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Settlers and Pioneers

10 — The King Country Railway

page 76

The King Country Railway

Even so lately as 1890 there was not a white farmer in all that vast expanse of country south of the Puniu River at Te Awamutu stretching to the plains of North Taranaki in the one direction and to the Wanganui River in the other. For more than a hundred miles southward and from the Tasman Sea to Lake Taupo all was Maori as far as any cultivation was concerned. The railway builders and tunnellers were at work on the north end of the Main Trunk, by arrangement in 1884 between the Government and the Kingite chiefs, but for all except that slowly advancing thin iron thread it lay under the grave silence of a region that awaits the I magic touch of civilised industry. It was indeed a romantic-seeming spot in the mid-eighties, when we looked out southward from the Upper Waikato border and rode across those gently undulating plains of the Manukarere and round about Otorohanga and Otewa, Te Kooti's large village on the Waipa. Except for the Maori thatched kaingas here page 77and there the only life was the fernroot-hunting wild pig and the mobs of wild horses. Fern and tupakihi-clad plains, flax and raupo swamps, here and there a clump of forest, eel lagoons and many a shining stream, with a curl of smoke rising, perhaps, in the distance, made the landscape picture of that era.

Maori horse tracks were the only roads except the rough wagon trail made by the early carters to Otorohanga and Te Kuiti and Poro-o-Tarao, a road that knew no engineer but followed the easiest natural grade regardless of distance. Of bridges there was none. There were canoes in all the navigable streams and in those days, before the weeping-willow had blocked the rivers, large canoes could be paddled and poled from the Waikato and Waipa right up to where the town of Te Kuiti now stands. Everywhere there were hospitable welcomes for us in that Rohepotae of the transition period. We were never so happy as when we could get away for long rides for a day or two, camping at John Hetet's place at Marae-o-Hine, and following the tracks to see where they led and keeping an eye lifting for a peach-grove. Hetet was one of the great men of the King Country. He was the half-caste son of an aged Frenchman, Louis Hetet, one of the first Europeans in the King Country.* The farm he made was an oasis of page 78cultivation in the fern and scrub wilderness. Where-ever we rode past a little group of whares out in the wilds there was a call to us to dismount and have some food. 'Haere mai ki te kai!' was the invitation at every camp and every village. We could have had half-a-dozen breakfasts one morning when we took the track from Otorohanga by way of Mangawhero to Te Kooti's well-ordered village at Otewa, and so on round to the trail that led back to the Puniu. The Maori is more sophisticated now, though he has not lost the good old hospitable instinct. He discovered by experience that when he went out into the hard pakeha world there was no invitation to food unless he had money in his pocket. Unless indeed he called at a farmhouse of a remote settler where the old open-handed hospitality prevailed.

And now all those towns and townships, all those thousands of pakeha homes and farms, all along the Main Trunk and down to Taranaki and out to the Tasman Sea, all that wealth and comfort of the King Country to-day—they are the product of little more than forty years. A world of real adventure has been compressed within that brief period of nation-making.

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Our jumping-off place one summer morning of long ago was Te Kuiti, a rough place in those days, when it was the Head of the Line, and when the vast beyond of the King Country lay wrapped in mystery to all but the Maori owners of the soil and the surveyors, and the men of the out-of-doors whose business it was to skirmish ahead of settlement and make the first roads and railways. Not an acre of King Country land had passed into white farmers' hands at that date (1892), not a pakeha homestead redeemed the wastes of fern and manuka southward of the Puniu River, the old Aukati, or boundary, between pakeha and Maori. Except for the thin line of the Main Trunk rail pushed a little way into the open fern country from the Waikato side—and that only by sufferance of the tattooed lords of the land, headed by the huge-framed, imperious, kingly-looking Wahanui—the Rohepotae still lay purely Maori. Otorohanga and Te Kuiti were the Ngati-Maniapoto headquarters, and there we saw the chiefs whose names were writ large in the story of the Kingite and the Hauhau wars, swart old heroes who eschewed the trousers of the European and stalked free-limbed in blanket and waist shawl.

Now the white man was coming, and presently his iron rail and his locomotive would make the trail that was to cut through the mana of the Maori. Just now it was the transition period; the pakeha settler was climbing over the wall, and it was our page 80business to help blaze the way, explore the empty places and the untouched forest, nearly a hundred unbroken miles of it.

