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Hero Stories of New Zealand

Explorers And Pathfinders — The Spade of Rakaihaitu

page 247

Explorers And Pathfinders
The Spade of Rakaihaitu

THE story of heroic exploration in this greatly mountainous and forested country goes back a very long way. Polynesian sailing-craft voyaged to the shores of these islands a thousand years ago and more, computing the period from Maori genealogical recitals. These lists of ancestors are usually reliable, until the tradition-keepers wander so far into “the dark backward and abysm of time” that they introduce the mythological names of gods and the powers of nature. There were many successive waves of immigration. Very probably some of the earliest comers were from the islands of Melanesia, north of New Zealand, before the later comers arrived from the Polynesian islands far away to the north-east. By the time the Arawa, Tainui, Takitimu and other celebrated vessels arrived from Tahiti and Rarotonga in the middle of the fourteenth century there were thousands of people in these islands—the tangata whenua, as the Maoris call them, mostly of Polynesian blood, with a touch of the Melanesian tarbrush.

Forty-two generations ago in Maori word-of-mouth chronology, which is to say about 1,050 years ago—approximately 900 A.D.—a Polynesian exploring navigator whose name was Rakaihaitu landed on the sands of the South Island from his sailing canoe, the name of which, as the traditions of his descendants tell, was the Uruao. These traditions are quite unknown in the North Island; they were preserved in the memories of page 248 the old learned men with whom I talked in the Canterbury and Otago and Southland kaikas over thirty years ago. Rakaihaitu was the first great explorer of this wild land, long before even the name Aotearoa had been given to it; that name came from later immigrants from Tahiti. He preceded that other Polynesian explorer of fame, Tamatea, commander of the Takitimu (or Takitumu) canoe, by four centuries, again computing the period from the genealogies.

Rakaihaitu travelled from north to south of the unpeopled island, spying out the goodness of the land, noting its food supplies, its plenty of birds for food, and its fish-teeming estuaries. Rakaihaitu was a magician; like Ngatoro-i-Rangi, the priest and wizard of a much later Hawaikian migration, he was “a god in himself,” as the Maoris say; and he performed some marvellous deeds.

According to the legend narrated by his descendants, he formed some of the great lakes of the Island. The first whose bed he made was Rotoroa, in the north of the Island. Then, coming south, he formed Wairewa, which we call Forsyth, the long narrow lake lying between the steep volcanic heights on the fringe of the Banks Peninsula ranges. Striding southward like a giant he paused to form a lake in many places. The great lakes we know he made—and how? He gouged them out with his digging-implement, the long sharp-ended ko, with lashed-on foot-rest, used by the ancient cultivator. His crowning work of magic was Wakatipu; with many fervent incantations to aid his efforts he scooped out with his mighty ko that long deep winding trench between the mountains. He dug out also the page 249 vast hollows for Wanaka and Hawea; and he left all those wonderful works for the marvel and admiration of his descendants. And to this day the Ngai-Tahu and Ngati-Mamoe people call these great lakes of the South Island “Nga Puna-wai karikari a Rakaihaitu,” which means “The Water-springs Dug Out by Rakaihaitu.”

In the same spirit of hero-worship and ancestor-worship the old Maoris have a figurative expression for the cliffs of the East Coast of the South Island; they speak of them as “Nga whata tu a Rakaihaitu,” likening them to the whata or storehouse set on tall legs or posts, in which food was kept.

This nature-myth of lake-making preserves in figurative Maori fashion the story of the explorer's discoveries as he travelled through the Island. It is curious that the formation of all the lakes mentioned in the legend given me—with the exception of Wairewa—is traceable to glacial action. Rakaihaitu's ko was the ice-plough of the Alps, the glacier, which, with its enormous excavating power, scooped out the channels of the lakes and deposited terminal moraines that confined the waters in their deep bed. The legend is one of the many proofs of the ancient Maori's keen eye for land contours and an appreciation of geological and physiographic facts, and as was his way he crystallised these impressions in symbolic folk-talk.

Some of our own people, too, have this gift of poetic imagery in describing the facts of nature. Some years ago I was discussing with an old Irish farmer friend the ice-striated rocks and the smooth-backed “roches moutonees” so familiar a sight in the country at the base of the Southern Alps. He had seen similar rocks, page 250 the remainder of a remote glacial age, in his native mountains of Wicklow. “When I was a small boy I asked my father what made those curious markings on the rocks,” he said, “and his reply was, ‘Those marks, my lad, were made by the teeth of God's harrows.’”

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Tamatea-pokai-whenua (“Tamatea who penetrated the land”), as the chief of the famous Takitimu came to be called, explored not only the South Island, but a great part of the North. From Southland (Murihiku), where he left his canoe stranded (heroic legend avers that the Takitimu Range, overlooking Lake Manapouri on the plains side, is his capsized canoe) he travelled to Lake Te Anau, thence northward to the hills above the inlet that is now Lyttelton Harbour, and still northward. Making a canoe, he and his people crossed to the North Island, and made their way up the Wanganui River (properly Whanganui) as far as they could paddle and pole. Then Tamatea explored the heart of the Island, Lake Taupo and the volcanic mountains, and so on across the ranges and plains until he came to the East Coast; and there he rejoined the section of his crew who had landed near the East Cape. A heroic traverse indeed; it occupied years; and Tamatea left his mark on many places by bestowing names which have persisted to this day. The small lakes popularly called the Tama lakes, near the base of Ngauruhoe volcano, are in full Nga Puna a Tamatea—“The Water-springs of Tamatea.” And there is that often-quoted and usually misspelled name of a hill on the explorer's trail from Taupo to East Coast which preserves his memory at portenteous length: Te Taumata page 251 o te Whakatangi-hanga-koauau a Tamatea-pokai-whenua. This being translated is, “The Hill where Tamatea-who-bored-through-the-Land (rested and) played on his nose-flute.” (The koauau was a small flute blown with the nostrils).

There was an enterprising explorer in the Tainui canoe, a chief from Tahiti, named Rakataura; he was the tohunga or priest of this party of immigrants. He explored the great region now known as the King Country, from Kawhia and Pirongia Mountain southward and westward, giving names to features of the landscape and noting the products of the land, the abundance of birds for food. Tainui traditions say that he named, among many other places, Pureora Mountain, the highest peak in the King Country, and also Te Aroha Mountain.