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Hero Stories of New Zealand

The Swimmer. — How Te Rau-o-te-Rangi Crossed the Strait of Kapiti

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The Swimmer.
How Te Rau-o-te-Rangi Crossed the Strait of Kapiti.

IT was from Aperahama, of the Ngati-Toa—the great Rauparaha's tribe—that I first heard mention of the young chieftainess Te Rau-o-te-Rangi and her heroic swim from Kapiti Island to the mainland with her little daughter on her back. We were sitting one day on the edge of the sand-dunes at Paekakariki, with the blue waters of the Strait spread out before us, the storied sea of Raukawa across which the stout-hearted Hinepoupou swam in the long ago, where the storms of Tawhiri-Matea—the god of the winds—have oft played havoc with the ships of the white man as with the dug-out canoes of the Maori. But Tawhiri-Matea slumbered this day. The ocean, too, lay asleep except for a long, slow regular pulsing that very gently undulated its sapphire surface. To north and south the long white beach ran, widening in the north into the tossed-up sandhills that lay about the mouth of the Waikanae River. To our right was the little Native village of Wainui. And there, in front of us across the salt water, humped and creased of back like some gigantic saurian, lay the lonely isle of Kapiti, in its soft blue veil of sea-haze. Inviolate it looked, and tapu, resting there upon the breast of Hinemoana, with one narrow cloud-streak belting its sentry summit, Titeremoana, the Ocean Look-out of the olden Maoris. It looked a fairy isle, one of those dim romantic spots we read of in the old Arthurian legends or in the classic pages of the Greeks.

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“Across yon sea-channel,” said the old man Aperahama, “the rangatira woman Te Rau-o-te-Rangi swam; and Ripeka, the little child who rode upon her shoulders over the ocean, and who grew to be a woman, lies in that graveyard of Wainui just below there.” And later I heard the story in detail from Te Rau's only surviving child, the old lady Heni te Rau, the half-caste, who was born on Kapiti Island in 1835, and also from Te Whataupoko, the grandson of the great Rauparaha's tohunga.

This narrative of a woman's courage and endurance refers to a period of more than a century ago, when this was Maori Land indeed, and when Rauparaha and Rangihaeata and their all-conquering men-at-arms held Kapiti Island as their sea-girt citadel. The coast-dwelling Maoris of the old days were almost as much in their element in the sea as on the land. Te Rau-o-te-Rangi was a water-queen amongst them. Her swim covered seven miles at least. Kapiti Island lies five miles from the nearest part of the mainland, but the swimmer crossed the intervening sea in a diagonal direction. Hinemoa's much-sung swim across Lake Rotorua to her lover on Mokoia Island is far outdone by Te Rau-o-te-Rangi's feat, for the distance to the island from Owhata village, where Hinemoa took to the water, is not more than two miles. And the lake was smooth and calm, whereas the heroine of Kapiti had to cross a treacherous current-vexed sea and face the surf at the end of the swim.

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In the Twenties of last century the young chieftainess Kahe Te Rau-o-te-Rangi lived with some of her tribes-people at Waiorua, a large stockaded village at the north of Kapiti, in a rocky bay facing the mainland, with the page 10 bird-swarming forests climbing the steep hills at the back. She was perhaps twenty-three or twenty-four years old; she had a tiny daughter of about five years, a child whom in later days a missionary baptised as Rebecca, which the Maoris pronounce Ripeka. Te Rau was accounted a very fine and handsome young woman, for she was straight and tall and ample of bosom, beautifully and generously proportioned and strong of limb—a woman well fitted to mother warriors. She excelled in swimming and diving. No one in Kapiti, man or woman, was a more strenuous and successful diver for shellfish; no one could swim with a bigger basket-load or remain under water longer; and in every swimming race she defeated all her rivals. With her fighting father, Te Matoha, she had marched in Rauparaha's great military migration from Kawhia Harbour through Taranaki down to Horowhenua and Otaki and Waikanae.

Early one morning in the year 1826 Te Rau-o-te-Rangi's man-slave, one Patetere, came to her in much agitation to say that he had dreamed a dream of evil omen, a warning from the spirit-world. In his vision of the night he beheld a great ope, or army of foemen from the northern mainland assembling and advancing on the island in their war-canoes. Kapiti would surely fall, and Ngati-Toa, who were not a numerous tribe, would go into the cannibal ovens of their foes. The slave urged his mistress to fly from the island while there was yet time.

