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

Lost Valley — A Romance Of Pirongia Mountain

page 11

Lost Valley
A Romance Of Pirongia Mountain


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.


It was a descent rough beyond the imagination of those who do not know the New Zealand bush. The dip from the ridge-top to the bottom of the valley must have been seven or eight hundred feet. Sometimes the ground fell away in precipitous faces, over which the trees leaned, and sometimes Cannell had to search for aka vines by which to lower himself to the jungle-matted slants. Trickles of water came from cliff faces and oozed through the drapings of moss, grey and green and golden; down these slippery faces Cannell lowered himself with care. Some of the trees were very old, and bore the marks of centuries of storm and lightning.

As the explorer descended the sound of the water grew nearer and louder, and presently he came breathlessly down by the run, with one end of a parted aka liane in his hands, in a bed of moss by the side of a little river, tearing over a stony bed. It was a solemn kind of twilight down there. Cannell followed this creek of the fairy mountain through its windings. Night came down in, a strange, wild place, where the river was narrowed in between high cliffs. He made his camp on a platform of rock where there was just room to build his fire with dead branches and make a bed of ponga fern tree fronds between the precipice and the river. He hungrily ate a camp ration, smoked a peaceful pipe and turned in.

The prospector was up as soon as daylight broke into the canyon. He had not travelled more than a hundred yards when a twist in the gulch revealed a sight that filled him with wonder. The stream had widened out into a small lake. Trees grew in a cloud of green all about it. Breaths of mist went softly up from the waters, now waking to the morning sun, and blue mountain duck swam on it, uttering their thin whistling call, “whio, whio.”

Cannell, pot-hunter that he was, could not resist a shot at the nearest swimmers. The discharge of his gun almost startled him, it raised such crashing echoes among the ranges. Retrieving his game with a long sapling, he tied the birds to his swag and steered his course to the left, skirting the shore of the tarn.

Suddenly he stopped. His eyes were fixed in a stare on the mossy ground, his hand tightly gripped his gun. Crusoe on his island could not have been more mystified when he discovered the footprint on the sand than the bushman was as he bent down to examine more closely the telltale sign retained by the soft damp moss—the print of a bare foot. That was the only trace.

There was a jumble of rocks about the mossy edge of the forest. As Cannell peered about in an effort to pierce the secret glooms, he saw a thin hewn pole suspending from a rata tree above him. It hung down alongside the rough-barked trunk, its end reaching to about his shoulder. Cannell hauled on it, and it came away with a jerk. As he drew it from the branch he saw it was a bird-spear, one of the long thin limber weapons that the Maoris used on their pot-hunting expeditions.

Pushing the spear up into the branches, Cannell again examined the mysterious footprint. It was so fresh that he decided it could have been made only a little while previously. The bird-hunter had stepped from rock to rock, and it was by accident that one betraying foot had-rested on the moss.

Keeping under cover of the trees, Cannell scouted anxiously along the lake. Presently he saw what he expected to find—a canoe. It was a very small dug-out, not quite ten feet long, to hold a single paddler. Its ends and sides were green with moss. It had been used perhaps by the bird-hunter, Cannell surmised, for year after year, and he wondered what manner of lone mountaineer it could be who had gone to the trouble of hewing out a canoe in the heart of the ranges for such a trifling purpose.

Listening awhile, and hearing no 1 sound but the occasional screech of the kaka in the branches and the piping whistle of the whio as they sailed about in little blue-winged squadrons, he stepped down to the waterside and bent over the canoe. A roughly made paddle lay in the bottom, and the explorer stretched out his hand to take it up for further examination.

But his hand did not reach the paddle.

There was a quick breath behind him, and something leaped upon him, clutching him round the neck and bearing him down.

Cannell struggled with all his might to rid himself of his terrifying burden. His gun had fallen from his hand in the first shock. He snatched it up and swung it round, butt first, against his assailant. There was a grunt of anger, and next moment retaliation. He received a sickening blow on the back of the head. He felt the warm blood running down his neck, and he heard faintly, as if at a far distance, the voice of his captor.

