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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 5 (September 1, 1929)

Orakei-Korako — Scenes and Stories in a Waikato Wonder Valley

page 24

Scenes and Stories in a Waikato Wonder Valley

Most visitors to our Geyserland region confine their travels to a few well-beaten routes. In the thermal country extending from Rotorua for a hundred miles southward there are places of wonder and beauty, still in their primitive state, which are scarcely known at all to tourists. Such a place is the Orakei-Korako Valley described in the following article.

Forty or fifty years ago the geyser valley of Orakei-Korako, on the Upper Waikato, was better known and more visited than it is today. There was a time when it was on a regular route of travel between Rotorua and Taupo. Now-a-days there are so many other places of interest accessible from Rotorua that this strange and beautiful ravine, pitted with hot springs and painted in vivid hues by thermal action, is not seen by the multitude who go to Geyserland. But its day will come again, and then maybe it will eclipse in fame some now popular scenes in the hundred-miles length of the Wai-ariki country.

Orakei-Korako is in the valley of the Waikato where it flows from the pumice plains north of Taupo into a mountain-girt region that extends nearly to Atiamuri. It is in that area between the two bridges on the Rotorua-Taupo roads, the one at Ohaki and the other at Atiamuri. Once there was a good-sized Maori village there, and visitors were put up in a large guest-house, a carved wharepuni. The place is now deserted except for the Maori guide and canoe ferryman. When its attractions become known as they should, no doubt there will be hotel accommodation there, but that time is not yet. Not only is the hot-spring valley worth the seeing, but the route from Atiamuri is, in my opinion, the finest in point of bold and craggy scenery and furious water-play in all the Rotorua-Taupo thermal zone.

You have the choice of two ways to this valley of strange sights. There is the track from the Waiotapu side by way of Paeroa hills and thermal springs to the east side of the Waikato. This was the old horseback trail in the days when Orakei-Korako was inhabited and was visited by many travellers. By this way the Alum Cave and the silica terraces are seen before the tourist crosses the river; the only ferry is a canoe, with old-timer Rameka paddling it. The other road is a much easier one, the through route from Atiamuri to Taupo or vice versa, an alternative road to the usual motor route through Oruanui and over the Tuahu range. This road, only a horse track when I first travelled it, follows the Waikato River for many miles, in fact nearly all the way between Atiamuri and Orakei-Korako—ten or eleven miles—one is alongside the river.

From Atiamuri to Taupo by the Orakei-Korako route is about 31 miles, making the total distance from Rotorua to Taupo 59 miles. This is a few miles longer than the present road via Waiotapu, but the greater distance is more than compensated for by the unusual landscapes. The main road from Atiamuri to Taupo has little interest for the traveller, beyond the fact that some small native villages are passed en route, until Wairakei is reached. It is eight miles from Orakei-Korako southward to the main road, thence 13 miles to Taupo via Wairakei.

The Old Redoubt.

Leaving Atiamuri, the Orakei-Korako road diverges to the left and skirts the banks of the Waikato River. At two miles is Te Niho-o-te-Kiore (“Rat's Tooth”), where the road passes close by the ruins of the redoubt built by the Armed Constabulary at the time of the last Maori war, 1869–71, to guard the river and prevent the Hauhau leader, Te Kooti, from crossing the Waikato. Flax and fern soften the outlines of the old fort, and give an air of antiquity to the parapet and deep trenches. The earth works on this hill top above the river command a prospect for many miles. The hillside slopes steeply down to the Waikato, where weeping-willows indicate the site of an old kainga, long since deserted. On the opposite side of the dark-blue river a wreath of steam curling slowly from the waterside indicates a boiling spring. On our side of the river (the left or western) there are also some hot bathing springs, now seldom visited. Passing the old redoubt we observe that its eastern side page 25 is defended by one of those deep gulches or natural cuts in the pumice, common throughout this region.

The Rainbow Fall.

