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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter XXII — The Forest Foragers

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Chapter XXII
The Forest Foragers

Fugitive Hauhaus—Hard times in the bush—The eaters of mamaku—Bent's adventure—Lost in the woods—Rupé to the rescue—The tapu'd eels.

After we deserted Tauranga-ika,” says my old pakeha-Maori, “we led a miserably rough life in the bush. We were as near starvation sometimes as we could well be. Kepa's Kupapas and the white scouts were hunting for us, stalking us like wild beasts, and we were hiding in the forest and living on what we could pick up. We scattered in parties. I and some of the Hauhaus selected a safe spot in the deep bush, built wharés to shelter ourselves, and then went out to the edge of the forest digging up fern-root for food. We scoured the bush for the mamaku fern-tree,* and cut out the white pith of page 263 the tree; it was one of our principal foods at that time. It has a peculiar effect on any one who eats much of it—it makes him strangely drowsy and sleepy. Sometimes, too, we had to eat whara-whara and similar mosses, and the mushroom-like haroré that grew on the tawa-trees, and hakeke, or wood-fungus. We became very weak and feeble for want of food. We did not dare to light a fire in the daytime, for fear the smoke rising above the forest trees would betray us. At night we would kindle a small fire, just enough to keep the pipes going as we sat round and smoked and talked in low voices.”

Titokowaru's warriors, too, ran short of ammunition. For his cartridges, Bent sometimes had to use small pieces of hard wood cut to the proper size instead of lead bullets. The natives were also often short of percussion-caps; they used to save the exploded ones, and cut off match-heads and insert them. A box of caps was a great prize to a Hauhau in those days. This ingenious use of matchheads was a common practice in the later days of the war, and many a box of pakeha matches found its way through supposedly “friendly” Maori hands into the rebel camps.

For three or four weeks the Hauhaus concealed themselves in the forests between the Waitotara and the Patea Rivers, their warriors making occasional sorties and laying ambuscades for straggling whites.

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Not only was Bent in daily and nightly danger of death at the hands of his enemies, the Government men, during this period of hiding and starving in the bush, but in one of his adventures he narrowly escaped the tomahawks of his own companions, the Hauhaus.

Bent and a party of about twenty Maoris set out one day from their camp at Oteka, away inland of the Weraroa, on a food-hunting expedition into the great trackless forests in the rear of their hiding-place. They travelled half a day's journey into the rugged bush-country, a lone region where no booted foot had ever trod. They fished for eels in the creeks, and climbed for wild honey wherever they saw the bees buzzing round their hives in the hollow trees. They carried with them taha (calabashes made from the hué, or vegetable gourd); these they filled with the honey. When they had collected as much as they could carry, they started on their return tramp to the kainga. Bent's pikau, or backload, consisted of about thirty pounds weight of honey in taha and two large eels, all in a flax basket.

When the party left their camping-place the white man went on ahead, and was soon out of sight of his companions. After a while he found that he had missed the route by which he had come the previous day.

He pushed on and on, hoping every moment to page 265 catch sight of a broken branch or a footprint or a tomahawk blaze on a tree that would indicate the trail. He wandered about, up and down hill, crossing creeks, and tearing what little clothes he wore in the tangled bush, until he had not the least idea where he was.

He was lost in the forest.

Night came on while the lonely white man was still toiling bewildered through the dense woods. He spent the hours of darkness crouched up under a tree, sleeping little, and shivering with the cold, for he was thinly clothed and had no blanket, and no matches or flint and steel with which to light a fire for warmth and cooking.

Early next morning Bent climbed a tall rata-tree near his bivouac and scanned the wild country round. Nothing but forest, forest everywhere— vast waves of deep verdure sweeping away and away as far as the eye could see. No sign of human life—no guiding landmark. Somewhere beneath that impenetrable pall of green that clothed everything were his people. But where?

Ah! What is that blue, thin coil rising slowly out of the forest far ahead, westward?

A curl of smoke! A Hauhau camp; perhaps some hunting-party cooking their morning meal.

The white man joyfully descended from his treeperch, and quickly getting into his pikau straps again, set out at as fast a pace as his load page 266 would allow him, steering in the direction of the smoke.

He toiled on and on, breaking through jungles of undergrowth and clinging vines, over logs and through watercourses, until suddenly he found himself at the foot of a rocky wall which rose perpendicularly above him for about thirty feet.