“Come up! Come quickly!” his assailant cried, m Maori. Cannell's dazed brain heard nothing more for several minutes. The crushing weight on his back was released, he was jerked to his feet, and now he saw his captors; One, the man who had borne him to the ground, and dealt him such a blow, was a giant of a fellow with a huge bushy black beard. In his hand was a short-handled tomahawk, the weapon that had so nearly ended Cannell's bush-roving. His companions were two young men, similarly armed.


The Maoris took their prisoner along a rough track which turned abruptly to the left. Now an oval valley cup lay before him. From side to side of the valley rim the airline was perhaps half a mile. The wooded sides fell steeply, The river-lagoon had widened out into a mirror of a tarn, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards in length and thirty in width. One would have judged it to be very deep by the general configuration of the, basin in which it lay, like a bloc eye upturned to the sun, from penthouse brows of huge shagginess.

On the nearer shore of the lake in & clearing (was a group of Maori huts, low-eaved nikau-thatched whares. Most of the dwellings faced north, the direction of the greatest sunshine. There were patches of maize and potatoes, pumpkins and melons, and a little grove of peach trees. Women were at work in the sunshine. It made a pretty picture of primitive life, a sanctuary of restfulness, a bush hermitage.

But its peace was quickly disturbed. Men, women and children ran from garden and hut and sun-warmed mat and gathered by the lakeside, gazing at the white man and his guard as they came down into the clearing.

Cannell had managed to bind up his head with a handkerchief but he still felt dizzy and sick. His clothes had been torn in the encounter with the big Maori, and his head and neck were covered with blood. His swag and gun were in the hands of his captors.

Cannell was motioned to sit down on a mat. An old man seated himself opposite him. The Maori might have served as model for a picture of a rangatira warrior of the pre-pakeha age. His broad, high forehead, his powerful nose and firm commanding lip and chin were thickly and deeply lined with blue-black tattoo. From his white hair, of a combatant shortness and wiriness to his chisel-trenched chin, and from ear to ear, scarcely an inch of skin had escaped the bone chisel and the pigment of the tohunga-ta-moko. His nose was bold, and high of bridge, and curved in the strong Hebraic mould that the Maori calls the ihu-kaka or parrot's beak. The page 13 tattoo gave to his face a commanding aspect of ferocity, but the benevolence of the fine eyes, the eyes of a mystic, softened and informed the expression with wisdom. It was the face of a man who had seen more than enough of battle and sudden death and who contemplated the times that were and are with calm introspective mood.

A young woman had taken her seat on the mats near the old man. She was, the pakeha judged, of eighteen or twenty years, a girl whose large dark eyes reflected something of the tranquil nobility of the chief. Her skin was fairer than that of most Maoris; her features of the mildly Jewish cast that is seen in some of the beautiful women of the Maori people, were framed in the most splendid hair that Cannell had ever seen. It was a glorious black, with a bluish sheen, glossy as a pigeon's wing; it fell to her waist.

“Have you the Maori tongue?” was the, old man's first question.

“Ae,” replied Cannell.

“Whence came you, and who are you?”

“First tell me,” said Cannell sternly, “why do you people make me prisoner, and why did that murderer”—he pointed to his scowling captor—“attack me with an axe and shed my blood?” and Cannell touched his bandaged head. Adopting a Maori figure of speech, he said angrily, “That man has murdered me. I am slain by treachery, not in open fight; face to face.”

“No hea koe?” the old man asked again, with unruffled calmness. (“Whence came you”?)

The prospector answered that he came from Alexandra, that as the Maoris could see he was on a shooting expedition into the hills that he had camped on the range top the night before, and that seeing the mysterious valley he had resolved to explore it, and so found himself on the shores of the little lake. His gold-hunting he thought it was not expedient to mention.

“Do you not know that death awaits the man of booted foot who crosses the Aakati?”

“Ae,” said Cannell, “I have heard so, and have heard how the Maoris killed an unarmed surveyor on Pirongia, But, as you see, I am no kai-ruri. Where is my glass on three legs, where is my chain? Also, I am no soldier, for as you see I have my tupara and bird-shot only.”