At about three miles from Atiamuri we pass close to the Aniwhaniwha (“Rainbow”) Fall and rapids. Just above the cataract the Waikato flows round a sweeping bend, dark, smooth and deep, and impressing one with a profound sense of power. A rough path leads down to the very edge. Suddenly the glassy surface of the river is transformed into a madly-rushing torrent. The Waikato here is two hundred yards wide, fringed by fairly low banks, covered with flax bushes, fern and manuka. The bed of the river suddenly falls some thirty feet, just where a green islet divides its waters. Smoothly and swiftly the waters glide down an incline plane until they strike the island and its satellite rocks, and then the turmoil begins. The river breaks into a series of wildly foaming rapids, dashing furiously with thunderous roaring over the black rocks which protrude from the river-bed, and whirling down into a milky-white whirlpool. The mad waters rush from one side to the other, beating and roaring against the rock walls, but ever hurled back again into the fury of the fall. Clouds of spray rise high in the air; and when the sun is shining rainbows arch the falls.

Shooting The Rapids. (Photo, C. R. Barrett.) Guide Rameka ferrying two young Auckland tourists across the Waikato River to view the thermal wonders on its eastern side.

Shooting The Rapids.
(Photo, C. R. Barrett.)
Guide Rameka ferrying two young Auckland tourists across the Waikato River to view the thermal wonders on its eastern side.

The Pass and the Rapids.

A little way above the Aniwhaniwha the Waikato Valley becomes a gorge. Igneous rocks, torn and fused and fashioned in a multitude of curious forms, rise all around, become mountains. The cliff road is regularly marked for chains as with the scratches of some giant fingers—to the imaginative aboriginal perchance the talon-marks of the grim ogress Kurangaituku, who once haunted these parts. The scratches, however, are but the marks of the picks of the nimble co-operative navvies who cut out this rocky pass. In some of the wilder places an outer protecting wall several feet high has been built up of rough blocks of stone, on the verge of the precipice, the Waikato far below.

The noise of many waters is heard again, and presently we see more cataracts and rapids. These are the Haere-huka and Whakaheke. At the Whakaheke, about a mile below Orakei-Korako, in the middle of the river are two small islands, exquisitely green; they are covered with small trees and flax. These spray-bathed islets are apparently old-time slips from the steep hillsides above, which have partly dammed up the river, and so formed the rapids. On the larger of the islets, called Te Rewarewa, there was formerly a fortified pa, to which the people resorted for refuge in war time. It must have been sore straits that compelled them to cross those foaming waters.

The Rock of the Flying Foam: A Tradition of the Maori.

Here, on the green banks overlooking the well-named Haere-huka—“Moving Foam,” or “Flying Foam”—we may pull up awhile and listen to the poetic story of its naming, and learn how yon great black rock there, smoothly-rounded by centuries of water-play, gave fresh courage, an omen and an inspiration, to the heart of a weary and all-but broken man. The rock is in the midst of the wildest part of the rapid, near the left bank of the river. Around its glistening dark head the mad river surges ceaselessly; spray bathes it ever; sometimes the angry little waves dash right over it and hide it from view for a moment. But it always emerges, the embodiment of eternal stability, in that turmoil of waters. This is the rock that gave its name to the rapids.

Just a hundred years ago a war-party from Rotorua camped on this spot one night, and gazed on the wonderful picture of river and rock and mountain in the summer moonlight. The page 26 fighting band was headed by a chief named Taua—grandfather of one of the men who told me the story. They were an angry dejected party of warriors, for they had been defeated with loss by the Taupo tribes. Their object in invading the Taupo country was to avenge an injury done to Taua (who was chief of the Ngati-Tunohopu, hapu of the Arawa) by Harakeke of Taupo. This man had won the affections of Taua's wife when he was on a visit to Rotorua. The fickle lady ran off to Taupo with Harakeke.

“In rippling clearness, or with cresting foam
Splashes and leaps in snowy cascade steps.”

(Photo, C. R. Barrett.) The Rainbow Rapids on the Waikato River near Orakei-Korako.

(Photo, C. R. Barrett.)
The Rainbow Rapids on the Waikato River near Orakei-Korako.

Taua sent round the fiery cross, or its Maori equivalent, among the Arawa clans, and raised a war-party to exact utu for his wrongs. He and his company of musketeers and tomahawk-men came upon a Taupo war-band camped in a valley some distance south of Orakei-Korako. The battle that followed went in Taua's favour for a time, but in the end he was beaten off and forced to retreat, and here in the gorge of resounding waters he made camp. Over-whelmed at the loss of their friends, the Arawa men in the council of war that night proposed to retreat to Rotorua and obtain reinforcements before renewing the war.

