The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 3 (June 1, 1935)
On the Road to Anywhere — Northern Hospitality, and—a Tawhara for Tea. — Part III
(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Helensville (famed for its hot mineral baths), North Island, New Zealand.
You may not, perhaps, know quite what a tawhara is. No matter. You will agree that it sounds like the Maori for either a special sort of blanket or a more special sort of shellfish, but it is neither. Of tawharas more anon. To go back to the station from which we should have started: do you know that little Avondale station is a picturesque mass of rambling roses?
The north-bound express is a quaint train, cheerful and comfortable. The moment I had reconciled pillow and seat, I knew that the journey was to be a momentous one. For, going into wild country, one naturally remembers the pioneers. And what does one associate with pioneers? Beards, of course, not to mention whiskers. Of the four male passengers who decorated the carriage of the Opua train, three were bearded—one to the eyes, one merely to the nose, and one chic and elegant in a goatee. They were all three, so it transpired, men experienced in the timber business, in the days when timber was business: and all through their conversation, once they really got under way, was the keen, resinous smell of the woods, which is somehow like the lowest notes of a steel guitar. Kauri cut out for ship's masts and spars, they remembered, and great rough nuggets dug from the black swamps, in the days when it was worth while going twenty feet deep after gum.
Northern hospitality is proverbial. City folk must find it a breath of fresh air, a healthy, healing breath, blowing away the fatuous idea that life is confined to the four blank walls of office or house. A train, you might think, is an odd place to look for hospitality: but there it was.
Great country we were passing through. Helensville was the last stop. If by strange mischance you don't know it, here is the Reno where you can procure a quick and pleasant divorce from your rheumatics. Even if you have no rheumatics, Helensville is to be recommended. The hotels go in for Roman baths and swimming-pools, wherein you can float in exotic style, under hanging draperies of tangled green creepers. There are gloriously sunlit gardens, full of roses and flowering currant bushes, and carnations as big as dolls' teacups. A little place of rest and dreams and sunshine.
On towards Tangowahine … through green fields and hill country dimly brocaded with gold, a broidery of buttercups. The Three Musketeers of the beards are talking timber. One of them, in his logging days, has seen two million feet of kauri cut out. They are all respectful to the king of Waipoua Forest, “Tane Mahuta,” whose name is that of the forest god of ancient Maori lore. But not Tane Mahuta's classic associations nor his soaring crown impress them. It's his sheer majesty of size which does the trick. “Enough timber in that tree,” I was reverently informed, “to build the biggest hotel in Auckland over again.” Whether that's accurate or not I don't know: but Tane and I met, a little later, and I am glad that instead of providing an hotel, he will hold up the sky in lonely majesty, deep in the heart of New Zealand's glorious and eternal forest.
Change at Tangowahine to bus … a few minutes' run, and there you are in Dargaville, the population of which, man, woman and child, seems to have turned out to the street. A brisk and entertaining place is the main street: up-to-date European shops make quaint contrast with the picturesque fashion and flashing dark eyes of the Maori folk. Yes—picturesque Maori fashions still are, despite the lamentable disappearance of flax mat and huia plume. Who but a Maori would, with superb insouciance, don a lemon-coloured beret, a deep crimson pullover and the most dashing of Cambridge blue “bags?” Even so was one white-toothed, smiling young blood who boarded the bus thus arrayed.
From Dargaville onwards, one must leave Trainland for a while, for one of the world's wonders is beckoning … . the Waipoua Kauri Forest, home of a thousand legends and sanctuary of the grandest trees in New Zealand. But don't think that the railway gives up its northern run so easily. A train continues the march to Donnelly's Crossing—Donnelly having been one of the early settlers. A luxuriously upholstered service car leads through the depths of the forest, but a still better way is to continue on horseback from Donnelly's Crossing. That's if you're of those whom horses regard with sympathy and trust. A fiery steed is easily and cheaply hired in the north, and deep, deep in the heart of the forest there are three gemlike lakes, so lonely and faraway that their names are only known among the Maoris. Not all of New Zealand is “beaten track” yet, by any means.
It was near enough to Dargaville when I suddenly noticed something odd about the manuka. The little snow-white, dusk-hearted cups are so common that their fragile charm goes unnoticed: but here the road was flanked with bushes of pink manuka—not even the scentless crimson flower known to gardeners, but a delicate, peach-blush pink which looked as though Aurora of the rosy fingers had been busy among the bushes. And all through the woods, lighting the afternoon as though small pink clouds had obligingly drifted down to earth, mile after mile of these most colourful manuka bushes were to be seen. Never before have I met them, and somehow I think they are one of the wild North's charming rewards, reserved for those who take the trouble to seek her out.
