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Nation Making, a story of New Zealand

Chapter XXV. — An Old Man's Tale

page 244

Chapter XXV.
An Old Man's Tale.

The last of the Moas:—A Sea of Fire.—A Conflagration in the Olden time.—'O Son, it was a Terrible sight.'—A Covering of Darkness.—A Mighty Wind.—To the River for Refuge.—The Footprints of the Moas.—Faster than a Horse.—Warriors Strong and Fierce.—Burning of the Moas.—Roasted Birds.—Bones in the Swamp.

One day, when I was chatting with my ancient friend Hohua, there was a great fire sweeping across the Mangapouri swamp.

An extensive fire on a great plain covered with tall fern, is a grand spectacle. With a face of fire a mile wide, sheets of flame detached from the sea of fire, and flying upwards like fiery banners, the spectator may well shudder at the thought of cattle or travellers being caught in such a tempest of fire.

But startling and grand as a great fern fire is, it is far less magnificent than a conflagration in a swamp forty miles in length, with the rank swamp growth dried by two or three dry, hot summers.

'That,' said old Hohua, 'is a big fire, but it is nothing to a great fire which burnt almost everything in the swamp and on the plains when I was a boy. Fern, patches of Totara forest, many Maori villages, the great swamp full of dry grass as high page 245as a man, were all on fire. You Whiteskins are a great people. You show the Maories many wonderful things. But if you had seen such a fire as that, you would have trembled.

'For many days that terrible fire burnt between the rivers. Then it crossed the rivers, for the mighty wind swept sheets of flame and burning grass and reeds to the opposite banks.

'O son, it was a terrible sight. The fire swept onwards to the beginning of the mountains. Many Maories were burnt, and their bones lay bare on the black ground. In the day, the sky was black with the smoke of the fire, as if it were covered with a thick mat of darkness. The sun hid his face behind it. His shining came not through it. In the night, the heavens were bright, and the sky seemed on fire like the plain. There was a mighty wind and a loud roaring. The black smoke from the burning blinded and choked us. We could neither see nor breathe. Our skins were dry and cracked. We had no refuge but the river. We rushed into the river and stood up to our chins in the water, till the fire had run from us.

'That fire burnt all the big birds which you Whitefaces call Moas.'

'Had you Moas here then? ' I enquired.

'Yes, before that great burning, there were many.'

'Did the Maories ever kill any of them?' I asked 'Only piccaniny birds' (little Moas), he replied, 'and but few of them. The old birds ran too fast on page 246the plains. In the great swamp, where they often fed on eels, grass and other things growing there, we could not get near them. They were swifter than our spears.'

'How fast do you think they ran?' I asked.

'Faster than a horse. As fast as the fire chariot (the locomotive) now running over the plains,' he answered. 'We were afraid of the old birds. They were warriors too strong and too fierce, and we were afraid of their long claws and strong beaks.'

'What height were they?' I asked.

After a minute's thought, the old man said, 'The Koroekes (old Moas) were as high as one man standing on the shoulders of another man.'

'There are no Moas in New Zealand now,' I said.

'I know not what is in the rest of the Island,' the old man replied, 'but I have seen none here since the great fire. The dry weather for many moons, had dried up all the food except fern root, and the Kumaras we planted on the edges of the swamp. We hunted for eels in the mud, and we saw the marks of the feet of the great birds, and we were afraid. Then we climbed up the cabbage trees, and saw the necks and heads of many big birds amongst the reeds and the grass. Then we tried for many days to kill them, for our hunger for them was great. We sent messengers to all the Maori villages, to send their men to hunt the big birds with the long legs and necks. They came, and we killed a few birds. Their flesh was good, and their feathers were for the heads of Chiefs.

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'Then the fire began, and we escaped, but the birds were all burnt, for we saw them no more.'

'Not one escaped then?' I suggested.

'No,' he replied, 'all were dead. The fire and smoke after many days departed, and on the bare, burnt swamp, we found the bodies of many Moas, dead and roasted. Then we had great feasting on the big birds. After that, their great bones lay on the burnt swamp. Some, we made into weapons, but many bones remained there, until the rain made the reeds and Raupo grow as before. They were covered.'

'Are there any bones in the swamp now?' I asked.

He replied, 'Perhaps they are below, perhaps they are rotten. I know not. Enough.'

The old man was weary, and looking wistfully at the fire burning in the great swamp, he ended his talk, and lit his pipe.

I think it not at all improbable, when, as cultivation extends, the great Mangapouri swamp is drained, that amongst its other treasures, the bones of these gigantic birds—the Moas—may be found there.