“It is true,” the Ariki said, “but you are a pakeha, and on Maori land. Is not that enough?”

“Then let it be enough,” said Cannell, “Here I am, you have taken my gun, I am naked of weapons”—and he stretched out his arms. “Kill me if you wish to! I am in your hands.”

The big Maori rose and drew out his tomahawk. But the Ariki raised his hand and spoke with the first trace of anger he had yet shown.

“Sit down, Potango,” he said, “and withhold your axe. It is too ready to leap from your belt. Are you the one to say what shall be done with the pakeha?”

Potango sat down, making no reply and no further move, but his eyes glittered with sullen malevolence.

Turning to the girl at his side, the old man said, “Let food and drink be given to the pakeha.”

Cannell meanwhile walked down to the lake edge and bathed his head and face, and dipping his handkerchief in the water, tied the cool bandage about his wound. With his brain cleared by the dash of cold water he returned refreshed and set to upon the meal.

(Photo by Mavis Scott). Stony Creek in the Fairy Mountain.

(Photo by Mavis Scott).
Stony Creek in the Fairy Mountain.

When the pakeha had satisfied his hunger the chief said quietly to the others, “Now, we two, the pakeha and I, shall talk,” and rising, he beckoned the white man to go with him. They entered one of the thatched whares and the Ariki motioned the pakeha to a seat near the window. He levelled upon the white man a gaze of the utmost intentness, an eyesearch so clear and steady that Cannell felt as if it pierced his brain. Was the old man a thought reader? he wondered.

“Friend,” said the old man, leaning forward and tapping Cannell lightly on the knee, “did you find any gold in the streams of Pirongia?”

Cannell quickly decided that it was best to be frank with the old man, so he told his name and the story of his search.

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“Pakeha,” he said at last, “you have clone well to tell me all. It is well for you also, that you did not tell the people on the marae. for I might not have been able to hold back the tomahawks of our. young men. I see the time fast approaching when booted feet shall tread all our valleys. The march of the pakeha cannot be stayed. Yet I would possess this home a little while longer in peace. I ask you but this: Do not reveal our valley to the pakeha while we live. This you must promise. You must not leave this kainga until I say you may return to your Ao-marama.”

Cannell gave the promise asked, all the more readily because this strange valley and its people challenged his curiosity, and sharpened his wish to learn something of the clan remnant who had buried themselves from the world in this cup of the ranges.

The girl who had sat by the old man on the marae entered the house. She carried a wooden bowl holding a quantity of steamed and, pounded leaves, diffusing an aromatic fragrance. She unfastened the handkerchief about Cannell's head and with quick fingers set the healing leaves on the tomahawk wound. She tied the bandage again with the gentleness of a nurse, and saying to the pakeha, “Keep that in place until to-morrow,” sat down by the Ariki's side. The chief briefly repeated Cannell's story to her,. and turning to the white man said:

“Pakeha, this is my daughter, Raukura. When I am gone she will be head of all that is left of my hapu. All that I know of ancient wisdom I am teaching her, that it may not be lost to the Maori. She is an Ariki-tapairu, and she is to be the priestess of the old religion. It may be that the pakeha ways are wise, but we shall cling, to our ancient gods. Now we are hut a remnant, of all my hapu there are but left these few whom you see in this kainga. There are not ten men left us to swing a tomahawk,” and the old man's wandering lament drifted off into a tangi for lost comrades.

Cannell regarded the girl with growing admiration. He wondered at the dignity and beauty of this-child of the bush, her beauty heightened by the rough and savage appearance of the tribespeople and the wilderness in which she lived.


In the talks that followed Cannell heard the story of the valley and its people. The old warrior head of the little clan was Kahu (“The Hawk”). Most of his immediate relatives had fallen in the war, and all his land went to. the pakeha, by the law of the Strong Arm. In his anger and grief he had gathered a remnant of his hapu and taken to the bush, as his tribe sometimes had done before him, in stress of invasion. So here in the glen called Whanga-mahue, which means “Lost Valley,” by the side of the little mountain lake, Roto-kohu, he had pitched his camp and he intended to die here. Roto-kohu is “ Misty Lake,” It was not the first time a broken tribe had taken refuge beside it In the intertribal wars fugitives from lost battles had camped here, living on the teeming birds and other bush foods.