The sales at Kaihu have been on this day. That means that sturdy, good-tempered Bert Docherty, of the little hotel which boasts the finest kauri gum collection in New Zealand, has both hands full attending to the stupendous thirsts of a crowd of men—“cockies,” Maoris, a tourist or two, alike only in the fact of their passionate page 39 loyalty to good beer. The museum is in the bar itself, and has been growing steadily larger for the past fifteen years or so. The gum is beautiful. But for its rather brittle quality, it would unquestionably be more popular as jewellery, for every shade that amber can claim, from burning red to thick, beautiful curdled honey effects, can be seen in the hundreds of nuggets amassed here.
Not only gum, but oddities from every part of New Zealand and from foreign lands afar adorn Docherty's bar, and the museum is the pride of the neighbourhood. A duck-billed platypus consorts with a thoughtful-looking kiwi. There are dozens of these quaint wingless fowls, the New Zealander's very own mascot, in the Waipoua district, and, as the law protects them, very amiable and saucy they are. The grinning jaws of a mako shark, a tui's little cream bib of feathers, and several “Captain Cookers,” having met an untimely end, now adorn the walls of the queerest and most fascinating little bar north of Auckland.
Through a sorrowful land of ghostly dead trees and past a red-ochred gate, patterned in Maori style, and the tinkle of a little waterfall welcomes us to Waipoua.
Late afternoon broods grey and dreamy over the trees. Their towering beautifully symmetrical shafts make one feel as though in a harbour full of tapering masts, and indeed, the trunks, just as they stood, were greatly coveted by the masters of sailing ships in the old days. But it is only when, beyond the fringe of the forest, one comes to the real giants, the superb trees whose size dwarfs humanity altogether, that one realises what Waipoua really is. For thousands on thousands of acres, up rise these solemn, colossal pillars; wearing odd spiked boots, the Maori lads can climb them like steeplejacks, but to reach even the first fork would be a feat far beyond the powers of any white man, unless he had expert assistance and advice.
Rangi, god of the skies, Papa, the earth mother, lay together in their dark eternal marriage. Tane Mahuta, their son and god of the trees, was the principal cause of their separation, for with his stalwart arms he helped to thrust them apart. Looking up at the great trees, one can almost believe the legend: there is such a pride and sturdy determination about them.
The Forestry Department's little colony of rangers is comfortably accommodated in huts at one end of the wood. A forest camp, palm leaves lashed down to roof the storehouse and the “wild men out of the wild woods” sleeping under canvas, is more picturesque. Life is by no means uneventful hereabouts. Wild pigs are to be found in the deep Waipoua glens; cattle, given half a chance, take to the wildwoods with a zest which Robin Hood himself might admire—and did somebody mention wood pigeon? One surly old shorthorn bull, an old hand at the outlaw's life, made a business of occupying the trail just when cars wished to pass; and no mere passive resistance for him either. His bleached skull and branching horns now stand out on a signpost, a warning to other truants.
Once, long ago, the heart of the forest held a dell which was called “The Place of the Birds.” Here, year after year, pigeons would gorge themselves on particularly fat and juicy berries, to be found nowhere else among the trees. And every year the soft-voiced Maori folk held a courteous religious ceremony, before trapping as many of the birds as were needed. But even the echoes of the tohunga's chant have died away, for the white man came here with rifles, and “The Place of the Birds” is no more… .
Touching the matter of the tawhara. A long green palm waves flax-like leaves at you, and you perceive that it has produced a great cream, lily-like flower, of thick fleshy petals. Break off the petals, and you find that their base tastes something like watermelon, something more like honey. The Maoris leave the tawhara sprinkled with sugar overnight, and then indulge in a royal feast. Why starve in Waipoua? Yet how many New Zealanders know that we can produce, on demand, a highly superior, honey-flavoured watermelon?
Only the Maoris know the real ins and outs of the great forest. Few have ever seen the little lakes which glisten, amethyst and emerald, somewhere in the shadows of the kauris. Yet all along the road there is a majesty of great trees, so that I envied most bitterly the cheerful souls who slept under canvas in that wet little forest camp. Some day New Zealanders will understand what Waipoua really is. But until you have seen peach-coloured manuka blossoms, saluted Tane Mahuta, and devoured tawhara fresh from the tree, you know only part of what New Zealand can offer you.
They were talking tobacco as the Thames express thundered on. “Well,” said the jolly old sport as he re-filled his pipe, “me for the chap that takes his glass (in moderation), and enjoys his smoke! Its odds on he's O.K.—that's my experience!” — and his hearty laugh echoed through the carriage. “Yet scientists affirm that smoking shortens life,” remarked the thin man in the dyed suit. “Do they?” said the jovial old boy, “well, I've been smoking for fifty years, so it hasn't cut me off in the flower of my youth, ha! ha! ha! Bless you there's no more harm in my tobacco than there is in winking at a pretty girl in the dark, ha! ha! ha!” “Yours must be wonderful tobacco,” sneered the thin man. “It is,” said the old Jolly-face, “Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead). Smoking it is one of the joys of life! Four other toasted brands—Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold. All harmless! They're toasted. Learn to smoke, friend, and try them!” But the thin man pretended to be asleep.*