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Hero Stories of New Zealand

A Running Battle — How Gilbert Mair Saved Rotorua

page 187

A Running Battle
How Gilbert Mair Saved Rotorua

“FOOLS, madmen!” shouted the shawl-kilted young officer, carbine in hand, who rushed along the track below Pukeroa Hill, that looks on the lake of Rotorua. “Madmen, to trust that treacherous murderer! Throw down that flag, throw it down!”

The excited pakeha, who was followed by a party of armed Arawa men, was addressing the leading men in a procession moving out from the hot-springs village of Ohinemutu towards the south. A chief at their head carried a white cloth mounted on a long stick. About three hundred yards away, on the south, another band of men was advancing to meet them, also with a white flag. The Rotorua men were the principal chiefs of the place, headed by Petera te Pukuatua and Te Amohau. They were on their way to meet Te Kooti and his Hauhaus, who had sent in a message professing peace and desiring a meeting. The Ohinemutu elders, relying on the good faith of the Urewera and other warriors under the rebel chief, intended to invite them into their headquarters village on the lakeside. But one alert pakeha intervened. It was gallant Gilbert Mair, lieutenant of Militia, who commanded a field force of the pick of the young Arawa.

Mair, running up to Petera te Pukuatua, tore the white flag from the chief's hands, threw it on the ground and jumped on it. “You would trust that treacherous fellow, would you?” he said. “You would be the first to feel the tomahawk blade!”

page 188

Then, calling to the young men to follow him, Mair turned about and opened fire on the nearest Hauhaus. After his first shot—fired to prevent that specious peacemaking, which would be the prelude to massacre—he rapidly reckoned up his man-strength for the coming fight. Te Kooti, he supposed, had two hundred men. The Arawa force available was less than half that number, for he had early that morning sent off various parties to guard tracks and villages. He had made a forced march through the Mamaku-Hautere Forest, on the ranges, from Tapapa, knowing that Rotorua was in danger, and only that morning, on emerging from the bush just where the motor road of to-day comes out from the north, had struck the Hauhaus' trail.

“Follow me, the Arawa!” cried Mair as he reloaded and ran towards the enemy.

The old chiefs tried to bar the young warriors' way by holding their weapons across the narrow track in the fern and manuka. But Tohe te Matehaere, a big lad armed with a rifle and tomahawk, burst through and dashed past his officer, eager for the battle. Mair called him back. “Steady, my boy,” he cried, “we shall have a long fight to-day!”

Meantime the Hauhau advance guard, seeing that the peacemaking pretence was unmasked, had turned about and was in retreat towards Te Kooti, who was up on the slopes of the Tihi-o-Tonga with his main body, awaiting the expected deputation and the invitation to feast and rest in Ohinemutu. At Paparata, on the southern hill rim of the Rotorua basin, he had commandeered pigs and potatoes; his force had been on starvation rations page 189 in the bush for many days. The Hauhaus had rounded up some horses, and Te Kooti and his women and several of the men were mounted on these; they took the lead in the retreat to the distant shelter of the Urewera country.

It was now midday, a hot midsummer day—the 7th of February, 1870. The Hauhaus had a long start; by the time Mair had a few men round him and was pelting up the hill slopes south of Rotorua, Te Kooti was two miles ahead. The long running fight was on.

Te Kooti told off his best warriors for the rearguard, led by the savage half-caste Eru Peka te Makarini, the greatest desperado and killer in the rebel ranks. These men every now and again turned about to lay ambushes for their pursuers at places where there was good cover.

The first hot skirmish was near the Puarenga stream, at the junction of the present motor roads, the Waiotapu and Atiamuri routes. Here Mair, running well ahead of his company, was closely engaged, and shot his first Hauhau of the day. A little further on, in the Waikorowhiti Valley, two more were shot, and at Ngapuketurua, six miles from Rotorua, the principal encounter took place. At every knoll or ridge Peka and his rearguard turned to fight. It was only Mair's personal courage and quick and accurate shooting that saved his Arawa party, who were greatly outnumbered. Only a few of the strongest runners could keep up with the tireless pakeha leader.