Kahu, had he liked, could have joined his kinsmen in the unconquered country to the south of the confiscation line. But the proud old hero would have none of that. Here, with fewer than a score of his nearest of kin, he would live forgotten. “I have taken a new name,” he said. “My name now is Iwikore—The Man Without a Tribe.”


The day came at last when the old chief consented to the pakeha's departure. Cannell had given his solemn promise not to reveal the refuge-place to the white people. Kahu told Cannell, moreover, that it was time he went, he-cause Potango, his captor, could not be restrained much longer from tomahawking the trespasser. “Beware of Potango,” he said, as he bade farewell to his guest, with nose-pressing and shedding of tears, Potango, Cannell had gathered, desired the girl Raukura, but she detested him. He suspected also that the while man was a gold-hunter; that would be sufficient excuse for killing him.

Cannell stood ready to go with his swag and gun. Raukura, for all her tranquil dignity, could not restrain her tears as she pressed her nose to her white friend's. “Will he ever return?” was her unspoken thought as she sadly watched him disappear at the first turn of the lakeside track.

Cannell had looked around for Potango, but the big Maori was not to be seen.

“He's gone ahead, to ambush me!” was his instant thought. He stepped behind a tree and loaded his gun. No bird shot; he put a bullet in each barrel this time.

For all his caution the white man was nearly caught. When he reached the place where the stream first widened out, and where he had been startled by the mysterious footprint, he stopped to look round at the lake valley he was leaving, A bullet's zip and a terrific bang came simultaneously from the shadows on his right. He jumped for a tree-trunk shelter, for fear of the second barrel, and fired a shot Into the little cloud of smoke. Next moment he regretted that return shot, for the Maori, of course, would have dodged off to another position. He crouched under cover, waiting. Presently a slight movement of the high ferns on his right hand brought his gun to his shoulder in a flash. He waited a moment, then fired into the shaking ferns. He quickly changed cover nearer to the cliff, and reloaded both barrels. Not another sound came. Very carefully and slowly he scouted around until he was able to approach the spot from the rear. He parted the ferns with his gun barrel. There lay Potango stretched out, face downward, his gun dropped beside him.

Cannell, with conflicting emotions, shock, regret, and relief, hastily examined the victim of his. lucky shot. The bullet had passed through the Maori's chest. He grieved to think he had killed a man—but it was one or the other of them.

There was no time now for explanations to the people, who must have heard the thundering shots. He slang his gun by its strap, and attacked the difficult mountain climb.

* * *

It was nearly a year later that Cannell, driven by feelings that had long oppressed him, dropped all his work, and returned to the Waipa country. He must explore Pirongia again for Raukura's hidden valley. On his second day in the ranges he descended to the canyon lagoon, and scouted along the shore.

No life was there; not a sound came from the huts, asleep in the westering sun. He called out a greeting.

No sound but a tui's gurgle from the bush, and the low gabble of the ducks feeding on the lake.

Cannell walked through the deserted village. The cultivations were full of rank weeds, and the once neat little fences were broken and weed-grown. The thatched houses were still as the grave. From one the door had fallen, and as Cannell was about to enter there was a grunt, and a wild pig came rushing out and tore into the bushes.

Cannell knew now that the shedding of blood had made the valley tapu. He wondered in what new sanctuary the fires of the fugitive tribe were kindled. It might have been that they dispersed themselves among the Kingites of the open lands beyond the border.

As the white man stood there, sadly observant of all the signs of ruin and decay, he knew that the forest would soon reclaim its own.

Dark Roto-kohu exhaled a thin haze. The weka cried its sudden wailing call from the brushwood slopes, the voice of the spirit of solitude. A cold waft of air came from the water, and the white man. with a shudder, turned again into the bush that clothed the mountain side.