te Rakataha and Te Amotu pushed on in front, themselves taking the rearguard duty. All this was a matter of seconds; the cannibal conquerors were close on their heels.

The Ngati-Pikiao took to the Tahuna trail—very soon to be Hongi's canoe-road—a narrow foot track walled in by dense undergrowth and roofed by the low bending boughs of the forest.

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“Run, run!” cried Te Amotu. “On, on, and join Tautari!” To his comrade Te Rakataha he panted, “Go on, Ra! I shall keep them back! Save our people!”

Just on the further side of this Taupo stream Te Amotu turned about and confronted his foes. He was armed with a taiaha, the two-handed broadsword and spear in one, that most effective of weapons in the hands of a master of fence. The foremost men of the pursuers had no guns; the musketeers, reloading, had been passed by the swifter runners.

A Ngapuhi man, splashing through the shallow brook, rushed at Te Amotu with a long-handled tomahawk. The duel, fought with lightning-like blows and parries, was prolonged by Te Amotu as much as possible, to delay the pursuit of his friends. Only one man could attack him at a time on that narrow trail, and the gunmen behind the tomahawk wielder could not fire for fear of hitting their own man.

At last Te Amotu, warding off a furious down-slash, felled his opponent with a jaw-breaking blow and instantly ran the spear-tongue of his taiaha into his throat.

On sprang the second warrior. He had a flintlock pistol thrust through his belt, but he used a stone patu, the sharp-edged club, for the combat. Him Te Amotu soon disposed of by giving him the point of his taiaha in the stomach and dealing him a crashing stroke on the head as he doubled up.

With the fierce fatalism, the utter indifference to death that the Maori calls whakamomori, the keeper of the track awaited his next foe. Every moment he held that one-man way took his people nearer to safety.

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But the third Ngapuhi had a loaded musket. As he levelled it Te Amotu sprang at him. The report of the flintlock thundered through the forest, the first gunshot ever heard in the woods of Tahuna. When the little cloud of smoke cleared, the gunman lay sprawled on the ferny bank of the Taupo, with Te Amotu on top of him. In his dying convulsion Te Amotu, shot through the body, had felled his foe with a stunning head-blow.

Pausing only to make sure of their gallant enemy with tomahawk cuts, the Ngapuhi dashed on in pursuit. But Te Rakataha and his party were safe in their secure refuge, the secret places of the bush. They presently joined Tautari, the chief of Ngati-Makino, whose fortified village stood on a headland above Rotoehu. He and his people made night attacks on Hongi's men when they camped on the lake shore, and killed and carried off several of Ngapuhi. In the meantime, the slayers of Te Amotu returned to Tapuwae-haruru beach to await Hongi. They had their brave foeman's head stuck on a pole, to address with tauntings, and his body for the oven.

But Te Wera, veteran of many campaigns, regarded those silent, stern features with a warrior's respect for a fearless opponent, and it was he who, when peace was made after the fall of Mokoia Island, told the people the story of Te Amotu's last stand from the Ngapuhi side, and his story linked up with the moving tale of self-sacrifice as narrated by Te Rakataha.

And Ngati-Pikiao set up a white stone on the trackside, which one may see to-day, to mark for the genations that were to come the sacred spot where one man page 7 fought a hopeless yet glorious fight that his kinsfolk and friends might live.

“Now,” said Wineti, when he had told his story of the stone by Taupo stream, “you may wonder why Te Amotu, and not Te Rakataha, took the rearguard position on this track that day. The reason was that he fought here not only to save his tribe by delaying the chase, but to repay the service done by Rakataha in hastening to rescue him when the first reports of Te Wera's guns were heard. He died for his friends because he loved them, but he died also out of gratitude to the man who had risked his life for him.”

* Amotu is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, and Takanawa with the accent on the second syllable.