The battle of the routes was on. Auckland people were mostly in favour of making the railway to Taranaki. Wellington wanted the Central route—the present line. There was a huge gap to fill, right down to Hunterville and Marton. The middle portion of the Main Trunk of to-day was a blank on the map, two hundred miles of it, so far as rail and road were concerned.

Two days after leaving Te Kuiti, we were trailing in single file down the mountain side from the Poro-o-tarao, and opening up a wide, wild prospect of green forests and blue ranges, far-spreading valleys, and silver river peeps, with great rugged kopje-like crags of volcanic rock building a skyline on the south. No wheel roads then, in 'ninety-two; the only way was a horse track. Below us lay the valley of the Ongarue; we had crossed the divide from the Mokau head-waters, and all the streams we saw and forded thenceforth went to swell the Wanganui River.

We rode down into the Ongarue Valley, winding through the tall fern and groves and tawa and rimu, down into the gravel of that divinely clear Maramataha, a tributary stream cascading past the little Maori village of Waimeha from the tableland of the page 81Maraeroa; that way lay the vast unknown West Taupo country.

From the Ongarue, at Te Kawakawa—just about where Ongarue railway station stands to-day—we turned off sharply to the west, between two mighty green hills; and then south-westward ho! for the Taranaki bush and Stratford a hundred miles away.

From a hilltop, where our horse track corkscrewed through tall fern and bright green bushes of tupakihi with its clusters of black tutu berries, we had our first look-out over the Ohura Valley, and the seemingly interminable forest that stretched from the shadowy undulations below almost to the base of Mount Egmont—a huge and shaggy and lonely land. No grass field, no fence, no house or even tent, no smoke of settlers' burning-off fire, gave civilised touch to the silent expanse. Valley and hill and glinting stream and dark solemn forest lay bathed in soft blue haze, mysterious, unpeopled; as untouched by man, it seemed to us gazing over it there, as it might have been a thousand years ago.

'Take a good look at the Ohura,' said the boss of the party, the veteran Charles Wilson Hursthouse, turning in his saddle; 'this is the last bird's-eye view you'll get of it.'

And that was true, for in the days that followed we had no such comprehensive eye-sweep as we had that day. We appraised the soil, the quality and quantity of the timber, the uses of that timber— page 82we foresaw even then that most of it, sooner or later, would go up wastefully in smoke.

Leaving our horses to go back to Te Kuiti with the packer, we rolled our swags for the long traverse. We footed it over those alluvial flats of the Ohura basin, all densely timbered then, where townships and farmhouses stand to-day. We left the Huatahi levels, with their continuous roof of leaves uplifted on enormous pillars of pine and rata and tawa, and climbed the steep Paparata Range—the railway route tunnels through it now—that separates the valleys of the Ohura and the Tangarakau. We heard from our mates Julian and Puhi about the ruggedness of the Tangarakau Gorge that lay ahead of us.

We knew that very few had been before us. They could all have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, 'Wirihana' Hursthouse himself, with all his thirty years of Taranaki survey, had never been right through on this trail. Julian, who was Taranaki-born, was the one man who knew it from end to end, and even he, as he went ahead with his slasher, was at fault at times, and we had to cut across untracked ridges and swamps and ford unknown creeks.

That was the rugged route to Taranaki, eighty solid miles of bush from Ohura to Stratford. It was the fashion in Auckland to depreciate the possibilities of the unknown Waimarino route across the great page 83central plateau of the island. One M.H.R. was given to declaring contemptuously that the proposed line 'would not pay for its axle grease', a favourite phrase of rhetoric of politicians and other inexact orators. We traversed, after that pioneer tramp through the Taranaki bush, the magnificent timber that clothed the solitudes of the Waimarino—a beautiful name, by the way, which has fallen out of use in these days; the prosaic National Park station has taken its place. A vast and wonderful change in those silent places; yet some of us who saw it in its original tall pillared glory of totara and rimu and many another great timber tree could wish to restore that forest. It was the grandest treasure of the island south of the kauri forests; most of it has perished before the sawmiller and the wasteful land clearer as if it had never been.

* Louis Hetet came to New Zealand a hundred years ago in a whaling expedition, and went back to France to return with sheep, cattle, and seeds and start farming in the Maori Country. He married a chieftainess of the Maniapoto tribe. The oldest son, Hetet, who died in 1928, left descendants numbering over 200, including eighty-six grandchildren. During the Great War, thirty-four of his descendants served with the New Zealand Forces. Mrs George Hetet (also a half-caste) had eleven children, and one of the daughters had twenty-two.