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The Adventures of Kimble Bent

Chapter XXV — The Land of Refuge

page 293

Chapter XXV
The Land of Refuge

The flight from Rukumoana—Retreat to the Waitara—The Kawau pa—Life in the Ngatimaru Country—Rupé and his white man—A Maori Donnybrook fair—A tale of a Taniwha.

One day two Hauhaus, exhausted and half-starved, entered the little bush-camp at Rukumoana. One of them was Bent's old rangatira, Tito te Hanataua. They had passed through many perils and hairbreadth escapes, and they warned the white man and his Maori comrades that Kepa te Rangihiwinui and his Whanganui Maori scouts were still hunting for them, and would have their heads to a certainty should they happen on the trail to the refuge place.

The old feeling of terror came over Bent and his companions at the mention of Kepa's name. That night Hauhau piquets kept watch on the edge of the clearing, and more than once they imagined they heard stealthy footfalls, the breaking of branches, and the whispers of enemies in the woods. These dangers, however, were things of the imagination. Nevertheless, it was an anxious night in the lonely kainga, and when morning came the people page 294 decided to abandon their camp and bury themselves still deeper in the wilderness.

In a very short time the men and women of the settlement were on the march, laden with their flax pikaus, containing such belongings as they thought worth removing. They took to the forest in a due northerly direction; bound for that Alsatia of rebels and Hauhaus, the remote and rugged Ngati-Maru Country, up on the head-waters of the WaitaraTitokowaru's hiding-place.

The utmost caution was observed on the march. No fires were lighted. So that there should be no clue to the direction of the flight, care was taken to leave no broken branches or other bushmen's signs; not a leaf was turned or a twig displaced if the refugees could help it until they were well into the ranges. Wherever possible they took to the creek-beds and walked in the running water, so that no trail should betray them. They could have spared themselves that anxiety and trouble, however, for the Government troops had at last abandoned the chase.

Two days Bent and his friends spent on that terrible trail—the roughest, wildest part of the Taranaki hinterland. Fording rivers, pushing through matted jungles, climbing wooded precipices, lowering their swags down perpendicular cliffs, and swinging themselves down by forest vines and creepers—they emerged at last, a weary little band, page 295 on the banks of the Waitara, about thirty miles from the mouth of that river. All around towered the densely forested blue ranges; the high banks of the winding Waitara fell precipitously to its rapidwhitened waters.

On the cliff-top where they left the forest there was a little Maori camp. Here the fugitives were ordered to the main Hauhau camp, the Kawau pa, where Titokowaru and his followers had established themselves, weary of war, but nevertheless resolute to die “fighting like the shark,” as the Maori has it, if attacked in their last hiding-place.

The Kawau pa stood in an admirable position for defence, in a great bend of the Waitara River. The winding rapid river here swept round a long tongue of steep-banked level land, protecting it on three sides; in the rear was the dense forest. The banks of the river were from twenty to thirty feet high, and could be climbed only in a few places. On this high tongue of land, about a quarter of a mile long, there stood a large village of well-built raupo and nikau thatched houses; between the village and the forest were the cultivations of potatoes, kumara, and taro. On the opposite side of the river, in the direction of the Taramouku Range, wild horses and cattle abounded in the bush. A short distance below the village there was a large pa-tuna, or eel-weir, consisting of two rows of stout manuka stakes set closely together and sunk into the river- page 296 bed and converging in a V, at the lower end of which hinaki, or eel-baskets, were set for the purpose of catching the piharau, or lamprey, which abounded in the Waitara, and which were a great Maori delicacy.

As Rupé and his pakeha Bent and their companions marched slowly into the marae of the warchief's camp, their eyes on the ground, they were welcomed with the ancient ceremony of the powhiri. The village women and girls waved green branches and shawls as they retired before them, singing all together the famous old greeting song, “Toia Mai te Waka!” (“Oh, haul up the canoe!”) likening the guests to a canoe-party of visitors arriving from a distant shore.

Then as the women fell back the whole force of Titoko's warriors leaped to their feet, and swinging their firearms this way and that, threw themselves with martial fury into all the thrilling action of the war-dance. The ground shook under the mighty tread of many scores of brown feet, and the forest rang with the chorus of the war-song and the reverberating volleys of many guns. And then, when the dance was ended, the hongi of long-severed friends, the pressing of nose to nose, and the pitiful weeping for the dead. For quite two hours the great tangi lasted. When it ceased one of the headmen of the river-tribes sent the new arrivals to his own camp, close by the Kawau; the village women page 297 came in procession, to the lilt of the tuku-kai song, bearing their baskets of food, steaming hot from the hangi, and the half-starved white man and his friends were soon enjoying a bountiful feast after their long-enforced existence upon the meagre rations of the bush.