An Omen of Good Cheer.

Not so Taua. He knelt by the side of the river, his spear-tongued taiaha weapon in front of him, stuck lightly in the ground and slanting against his shoulder, both his hands clasped on it. While the others were speaking he remained silently gazing at the dark rock in mid-stream over which the waters fiercely raged; sometimes its head was covered with spray and then it reappeared black and firm-set, glistening in the moonlight. Warrior after warrior arose by Marama's bright beams and urged Taua to return to Rotorua.

At last Taua rose to reply. His taiaha in his hand, he strode back and forth. Pointing to the rock in the midst of the rapids, he drew a lesson of good omen from it. “I have taken courage from that toka in the rushing waters and the flying foam. I am like that rock now; nothing will turn me back. Your arguments flow over me as the waters flow over that rock. Let us attack our foes again without delay. We shall triumph as surely as that rock stands victorious amidst the raging waters of Waikato!”

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Taua's speech carried all before it. His followers became animated with his forceful and heroic spirit.

“Yes,” said the warriors, “let us strike the foe again! This time we shall be the conquerors!”

Taua's Victory.

Long before daylight next morning the war-party was on its march southward again through Orakei-Korako. The warriors reached a deep valley on the old trail from Orakei-Korako to Taupo, a mile or two before it joins the present Atiamuri-Taupo motor road at the “height of land.”

“I have not seen the place could more surprise,
More beautiful in nature's varied dyes.”
—Ben Jonson.

(Photo, C.R. Barrett.) A section of the beautiful multi-coloured silica flat with its many boiling pools at Orakei-Korako.

(Photo, C.R. Barrett.)
A section of the beautiful multi-coloured silica flat with its many boiling pools at Orakei-Korako.

Here at dawn they fell on their unsuspecting enemies. The Arawa were victorious this time and Taua avenged his wrongs; the utu was complete, and he returned to his Rotorua home satisfied.

And in memory of that moonlight night by Waikato side and the rock of inspiration, Taua took the name Haere-huka, and the place, too, is known by that name to-day. Haere-huka is preserved as a family name; it will never be forgotten. My old tohunga friend Taua Tutanekai Haere-huka is the grandson of the Taua of that story.

Waikato's Bold Defile.

The landscapes here have a wildness, a rocky grandeur, that will some day make the Orakei-Korako gorge road a famous travel track. The craggy hills bear huge pikaus of rhyolite on their shoulders, and their sides are scarred and shattered by the volcanic forces of past ages. One could well quote from “The Lady of the Lake” an exact description of part of this road, as rugged as anything in Scott's country:

“Twined the path in shadow hid,
Round many a rocky pyramid,
Shooting abruptly from the dell
Its thunder-splinter'd pinnacle;
Round many an insulated mass,
The native bulwarks of the pass.”

Far more wonderful, though, this Waikato river-pass scene than all the scenes of the Scottish High-lands, for, see, up the valley yonder there rise soft curling clouds, snowy white against the dark green vegetation and the darker rocks; the steam clouds from the geysers and fumaroles that pit both sides of the swift-rolling Waikato.

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Up there the whole valley is alive, simmering, bubbling, thumping with thermal action. The boiling springs extend for over an area about a mile in length; much of this is dangerous to explore. Many of the hissing fissures and plopping mud-pools are not accessible; which is just as well; there are quite enough of them to be seen in and around the old kainga where the delicious bathing waters issue from the papa-kohatu, amongst the flowering aromatic manuka.

“The Pyramid Of Geysers” In The Orakei-Korako Valley. (Photo, C. R. Barrett.) The famous glistening White Terrace (seventy feet in length) at Orakei-Korako shewing (on right) one of the larger geysers.

The Pyramid Of Geysers” In The Orakei-Korako Valley.
(Photo, C. R. Barrett.)
The famous glistening White Terrace (seventy feet in length) at Orakei-Korako shewing (on right) one of the larger geysers.

The strong river rolling through the gorge, to break in furious rapids lower down; the silica-terrace-whitened banks, and the smoke-like jets and clouds of steam from the boiling springs, compose perhaps the strangest picture to be seen in the Thermal Regions of ours. It is still in its wild state everywhere here; no bridge spans the great river, no hotel and no smartly decorative bath-houses jar on our sense of the artistic—Nature's tameless artistry—however much they would promote our comfort. Orakei-Korako still awaits the touch of civilised development.