“Wait a while,” said Te Rau calmly, “wait until they appear; then we shall see.”

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They had but a few days to wait. Patetere had implicit faith in that warning from the land of dreams, and he kept vigilant watch each night on the rocky horn of land which forms the northern end of Waiorua Bay. One quiet midnight his dream came true. In the moon-light he saw far away on the sea, in the direction of Otaki, a number of black dots, which gradually grew larger. They were canoes, a whole flotilla of them, apparently paddling slowly so as not to reach their destination too soon.

The slave ran into Te Rau's whare and roused her. Her husband and her father, and many of the tribe, were away on the mainland, and she was in the faithful old bond-servant's care. Te Rau hurried out to the point, where the rocks of Kuru-Kohatu dip down to the surf, and satisfied herself that a great fleet of canoes was indeed approaching. “They are dipping their paddles gently,” she said; “they will lie off until just before dawn and then dash in when the kaka parrot cries its first call to the day.”

Bidding Patetere quietly arouse the chiefs of the village, Te Rau went to the tohunga, the medicine-man of the tribe, whose name was Te Whataupoko, and requested him to karakia her, repeat over her his most potent death-averting spells, for she had resolved upon a great and perilous deed.

“I shall go to the mainland,” she said, “but I shall not take a canoe, for it would be seen, even the smallest canoe. I shall swim the Strait—I shall take my little daughter with me; and I shall rouse the people to save Kapiti.”

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Leading his relative to the sacred place of Waiorua, on the brink of the waterside, the tohunga karakia'd her for the great task, reciting spells and charms over her, soul and body, strengthening invocations, and prayers to the deities of sea and air, to avert from the swimmer danger by taniwha and shark and overwhelming wave.

Then, returning to the hut, Te Rau threw off her garments and stood there naked, and her slave-woman, Rau-Huihui (Patetere's wife) anointed her from head to foot with oil, and rubbed her strong, beautiful young body all over with kokowai, or red ochre, to protect her from chill. And on the mother's shoulders Rau-huihui securely fastened the bewildered little child, supported on a thick mat or pad of the buoyant dried leaves of the raupo reed, so that the tiny girl might rest high and safe. And then wading into the sea, the brave woman struck out for the Ao-marama, the land of light and life.

First Te Rau swam southward along the coast of Kapiti, keeping in the shadow of the hills, lest she and the child be seen by some long-sighted warrior in the canoes. Then, when she judged it was time to make toward the Waikanae shore, she changed her course boldly across channel. She swam with long, powerful, but easy strokes, turning her head now and again to speak a petting work to her frightened little daughter. After a while she tired and lay there floating quietly; she could not turn on her back to rest because of the child. She murmured a little nursery-song, an oriori, to her infant; and presently on she swam again.

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The sea-swell grew heavier; and now Te Rau could hear the long roar of the surf on the mainland beach. A haze had come down over the sea with the setting of the moon; and she would have lost her direction but for the roll of the breakers. She reached the shore a long distance south of the Waikanae mouth; she rode easily in on the top of the seas she saw in the dawning; now she touched bottom, and another breaker threw her up on the sands. Struggling up the beach, she sank down on the firm white sand, and unfastening her poor little half-perished baby from her stiff and weary shoulders, she clasped it to her thankful breast.

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Kapiti did not fall. Its garrison, fighting with the utmost fierceness and desperation, beat off the invaders and took many prisoners, and there were many killed for the cannibal cooking ovens. The reinforcements summoned by Te Rau-o-te-Rangi only came over in time to share in the triumphant war-dances of Ngati-Toa.

The brave swimmer was a woman of importance in after years; she and her relative Topeora were two of the three women who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. She was prolific to a degree unknown in these degenerate days, for she had twenty or twenty-one children—her daughter Heni te Rau was not sure of the exact number! Three or four of the children were to her Maori husband; the others to a Scottish trader, John Nicoll, whom she married at Paekakariki about 1830. One of these was Mere Naera, who became the mother of Sir Maui Pomare. And the daughter Ripeka lived to tell children of her own the story of how she was borne to safety across the sea on her mother's toiling shoulders that perilous night of long ago.