He endeavoured to clamber up the precipice, assisting himself by the forest roots and creepers which hung in trailing coils down its face, but they gave way under his weight when he had ascended but a few feet, and he found himself at the base of the cliff again, debating whether to try the climb again, or make a long detour, and perhaps lose the run of the point for which he was heading.

Suddenly, high above him, a voice cried, “Who's there?”

The startled white man, peering through the tangle of foliage and creepers, saw a man standing on the cliff-top—a Maori girt with a flax mat, a gun in his hand. It was Rupé, his chief and owner.

The Maori was gazing intently down the cliff. With him was a woman, the old chief's daughter Rihi, who was Bent's wife. He had heard the noise made by Bent in his attempt to scale the cliff, and he noticed the shaking of the bush-vines and leaves that screened the lower part of the wall, but the white man was so far hidden from his vision.

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Bent called to him: “Don't fire, Rupé! It is I, your pakeha—Tu-nui-a-moa!”

E tama!” cried the old chief. “I am glad indeed! I came out searching for you, for your life is in great danger.”

The pakeha, changing his position so that Rupé could see him, explained his predicament.

“Remain where you are,” said Rupé, “and I will lower a rope to you.”

In a few minutes a line, made of split leaves of the harakeke flax, knotted together, and strengthened with aka, or bush-vines, was thrown down the cliff to Bent. The upper end of the hastily made bush rope the old man had made fast to a tree on the cliff-top.

“Send your pikau up first, and you can follow,” ordered Rupé.

Bent tied his flax basket of eels and honey to the line. Rupé hauled it up, lowered the line again, and Bent tied it round his body below the arms. Then the chief and his stalwart daughter hauled the light-weight pakeha safely to the summit of the wall.

Rihi and her father both wept as they took Bent's hands, so great was their relief at finding their pakeha safe and sound. Rupé told the white man that he had feared he was dead.

“Why?” asked Bent.

“Why? There are a score of armed Hauhaus page 268 searching the forest for you, and had they found you before I did they would have killed you.”

The old chief explained, further, that when Bent did not return to the bush-village the previous night, his fellow-eelers had come to the conclusion that he had given them the slip on the journey home, and had made off to the white men's camp. So at daylight a party set out to scour the forest round the kainga, fully intending, if they found the deserter in hiding, to summarily execute him. Old Rupé, too, had taken to the forest with his daughter—before daylight—but for a different reason: he did not believe his pakeha would desert him, and as he concluded Bent had lost himself in the bush, he had kindled a fire on the most prominent hill-side in the forest, in the hope that the wanderer would see it and make his way towards it. His bushcraft was successful, and no doubt it saved Bent's life, for had he gone wandering on he would most probably have run into the arms of his hunters.

So the three of them—the rangatira and his “tame white man” and the Maori girl—travelled homeward as quickly and as quietly as they could, seldom speaking to one another for fear some prowling Hauhau should hear them. “Even now, if they find you out in the forest,” said Rupé, “I may not be able to save you. Be cautious, for this may be your last day!”

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Late in the afternoon the camp of the fugitive rebels was reached, and Bent was safe.

Titokowaru, just back from a scouting expedition to the forest-edge, was in the village. The grim war-chief was genuinely pleased to see the white man back again, and safe.

E tu!” said he; “it was fortunate indeed that Rupé met you in the forest. Had any of the others found you—my young men of the Tekau-ma-rua—then you had been a dead man!”

Now came an illustration of that many-sided law, the tapu. Titokowaru took the two eels which Bent had carried home on his back and hung them up as an offering to the atua, the heathen gods. They were under the ban because they had been borne on the white man's back, which was temporarily tapu; therefore they could not be eaten.

The honey, however, was not wasted. Titokowaru, having no doubt a sweet tooth, sagely decided that it would be sufficient to hang up the eels for the gods; he whakanoa'd the honey, that is, he repeated karakia, or incantations, over it, by which the maleficent powers of the tapu were nullified or averted and the food made fit for consumption.

* The Taranaki Maoris used to cultivate the mamaku ferntree for the sake of the edible pith. The natives point out one of the olden mamaku grounds just to the north of Keteonetea (near the present township of Normanby), where the old Whakaahurangi track went in towards Mount Egmont. Here there were two or three miles of mamaku forest. The Maoris used to cut off the upper parts of the trees and plant them in the ground, thus making two mamaku grow where only one grew before. The old tree so decapitated always sent out a new head.