Puia and Wai-Ariki.

A great geyser called Rahurahu was once the most wonderful sight at Orakei-Korako. It is said to have thrown its boiling water to a height of a hundred feet or more. It has moderated its pace these days; but a geyser has many moods and it may become the most furious puia at any moment. Here are little geysers thumping and splashing away quite close to the hurrying waters of Waikato. There is a delicious bathing pool, or series of pools, supplied by an intermittent geyser on the papa-kohatu. The water is similar to that of the Rachel bath at the Rotorua Sanatorium and the Oil Bath at Whakarewarewa. It is soft and silky to the skin, the most pleasant bath that can possibly be imagined, grateful indeed to one's weary body after a long ride or walk. To cool the hot waters to the right bathing temperature use is made of a convenient brooklet of cold water running down through the Manuka bushes close by.

The Arcadian Dressing Room.

The principal clear warm bathing pool is the place from which Orakei-Korako derives its name, which means the place of adorning; it was the looking-glass water at which the people made themselves pretty for parade, the open-air “making-up” room in fact. “O” is the place of; “rakei” adornment; “Korako,” meaning white, describes the glittering silica flat. Here the page 29 men and women resorted to comb and oil their hair and deck it with feathers, and to paint their faces with red ochre (kokowai) and otherwise beautify themselves for social gathering or war-dance.

Dr. Hochstetter, the geologist who visited New Zealand in the Austrian frigate Novara seventy years ago, visited Orakei-Korako in 1860, and recorded the fact that there were seventy-six geysers and boiling springs.

The Geyser-Made Terraces.

On the opposite side of the river (the right or eastern) to the site of the old kainga and the principal springs, there are the most beautiful of the features of thermal action. These are the white silica terrace, the pyramidal bank of geysers, and the Alum Cave. There are glistening sinter slopes over which hot water flows, and there is a pink papa-kowhatu of silica below its maker, an ever-boiling spring called “Te Purewa's Throat.”

The White Terrace is about seventy feet in length, a wall like coral lace, with hot water flowing over it from small geysers. Mr. Geo. F. Allen, the veteran surveyor, who has made a more careful examination than any other visitor of the phenomena on this eastern bank, describes in detail that pretty spectacle, the “Pyramid of Geysers.” “At the foot of a dark purple cliff,” he says, “is a pyramidal bank of many-coloured earths, which contains eighteen or twenty small geysers or fumaroles. It is perhaps 30 feet high with a base of 30ft. or 40ft.

“Sea of the Rippling Waters.”

A peep of Lake Waikare-moana, shewing Paneekiri Bluff, North Island, New Zealand.

A peep of Lake Waikare-moana, shewing Paneekiri Bluff, North Island, New Zealand.

The earths of which it is composed are of many brilliant colours, yellow and green prevailing; with streaks of orange and vermilion here and there picked out with pure white. From the glowing mass of bright colours the score of little geysers and steam jets toss up in incessant, but ever-changing motion. The brilliantly-tinted earths and the sparkling ngawha (boiling springs) are backed up y the dark cliff, which, by its contrast, enhances their beauty, just as a bracelet of gems shows best contrasted with the purple velvet of its case.”

Cave of Ancient Geysers.

Then there is that fairy-like grotto, the Alum Cave—it deserves a more picturesque name. Blocks of pure alum lie scattered about the floor. The cave widens out to about forty feet, with a height at the maximum of perhaps sixty feet. In the depths somewhere is a ngawha. Mr. P. McLean, of Napier, who visited the Alum Cave in the ‘Eighties, made note of the fact that the best time to enter the place is when the sun is in the western sky, opposite the entrance. “Then it shines with modified light through the shade of the waving fern leaves, and dances and glitters along the frescoed roof that has not its equal in Fairyland. Red, mauve, brown, grey, white, black and green of all shades blend together all along the roof and back and sides in a harmony reached only by the efforts of nature, and reflect their ever-changing perfections upon the surface of a beautiful pool of perfectly clear green water at the farthest recess of the cave.”