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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 9 (December 1, 1937.)



The eastern slope of the Fairy Mountain broke suddenly at Cannell's feet and went down in a precipice where the shrubby vegetation thinly covered the grey trachyte rock-face. Here on the edge of the bush the solitary climber, hot from his walk up through the tall fern from the Waipa valley, shook off the flax-leaf straps of his swag, and laying down his double-barrelled gun, heaved a sigh of relief as he sat down and leaned back against a boulder. He cut a pipeful of tobacco; the smoke went curling up in lazy spirals through the windless air. From his feet the dip was almost vertical for two hundred feet, then the land fell in rolling slopes, splashed here and there with lichen-furred rocks, darkened with clumps of bush in crater-like depressions, threaded here and there by the white lines of mountain streams. From the unbroken country of the hither side of this border river Cannell's vision swept over the expanse of the Waipa valley; downs and plains, and swamps, with now a lake and now the window of some farmhouse flashing back the sun. The spires of churches, once Maori-owned, rose in their pencil points from among the distant orchards of the dispossessed tribes. The smoke of settlers' burning-off fires rose in straight columns from the fern country and the far-off bush, and the air was faintly scented with the pungency of burning timber, delightful to the nostrils of the backblocks man. Below Cannell's eye, on a knoll on the Waipa's east bank, clustered about by the houses of the military township of Alexandra, the British colours flew on a flagstaff in front of a square-walled redoubt; one of a chain of redoubts and blockhouses, each on its sentry hill, that mounted guard over the border.

Cannell was quite well aware of the risk he ran in exploring Pirongia, the tapu mountain of the King Country border. His life, in truth, was worth no more than the two shots from his double-barrelled muzzle-loader if he were found trespassing in the “Nehenehe-nui.” He had pitched his tent just outside the border-line, and the Maoris so far, in a spirit of fair play, had left him unmolested, though they might easily have raided his camp any night and tomahawked him. He was a surveyor in the employ of the Provincial Government, and the work at which he had been engaged at the Waipa side being finished, he had paid off his men, but remained in camp for purposes of his own. He had turned prospector for awhile. There was gold in Pirongia, the reports went, and certainly traces of gold had been found in some of the mountain creeks. In the imagination of the diggers among the military settlers on the border every range and every gulch in the King Country was a possible Ballarat or Gabriel's Gully.

A gap opened in the forest, where Maori firewood cutters had felled a clump of tawa trees, making an inlet like a wedge driven into the dark forest. The ground here was level for a little space, and there were piles of firewood, split up ready for the sledgers, who would haul them on their konekes down a short cut on the mountain side. The mid-day sun beat strongly down in the clearing, but the tall vine-matted bush stood dark and silent. A hut of nikau-palm thatch supported by saplings, stood at one side of the open space. It was deserted and its presence there heightened the mysterious atmosphere of the place. The stillness, the green darkness of the clearing brought to Cannell's mind the tales his Maori chainmen used to tell him of the wild people of Pirongia, the Patu-paiarehe, who lived far up on the peak called Hihikiwi, the summit of the range, and who had been known to descend on dark and cloudy nights, and stealing into the sleeping camps by the banks of the Waipa, carry off girls to be their wives.

(Drawing by Eileen Cowan). Pirongia Mountain from Paterangi Hill.

(Drawing by Eileen Cowan).
Pirongia Mountain from Paterangi Hill.

The forest closed about the lone pakeha, who inhaled with the bush-man's delight the strong sweet scent of moss and bark and leaf. Taking a leading spur that he had marked from the open, he began his upward climb. That night he made camp nearly two thousand feet above the Waipa levels in a little glen, where the tree boughs, hanging with streamers of moss, their forks filled with kowharawhara. the fairy flax, met one another across the narrow cut. He lit his fire to boil the billy by the side of a noisy little creek, and grilled one of the pigeons he had shot. He had washed out creek gravels here and there on his way, which led him over a succession of ridges and through gorges, for he had found his leading spur unexpectedly cut off by one of the volcanic disjointings of the earth which had made of old Pirongia such a shattered jumbled mass. So far there was no sign of treasure, but he deferred a closer search until he had crossed the main range, and prospected the streams that ran westward into Kawhia harbour; then he would work the most likely-looking streams, following them down Waipa-wards again.

Up in the misty morning early, when the kaka parrot screeched his “Maranga, e tama!”—“Get up, my boy!” the bush-man followed up the bed of the mountain brook, making detours now and again to avoid the little waterfalls. When he made his midday halt he was well out on the divide, but the trees grew so thickly, even at that height, that it was only by climbing a tree that he was able to see anything of the country about him. Through the branches he had a glimpse down into depths page 12 where drifts of mist swam among the tree tops. The sound of a waterfall came faintly from far below. Across the gorge the mountain rose as steeply into a blue peak, the fairy-haunted summit of Pirongia. This sudden split in the mountain, it seemed to Cannell, was an ancient earthquake rift The explorer fixed his pikau-straps securely, and with a glance at his compass he took up his gun and began his descent into the misty gorge.