. . . . .

Kimble Bent lived in this securely hidden place of refuge, and at Paihau village, near by, from the end of 1869 until about 1876. He was now a Maori in all his ways; he planted food-crops and harvested them, snared birds, fished for eels, cut out canoes, and paddled his canoe on the river, joined the Hauhaus in their songs and their sacred chants, and danced with them in their hakas; he wore as little clothing as any native in the camp.

Life did not go too easily with the white man during those days on the Waitara. He was still Rupé's bond-servant; and his master and owner sometimes took fits of ungovernable passion. In one of these paroxysms of anger Bent had a narrow escape.

Rupé one day ordered his white man to go down to a creek, which ran into the Waitara near the Paihau pa, and clear out the little dam in which the household were accustomed to steep their Indian corn, their kaanga-pirau. Bent was working away cleaning out the steeping-pool when his chief came page 298 up and found fault with him because he was not working hard enough. “I made him some answer which didn't please him,” says Bent, “whereupon he flew into a terrible rage and rushed at me like a tiger. I stooped and caught him by the leg, and he fell into the muddy pool. Up he jumped in a foaming passion, and ran to the pa, got out his gun, and loaded it to shoot me. But his wife rushed at him, took the gun out of his hands, and told me to hurry down to the other village, where I would be safe. So I ran to the river-bank, loosed a small canoe, and paddled down the river to the lower pa, where I was kindly received and taken into my old friend Hakopa's house, and I lived and worked there for some months.”

Another incident of those wild old days on the Waitara, narrated by Bent, is worth the telling, as an illustration of the whimsically variable temper of the Maori and of his truly Hibernian love of a “free fight.”

The war had long been over, and some hapus of the tribes on the upper river talked of selling their lands to the whites. Certain of the chiefs had been down at Waitara township and in New Plymouth, and there they had been approached by the agents of the Government. In the end they sold their lands for eighteenpence an acre. But the more conservative of the Hauhaus stoutly held out against land-selling, and against any dealings with page 299 the hated pakeha; and the difference of opinion led to frequent quarrels.

One day a council of the people was held on the marae of the Paihau village for the purpose of discussing the land-selling proposals. Long and bitter were the speeches; speaker after speaker taki'd up and down the marae, and worked himself up into a fury of excitement.

Two old chiefs, tattooed veterans of the war, their long hair adorned with feathers, weapons of wood and stone in their hands, angrily assailed each other. One was Rupé, the other was Horopapera Matangi. One advocated the sale of surplus lands, the other vigorously opposed it, and insisted on the principle of “Maori land for Maori men.” Then there arose a dispute about the ownership of a tangiwai (greenstone pendant). From argument they came to hurling abusive threats at each other.

At last Rupé furiously hurled his weapon—a sharp wooden spear—at Horopapera, who dodged it, and cleverly caught it near the butt end as it whistled past him. He instantly smartly returned it to its owner, spearing him through the leg.

Next two women went at it. Women of rank these, who considered themselves entitled to equal debating voice with the men-folk. Their powers of rhetoric and invective exhausted, they fell on each other very literally “tooth and nail,” biting, hair- page 300 pulling, scratching, screaming. In their struggle they tore each other's clothes off, and two nude Amazons raged round the marae.

One of the wild women, a young chieftainess, her long hair streaming behind her, her pendant breasts quivering, her shoulders bleeding, seized a canoe paddle and struck her antagonist a blow across the naked back with it. The other grabbed a tokotoko, or walking-staff, and, thrusting it between her opponent's legs, neatly up-ended her, in the “altogether,” on the green marae.

By this time the whole tribe were into the battle, with sticks, paddles, spears, and any weapon they could lay their hands on—men and women alike. It was a real faction fight. Fortunately, the people had left their guns in their wharés, and were too intent upon their hand-to-hand encounter to run for their firearms.

Kimble Bent stood on one side watching the squabble. He was close to the river-bank, where the canoes were tied up. Presently, one of the Maoris ran down to the water-side with an axe, and began furiously cutting away at his antagonists' canoes. Others ran to the cooking hangis, and with burning sticks from the ovens set fire to some of the thatched houses in the kainga. Soon there was a pretty blaze, and half the village was burned down in a few minutes.

In half an hour's time the people had cooled down, page 301 and the trouble was over. Then—a Hibernian people the Maoris, surely!—they began to weep over their quarrel, and fell on each other's necks— or, rather, pressed each other's noses—to make up for the hard words and blows they had just exchanged, and set to work to rebuild the dwellings they had destroyed in their hasty anger.