Ngapuketurua—the two hills—is a steep ridge covered with sparse manuka, trending parallel with the Waitaruna stream and the present main road from page 190 Rotorua to Waiotapu and Taupo. The scene of the fight here, on the western skyline, can be seen from the road, just below Owhinau hill in the State forest plantation. Mair was well in advance of his men, and as he ran he was heavily fired on. He dropped down and fired ahead and right and left, as quickly as he could load his Westley-Richards carbine.

Presently ten or twelve of his Arawa came panting up and joined in the combat. Seven Hauhaus were shot; one who fell to Mair was Timoti te Kaka, a desperate fighter from Opotiki. Quite seventy men opposed Mair's score or so here.

On the run again the survivors of the ambush turned to the right and made across the open Kapenga plain for Tumunui Mountain, passing to the west and south of Pakaraka village. Mair expected the Tuhourangi men from Rotokakahi to intercept Te Kooti about here, but they considered their own villages would be in danger if they did so.

It was nearly seven o'clock in the evening when the final skirmish took place. Mair and three men ran right into the Hauhau rearguard under Peka, among the rocks at the foot of square-topped, earthquake-fissured Tumunui Mountain. Mair was fifty yards ahead of his men. Peka, who had about thirty men under cover, jumped up, fired a shot at Mair, and rushed at him, ferociously, with clubbed rifle. Mair let the big half-caste come within about fifteen paces, and fired, smashing Peka's right hipbone. The fallen man snatched at his revolver, hanging at his belt, but Mair ran up and got it, and a little later Te Warihi finished Te Kooti's fiercest fighter by putting a bullet through his head.

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Mair took from Peka a bugle, on his cross-belt, a trophy of the escape from Chatham Islands in 1868. The half-caste was the Hauhau bugler. Peka was so fair-skinned that he seemed a pakeha, startlingly white in his scanty fighting costume, simply a pair of tweed trousers rolled up above the knees. He was barefooted and bareheaded; cartouche-belts were strapped round his waist, a short-handled tomahawk was held by his leather girdle. Across his broad chest was tattooed in blue letters, in the shape of a half-moon, his full name, “Peka te Makarini,” and on one arm was the name of his sister, “Huhana.” Fastened to his swag was a leather case, in which Mair found a flag, with many devices on it; this was Te Kooti's war-flag, a very long pennant, which the Hauhaus called “Te Wepu” (“The Whip”). (It is now in the Dominion Museum collection in Wellington.)

This ended the battle; it was nearly dark. Mair had only two cartridges left; he had fired 58 shots that day. Te Kooti and most of his followers got clear away for the Urewera Country, but lost the pick of his warriors. About twenty Hauhaus were killed, seven or eight of them by Mair himself. The Arawa lost one, mortally wounded, a plucky seventeen-year-old lad named Te Waaka, and several others were wounded. One of Mair's best young fellows in that day's chase of quite twenty miles was Tohe te Matehaere; he lived until 1933, a white-moustached veteran, in his ancient parapeted village Weriweri, near the mouth of the Waiteti stream at Rotorua.

∗ ∗ ∗

Mair received his captaincy for that day's good work, which was described by his superiors as a turning-point page 192 in the war, a success due to his own great courage. In 1886 he was awarded that most rare of all military decorations, the New Zealand Cross. Forty-eight years after the fight Mair and I spent two days in following up the war track on horseback, and tracing the exact scenes of the running battle. As we rode along the old hero of the Hauhau wars showed where Eru Peka laid his ambuscades and where so-and-so of the enemy fell. But the vegetation of the country had vastly changed. Thick high scrub grew where in 1870 there had been only short wiwi grass and patchy manuka, and we had to give up the exploration in the tangled gullies of the Kapenga.

Captain Mair lies buried in the little churchyard by the lakeside at Ohinemutu, in the midst of his well-loved Arawa people, where he wished to be laid. Now and again one of his old soldiers—only two or three of them now—bares his head before the stone and murmurs a greeting and a farewell to “Tawa,” or “Kapene Mea.” Undoubtedly “Tawa” saved Ohinemutu, with its hundreds of all but defenceless people, from massacre that day of 1870, for Te Kooti had threatened to hew them in pieces after the manner of the Old Testament, as he had hewn Poverty Bay and Mohaka, and he usually carried out his threats.