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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (October 2, 1933)


Fifty years ago, when the first reconnaissance survey was made of the present route of the Main Trunk Railway through the heart of the North Island of New Zealand, that great territory, the King Country, was entirely under Maori rule. The mana of the Maori King, Tawhiao, and his chiefs extended from the then head of the Auckland line at Te Awamutu southward to the Upper Wanganui and the Ruapehu plateau. Pakeha intrusion was forbidden, and some of the tribes threatened to shoot all white trespassers. It was under those difficult conditions that the exploration of the Central route was carried through as described in this narrative.

Mr. John H. Rochfort, pioneer explorer and surveyor.

Mr. John H. Rochfort, pioneer explorer and surveyor.

The Old Frontier of Waikato, the border defined by the Puniu and Waipa Rivers, the green farms, the homesteads, the townships, the blockhouses and redoubts on one side and the fern and flax wastes and wooded hills of the King Country on the other, was a place where one saw many an adventurous pioneer in the days of one's boyhood. Two of the figures of the real romance, heroic figures in youthful eyes, who came into Kihikihi settlement from the Maori country every now and again (in 1884–5 they had their headquarters in that township) were Charles Wilson Hursthouse and John Rochfort, Government surveyors engaged in the exploration and laying-out of the long-talked of railway line through the Rohepotae. Physically, they fitted the work, those well-seasoned men of the long trail where they blazed the way for the rail-builders who were to come after. Hursthouse, whom I came to know very well in after years, was the perfect frontiersman—tall, lean, hard and muscular, whiskered, a shrewdly humorous glint in his keen eyes, his gait a long easy stride. In his early forties then, he had already had more than twenty years of military and surveying experience; a good shot, but as he always declared, a man of peace. Cool, diplomatic, of consummate experience in Maori ways, and possessing a thorough knowledge of the Maori tongue, he was the first man to whom the Government authorities turned when they required an intermediary in disputes with the still suspicious and inimical tribes of the King Country and Taranaki. Yet, even Hursthouse—the “Wirihana” of the Maoris—for all his patience, tact and influence with them came to grief on one awkward occasion in that momentous year 1883, a day's ride south of our frontier river. That incident (to be related presently) occurred a few months before he and Rochfort became associated in their survey work in the northern part of the King Country.

John Rochfort, who was considerably Hursthouse's senior, was an even more experienced bushman and pathfinder. Unlike the long-limbed “Wirihana,” he was, in my recollection of him, a man of middle stature. He impressed one as very strong and wiry of physique; his shoulders were somewhat bowed with many years of swagcarrying. He had been an explorer in the South Island long before his King Country days; he had carried his heavy pikau on long and arduous journeys through the savage and all but foodless wilderness of Westland. Many a narrow escape from death by drowning in the torrents of the Coast were his; he was wise in all the practical lore of forest and river. He always carried a heavier load than any man in his party; a 50lb. page 42 pikau, he used to say, was only just enough to steady a man in fording a river.

This was the hard-trained forelooper whom the Public Works authorities at Wellington chose to make the first engineering reconnaissance of the Main Trunk line route between Marton and Te Awamutu, through the all but unknown country still under the conservative rule of the Maori King, or rather of his council of advisers, consisting of the rangatiras who will figure a good deal in this narrative, whom I may describe as “The Big Three,” the Chiefs Wahanui, Taonui and Rewi Maniapoto. Rochfort did not possess Hursthouse's knowledge of the Maori, but he was patient and of dogged courage. He would never accept defeat; and on this great survey he was no sooner baffled in one direction than he was ready to attack the problem from another angle, and in the end he won through and successfully pioneered the route.