. . . . .

Meanwhile, Titokowaru wearied for the trail again, unable to rest in this secluded wilderness of the Waitara. His tapu status had been restored by a Waitara priest, with the appropriate karakias and invocations. Gathering together a band of his warriors—the remnant of the once ever-victorious Tekau-ma-rua—he paraded them in the marae of the Kawau pa, and farewelling his people, took his old place at the head of the taua and led them off in a grand war-dance. A truly savage figure, that stern old chief, as he leaped to the van of his warparty and danced, his sacred taiaha in the air; his waist girt with a coloured shawl, a rich feather cape of native make fastened over the left shoulder and under the right; his grizzled head decked with white plumes. And with loud cries of “Haere, ra! Haere ra!” the villagers farewelled the great warchief as he marched his armed men out of the pa and struck into the forest of the Taramouku, bound for the open lands of South Taranaki and his ancestral home. But it was no longer the war-trail, page 302 for Titoko and his henchmen fought no more, but betook themselves to the great camp of Te Whiti the Prophet, who preached peace, and prophesied sundry supernatural ways by which the Maori would come into his own again.

. . . . .

The minds of these isolated forest-dwellers were saturated with superstition, with strange beliefs that were a reflex of the vast untrimmed places of nature in which they lived. The white man, too, almost came to believe in the tales of saurian-like taniwhas and water-demons, in the patupaiarehe and maero, the forest-fairies and forest-giants, in the occult malevolence of the tapu and makutu spells.

A story related by Bent is illustrative of the Maori belief, up to quite modern days, in malignant beings which made their homes in lonely waters and in caves—the dreaded taniwha.

The tale of the “Taniwha” of the Kopua:

One day—this was in the early “seventies”—an old man named Te Maire left the Kawau landing in his canoe, and paddled down the Waitara to a place called Te Kopua, the site of an ancient village. The object of his expedition was to procure dry resinous strips of the rimu-pine for the purpose of making torches to be used in catching piharau page 303 (lampreys) in the river at night. After getting the wood he required he started on the return paddle to his home. On the way to the Kawau he disappeared, and was never seen again alive; no doubt he overbalanced and fell into the river while poling his canoe up one of the small rapids near the Kopua.

That afternoon five men from the Kawau, including Kimble Bent, were paddling their canoe down the river to a settlement a few miles distant, when they caught sight of the old man's empty canoe drifting down with the swift current. As they approached it it sped away rapidly before them, and at last stranded on a shingle-bank in a bend of the river. In it they found Te Maire's gun and a young pig, which the vanished man had evidently caught in the bush while on his torch-making expedition.

Bent's Maori companions immediately explained in their own way the mystery of their tribesman's disappearance.

“There is a taniwha there,” they said, “a fearful water-monster that dwells in a deep, still pool under Te Kopua's banks. He has stretched forth his long claws and dragged the old fellow down to his den.”

The Maori canoeists made haste to quit the dead man's craft, and plied their paddles with unusual energy until they reached their destination on the shore below. They told their story, and that even- page 304 ing a meeting of the village people was held in the wharepuni to discuss the mystery.

For hours the wiseacres of the bush-hamlet solemnly debated the circumstances, and each canoeist in turn had to give his account of the affair and advance his theory. At last it was decided that there was no possible doubt that the taniwha of the river had seized Te Maire and drowned him. There must, of course, be a reason, for no taniwha of any repute would take such an extreme step without some good cause.

The verdict was that Te Maire had violated the tapu of the deserted village; he had in all probability taken some dry rimu from an old house that stood there, and which was sacred because a chief had died in it—goodness knows how long ago. The river-god had very properly punished him with death—it was the penalty of infringing the law of tapu.

The next day and for some days thereafter canoe crews hunted the river for the old man's body, but found it not. At last a woman at the lower settlement, on going down to the river one morning to get a calabash of water, spied the body of the missing man hanging in the branches of a prostrate kahikatea-tree on the opposite side of the river, about four feet above the water.

The question was, how did the body get there, entangled in the branches that height above the page 305 river, for there had been no flood, no noticeable rise or fall in the level of the river.

The answer was plain to the mind of the Maori. He summed it all up in two words:

Te taniwha!”

The river-monster, after grabbing Te Maire from his canoe and detaining him a while in his watery grave, had dragged the body away down-stream and hung it up in the tree-branches opposite the village, so that the dead man's people should have no difficulty in recovering it, and in giving it decent burial.

A truly thoughtful and considerate taniwha!